Petra: The Lost City

For the latest instalment on our lost cities theme I will be writing about the history of Petra. Petra is a historical city located in modern day Jordan, which is renowned for its archaeological heritage and now popular for tourists. It was designated as a UNESCO world heritage cite in 1985.
It was originally known as Ramqu. The area was thought to have been inhabited appropriately in the year as early as 9000BC. Petra was likely established in the 4th or 5th century BCE and is largely attributed to a nomadic Arab tribe, the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans settled the area as a prime trading route, particularly the spice trade, to buy and sell goods between the Mediterranean continent and Asia. This is where caravans of people would cross. 

Trade was relatively successful for the Nabataean inhabitants, until over time nautical trading routes proved more popular. Petra gained some attention from outsiders, notably the Greeks and Romans. One of the first written accounts of Petra was documented by  Greek historians. King Antigonus I a Macedonian ruler planned an invasion in 312 BC. 

The site’s population grew to approximately 10,000-30,000 inhabitants. The Nabataeans were prevailed in attempts to takeover their land. They knew the terrain very well and how best to defend it from outsiders, that was until the Romans invaded in 106CE. Petra, henceforth was incorporated into the Roman Empire as a province.Trade was still customary in those parts, particularly the spice trade. However, over time this particular route steadily declined in popularity. What’s more in 363AD Petra suffered a terrible earthquake which significantly damaged the area. This halted further developments to the area in terms of commerce and population increase. Another earthquake would follow in 551.AD

During the Byzantine era  Petra contained a number of Christian churches In the 7th century AD Petra was seized by neighbouring Muslims in Arabia. This was a significant time for the spread of Islam and its influence as Arabia was was unified by the prophet Muhammed in 622AD. During the Byzantine era  Petra contained a number of Christian churches as the old city was the capital of the Byzantine province, Palaestina III and as a result was a part of the Byzantine empire sandwiching the Mediterranean to the Levant. These churches were excavated at the site and attributed to the Byzantines. Later in the 12th century the was evidence to suggest the area was an outpost of the Crusades, military campaigns from Christian Europe to the Islamic territories in response to their rapid spread. From then there are no accounts from the West about the Petra. However, that is not to say the area was unknown territory completely. Outside of the western world there are accounts during the end of 13th century that Petra was often visited by Egyptian sultans who were interested in the sandstone formations. Nevertheless, there are little to no accounts after this, that is not to say non eurocentric accounts. Nomadic tribes continued to live in the area.  

Moving forward to the 19th century, The ‘discovery’ of Petra was attributed to a Swiss traveller by the name of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. He was the first European to describe the sandstone structures. The remnants of tombs and structures at Petra were visualised by David Roberts, a Scotsman who painted them in 1839. Unfortunately over time the site of Petra was highly vulnerable, its structures were weak and this attracted the attention of thieves hoping to amass its treasures. Petra was surveyed and excavated properly in 1922 by archaeologists along with help from a Physician, expert in local folklore and a scholar. 

A number of scrolls written in Greek were found in the remains of a church, dated in the Byzantine era. These items were found 25 years ago in 1993. This discovery confirms Petra was not an isolated domain despite its land locked location. It shows other ethnic groups were interested in the area and remained for a time.

In the early twentieth century Petra was a focal point in the Arab-Ottoman conflict. In October 1917 during the First World War to intercept the Ottoman forces resources from the British advancement in Gaza, regarding the Sinai and Palestine campaign between the British and the Ottomans. The Arabs led a revolt from Petra against the Ottomans along with British support they managed to halt the Ottomans. Local Bedouin women also took part in the revolt.

Nowadays Petra is waiting to be discovered by tourists and is considered to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the world up with the likes of Machu Picchu in Peru and The Taj Mahal in India. 

Woodrow Wilson & the 14 Points

This January is the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points. Wilson addressed to congress a 14-point programme to aid with universal peace on January 8th, 1918. These peace negotiations were intended to take affect after World War I. On the face of it, the 14 points looked as if they were a “cure” to fully eradicate aggression, hostility and above all out war amongst nations. However, this was not meant to be. This post will look at what kick started the 14 points, what they were and the lasting impact of them.


What kick started the 14 points?

The United States of America entered World War I in April 1917, three years after the war was started. The entry into the war was heavily due to unrestricted warfare on submarines and that American ships were sunk. Unrestricted submarine warfare allowed vessels like freighters and tankers to sink from submarines without warning. Germany initiated this in early 1915 when they considered the waters surrounding Britain to be a war zone and as a result attacked ships, including merchant and neural ships. It was a type of naval warfare and considering that Britain and Germany were two prominent colonial powers, they relied heavily on colonial imports for produce, another reason why this warfare was lucrative. This warfare occurred in the surrounding waters of western Europe. For one thing the British ship, Lusitania, despite mainly being a passenger ship also carried munitions. This was enough for the German navy to justify the sinking. 1,201 lost their lives and drowned at sea, including some 128 Americans. When the United States and other neutral countries   put pressure on Germany, they stopped.

However, this suspension was not to last. Germany, not wanting to appear passive wanted to adopt unrestricted submarine warfare again. On January 8th, 2017, a year before the 14 points were addressed, Kaiser Wilhelm was persuaded by navy leaders that this warfare should go ahead, despite some reservations from the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg who did not attend discussions. On February 1st, 1917, unrestricted submarine warfare was resumed by the German navy and the United States entered the war 2 months later.

With the help of some geographers, historians and political scientists, Wilson arranged these professionals under the watchful eye of Edward M House, Wilson’s advisor. They were put to work to study and analyse topics of discussion likely to appear in peace talks, concerning American and European (Allied) interests of international relations, economics and society. It was from these studies that Wilson’s speech came about, the 14 Points.


The 14 points

The 14 points advocated acts of diplomacy and addressed what the causes for war are in his opinion. He also alluded to how war could be avoided in the future. The list of the 14 points are listed before-


To abolish secret treaties between nations. An organisation should be set up, involving different countries and its members would constitute talks to solve international problems.



Freedom of navigation outside territorial waters, unless otherwise specified by an international agreed convention.


Equality of trade relations and eliminating trade barriers as much as possible between nations.


To reduce armaments, to ensure greater international safety.


Colonial claims to be adjusted, relating to all European nations who hold colonial territories.


The evacuation of all Russian territory in Eastern Europe and to the Ottoman Empire, this later became known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, when Soviet Russia exited the war.


To restore sovereignty in Belgium.


French territory taken should be restored to them, particularly Alsace Lorraine.


To realign Italian borders in the north, whereby the Italian speaking areas are within its own borders.


Self-determination for the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


Occupied areas of Eastern Europe; Montenegro, Serbia and Romania should be restored and free from occupation. Serbia should not be land locked and allowed sea access.


Secure sovereignty for Turkey but other areas that make up the Ottoman Empire should have the right to Self-determination such as Bulgaria and territories in the Middle East. Free passage of the Dardanelles to be permitted.


An independent Poland, free from occupation and allowed sea access.


The speech was very nearly not made at all as Wilson knew that the British Prime minister, David Lloyd George made a similar speech on January 5th, 1918, outlining very similar aims to Wilson’s intended 14 points. These aims were then known and agreed to by the British dominions. After some persuasion from House, Wilson made the speech as planned and proved to be a very successful precursor to the eventual Armistice later in the year and the Paris Peace Conference, the following year



When news of the speech spread to Europe it garnished much support in general. Wilson knew that these 14 points were integral to American interests as they were fundamental for global commerce and safety to the American people. Events preceding the war had brought about a spat of aggression and domination. In addition, a new school of thought under the Bolsheviks was looming and proved successful in the October revolution of 1917, when Imperial Russia became but a memory. In this sense, the United States had to abandon its Isolationist principles for a time.

However, in Europe the two allied leaders of the time were rather sceptical of Wilson’s idealism. The British and French leaders, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau held reservations regarding the applicability of all 14 points. For it to be successful, the 14 points had to apply to all nations, the Allied and Central powers alike and Wilson was not entirely sure how these points would be administered. The 14 points were translated into German and distributed to their readership. No hostility came about because of it and it was said that these points inspired a call for surrender.



Looking back at this event which took place 100 years ago, the remnants do appear in the modern world today, as International cooperation is a commonplace to ensure universal peace, suffrage and trading relations. However, Wilson’s notion of the ill-fated League of Nations was not to last as another international conflict soon ensued in 1939, World War Two. Essentially, not knowing the damage of what the war repatriations on Germany could do in the not to distant future appears unfortunate. The harsh realities of the reparations appeared to be a catalyst for what was to come in 1930s Germany, nevertheless that on its own is not enough to justify a single cause for further conflict. Putting the counterfactual to the side for a moment, what resulted after World War 2 was another call for peaceful resolutions on an international scale, the United Nations. Although, there is certainly a long way to go to reach the end goal for international peace, conflict has taken many guises under the Cold War and the War on Terror, nevertheless it is hard to deny that the 14 points and the aim to provide peaceful diplomacy has done much to pave the way to fruition.


In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway described the desolate environment of the Soča Valley:

There was fighting for that mountain too … the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with autumn.”

It is hard to believe that Hemingway’s description here is of the same valley that stands today; a wide expanse of deep forests cut by canyons and rivers. Of course, his description was from a time in history when desolation was the norm: The First World War.


In the early twentieth century the Soča Valley “evoked horror and sorrow” as John R. Schindler argued. The Isonzo River was a battleground from May 1915 to October 1917, utilized by the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies. The goal of the Italian army was to seize the Bainsizza Plateau- a way north. Over the course of almost two and a half years, twelve battles were fought along the Isonzo river, and today, 18th August 2017, marks the 100-year anniversary of the eleventh instalment of these battles.

By 1917, both armies were at breaking point. After victories on the Eastern Front, General Erich Ludendorff sent more divisions to enforce the Austrian-Hungarian Army. The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo lasted for almost a month, beginning on the 18th August and ending 12th September 1917. With new reinforcements and tactics, the assault had immense consequences for both sides; Italy had 40,000 recorded dead, 108,000 wounded and approximately 18,000 missing. The Austrian-Hungarian army had a total of 15,000 dead, 65,000 wounded, and 30,000 missing.


Schindler, in his book Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, emphasised how the cost of the battle outweighed any gain that was achieved by either army. Other than gaining a few miles of land every now and again, the only decisive victory came with the Battle of Caporetto in late 1917, when the Austrian-Hungarian army broke through the Italian front. The Italian army was only able to cross the Isonzo river in November 1918 after 29 months of fighting, and this was mostly due to the political collapse of Austria-Hungary, as opposed to any considerate military prowess.

With this tragic loss of life, a debate has surfaced which attempted to identify why the Isonzo campaign is generally a forgotten aspect of history. Perhaps to the trained historian, who specialises in Italian history, the mere mention of the word “Isonzo” would bring a torrent of information otherwise hidden in general history books. But to the average member of the public, the Isonzo campaign is virtually unknown compared to other World War One battles such as the Somme. Schindler has argued that the impact of the Isonzo was immense, especially in terms of politics, culture and society, and yet it has disappeared from history. This could be due to the fact that the Italian army was once the greatest in the world, and the twentieth century left it in tatters. But for English-speaking and western historians, Schindler states that battles that did not occur on the Western Front “apparently are not worth exploring.”

In a review of Schindler’s book, Lawrence Sondhaus agreed, stating that English, French, and German literature focussed mainly on the Western Front with a “heavy bias.” All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and the works of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are just a few examples. Sondhaus also supported Schindler’s argument in that ultimately the sacrifices made along the Isonzo were enormous, and yet did not play a decisive role in the aftermath of the war. For many Italians and Central Europeans, the Isonzo campaign symbolized the “utter futility” of World War One.

Having said this, one could argue that perhaps the Isonzo was not as futile as it may appear. Michael Howard suggested that for English Prime Minister Lloyd George, the collapse of the Italian front was “providential.” With a reshuffle of troops across the Western Front to stabilise the Italian one, it led to a collaboration with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to create the Allied Supreme War Council in 1917. Based in Versailles, the council would lead the world to an armistice and eventual treaty in 1919.

In addition to this, Kirsten Amor has pointed out that the Ustanova Fundacija Poti Miru v Posočju Foundation was set up to avert the disappearance of one of many tragic marks of the First World War. The Foundation worked with the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage to create ‘Pot Miru’ (‘Walk of Peace’); a 90-kilometre trail through the Soča Valley highlighting the major sites of the war.


Ultimately, the Isonzo Campaign cost Italy approximately 1.1 million casualties, and Austria Hungary 650,000. Schindler is adamant that these people were “sacrificed in pointless battles for useless objectives.” Whilst this is undeniably true, the Battles of the Isonzo are a reminder of the loss, sacrifice, and tragedy of war as a whole. They may be forgotten, but they are not insignificant.

Winchester at War: the Battle of Passchendaele

‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’ –

Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet.

On this day, exactly one hundred years ago, the Battle of Passchendaele began. Today, the conflict has become infamous, remembered across the world as one of the major battles of the First World War. Tragically, over 500,000 allied and German soldiers were killed, injured, or declared missing over the course of the battle, which raged until the 10th of November 1917 and impacted upon lives as far afield as Canada, Australia, India and South Africa. The casualties were also felt much closer to home, however, as the Royal Hampshire Regiment (known as the Hampshire Regiment prior to 1946) played an important role in the battle. This blog post will remember the men of the Hampshire Regiment in keeping with memorials and tributes across the world which, today, mark the centenary of Passchendaele.

‘My platoon was all Hampshire men… they came from villages I knew, and as they got knocked off I said to myself, there goes Hartley Wintney or Old Basing. It was like wiping those places off the map… some of them I’d even been to school with and I said to myself, Hampshire’s getting a good old doing.’

An account of the Hampshire Regiment at Passchendaele, taken from The Changing Countryside in Victorian and Edwardian England and Wales by Pamela Horn.

Firstly, in order to situate the conflict in the context of the First World War, The Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele (after the Flemish village which was the final objective captured by British and Empire troops), was a major Allied campaign in Flanders during the First World War. Rather than one battle, the Third Ypres campaign was, in fact, a series of operations which took place between the 31st of July and the 10th of November, 1917. The strategic aim of these operations was to break through German defences and capture enemy naval bases along the Belgian coast from where U-Boats were launching numerous attacks on British Royal Navy and merchant ships. The campaign infamously failed to achieve this objective, and resulted in heavy losses on both sides.

The campaign was preceded by the Battle of Messines (7th – 14th of June, 1917) which opened with the British detonation of 19 large mines under German lines. The attack, in which the 15th Hampshire took part, succeeded in capturing the strategically important high ground along the Messines Ridge and paved the way for the much larger operation further north which began exactly a century ago today, on the 31st of July.

The first operation of the Third Ypres campaign then began, at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Here, the 14th Hampshire were in action as part of the 41st Division’s attack from northwest of Wieltje towards St Julien; a distance of around 3,000 yards. The battalion captured three German lines and 200 prisoners, at a loss of 63 killed and 161 wounded. At one stage during the attack, 2nd Lieutenant Denis Hewitt was reorganising his Company when a shell exploded nearby, injuring him and setting fire to both the signal lights in his haversack and his clothing. After extinguishing the flames, and sustaining serious burns, Hewitt persevered by leading his men forward into the face of heavy German machine-gun fire and playing a major part in the capture of the battalion’s final objective. Tragically, having reached it, Hewitt was shot and killed by sniper. For his gallantry, however, he was awarded the Victoria Cross and the 14th Hampshire were able to hold their position for two days before being withdrawn on the 3rd of August.

A short time later, The Battle of Langemarck (16th – 18th of August, 1917) became the second Allied attack of the Third Ypres campaign. The 2nd Hampshire, as part of the 29th Division, had been in reverse during the Pilckem Ridge operation, but they rapidly became involved with the conflict. On the night of the 15th of August, the battalion traversed boggy ground (so boggy, in fact, that some of the men who fell into waterlogged shell holes had to be lifted out using ropes) to an assembly point northeast of Pilckem. At quarter to five the following morning, the Hampshires advanced behind a creeping barrage and secured their two principle objectives. During the fighting, Sergeant Finch led an attack on an enemy strongpoint. Remarking on his courage, The Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum notes that Finch dashed ahead of the British barrage, ‘killing four Germans single-handed and taking the blockhouse with some 20 prisoners.’ The Corps commander, Lord Cavan, warmly congratulated the Hampshires for their achievement when he inspected them on the 19th of August and, on the 25th of August, the battalion was pulled out of the line to begin nearly a month’s deserved respite from the fighting.

The 15th Hampshire remained stationed at the front line, however, and became involved in the Battle of the Menin Bridge Road (20th – 25th September). By the 25th of August 1917, Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief, had become dissatisfied with the limited gains made during the opening phase of the Third Ypres campaign. He therefore passed responsibility for operations from Fifth Army Commander General, Sir Hubert Gough, to General Sir Herbert Plumer of Second Army.

After a three-week pause in fighting, the Battle of Menin Ridge is said to have opened in fine weather, a stark contrast to the heavy rainfall that would become synonymous with the Battle of Passchendaele. Now focusing on more limited objectives and with additional heavy artillery support, the British attacked on a 14,500 yard front. By mid-morning they had captured most of their objectives to a depth of 1,500 yards.

Among the units taking part, the 15th Hampshire had successfully secured their first two objectives before becoming entrenched in a desperate struggle to seize the third objective, Green Line. This was close to Tower Trench and the German strongpoint known as Tower Hamlets, a mass of concrete dugouts and pill boxes. Only 130 men could be collected for the attack, but they pressed forward nonetheless and soon established themselves in the Green Line, taking 40 prisoners. This number included 30 Germans taken from a dug-out by 2nd Lieutenant Montague Moore, supported by only half a dozen men, who then consolidated their position and defended it against several counter-attacks and their own artillery, who were unaware of their new position.

The following day, Moore was the most senior officer left in the Green Line. The regimental museum notes that ‘he showed great resourcefulness and composure, withdrawing his men slightly to avoid the British barrage but then re-occupying the position directly the moment it stopped.’ Early the next morning however, another British barrage destroyed the rifles and rations of the surviving Hampshires, forcing Moore and his men back to the line of the second objective. Tragically, of the 130 men who had begun the attack 36 hours earlier, only ten remained. For his gallantry, 2nd Lieutenant Moore was awarded the Victoria Cross, but the battalion faced heavy casualties. Six officers and 83 men were killed or declared missing, while seven officers and 251 were wounded.

The remaining men of the 15th Hampshire were relieved by the 14th Battalion which took part in the opening of the Battle of Polygon Wood (26th September – 3rd of October), an operation that finally saw the British capture of Tower Hamlets. On the 27th of September, the 39th Division (to which the 14th and 15th Battalions were assigned) was, at last, relieved.

Also in September, the 1st Hampshire moved from the Arras sector to Flanders where, on the 4th of October, they took part in the Battle of Broodseinde. This was to be the last of the Allied autumn attacks to take place in fine weather. The battalion attacked northwest of Poelcappelle, suffering 50% casualties before returning to Monchy, near Arras on the 18th of October. The Battle of Poelcappelle also involved the 2nd Hampshire Battalion. Unlike the Battle of Broodseinde, however, Poelcappelle was dogged by bad weather and supply problems which would greatly impact upon the conditions faced by the men.

The 2nd Hampshire Battalion soon became involved in heavy fighting north of Langemarck. However, together with the 4th Worcestershires, they successfully secured the Namur Crossing and then their second objective before being held up before they could achieve their third. After nightfall, the Hampshires went on to relieve the Newfoundland Regiment in what had become the front line, astride the Poelcappelle-Les Cinq Chemins road. Despite the wet and treacherous ground, the battalion worked to consolidate the line the following day.

That afternoon, a detachment under Captain Philip Cuddon attacked and captured an obstinate German strongpoint near Cairo House. Cuddon was later given a bar to his Military Cross for his role in the assault while Lieutenant-Colonel T.C. Spring, who had displayed exemplary leadership and courage throughout the operation, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

On the night of the 7th of October, three days before the Third Ypres campaign would draw to a close, the Hampshires were relieved, finally bringing to an end the regiment’s active involvement in the Battle of Passchendaele.

If you would like to learn more about the Royal Hampshire Regiment’s involvement with the Battle of Passchendaele, their museum (which can be found on Southgate Street in Winchester) is an excellent place to start.

Originally posted on the 31st of July, 2017.

Is this DC Comics film the best representation of WW1?

With this being my last post for WUHstry, what better way to sign off than two of my favourite things: superheroes and history.

Very rarely do films take my breath away, but that was not the case when I saw the most recent instalment of the DC Comics film universe.

Logo of the DC Films company

Wonder Woman was the beginning of the future- the first successful superhero film with a female lead, which will kick-start the future of female superhero films. But it was more than just a superhero film, it was a film that highlighted the true nature of World War 1- the War to end all Wars.

Image from the Wonder Woman film

For those of you that haven’t seen the film yet, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR???? It is easily the best film in the current DC universe, and tells the tale of how the Amazons and man were in conflict, and a new Amazon was moulded from clay to destroy Ares- the God of War. When the war comes to the Amazons, Diana realises it must be the actions of Ares. Without giving too much away, it is then Diana’s mission to find Ares, kill him and end the war to end all wars.

DC Comics illustration of Ares- the God of War

Of course it’s very easy to go what relevance has this fictional film got to the First World War, given the fact that it is made up. Well it was more this was the first film I have seen, other than perhaps the War Horse about World War 1, where it not only kept my hairs on end start to finish, but highlighted the true nature of war. Some films paint war as an opportunity for comradery, and although there is an enemy they are trying to defeat, there are losses along away (unless your a horse that seems to defy death).

A poster from the film War Horse

In Wonder Woman, we see how physically war effects the men. There is once scene in particular as Diana and her team are boarding the ferry, with the character passing all the wounded and injured returning from the front line. It gives the greatest example that the war did effect everyone who took part, a point which was further displayed throughout the film: character Charlie, played by Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner portrays a Scottish Marksman who very much carries the scars of war, constantly having nightmares about his friends that died in front of him. It portrays such a vivid image that has not been seen in many other films, that the war really was a torrid time, where millions of innocent lives were lost.

Image from the Wonder Woman film of Diana and Charlie

The biggest, saddest moment of the whole film (look away if you haven’t seen it yet), is when Diana realises that no matter what her actions, the war effects even the most innocent of lives- women and children. When she realises that the gas bombs set off had landed on the nearby village, it is a heart-breaking moment. It really hits home that war has no boundaries on who it effects, and that was what defined this new kind of warfare- a war where the battling happened at home as well as on the Front Line. It’s in this moment that you remember all those innocent lives that were lost, all those children that grew up as orphans.

One of the many harrowing images from World War 1

People forget that many of the British soldiers felt they would be home by Christmas, that the war wouldn’t be as tough as they thought. However once the realisation set in that this wasn’t the case, it really would have ruined morale within the trenches. One scene really sticks out though, highlighting how the littlest bit of hope can immediately lift the soldiers moods. Wonder Woman is in the trenches, an area where the soldiers had spent so much of their time struggling to cover any ground. However Diana leaps over the trenches, providing the much needed hope to the soldiers to advance. Of course, sadly Wonder Woman was not there in real life to provide this hope, but events such as the Christmas Truce would have done the job (albeit temporarily). It’s this hope which you realise kept the soldiers going, and made those trenches only slightly bearable.

Wonder Woman entering No Mans Land

Though I realise this was just a piece of fiction- a film, it did remind a new audience of the horrors of World War 1. The soldiers craved the kind of hope that Diana provided in the film, and even though there were winners in the end, there were far more losers. Shell shock, death, guilt, just some of the feelings that these soldiers would have felt when they returned home- either as heroes or disappointments.

In the current age of terror, it would appear the war to ‘End All Wars’ in fact created a new type of warfare. But it is the imagery of Diana jumping over the trenches- hope- that keep society going even in the darkest of days.

Thank you for reading this and my other posts, and keep enjoying WUHstry!


Philippe Pétain – The Lion of Verdun

Philippe Pétain was 58 years old and a colonel when World War One broke out, and he had never seen active service. Yet within months he was a national hero and a commanding General and would soon command the entire French army and become known as ‘The Lion of Verdun’. He was later discredited as he served as the Chief of State of collaborationist Vichy France under German influence from 1940 to 1944. He would be executed for treason but  Because of his outstanding military leadership in World War I he was still viewed as a national hero in France and was instead sentenced to life in prison until his death in 1951 at the age of 95.


He was born in 1856 in Northern France. His father was a farmer and he had four siblings. His mother died the year after his birth. He attended a Jesuit school where he was noted as an intelligent student. As a young adult, he used the money his mother had left him and studied a year of philosophy before deciding on military school. Although in the preparation exam he finished 403rd out of 412, by the final he had dramatically improved his score. In 1878 he joined the 24th infantry battalion as a Second Lieutenant. His career for decades thereafter was as a peacetime soldier. His career was described as common or slow, and while it is true that it took him 35 years to become Colonel, only a minority of his contemporaries would achieve similar rank. Promotion opportunities are scarce in peacetime, and the French army was regularly shaken by political scandals. Pétain grew deeply mistrustful of politics.

As a commander Pétain paid great attention to military drills. He was a strict disciplinarian, but a firm believer in good living conditions for his men. He also spent time as a military professor of infantry tactics, and often openly criticized established French doctrine in classes. French doctrine at the time was one of all-out offensives and placed emphasis on the decisive importance of morale. Large maneuvers of massed infantry were seen as necessary as immobility was seen to be damaging to morale. Pétain taught alternative tactics. He believed that modern rifles were accurate enough that you no longer needed group fire, and individuals should be able to choose their targets. He also called charges of dense infantry “some sort of massacre game”. Still as the war began, morale over superiority of fire was called for, and dense formations were seen to assure that. Pétain agreed with the importance of morale, but thought it could come from superior firepower, modern automatic weapons, and ground protection.

Pétain was made Colonel in July 1914, and 3 months later was already promoted to Lieutenant General, and one of the few that were capable or willing to change French strategy. During his first action on 15th of August he showed his own style of command in coordinating the use of infantry and artillery. He soon benefited from the dismissal of hundreds of incompetent Generals, many of which gained their position through political favouritism. In the first few months of the war around 300 French Colonels became Generals. Over the following months Pétain showed trademarks of command involving meticulous preparations, recognizing the essential role of artillery, attention to information, recon and liaison, use of new technologies, and harsh discipline.

In late October 1914 Pétain was put in charge of defence at Arras. There he set to work reinforcing the 1st and 2nd French lines. He also consistently filed reports requesting more artillery, heavier artillery guns, or even just more shells in order to match the Germans in some way. He often disagreed with high command about priorities and how an where to attack, and because of his constant reports, many other Generals saw him as too cautious and pessimistic. His command at Arras was marked by his characteristically tough discipline; soldiers caught sleeping on guard duty were court-martialed, and theft of telephone cable could be punishable by death. In January 1915, 40 men were caught purposefully injuring themselves in order to avoid going into combat. 25 of them were sentenced to death by being sent into no mans land with their hands tied. Pétain was however, aware of the hardships of life on the battlefield, and aimed to give the men the best possible living conditions. Supply chains were excellent under his command, and facilities for washing and resting in the trenches were set up, a luxury many did not have in abundance. He ordered several failed offensives in Arras, but on 9th of May 1915 his corps, reinforced with the Moroccan division and supported by heavy artillery launched a successful attack along the line, with the Moroccans managing to capture the strategically important Vimy Ridge. German reserves did however, prevent a full breakthrough this time. French Commander-in-chief Joffre believed that with enough men and Pétain’s method, a breach like Vimy could be successfully exploited.


Pétain was then given command of the Champagne offensive that September. The offensive was a disaster though, with 28,000 French deaths, and nearly 200,000 wounded for no real territorial gains. Poor weather meant unsuccessful aerial reconnaissance, reducing the effectiveness of artillery which was in turn not well prepared for action. The first German line fell as expected but the second held their ground yet again. Pétain then concluded that one offensive alone could nor breach two such lines of defence, and he went on to favour a war of attrition with small detailed operations rather than large all out offensives.

The defeat of Champagne did not reduce confidence in Pétain overall, and in February 1916 he was given command of the second army at Verdun in order to hold against the German offensive. It was here that Pétain displayed his command of logistics. Rather than holding the same infantry divisions in position for months at a time like the Germans did, he rotated them out after only two weeks on the front lines. Also he organised truck transport supply lines along what became known as the ‘sacred way’ to move up to 90,000 men and 50,000 tons of supplies per week in and out of verdun. This allowed there to be a continuous stream of artillery, ammunition and fresh troops into the besieged Verdun which is credited with resulting in the grinding down of the German onslaught to a final halt in July 1916. In essence Pétain proved some of his previous war college teachings at Verdun, including “le feu tue!” of “firepower kills!”, which in this case meant the French field artillery which fired of 15 million shells on the German positions during the first 5 months of the battle. Eventually French Commander-in-chief Joffre wanted forces at Verdun to go on the offensive, so Pétain was replaced by Robert Nivelle in May 1916.

The Sacred Way of Verdun

By this time Pétain was a huge national hero, though his fame was somewhat overshadowed slightly when it was Nivelle who won back the lost ground at Verdun. However, when Nivelle became Commander-in-chief and was subsequently responsible for a disastrous offensive at Chemin des Dames in April 1917, which Pétain had vehemently opposed, Pétain was made Chief of Staff of the French Army.

At this point in the war Pétain’s main challenge was no longer in beating the Germans, but instead was dealing with a French army on the brink of collapse. The failed offensive in April had provoked mutiny in the ranks, with many soldiers refusing to participate in another pointless attack. Many people, including Pétain, believed the extent of the mutiny was caused by pacifist propaganda and Socialists, when really the men were still very much committed to defending their positions, just no further wastes of life like at Chemin des Dames. Pétain ordered 428 death sentences and 2,870 jail sentences in order to death with the situation. At the same time, he also ordered relief measures to make soldiers lives more bearable; leaves were made more regular, barracks were made more habitable, and food was provided in greater quantity and quality than before. By July the collapse of the french army was avoided. Pétain would later call his work in 1917 more important than that at Verdun.

In 1917 and 1918 Pétain only ordered limited small offensives as his priority was now to preserve his men long enough for American troops to arrive in force. Critics began again to call him too cautious, and to favour the optimism of Ferdinand Foch. When the Germans broke French lines in their spring offensive of 1918 it was therefore that Foch was favoured over Pétain abd became Commander-in-chief. Although Pétain was heard to apparently make some very pessimistic remarks at this time about the future of the war for the Allied forces, he still turned out to be a capable opponent of the Germans towards the end of the war. He was able to effectively defend and launch counter offensives with the assistance of new French tanks and american forces.

Philippe Pétain meeting with Adolf Hitler

Pétain ended the war regarded “without a doubt, the most accomplished defensive tactician of any army” and “one of France’s greatest military heroes” and was made Marshal of France on 21 November 1918. He was subsequently summoned to be present at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. In January 1920 he was appointed Vice-Chairman of the Supreme War Council. This was France’s highest military position. Petain would hold it until 1931. In 1934, Pétain was appointed minister of war, and then secretary of state in the following year. In 1939, he was appointed French ambassador to Spain. In May 1940, with France under attack from Germany, Pétain was appointed vice premier. In June he asked for an armistice, upon which he was appointed ‘chief of state’, enjoying almost absolute powers. The armistice gave the Germans control over the north and west of France, including Paris, but left the remainder as a separate regime under Pétain, with its capital at Vichy. Officially neutral, in practice the regime collaborated closely with Germany, and brought in its own anti-Semitic legislation. In November 1942, in response to allied landings in North Africa, the Germans invaded the unoccupied zone of France. Vichy France remained nominally in existence, but Pétain became nothing more than a figurehead. In the summer of 1944, after the allied landings in France, Pétain was taken to Germany. He returned to France after liberation, was brought to trial and condemned to death. This was immediately commuted to solitary confinement for life by General Charles De Gaulle. Pétain was imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died on 23 July 1951.

Political Unrest in Russia: The Abdication of Nicholas II

Nikolai Aleksandrovich, known as Tsar Nicholas II, was the last Russian Emperor and a member of the illustrious Romanov dynasty that had sat on the imperial throne since the early seventeenth century. Born on the 18th of May in Tsarskoye Selo, now Pushkin, Nicholas was born to rule only to die in a bloody revolution designed to end the formal monarchy of Russia. Nicholas II was the son and heir of his predecessor Tsarevich Aleksandr Aleksandrovich and his consort the Dagmar of Denmark Maria Fyodorovna, and his succeeded his father in Moscow on May 26th 1896. As a child Nicholas was trained to be an excellent military officer but his intellectual skills were inadequate to be prepared for the role of emperor. It is well documented that he possessed a good personality, but naturally shy with a compulsion to remain within the privacy of the family quarters instead of socialising with the court subjects. His close family was intimate and happy since Nicholas had a genuine affection and love for his wife Alexandra whom he married two years before his ascension on 26th November 1894. Alexandra was the stronger of the two in temperament and was the leader in their religious guidance during their marriage and reign. However well his family circle functioned the political undercurrents of court life was rumbling with discontent. Nicholas had a tendency to lean on favourites, to distrust his ministers, and to believe his right to rule was derived from the outdated notion of Divine Right and absolutism that had already seen the fall of the French monarchy.

The year running up to the 18th March 1917 had several upheavals close in on the Russian imperial family, their downfall and eventual execution in 1918. Nicholas II had run through a series of ministers that had presented the emperor with a skewed perception of common Russian life that he preferred to what he read in the official reports that landed in his office. His belief in autocratic rule meant that he never attempted to produce policies to aid his government and people. Russia maintained the medieval ideology of feudalism and the people being closely tied to the land ensured a limited measure of freedom. This meant that the people’s faith in the imperial monarchy was low and morale sank lower during Russia’s involvement in World War One from 1914. Nicholas as a monarch has interests in Balkans and attempted to salve peace within the great powers of Europe, however the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo meant Nicholas’ resistance to war ended in the mobilization of Russian troops. Yet this war would see Russia falling from being a world power to an economic and military failure. In the years running up to the world war Nicholas II had been to seen to be the blame for several catastrophes from the execution of multiple political opponents, the instigation of the Russo-Japanese War, a very violent defeat for the leaders of the 1905 Revolution, and links with England attempting to suppress the power of Germany.

One of the reasons the people grew increasing disaffected with the imperial monarchy was the lack of order and control to the Russian army who had already seen a recent war with Japan. The imperial army lost approximately over three million soldiers, lack of food and supplies alongside poor management from the higher level military leaders. As the government failed to provide for their own army and citizens, riots and rebellions grew in frequency, particularly with Nicholas away, and authority crumbled. There had been several attempts at constitutional reform to become more similar to the role of parliament in Britain  but they were resisted. The increasingly isolation of the Tsar to his ministers prevented anything meaningful taking place.

The Russians began the war in the strong position in regards to supplies, but by 1917 severe winters had caused a standstill in railways, emergency shipments of coal and the treasury being depleted significantly. On the 23rd February 1917 the citizens of Petrograd resorted to stealing and rioting which slowly spread to other cities all with the aim to gain the attention and bring down the Tsar. With the best of the militia dead the police created a forced recruitment and gave them very little training. Although the police and militia deployed fired into the air rather than the mob of over twenty thousand that had formed they were not deterred but reinforcements from Nicholas’ base were too late. On the 12th of March the Volinsky Regiment mutinied which led to successive rebellions within the militia to join the mob themselves. Nicholas II knew that the situation was die when the imperial guards loyalists the Preobrazhensky Regiment formed under Peer the Great also turned their anger against the Tsar. By the end of the day sixty thousand soldiers had joined the revolution to march against the Tsar.

Up against such numbers members of government, the Duma and the Soviet attempted to restore order with provisional preparations. The most significant order was that Nicholas II was to abdicate and create a clean slate for ruling Russia. Nicholas II faced the decision with the threat of civil war, the army generals pushing for abdication and his citizens deprived of food with his family in the hands of the Soviet.

Nicholas II abdicated on the 15th March 1917, thus formally ending what is now known as the February Revolution. Originally he had abdicated in the favour of his son Alexei who was weak but soon the aim of the revolution was to force the whole imperial family into exile. The ideology of whether Russia should remain in the hands of the monarchy or become a republic was put to a vote by the people. Nicholas’ abdication and further revolution by the Bolsheviks would formally bring the end of the Romanov dynasty that had lasted three centuries. By October 2017 the last Romanov imperial family were imprisoned.

If you would like more information one of the best Romanov biographers is Simon Sebag Montifiore whose books are available on amazon and in most booksellers.

The Welsh Prime Minister: David Lloyd George

As part of our First World War series, today I’ll be looking briefly at David Lloyd George, the second British Prime Minister of the First World War. David Lloyd George is considered one of Britain’s finest Prime Ministers by academics, his role as Prime Minister during the First World War is easily one of the most important tenures in British history. His decisive policies and actions as Prime Minster during the war found him widespread popularity and support across party lines and amongst the public. However he was not without his critics, he particularly clashed with Generals Robertson and Haig who were in charge of the British forces in France.

David Lloyd George was born in Manchester on the 17th January 1863, to Welsh parents. His father William George was a schoolmaster, who moved the family to Pembrokeshire where he died when Lloyd George was only a year old. After the death of his father, the family moved to Llanystumdwy, where his mother’s brother Richard Lloyd lived. It was from his uncle that Lloyd George would gain his Liberal politics and early work as a lawyer. Unlike many British Prime Ministers, Lloyd George did not attend university, instead attaching himself to a law firm before passing the Law Society final examinations. He ran his own law practice until he was elected in a fierce by-election in 1890 for the marginal seat of Caernarfon Boroughs. He was seen a rebel and was a fierce critic of the Boer War.  By 1906 he achieved his first ministerial position, as president of the Board of Trade. Two years later he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lloyd George’s social reforms as Chancellor are considered the forefather of the welfare system in the UK, bringing in Old Age Pensions and National Insurance.

When war broke out in 1914, Lloyd George was still Chancellor. He quickly showed his usefulness to the war effort. He worked closely with trade unions to benefit both workers and the country as it threw itself into the war effort. There was also the ‘King’s Pledge’, his attempt to encourage temperance by getting King George V to commit to abstaining from alcohol alongside a number of measures to stop alcohol consumption from affecting the war effort.

The Shell Crisis of 1915 ushered in a new role for Lloyd George, one that would make him popular in government and with the public. There was an outcry when it was revealed that the British Army were running low on artillery shells, a new department for Munitions was created with Lloyd George as minister. Lloyd George in this position began to change Britain into a war economy via steps such as making the railway companies major munitions producers as they had the necessary means of production to begin producing munition immediately. Continuing on from his work with the trade unions, he dealt deftly with labour issues including the hiring of large numbers of women to compensate for lost male workers. Despite this success, many historians believe the success of the department was mostly due to reform put in place before he became minister.

Outside of his role as Minister for Munitions, Lloyd George heavily pushed for conscription. Along with his fellow supporters he was finally successful in 1916. Some historians have seen this as his first bid for the role of Prime Minister; however Asquith would continue to hold on for some time. Even before he became Secretary of State for War, he was highly critical of Kitchener and the Generals Haig and Robertson.

Kitchener’s sudden death in June 1916, led to Asquith being forced to give the role of Secretary of State for War to Lloyd George, although in reality much of the power was in the hands of Haig and Robertson on the Western Front. This did have its advantages for Lloyd George as it allowed him to escape blame for colossal Allied failures such as the Somme. However Lloyd George was not to remain in this position for more than six months. By December 1916 Asquith had lost the support of the Unionists and Labour who he relied on to keep power. Lloyd George was able to gain their support along with a hundred liberals and became Prime Minister.

One of Lloyd George’s first decisions was the creation of the war cabinet, made up of 5 men. Lloyd George headed the cabinet with his chancellor, the Unionist leader, Bonar Law. Another Unionist, Curzon, and the leader of Labour, Arthur Henderson, and the Conservative Lord Milner rounded out the cabinet. The use of the war cabinet was effective allowing Lloyd George control over all aspects of government for the war effort. Perhaps Lloyd George’s greatest success as Prime Minister was the introduction of the convoy system. The convoy system was met with opposition but upon its implementation it stopped the German submarine campaign by preventing the losses that British shipping had sustained from U-Boats.

However Lloyd George continued to struggle with Haig and Robertson. This resulted in one of Lloyd George’s lows, the Nivelle Affair. Lloyd George attempted to put the French General Nivelle in charge of the offensive at Arras which was deeply unpopular with Haig and Robertson.  While Haig was given overall operational control of the British forces, he was forced to be under Nivelle’s orders. The Battle of Arras was partly successful but high casualties on the Allied side compared to the Germans damaged Lloyd George’s credibility. However when Passchendaele, under the responsibility of Haig and Robertson, ended badly Lloyd George was able to regain some credibility and allowed him to be able to set up the supreme war council.

The supreme war council was made up of Allied representatives. The council gave command to the French General Ferdinand Foch. This along with an increase of American troops saw a rise in Allied victories. By the summer of 1918 the Germans were losing numbers and those that remained were exhausted.

Perhaps Lloyd George’s biggest failure of the war was the attempted conscription of Ireland. Originally plans had been to limit conscription to Ulster, however the trade unions demanded conscription be extended as they could no longer provide soldiers from their unions without hurting the war effort.  While enacted, conscription was never actually put into effect because of such widespread backlash. This decision exacerbated anti-union feeling and could be seen as a major change in opinion about an independent Ireland, leading to the domination of Sinn Féin.

The Allied success cemented Lloyd George’s popularity, allowing him to easily win the 1918 election with a coalition government. He represented Britain at the Treaty of Versailles, although claiming he did not wish to ruin Germany he supported measures that would lead to the Second World War. He continued to push through social reforms and also extended suffrage to more of the British population including some women for the first time. He also oversaw the secession of the Irish Free State. However in 1922 Lloyd George lost power after a series of fractures in his coalition. Disagreements on policy and scandal surrounding cash for titles meant by October 1922, Lloyd George resigned.

While Lloyd George remained visible, the fall of the Liberal Party, something he had arguably helped cause, he never regained power. He continued to support social reform, with his last vote in the Commons being a vote to condemn the government for failing to implement the recommendations of the Beveridge report. On New Year’s Day of 1945 he was raised to the peerage but he was too ill to ever take his positon in the House of Lords. He died of cancer on March 24th 1945, months before the end of the Second World War.


A Portrait of Hindenburg

This is my second contribution towards the effort to document the events of World War One on this blog, and another attempt at modern history, and this time I am profiling a man who preceded Adolf Hitler as president of Germany, Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (Paul von Hindenburg to his friends). At the first instance of research for this post all I had heard about that could be related to him would be the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 where a blimp crash landed, which I now know occurred after his death. This post will give a brief overview of his life and times in office while attempting to understand his significance in being the man to come before Hitler.

Paul von Hindenburg was born to a Prussian aristocrat, Robert von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, in 1847 in Posen, Prussia (now Pozen, Poland). Hindenburg’s parents were engaged in a morganatic marriage due to his mother, Luise Schwickart, being a daughter of a medical professional and this fact was not seen as favourable to Hindenburg due to her barely occupying any attention in his journals. Hindenburg lineage was distinguished through two high powered Prussian aristocratic families. Hindenburg obtained a long but in no regards exceptional military career, after joining the Prussian Cadet Corps in 1858. He served in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Hindenburg eventually retiring from active service in 1911 aged 64 after being decorated for bravery and representing his regiment at the declaration of the German Empire in 1871. He finished his first career as head of the Fourth Army Corps. However his most significant rise to prominence came after retirement through being appointed to mobilise the whole German state for war in 1914, and thus becoming a popular and well-known figure to the detriment of the reputation of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Hindenburg’s shining hour was by cripplingly defeating the Russian Army at Tannenburg and Masurian Lakes earning him a promotion to Field Marshall and sole command of the Eastern Front in November 1914.

Throughout the First World War Hindenburg rose to immense power across the military and civil spheres of German government. August 1916 saw Hindenburg being appointed as Chief of the Greater German General Staff (GGB) a body within the Prussian Government established in 1806 to overlook all aspects of war through intelligence and strategic advances. The GGB had greater autonomy to the rest of the German Empire and held extensive political sway. Hindenburg was also a major mind behind the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia. This treaty effectively ended Russia’s involvement in World War One on 3rd March 1918 after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia thus eradicating the Romanov Tsar and his family. Throughout the war Germany had pushed through Russian occupied Poland and Lithuania, and into Russia itself, disintegrating the enormous but undisciplined Russian army. It was also Hindenburg that was instrumental in orchestrating the armistice as the Allies were pushing Germany to their limits especially after America waded into the fray to push the invasion of Germany. If the Allies had succeeded Germany would have suffered to a much greater extent materially, financially and civilly like France and Belgium. The 1918 German offensive on the Western Front had failed and the result was the conclusion of the First World War on November 11th 1918.

The aftermath of the war was the crushing of Germany as a power in Europe. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne and retired to Holland while Hindenburg remained as head of the army until July 1919 when he once again attempted to retire. This was not to last since he was persuaded to stand in the presidential elections of 1925 upon the death of Ebert. Weimar Germany was growing and needed an authoritative figure at its helm. This era in German history unofficially began at the end of the war but took off in 1924 upon its first constitutional assembly in Weimar. Creating the German Republic caused several issues such as extreme inflation, political extremism from both the left and right and a distinct coldness toward other European countries that partook in the First World War. The main achievements of Weimar Germany was a reform of the currency, tax policies and a new organised railway connecting and integrating Germany into a further unified country. Germany had strained against the Treaty of Versailles which was aimed to prevent Germany from obtaining any power and Weimar Germany pushed against these boundaries vigorously. Hindenburg as the leader of all this was elected twice in 1925 and 1931, partly due to not being a politician foremost but a military man who was active during the whole war.

Hindenburg was of advanced age during these years but proved to be a good president for a Germany attempting to renew itself, particularly when hit by the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Hindenburg had a particular fear of communism which led to dismissals within his government including the chancellor Heinrich Brüning. 1932 saw Hitler attempts to become chancellor of Germany. Hindenburg initially rebuffed these due to Hitler not coming from the right social class, and had not had a majorly established career in the military during the war, but Hindenburg gave in January 1933 and Adolf Hitler began his track to power.

During the years that Hindenburg was in power he began to show his age and was more susceptible to persuasion. The burning of the Reichstag in February 1933 enabled Hitler to be granted emergency powers against any communism and thus gain another step to dictatorship. Hindenburg died in August 1934 on his Prussian estate which Hitler used the state funeral to solidify his progress. Immediately after Hindenburg’s death Hitler initiated the use of Fuhrer instead of president and started the ball rolling towards World War Two.