The Great War

Dr. Richard Connors – The Road to the Armistice 1918

This November we commemorated the centennial of the Great War’s conclusion. Fittingly, in October, historian Richard Connors published his latest volume on the First World War. With The Road to Armistice, he explored the conflict’s final months from the battlefields to the negotiating table to the hustings. As in his 2017 work, New Jersey and the Great War, he included sections that described the war’s impact on the Garden State. A witty and engaging read resulted.

Dr. Connors employed several writing techniques that made the book very enjoyable; his vernacular style chief among them. Academic historians have a bad habit of overusing fancy words. Some like to include epistemology and ontology with the same frequency that most people use and and the. Dr. Connors avoided this error. He expressed his ideas in lucid language that made them easy to understand.

In his analysis of the “Black Day” of the German Army, the professor provided a clear yet detailed description of events. He did so in a way that would’ve impressed Sir John Keegan.

Instead of the traditional days-long artillery barrage, which alerts the enemy to the location and immanence of an attack, the Allies rely on a last-minute rolling barrage. This is an approach where the artillery fires ahead of the infantry at a prescribed distance, and continues this pattern as the soldiers advance. At 4:20 a.m. on August 8 the guns roar for three minutes, aiming two hundred yards in front of the assaulting tanks, infantry, and cavalry. This formula is repeated until the shells reach a maximum depth of 4,500 yards. The artillery teams then move forward. But plans don’t survive for long. The gods of war take over. Little if any resistance by some German units, wholesale surrender by those surrounded, stiff resistance by other units, difficulty communicating in any direction amid the ear-shattering din and blinding smoke of battle, orderly advances by some troops, pell-mell rushes by others, tank breakdowns, halts to avoid being caught in the rolling barrage or to outflank bullet-spewing machine guns, the roar of airplanes diving down to strafe the enemy, the shrieks of the dying. The result is chaos and confusion accompanied by incomprehensible death and destruction. Chaos and confusion might not be the best choice of words; berserk bedlam might be better. (Loc 118)

As readers could determine from the above passage, Dr. Connors wrote in the present tense. By doing so, he gave the story an immediacy one doesn’t typically encounter in works of history.

The Road to the Armistice 1918 contained excellent use of humor. That’s quite an achievement with such sullen subject matter. In the chapter describing the life of a platoon leader in the 29th Division he observed:

Runners are used as contact agents; paths for them have to be found and maintained. Runners are not always reliable. Sometimes they will run to the rear and just keep on running. (Location 697)

When describing the training the 78th Division experienced in Europe, he noted an unanticipated hardship the war forced American troops to endure.

They are also exposed to the “delights” of British rations, which feature tea, biscuts, jam, and cheese. Not very popular with the doughboys raised on meat and potatoes. (Location 723)

Even with the nation at war, newspapers didn’t limit their coverage to carnage. On August 3, 2018, papers reported the following stories.

New Jersey news includes details of a “slacker roundup”, involving raids of theatres, hotels and saloons, sending some 300 men to the local armory for questioning. On the lighter side, Belmar arrests twenty-three “drippers,” persons walking on the boardwalk with wet bathing suits and inadequate covering. The fine: $5. (Location 107)

The author included interesting information regarding wartime New Jersey. He wrote that in October:

…a Presidential order banning German aliens from a number of coastal towns in Monmouth and northern Ocean counties. The order covers communities east of the Jersey shore railroad tracks, from Matawan south to Point Pleasant. It was triggered by fears that German submarines will bring in spies and saboteurs, bent on destroying war industries and interfering with shipping. (Unknown to the general public, a U-boat shelled the Coast Guard station at Sandy Hook during August.) (Loc 264)

I only had one criticism of the book. While I liked the professor’s conversational writing style, I did read a number of clichés. As Dr. Connors is an excellent writer, I thought he could have used more creative expressions than “money to burn” (Loc 409), “spiraling downhill” (Loc 420) and “to put it mildly.” (Loc 466)

Dr. Connors commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the war’s conclusion by publishing The Road to the Armistice 1918. I reflected upon the centennial by reading it. I finished just before Veteran’s Day.

 

Lecture Review – “Jungle of Weeds to War” by Melissa Ziobro

Who would have thought a luxury hotel and a racetrack could eventually become a military base? Sure enough, it happened. Well, it occurred on land once occupied by those paragons of pleasure. I heard the full story this August 7th.

The Historical Society of Moorestown presented the second outdoor installment of its History Speaks lecture series. Historian Melissa Ziobro delivered her “Jungle of Weeds to War” address in the garden at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. The speech focused on the history of Fort Monmouth.

The facility opened in order to train soldiers to fight in the First World War. The professor began her remarks with a brief overview of why the United States entered the conflict. She explained that Americans felt a stronger kinships with the people of the United Kingdom and France. Both those countries practiced democratic forms of government. Authoritarians led nations such as the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire which comprised the Central Powers.

The United States viewed the war as an encroachment on its trading rights. Belligerents employed different means of deterring them.  British and French vessels turned US ships back towards North America. German vessels preferred to sink them. The German sinking of the Lusitania, in which some New Jersey natives died, played key role in the nation’s path to war. Germany’s ill-advised offer to help Mexico regain the Southwest cemented it.

The professor then expatiated upon a topic she knew well: the history of Fort Monmouth. “From Jungle of Weeds to War” proved an interesting subtitle. The base may have had the most interesting origins of any military facility anywhere. From the 1870s and into the 1890s a luxury hotel and a racetrack occupied the land.  A moralistic crusade against gambling at the close of the nineteenth century proved a boon for the army a little over a decade later. For a $75,000 lease agreement, the military obtained a facility accessible by good stone roads; a rarity at the time. The area allowed for ease of access to both water and a railway station. The port city of Hoboken was also nearby.

The base located at the old Monmouth Park Racetrack began its new purpose as Camp Little Silver. The base became a training ground for communications specialists. Perhaps that’s what inspired the army to rename it Camp Alfred Vail. The namesake hailed from New Jersey and worked with Samuel Morse.

During the war, the camp gave to the community and the community gave back. The facility paid higher wages than private businesses. Soldiers spent their earnings in the local towns. The troops even put on vaudeville shows for civilians. In return, some of the most talented people in the region worked at the base. As an interesting expression of gratitude, the Long Branch Elks club donated a barrel of tobacco to it.

Thanks to the base’s success, the US Government decided to make its use of the facility more enduring. In 1919 it purchased the land for $115,000.

In 1925, the military renamed the base once more this time calling it Fort Monmouth. Due to the facility’s continued focus on communications technology, it earned the unofficial title “Home of the Signal Corps” through the Vietnam War.

The facility that played such a significant role in the twentieth century wouldn’t endure long into the twenty first. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission opted to close it. The army reassigned Fort Monmouth’s personnel to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in 2011.

Fortunately for local history buffs, Professor Ziobro opted to remain in New Jersey. While working as the Professor of Public History at Monmouth University, Professor Ziobro also edits New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She served as a Command Historian at the US Army Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, NJ from 2004 until 2011.

Thanks to the professor’s work, Fort Monmouth’s legacy will long outlive the actual base. I can take the luxury of writing: in homage to the land’s original use, that’s not an optional claimer.

Book Review – New Jersey and the Great War by Richard J. Connors

Connors, Richard J. New Jersey and the Great War: 1914-1919. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2017, Print.

No one questions The Great War’s monumental impact on the world at large. How it affected areas outside the battle zones sometimes gets lost in analyses of the conflict.  Historian Richard J. Connors made a great stride towards rectifying this gap. In New Jersey and the Great War, he showed how the First World War both shaped and became shaped by the Garden State’s contributions. Both an enlightening and engaging read resulted.

The author explained how the expression above the state capital’s railroad bridge, “Trenton makes, the world takes”, applied to the entire state beginning in 1914. (Page 6) New Jersey served as a source of munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft. “Just as the Du Ponts had come to dominate explosives, John D. Rockefeller dominated oil.” (Page 23)

To my surprise, the city of Hoboken played a much unheralded role in the war. (Pages 37 -39) During America’s neutrality it served as a major location for many of the industries that contributed to the Allied war effort. Following the nation’s entry into the conflict its availability as a major port made it a primary center of embarkation for Europe by American “doughboys.”

While all readers know the dangers of combat, Dr. Connors described how civilians faced comparable risks working in war related industries.

In all its phases, munitions was a dangerous business. Manufacturing powder, loading shells, transporting these to the waterfront, placing munitions onto barges for transfer to ocean going vessels: every step was at high risk…Fires, explosions and related disasters became part of the New Jersey story during the Great War. It was not in a corporation’s interest to publicize these, but news of major tragedies did reach the press. Examples from 1914-17 include and explosion at Du Pont’s Carney’s Point plant in January 1916; disaster at Jersey City’s Black Tom complex in July 1916; the destruction of the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Lyndhurst in January 1917; a major explosion at Du Pont’s Haskell works that same month. (Page 28)

The Du Pont Haskell facility was a particularly treacherous place to work. The plant experienced twenty-five explosions in 1916. (Page 30) Another tragedy occurred when the T. A. Gillespie facility located in the Morgan section of Sayerville exploded in 1918. Historians estimate that it cost one hundred workers their lives. (Page 35)

Dr. Connors balanced his depictions of weaponry and war materiel with the state’s contributions to preserving life.

During the war years, New Jersey did make significant contributions to the survival of military casualties. One was in the field of quality surgical instruments, a Newark specialty. Another was anesthetic ether, where E. R. Squibb of New Brunswick had been active since the late nineteenth century. Arguably the most important was the work of the Johnson brothers, who headed another New Brunswick firm. Johnson and Johnson (J & J) was a nineteenth century pioneer in sterile surgical dressings, absorbent cotton, and bandages. During the Great War the Allies obtained the bulk of these necessities from the firm. (Page 26)

Of interest to both military and local history buffs, the book contained brief but informative histories of both the 29th and 78th infantry divisions. These units included soldiers from New Jersey. As a South Jersey native, I enjoyed reading about the origins of the latter’s home: a facility built during 1917. At the time known as Camp Dix, the facility still operates today.

Dr. Connors concluded his history by discussing Garden Staters who distinguished themselves in combat far above the call of duty. The first appendix detailed service members who received the Medal of Honor for their valor. The next included biographical paragraphs regarding airmen who received the “ace” designation. (James Pearson, the man believed to have been the last surviving American ace of the war, passed away at the age of 97 in Upper Montclair on January 6, 1993.) New Jersey native and World War I casualty Joyce Kilmer’s “Rouge Boquet” rounded out the final one.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture Dr. Connors presented concerning this subject. His colorful wit and erudition inspired me. At the conclusion of his remarks, I wanted to learn more about New Jersey and the Great War. I found his book of the same title an extraordinary resource to do so.

 

Lecture Review – Richard J. Connors, Ph.D.: New Jersey and the Great War

Richard J. Connors opened his remarks with perhaps the most unusual preface to a talk regarding warfare: he spoke about love. The man whose death ignited the Great War, Archduke Ferdinand, married for love. The professor then informed his audience that he “falls in love easily” when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown. The erudite gentleman explained that he’d fallen in love with the host town upon visiting. Those interested in history certainly loved his talk this October 5th at the Community House.

Dr. Connors holds the title of Professor Emeritus as Seton Hall University. A catalog of his notable works includes: A Cycle of Power: The Local Political Career of Mayor Frank Hague, The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 and New Jersey and the Great War; the latter serving as the basis for his lecture. In addition to writing about military affairs, the professor possesses personal knowledge of the subject. He served as an officer in the Army Corp of Engineers with the Army of Occupation in Okinawa in 1947. From 1951 – 1952 he served in the Korean War.

The professor commenced his talk by describing the European conception of warfare at the advent of the Great War. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, “royal affairs” between rival kingdoms comprised armed conflicts. The Napoleonic Era spawned a transition to “quick and dirty affairs” between nation states. This led planners to anticipate a brief First World War. This miscalculation gave rise to “total warfare.” Conscription allowed for an “army of millions” to take the field against an opponent of equal size. In the end, the conflict led to 30 million soldier and civilian casualties.

Many technological innovations occurred during the 99 years following Napoleon’s defeat until the first shots of the Great War. Tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, barbed wire, heavy artillery, poison gas and machine guns entered the battlefield for the first time. Many historians cite these developments as reason for the massive loss of life during the war. Dr. Connors added an incisive corollary to that analysis: these weapons “gave a lot of emphasis to the defense.” This would explain why the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Dr. Connors enlightened the audience regarding the role the Garden State played in the war. He used the old real estate aphorism “location, location, location” to explain its significance. New Jersey housed several munitions plants; an industry which experienced a boom (no pun intended) once the war commenced. The state’s refineries also provided a source of fuel for the Allies. Cites, such as Camden, became centers of ship building.

To local history buffs’ delight, Dr. Connors also discussed the 78th and 29th Infantry Divisions. Both units included soldiers from New Jersey. Camp Dix served as the training ground of the former and Camp McClellan for the latter. The professor noted the interesting fact that although located in Alabama, a former Garden State governor and Union general provided that base’s name.

When contemplating wartime casualties, one traditionally thinks of injuries sustained in combat. Dr. Connors reported that flu and pneumonia proved more deadly than the battlefield. According to a study conducted in the early 1930s: Americans suffered 52,000 casualties in battle. The twin scourges of Flu and pneumonia combined for 63,000.

America’s declaration of war on April 2, 1917 led to an eruption of patriotism “overnight.” That seemed an odd, as when asked why the US entered the conflict the professor replied, “Damned if I know.” He went on to hypothesize that the nation did so for the following reasons: 1) while initially ‘neutral’, American financiers such as JP Morgan bankrolled the Allies from 1914 – 1917. These economic ties ensured entering the conflict against the Central Powers. 2) Unrestricted German submarine warfare negatively impacted American business interests. 3) The Zimmerman Note, in which Germany offered to assist Mexico in retaking the American Southwest, became widely reported. Dr. Connors added that both the British and Germans propaganda machines operated stateside during the war. The British possessed more skill in this field due the shared language.

Josef Stalin observed: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the deaths of millions is a statistic.” Many historians neglect the human cost of the tragedies they explicate. Dr. Connors avoided this error. He humanized the Great War’s cost by quoting a poem written by New Jersey native Joyce Kilmer: himself a casualty of the conflict.

A discussion that began with the subject of love concluded with its antithesis. At the cessation of hostilities “a demand for peace turned to a demand for revenge.” It became the catalyst for an “age of bigger government.” As Dr. Connors wrote in New Jersey and the Great War: “Subtly and sadly, then, the Great War trained us for World War II.”

Book Review – The Great War by Peter Hart

The First World War is a virtually forgotten conflict in the United States. In fact, if there hadn’t been a World War II, I doubt many people would know it even took place. In The Great War, historian Peter Hart rectified this through an outstanding narrative history. He detailed many theaters of war on both land and sea. Utilizing primary sources including journals and letters from combatants on both sides of the conflict he gave readers a first-hand view. He varied his information in that he presented writings from generals in the high command to those of front line soldiers. This variety along with his detailed analyses greatly enhanced my understanding of the war.

This August will mark the 100th anniversary of the war’s advent making the book’s publication rather timely. The title came from the war’s original name. As Mr. Hart showed throughout the book, the First World War led to many military innovations. He described the devastating power of machine guns, tanks, aircraft and poison gas. These new weapons combined with outdated strategies led to casualty figures that still stagger the mind today.

…It is shocking to record that some 27,000 Frenchmen died on 22 August alone. This was an almost unprecendented slaughter in the long history of warfare. (Page 46)

He added the following observation of the same campaign.

French casualties during these failed offensives exceeded 200,000, of which over 75,000 were dead in just a few days of desperate fighting. (Page 48)

Of course, he cited the 57,470 casualties of which 19,240 soldiers the British lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. (Page 224)

Joseph Stalin once said that, “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” Hart understood that. He populated his narrative with letters home from common soldiers who didn’t survive the war. He related the following from a soldier to his wife and infant daughter.

I must not allow myself to dwell on the personal – there is no room for it here. Also it is demoralizing. But I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water…My one consolation is the happiness that has been ours. (Page 218)

Captain Charles May wrote these words on the day before his death during the Battle of the Somme. “Small scale tragedies litter the history of war: sad reminders that the necessities of war ruin the lives of millions.” (Page 219) As horrible as this and other stories like it were to read, I appreciated the way Hart humanized the horrors of battle.

Hart also took a more modern view of the generals’ conduct during the conflict. The myth of the “chateau generals” has passed into popular folklore.  Hart explained how commanders such as Foch and Haig recognized the changing nature of warfare. They did their best to adapt their tactics to accommodate for it. I thought it very enlightening how the author pointed out that “the nature of coalition warfare” (or politics) forced generals to engage in battles that shouldn’t have been fought. It’s tough to blame the commanders who did the best they could in an impossible situation.

Hart presented commentary from soldiers and officers on both sides of the conflict. I thought his narrative would’ve been bolstered if he’d included sources from civilians. As he wrote, approximately 950,000 civilians died due to military actions during the war. Another 5,893,000 died from war-related famine or disease. (Page 468) I would’ve liked to hear non-combatants’ thoughts on this “war to end all wars.”

My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany fought for the Americans in the First World War. In fact, I have a photo of him with his company across from my desk as I’m writing this. Since a close relation of mine served in the conflict I’ve always been curious to learn more about it. As Pop Mike passed away fourteen years before my birth, I never had the chance to ask him. Whenever I visit his grave at Beverly Memorial Cemetery I’m in awe of the rows and rows of markers that dot the landscape. Crafters of foreign policy must make many decisions. Whenever I look around the cemetery I’m reminded of the high cost that incurs when they make the wrong ones. I thank Peter Hart’s The Great War for making that point terribly clear.