Tag Archives: World War 1

Europeana – Digitised European Cultural Collections

Europeana is a website that provides access to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised throughout Europe.

It includes a number of specific exhibitions. Two of these are about wars; the First World War and the Napoleonic War.

Untold Stories of the First World War contains photos, sound recordings, postcards, official documents and diaries; the last named are very big files. Most items relate to ordinary people, but there is a postcard sent by Adolf Hitler. It can best be explored from this link.

More items are being collected, and a series of First World War family history roadshows are being held across Europe.  Click here for more information on roadshows and on how to contribute.

The Napoleonic War exhibition is hosted in conjunction with the European Library Exhibitions. It contains paintings, both battle scenes and portraits, maps and documents.

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Joseph Watt VC Fought a Light Cruiser in a Drifter

On 15 May 1917 three Austro-Hungarian light cruisers attacked a force of drifters that were patrolling the Straits of Otranto in order to prevent Austro-Hungarian and German U-boats breaking out from their bases in the Adriatic into the Mediterranean.

The drifter Gowan Lea, with a crew of eight men and a dog and armed with only a 6 pounder gun and depth charges, attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Novara, which had a crew of 318, nine 3.9 inch and one 47mm guns and four 17.7 torpedo tubes. Gowan Lea’s skipper, Joseph Watt was awarded the VC. He was born in  Gardenstown, Banffshire and in peacetime skippered a Fraserburgh drifter. His vessel survived; its only casualty was the dog, who suffered shock and died three days later. Watt’s VC, Italian Al Valore Militare and French Croix de Guerre were sold by the auctioneer Spink for £204,000 on 19 April 2012; see the BBC website. I think that the purchaser will have paid £170,000 with a 20% fee to the auctioneer added on. The previous day’s Scotsman reported that the citation for Watt’s VC read:

Skipper Joseph Watt, Royal Naval Reserve.

For most conspicuous gallantry when the Allied Drifter line in the Straits of Otranto was attacked by Austrian light cruisers on the morning of 15 May, 1917. When hailed by an Austrian cruiser at about 100 yards range and ordered to stop and abandon his drifter the “Gowan Lea” Skipper Watt ordered full speed ahead and called upon his crew to give three cheers and fight to the finish. The cruiser was then engaged, but after one round had been fired, a shot from the enemy disabled the breech of the drifter’s gun. The gun’s crew, however, stuck to the gun, endeavouring to make it work, being under heavy fire all the time. After the cruiser had passed on Skipper Watt took the “Gowan Lea” alongside the badly damaged freighter “Floandi” and assisted to remove the dead and wounded.

According to this website on the VC, one Victoria Cross; two Distinguished Service Orders; six Distinguished Service Crosses; five Conspicuous Gallantry Medals; eighteen Distinguished Service Medals; and 31 Mentioned-in-Despatches were awarded for the action; see the London Gazette for the list of recipients. Thanks to poster Michaeldr of the Great War Forum for the link to the London Gazette.

Most of these awards were made to the drifter crews, but some went to the crews of the cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol, which participated in the later stages of the Battle of the Otranto Straits. Deckhand Frederick Lamb of the Gowan Lea received the CGM for continuing to fire her gun despite being wounded. Watt’s entry in Wikipedia, says that three other  members of the Gowan Lea’s crew received the CGM or the DSM. Since the London Gazette gives the citations for awards of the CGM but just lists recipients of the DSM, this is presumably Lamb’s CGM and two awards of the DSM.

The Otranto Barrage consisted of a line of drifters, mostly British, which were intended to trap enemy submarines that could then be attacked with depth charges. There were not enough drifters to have a continuous line and submarines could evade the line; in 1916 most passed it on the surface at night. In July 1916 there were supposed to be 50 drifters at sea, but a French officer reported that there were only 37, of which only 10 had their nets out. Strong currents meant that the drifters would move apart. Rear Admiral Mark Kerr, commander-in-chief of the British Adriatic Squadron, thought that 300 drifters were needed.

Only one submarine, the Austro-Hungarian U6 on 13 May 1916 was definitely destroyed by the Otranto Barrage. Two others were lost to unknown causes and may have fallen victim to it; the German UB44 in August 1916 and the Austro-Hungarian U30 in April 1917.

The Austro-Hungarians made several attacks on the Barrage; the one on 14-15 May 1917 was the largest. It was led by Captain Miklos Horthy of the Novara, which was accompanied by her sister ships the Helgoland and the Saida. They were modified to make them look like British destroyers from a distance. Two Tatra class destroyers, the Csepel and Balaton, would carry out a diversionary attack. Two Austro-Hungarian submarines, the U4 and U27, and a German minelaying submarine, the UC25, also took part.

The two Austro-Hungarian destroyers attacked a convoy, sinking the Italian destroyer Borea and a munitions ship, and damaging the other two ships in the convoy, one of which was set on fire. For some reason, they did not finish off the damaged ships, which both made port. The drifters were being screened by the Italian flotilla leader Mirabello and the French destroyers Commandant Riviere, Bisson and Cimeterre. The destroyer Boutefeu had returned to port with condenser problems.

Horthy’s cruisers evaded this force and two Allied submarines and attacked the drifters. They used their sirens to warn the almost defenceless drifters of their presence, giving their crews an opportunity to abandon ship, which the Gowan Lea did not take. Other drifters also resisted.

According  to the British official history[1]Floandi, described as a freighter in Watt’s VC citation, was a drifter which fired on the Novara. Skipper D. J. Nicholls and one of her enginemen were wounded, with the other engineman being killed. The crew of the Admirable, next to the Gowan Lea in the line,abandoned ship, but one man returned to her. He tried to man the gun but was killed before he could fire.

The Austro-Hungarians sank 14 drifters out of 47 and damaged four, three seriously. They rescued 72 of the drifters’ crews before heading back to their base at Cattaro, but they were 40 miles further from it than from the Allied base at Brindisi.

The attack on the convoy began at 3:24 am and that on drifters at 3:30 am. At 4:35 am Rear Admiral Alfredo Acton, commander of the Italian Scouting Division, ordered the Mirabello destroyer force to intercept the Austrians. It took some time until other Allied ships were ready to sail, but the British light cruisers Dartmouth, flying Acton’s flag, and Bristol, the Italian flotilla leader Aquila and the Italian destroyers Mosto, Pilo, Schiaffino and Acerbi set sail at 6:45 am. Acton did not order the Italian light cruiser Marsala and four more destroyers to sea until 8:25 am, an hour after they were ready.

The Mirabello group contacted the Horthy’s  cruisers at 7:00 am, but the French destroyers struggled to keep up. Acton’s force intercepted the Austro-Hungarian destroyers at 07:45. The Austro-Hungarians escaped after disabling the Aquila.

Acton was now between Horthy and Cattaro  and the two forces spotted each other at 9:00 am. Dartmouth (eight 6 inch guns) and Bristol (two 6 inch and 10 4 inch guns) outgunned the three Austro-Hungarian cruisers (nine 3.9 inch guns each), but Acton’s force was being whittled down. Pilo and Schiaffino  remained with Aquila, Mirabello had problems with her fuel supply and Commandant Riviere broke down at 11:45; Bisson and Cimeterre stayed to escort her. Bristol’s bottom was fouled, and she dropped behind the other cruisers.

Horthy’s  cruisers were able to concentrate on Dartmouth, so Acton slowed her to allow Bristol to catch up. Between 10:30 and 11:00 am Dartmouth damaged Novara, but Acton decided to concentrate on Saida, which was lagging the other two Austrian cruisers, which had drawn ahead of the British ships. Marsala and her destroyers had now arrived.

Saida was not badly hit, but Novara had now stopped. However, Austro-Hungarian reinforcements, including a heavy cruiser had now appeared, so at noon Acton headed back to Brindisi. On the way there, UC25 torpedoed Dartmouth and the Boutefeu, which had come out to assist her, struck one of the mines laid by UC25 and sank.

Aircraft from both sides were present. The Austrians got the better of the Italians, and their aircraft were able to spot for their destroyers. The Austrians bombed and strafed the British cruisers but did not damage them.

The action was clearly a success for the Austrians. The multi-national Allied force had suffered from signalling problems. It was clear that the drifters could not be protected at night unless more destroyers were available, which they were not. consequently, the barrage was maintained only during the day.

As Paul Halpern points out[2], the action made little strategic difference. The major Austro-Hungarian warships were still confined to port, and the threat to Allied shipping in the Mediterranean continued to come from submarines. Horthy had risked three of the best Austro-Hungarian warships in order to attack an ineffective blockade.

The big gainer from the Battle of the Otranto Straits was Horthy himself. He was promoted to Rear Admiral and made commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in March 1918. He was Regent of Hungary from 1920-44.

Skipper Joseph Watts returned to the fishing fleet after the war. The Scotsman quoted a spokeswomen for Spink, the auctioneers who sold his medals, as saying that:

 “His Victoria Cross, so bravely earned, was kept in a small drawer on his boat, amidst the accumulated junk of a sailor’s life. Joseph Watt died at home in Fraserburgh from cancer of the gullet on 13 February, 1955, and was buried alongside his wife in Kirktown Cemetery. His loss was felt all over the North-east fishing communities with deep regret.”


[1] Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. iv (London: HMSO, 1938), p. 300.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 166.


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La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion, a French film directed by Jean Renoir, has recently been restored and re-released. It was made in 1937 and was banned by the Nazis. Joseph Goebbels called Renoir ‘Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1′. It is set in WWI, mostly in Prisoner of War (PoW) camps, but features little combat. The key issues of the film are class, nationality and duty.

The film starts with Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a pilot from a humble background, preparing to fly on a reconnaissance mission with Captaine de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic staff officer. The next scene takes place in a German officers’ mess. The two Frenchmen have been shot down by von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), another aristocrat. He invites them for lunch before they are sent to a PoW camp. Von Rauffenstein knows de Boeldieu’s cousin and they find that they move in similar circles.

The scenes in the PoW camp are similar to those in later American and British films about WWII PoWs; the French officers dig a tunnel with improvised tools, presenting difficulties in disposing of the soil; the guards are dim; Maréchal spends time in solitary confinement; the prisoners put on a concert party; they eat well thanks to parcels from home, especially those sent to Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the son of a rich banker.

It must be remembered that this is a 1937 film; it is the later Anglo-American films that have followed Renoir. The French officers come from a wide range of backgrounds, but co-operate well in their attempts to escape and share their parcels from home. There is a link between the defiant singing of the Marseillaise in this film and the similar scene in Casablanca; in the later film, Madeleine Lebeau, Dalio’s then wife, appears in the Marseillaise scene, playing Yvonne, Rick’s jilted lover. Dalio played the croupier in Casablanca.

Maréchal and de Boeldieu are eventually sent to a fortress prison camp. Rosenthal is already an inmate and von Rauffenstein, unfit for combat service because of wounds, is the commandant. Von Rauffenstein offers privileges to de Boeldieu. He is prepared to take de Boeldieu’s word of honour that his quarters contain no prohibited items, but insists on searching the quarters of other French officers.

Von Rauffenstein’s motivation appears to be that he sees a bond between two aristocratic, regular officers rather than any attempt to turn the Frenchman against his colleagues and country. There is a clear link between the two aristocrats, who can switch fluently between English, French and German, have friends and acquaintances in common, and to a large extent belong to an international class. They foresee that their class and way of life is doomed, regardless of which side wins the war.

An excellent film, well acted and directed film, which is the precursor of many other PoW films. Some do not like films that are in 1.33 aspect ratio, black and white, subtitled and have only two female characters, a mother and her small daughter. If you do not have such objections, then it is well worth seeing.

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British Strategy and Oil, 1914-1923

I’ve recently completed a PhD at Glasgow University on ‘British Strategy and Oil, 1914-1923.’

This thesis analyses the significance of oil to British strategy during 1914-1923. It shows that by 1923 Britain had a coherent oil policy, which affected naval strategy, diplomatic relations, policy towards the oil industry and post-war aims in the Middle East. Previous works have looked at only part of the picture and have not appreciated the extent to which oil affected all these areas. This work brings all these different facets together into a single study. The most important British user of oil was the Royal Navy, which was replacing coal with oil as its principal fuel even before the First World War, which saw great growth in the use of oil. Aircraft and land vehicles powered by oil fuelled internal combustion engines transformed both warfare and civilian life, but their overall usage of oil was much less than that of the RN. British industry was slower than the RN to adopt oil because coal was cheaper; the RN put the technical advantages of oil ahead of cost.  Britain’s power and prestige was based on its naval supremacy; British dominance of naval fuel bunkering was a key factor in this. Britain had substantial reserves of coal, including Welsh steam coal, the best in the world for naval use, but little oil. Britain’s oil strategy in 1914 was to build up reserves cheaply in peacetime and to buy on the market in wartime. An oil crisis in 1917 showed that this was flawed and that secure, British controlled supplies were needed. The war created an opportunity for Britain to secure substantial oil reserves in the Middle East. Attempts to obtain control of these affected the peace treaties and Britain’s post-war relations with its Allies. The USA was then the world’s largest producer and was the main supplier to the Allies during the war. It believed, wrongly, that its output would decline in the 1920s and feared that Britain was trying to exclude it from the rest of the world. France also realised that it needed access to safe and reliable supplies of oil.  The largest available potential oilfield was in the Mosul vilayet, part of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, and now part of Iraq. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement allocated about half of Mosul to France, which in 1918 agreed to include all of it in the British mandate territory of Iraq in return for a share of the oil and British support elsewhere. Other disagreements delayed an Anglo-French oil agreement, but one was finally signed at San Remo in 1920. It was followed by the Treaty of Sèvres with the Ottoman Empire, which appeared to give Britain all that it wanted in the Middle East. The resurgence of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal meant that it had to be re-negotiated at Lausanne in 1923. Sèvres angered the USA, since it appeared to exclude US oil companies from Iraq. For a period Britain focused on the need to have a large, British controlled oil company, but it was eventually realised that control of oil bearing territory was more important than the nationality of companies. This allowed US oil companies to be given a stake in Iraqi oil, improving Anglo-American relations. Britain’s need for oil meant that it had to ensure that the Treaty of Lausanne left Mosul as part of the British mandate territory of Iraq. Turkey objected, but the League of Nations ruled in Britain’s favour. Britain had other interests in the region, but most of them did not require control over Mosul. Mosul’s oil gave Britain secure supplies and revenue that made Iraq viable without British subsidies. By 1923 Britain had devised a coherent strategy of ensuring secure supplies of oil by controlling oil bearing territory.

The full thesis is available as a PDF from the university’s website:

http://theses.gla.ac.uk/3160/

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Bullets, Bombs and Bandages: How to Really Win at War: BBC4 TV

BBC4 has recently broadcast a very interesting three part series titled Bullets, Bombs and Bandages: How to Really Win at War. It was introduced by Saul David, Professor of War Studies at the University of Buckingham and explained the importance of planning, supply and logistics in war. Wars are won by the side with more supplies and better equipment, It has now finished, but is available, for UK viewers only, on the BBC I-Player until 28 February.

The first episode, ‘Staying Alive’, discussed the difficulties of keeping an army supplied with food. Archaeological evidence shows that the Romans shipped some foodstuffs from Spain to Hadrian’s Wall. Wellington’s army in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars had to take a herd of cattle with it. An army of 80,000 men had to slaughter 300 animals per day. The invention of canned food eased supply problems, but early tin cans had to be opened with bayonets because the tin can was invented several years before the tin opener.

The second episode, ‘Stealing a March’, covered the difficulties of moving armies. In 1066, King Harold of England faced two threats. He quickly moved his army north to defeat Harald Hadrada’s Vikings at Stamford Bridge, but then had to return south to face William the Conqueror’s well prepared Normans. Harold’s army was depleted and exhausted, and he should have followed his mother’s advice and delayed giving battle. Instead he fought and lost.

Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim was one of logistics. His army used two-wheeled spring carts to transport its supplies. They were twice as fast as the farm carts used by his French and Bavarian opponents. In 1812, Napoleon expected to defeat Russia before winter. His army was equipped for summer, including the wrong type of horse shoes. A farrier explained that horses have to have different shoes in winter; Napoleon’s had summer shoes so could not grip the ice going up and down hills.

Railways enabled armies to be deployed more quickly and in greater numbers than previously. Helmuth von Moltke was one of the first to realise this, and his meticulous planning allowed the Prussians to mobilise more quickly than the French and to defeat them in the Franco-Prussian War. Railways allowed huge armies to be mobilised in World War I, but horses remained crucial in World War II because they were the fastest way of crossing rough ground until the invention of the jeep. The use of tanks and other motor vehicles made petrol supply vital; modern petrol cans are called jerry cans in the English-speaking world because they are based on a German design, which was more robust and practical than the British version.

Modern armies require huge amounts of supplies. The Allies required a port to keep their troops supplied after D-Day. Rather than capture one, they brought an artificial one, code-named Mulberry, with them. It was designed to last for nine weeks, but remained in use for nine months. Camp Bastion, Britain’s main supply base in Afghanistan, is a busier airport than Stansted. Despite all the modern equipment, losses of helicopters meant that British soldiers had to march to fight in the Falklands War.

See the BBC website for more on episode 2:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16929522

The final episode, ‘Raising Arms’, dealt with the importance of having the best equipment and being able to afford enough of it. The Bank of England was founded in the 1690s after England ran out of money following wars with France and Spain. Sound finances enabled wars to be fought as equipment became more sophisticated and thus expensive. The increasing importance of artillery meant greater casualties, requiring more attention to medical facilities. Armies became more professional and technical, requiring better training.

In the late 19th century the increasing range of rifles meant that armies had to abandon colourful clothing, such as the British red coat, which was replaced by khaki. By 1908, British soldiers wore equipment that was designed from scratch for efficiency rather than adapting what had been used before. The British Lee-Enfield rifle had a shorter range than the German Mauser but was otherwise superior. Its magazine held 10 rather than 5 bullets and it had a bent bolt that enable the British soldier to keep his eye on the target whilst operating it, unlike the Mauser’s straight bolt.

In 1915 British machine guns and artillery were firing ammunition more quickly than it could be manufactured. A Ministry of Munitions was established and new factories built. Shortage of acetone, imported before the war, created problems with the manufacture of cordite. Chaim Weizmann, a chemistry lecturer at Manchester University, discovered a method of fermenting grain to produce acetone. In 1917 the British Empire produced over 50 million shells and a billion bullets and the Allies were out-producing the Germans. In 1917-18 the war cost £20 million per day in 2012 money.

Since World War I military power has been measured by the means of destruction rather than by numbers of men and horses. The Allies dropped 3.4 million tons of bombs in World War II. The USA dropped 7 million tons in the Vietnam War. Equipment is now stockpiled in peace, but this leads to risks of its own. An accident at an RAF munitions depot at Fauld in Staffordshire on 27 November 1944 caused one of  the largest ever non-nuclear explosions and killed more than 70 people.

The cost of military equipment continues to rise. The USA fired 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles in 48 hours during its Shock and Awe attack on Baghdad in 2003. Each costs $0.5 million. A Typhoon Eurofighter costs £50 million and the Joint Strike Fighter is likely to be twice as expensive. NATO’s opponents in Afghanistan are armed with little more than AK47s and home-made bombs, but this conflict has cost the UK £18bn. The question is knowing who the next enemy will be. The problem is that tipping points in military technology are not apparent until after the event.

See the BBC website for more on episode 3:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17011607

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