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British recruiting posters issued as cigarette cards.
THE OUTCOME OF the Great War of 1914–18 has shaped the world we live in, yet it is difficult to understand. One hundred years after this cataclysmic episode erupted from the confines of “a little problem in the Balkans,” it continues to both shock and fascinate in equal measure. The war that followed it, ignited from its dying embers—though both complex and grandiose in scale—can at least be reduced and distilled into a crusade against evil, of the rights of human beings to escape bondage and repression. These concepts are more complex in the Great War, discussion of which still promotes argument and dissent.
For example, while most of us are at ease with the idea of an armada of landing craft dispatching its living cargo onto the beaches of Normandy on D-day, June 6, 1944, few of us really understand the motivations behind the landings at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. And it is difficult for us to escape from the present and consider the past with a wholly objective viewpoint; typically, we have difficulty coming to terms with the sheer number of casualties from this terrible war. So while the Allied dead from El Alamein are around 2,350, those from the first day of the Somme are 19,240. The reason why the scale of suffering on the battlefield should be so high is still something with which people have difficulty coming to terms.
At a personal level, one of the advantages we have in considering the Second World War is that we perhaps have more sympathy with the time frame. Things seem reasonably familiar to us. With the creation of the Jazz Age came the development of modernism—houses were sleeker, their contents functional, their residents’ lives not a million miles away from our own. Images of London high streets in 1940 differ dramatically from those of 1910; there are fewer horses, a greater number of motor vehicles, more garish shop signs, and fewer uniformed people. And it helps that we have a direct connection with people who lived through rationing, the formation of the welfare state, the era of make do and mend, and the chirpy voices of chipper radio comedians and music hall stars. But when we peer at films of the imperial powers in the run-up to the Great War, it is difficult for us to make a direct comparison of our lives with those of our forebears. The everyday life of the average citizen seems so different, with its class structures and food and clothing that are so different to our own; the average person in the street seems so remote to us. And our direct connection with those who lived during the Great War is very nearly extinguished—the few people still around who were alive at the time were too young to understand its significance and are now perhaps too old to recall with understanding that life, so remote 100 years on.
But the Great War has left us with a rich legacy of writing, art, music, and poetry. This legacy allows us to perceive what life was like during the period. By their nature, many of these records present a very particular view of the war, one informed by the natural antiwar reaction of that generation. Much of the writing from participants in the Great War that appeared in the fertile ten-year period after the war is disillusioned with it, distanced from its purpose, disassociated with the ideals that led people to join the forces and serve their country.
For many today, jaundiced with conflict and high ideals, the idea of mass recruitment to fight “for King and Country” seems alien. Seeking to understand the lives of our families, to connect with their experiences, is how many people now connect with the past that is the First World War. In many cases, their starting points are the creased photographs, the fading postcards, and the tarnished medals. In the United Kingdom, soldiers, sailors, and airmen were awarded campaign medals that, fortunately, were named. This act of naming allows the narrative of both the medal group and the person who was awarded it to be interpreted and read. Each campaign medal is essentially the same yet ultimately different. This fact, coupled with the availability of records through archives and the Internet, allows family historians to unlock the stories of their objects and the actions of their forebears.
As one writer has put it, “Objects hold within themselves the worlds of their creators.” They represent a time capsule, a direct link with the time in which they were made. But they are also mute witnesses to events, recording devices that might allow a clearer understanding of a time or event—if only we can read them. Each object has a story, a unique narrative that is there to be interpreted, to be read. For many of the objects associated with war, that narrative is plain to see: machine guns were intended to kill, gas masks to protect. But like any story, there are subtexts—the suitability of these objects for the job at hand and the value that was placed on them by their user or captor. While objects in a pristine state might tell of storage and disengagement, others with wear relate to us that they were there—soldiers’ equipment with regimental numbers, spoons sharpened to take on more than one role, abandoned and excavated objects found on the battlefield. Each of these allows us to explore a narrative of their creation but also of their subsequent use.
As Nick Saunders and Paul Cornish have put it, “The objects of the Great War have a curious and unique character. More than any other kind of matter they seem to exist in a seemingly infinite number of . . . worlds simultaneously, and so can appear as worthless trash, cherished heirloom, historical artefact, memory item or commercially valuable souvenir.” The objects selected for this book fall into one or all of these categories.
The basis for the book is an examination of surviving objects and the interpretation of their individual narratives. The number of objects selected—100—is an arbitrary one and constraining; there are so many objects to choose from, each of which would add to the patchwork of our understanding. The objects had to be extant: on public display, in a national museum or local collection or dug from the ground from an archaeological investigation. They had to be individual—in my view, it was not good enough to be generic—as each individual object has its own story to relate. Scale and rarity were not significant factors. While some, like the Douaumont Ossuary or the Loos football, are unique, others, such as the Adrian helmet or Mills grenade, are common. But the discussion relates directly to the object illustrated.
Can an exploration of 100 objects be sufficient to bind together a coherent story of the tumultuous episodes of 1914 to 1918? It is a hard task, and the selection of the objects was difficult (though guided by the principles set out above). I had to cover the many fronts, nations, and phases of the war, the war on land and in the air, the war on the home front. But what can be achieved is an examination of the high points, of way markers that allow us to connect directly with the events and times of this war. And that is why this book is set out in the manner it is.
The book opens with “Nations to War,” the descent of the European nations into war, examining rivalries, arms races, and imperial ambitions. With almost 10 million military deaths and 21 million wounded, the next section deals with “The Soldier,” followed later by “War at Sea, in the Air.” “First Moves 1914” examines the developing war in northern Europe in the last quarter of 1914 and considers the descent into the static warfare that typifies the Great War. The next section, “Developing Trench Warfare,” examines the peculiarity of the war in the trenches. “The War Deepens and Expands” and “Plumbing New Depths” both consider the phenomenon of industrial slaughter on the Great War battlefield, and the means by which the trench deadlock was broken. The war on the home front, and the aftermath of the conflict, are examined in “At Home.”
Nations to War
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car
Country of origin: Austria-Hungary
Date of construction: 1911
Location: Heeresgeschicht-liches Museum, Vienna, Austria
IN 1914, THE world descended into a war that would see over 16 million people killed and would be fought on four continents. Yet, when war came, it was perhaps expected. Since the later part of the nineteenth century, the relationship between the most powerful nations of continental Europe—France and Germany—had been a difficult one. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 had ended with France roundly beaten by the Prussians and had precipitated the end of the rule of Napoleon III and the proclamation of the Third Republic. With the termination of this war came the unification of the German states and the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, a loss that would be viewed with great bitterness by the French. Elsewhere in Europe, old empires were crumbling and contracting.
In the Balkans, the complex ethnicity of the region led to tensions and the creation of the “Balkan Powder Keg” in the wake of the slowly crumbling integrities of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. The disintegration of these edifices had created new states—Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece among them—each jockeying, aggressively, for position in the new world order. And it was the tension created by the Austro-Hungarian annexation of the former Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 that created the tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary that would violently erupt into world war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
Death notice of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Franz Ferdinand was shot with his wife, Sophie, on the streets of Sarajevo while traveling in this 1911 Gräff and Stift Double Phaeton open car, today preserved in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna. Car manufacturers Gräff and Stift had been in business since 1904 and had made a name for themselves as the manufacturers of luxurious models; but with the killing of Franz Ferdinand, their most notable vehicle instantly became one of the most infamous in history. This impressive four-cylinder 32hp black car, the property of Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach, the archduke’s bodyguard, had been deemed a suitable vehicle for members of the Hapsburg imperial family to be seen in. Today, it remains one of the most important artifacts of the war, representative of both the opulence of antebellum imperial Europe and the tragedy of the spark that ignited the powder keg of world conflict. Its single bullet hole, to the rear of the car, was the first of many bullets to be fired over the next four years. Yet the event could have been so very different.
With orders to travel to Bosnia at the command of Emperor Franz Josef, the archduke was to review the military maneuvers and visit the city of Sarajevo to open the State Museum with his wife, Sophie. Neither was to know that the “Black Hand,” a group committed to freeing Bosnia from Hapsburg rule and joining with Serbia, had targeted them for assassination. Arriving at Sarajevo on the morning of June 28, 1914, the royal couple transferred to the open-topped Double Phaeton car. Traveling as part of a motorcade of six, the third car was the archduke’s; the first car, due to a misunderstanding, was carrying the security officers. Only Colonel Harrach was there to secure the safety of the archduke and his wife. Inspecting the military barracks early on in the day, Franz Ferdinand was en route to the town hall when, at 10:10 a.m., the Black Hand threw a bomb at the car. It bounced off and rolled under the vehicle behind, disabling it and wounding its occupants. Severely shaken, the archduke and his wife went on to the town hall to attend a brief reception; after just over thirty minutes, they left to visit those wounded in the earlier attack. This proved to be a deadly mistake.
In a state of confusion, the driver of the archduke’s car took a wrong turn into Franz Josef Street. Reversing, he stalled the car. Gavrilo Princip, a nineteen-year-old member of the Black Hand, grasped his opportunity, firing his pistol twice. The first bullet mortally wounded Archduke Ferdinand in the jugular vein; the second hit Duchess Sophie in the stomach. As he was driven to the governor’s residence, and nearing the point of death, Franz Ferdinand’s thoughts were for his wife and children and for the perhaps millions of men who would be killed as a consequence. Princip was captured, tried, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He died in captivity.
The assassin’s bullet became known as “the shot that was heard around the world.” Identifying Serbia with the actions of the Black Hand and bolstered by an expression of support from Germany, the Austro-Hungarians issued an ultimatum to their neighbor—a reminder of an earlier agreement between them to live with the Austrian annexation of Bosnia. The “July Ultimatum” required the Serbs to suppress all publications that “incite hatred and contempt of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy” and remove such materials from schoolbooks and public works. It demanded the removal from public office of all those deemed negative to the Hapsburgs. And it required direct action against the plotters and the acceptance of Austrian involvement in the investigations. On this last point, the Serbs, backed by their Russian allies, balked. War was to follow. The Austrians declared war against the Serbs at 11:00 a.m. on July 28, 1914. Another famous phrase, attributed to the British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey, aptly noted, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.”
The two kaisers: Kriegs-Erinnerungs-Karte
Country of origin: Germany
Date of printing: 1914
Location: Private collection
Durch dick und dünn, Durch not und tod
Through thick and thin, through hardship and death
THE TWO EMPERORS, Wilhelm II of Germany and Franz Josef I of Austria-Hungary, were totemic figures in their respective countries and were pivotal in directing the war in its early stages. This Kriegs-Erinnerungs-Karte (War-Memorial-Card) was sent on October 9, 1914, from Alfred Klieber in Leipzig to Adolf Albrecht, a grenadier of the Ersatz Battalion, Reserve Grenadier Regiment 100, who was in the hospital. Though its personal message of greetings was anodyne, its visual message was plain: that come what may, the two autocratic emperors would tough out the storm that had been created since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in 1914. With the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia and the mobilization of Russian support of its ally, the path for the German Empire was clear: it would have to put into action the Schlieffen Plan, which would ensure that a much-dreaded long war on two fronts would be prevented. With the German states effectively sandwiched between the vise-jaws of France and Russia, fighting a war simultaneously against two of the most important military nations in the world was not ideal.
The German Empire was created from a federation of states united by its first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in the wake of France’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Bismarck was aware of the need to isolate France—bent on revenge in the aftermath of the war—from potential allies, thereby garnering power and bolstering its position. His fears over a two-front war meant that the German chancellor’s sights were set on enticing the emperors of both Russia and Austria to join Kaiser Wilhelm I in the Dreikaiserbund—the Three Emperors’ League. But like so many alliances before it, this was to fall apart as the power balance in Europe shifted. With Russia’s defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Bismarck was quick to try to contain the power of his former ally and guarantee the security of the Ottomans; with this came the loss of Russia from the league and the creation of the Dual Alliance in October 1879 that locked together Germany and Austria-Hungary in a relationship that would guarantee military aid in the face of attack by Russia. It also promised “benevolent neutrality” should “another European country,” namely France, attack either of the nations. Bismarck’s diplomatic maneuverings would ultimately come to nought, however. With the accession to the German throne of a new kaiser, the brash Wilhelm II, came the rejection of the old statesman, who was forced into retirement in 1890.
The relationship between the two empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary was uneasy, however. Franz Josef I of Austria had lived through sixty-six years of rule and had seen his country’s fortunes wax and wane—falling from a position of leading the German Confederation of States in the 1860s to a point where Austria had to recognize the importance of Hungary in the dual monarchy. Still, the need for protection against Russia was significant, given the power shift in the Balkans following the defeat of the Ottomans in 1879. This led to the creation of Bulgaria and the increasing growth and influence of Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania, principalities that would grow into kingdoms in the earliest years of the twentieth century. Jealous of the shifting scenes in the Balkans, from this confused stage Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia in 1908, adding to the instability—and ultimately leading to war.
Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Although the alliance between Germany and Austria remained strong, the power base had shifted. The German emperor’s desires to contain both France and rival Britain—through the construction of its navy—meant that new understandings were formed between France and Britain in 1904, followed by France, Britain, and Russia in 1907—the Triple Entente.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, in June 1914 put the old emperor in a difficult position. Naturally cautious, he held doubts over the logic of attacking Serbia, when it might mean drawing Russia into the conflict. With this in mind, the Austrians sought German support prior to action. This they received on July 5, 1914; Franz Josef could “rely on Germany’s firm support.” This famous “blank check” ensured the Austrians could go ahead in the knowledge that, in a wider conflict, they would not stand alone.
Bismarck’s fear of a war on two fronts had started to materialize, and the kaiser and his chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, fell back on the plans of Alfred von Schlieffen, formulated in 1905, to contain the two-front nightmare via a direct attack on France. And with the relationship between the two allies severely tested, the two emperors were faced with sticking it out, through thick and thin, hardship and death.
The Triple Entente: patriotic badges
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Date of manufacture: 1914
Location: Private collection
THE TRIPLE ENTENTE of 1907 bound together three European nations in a defensive understanding that would guarantee protection in the face of attack, with the focus on the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary—situated at the heart of Europe—each with its own interests. With the opening and outbreak of war, it is not surprising that cheaply produced patriotic badges were worn by the British public as an expression of patriotism and solidarity of nations in arms. Similar devices would be worn in other European states.
Differing in style from celluloid pin badges to simple enamels, these devices were cheap to produce and purchase. Celluloid “button” badges had first appeared in the 1890s, produced in America as a way of creating reasonably durable shiny alternatives to the much more expensive process of enameling. Celluloid—a cheap thermoplastic sheeting—could be stamped out, printed on, or simply used to cover printed paper designs that were then bonded into a cheap metal frame with a pin. All three examples illustrated—from unknown manufacturers—show the Union Flag at the center, in partnership with France. Aligned with these is the wronged nation of Belgium, invaded by Germany in August 1914 in prosecution of its Schlieffen Plan, and Russia, an important member of the Triple Entente. For Russia, both national tricolor and black and yellow Imperial Standard flags are used, signifying the importance of the czarist autocracy. And with Japan aligned through agreement with the Triple Entente (and its former enemy, Russia), it is not surprising that its flag should appear alongside its allies—in this case, its naval ensign, an offset rising sun with sixteen rays.
Button badge with flags of the Allies, c. 1914.
With Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II threatening British hegemony on the high seas through his desire for a new navy, and the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary under threat from the emerging and belligerent Balkan states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was growing uncertainty over the security of Europe. The defeat of France in 1871 and the collapse of the Three Emperors’ League just seven years later saw the growth of insecurity in central Europe. The Franco-Russian alliance of 1894, signed in secret, guaranteed military support if either country were attacked by nations of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. For France, there was the possibility of restitution of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost following its disastrous defeat in 1871; for Russia, there was the maintenance of its influence in the Balkans.
For Britain, traditionally isolated and aloof from continental neighbors, the development of the Entente Cordiale of 1904 settled many simmering and long-standing resentments over colonial possessions, hangovers from a century or so before. It marked the end of Britain’s isolationism and the birth of the nation’s involvement in mainland Europe. And with the German kaiser’s increased interest in building the Kaiserliche Marine to threaten the power of the Royal Navy, there was added security in aligning with another major power: France. Having tidied up colonial issues with France, Britain did the same with Russia, partitioning interests in the Middle East and Central Asia—and particularly Afghanistan and Iran (then Persia)—as part of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. From these steps was born the Triple Entente: all three nations bound together by intent to counterbalance the threat of the central European nations’ Triple Alliance.
With this, in 1914 came the response to the enactment of the Schlieffen Plan that would see Belgian neutrality and sovereignty ignored and would bring Britain to the war. And if the people at home could not fight, they could at least show support for their brothers in arms through the wearing of simple devices such as these.
Country of origin: Austria-Hungary
Date of manufacture: c. 1916
Location: Museum 1915–18, Kötschach-Mauthen, Austria
THE AUSTRIAN FELDKAPPE was a distinctive piece of uniform that was to influence military style in the twentieth century. First introduced in 1870, it was the standard headgear of the Austro-Hungarian Army at the opening of the war in 1914. The battered cap illustrated dates from c. 1916 and is much simplified from its predecessors. Consisting of a woolen body with a neck apron buttoned at the front that could be let down to provide some protection from the elements, the standard 1908 pattern cap was issued in a bright blue-gray color known as “pike gray” (Hechtgrau) and was linen-lined and equipped with a black leather liner. For enlisted men, the only distinguishing insignia was a large button-like “rosette” bearing the monogram of the emperor: FJI for Austrian Heer and Landwehr, and IFJ for Hungarian Honved. Like all Austrian uniforms, the cap was stylish yet functional. It was also the substrate for a great variety of cap decorations (Abzeichen), which were worn to commemorate Christmas in the trenches (Weihnachten im Feld) and the operations of individual units.
The Austro-Hungarian Army that wore this cap was pitched into a war that involved not only the assault on Serbia—in an attempt to gain vengeance for the affront on the Hapsburgs in Sarajevo and to silence the Balkan rumblings in its crumbling empire—but also the Russians, who placed themselves squarely in the role of defenders of the Slavic nations. The Austrian general staff had drawn up war plans based on two eventualities of war—against Serbia alone or including its much more mighty foe. War Scenario “R” required a mobilization that would, in the first instance, pit nine army corps and ten cavalry divisions against the Russians in Galicia, backed up by a further four army corps and a single cavalry division. Facing Serbia and Montenegro would be just three army corps. With general mobilization on July 31, 1914, some 2.9 million Austro-Hungarian citizens of many ethnicities were drafted into the army—an increase on its peacetime strength of some 450,000 soldiers. This split between the two fronts was to prove disastrous, and by mid-September, the Austro-Hungarian forces had been pushed back disastrously in Galicia, the fortress of Przemysl surrounded. It was only in December, at the Battle of Limanowa–Lapanow, that the Russian advances were halted. In the Balkans, things were no better, with Serb resistance stronger than imagined. By the end of 1914, some 1,268,696 Austro-Hungarian troops had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. And though fortunes had been revived in the early part of 1915, the declaration of Italy for the Triple Entente—turning its back on its former friends in the Triple Alliance of 1882—was a severe blow. The Austro-Hungarians now faced a war on three fronts and the prospects of facing the Italians in a defensive campaign across the severely mountainous terrain—while numerous battles were fought on the Isonzo River that drained manpower and resources from both sides.
Austrian cap with Christmas Kappenabzeichen.
Our field cap derives from the Austro-Italian Alpine front of 1915–16. It has been simplified; no longer in “pike gray,” it has adopted the “field gray” color of its German allies. It has simple buttons and a felt peak. Suited to Alpine wear, it was undoubtedly worn under the severe conditions dictated by Alpine warfare. In itself, the cap tracks the fall of grand ideals in the gritty realism of modern warfare.
An Austrian soldier wears the Feldkappe, c. 1915.
Country of origin: France
Date of manufacture: c. 1914
Location: Private collection
BY 1914, THE LEGS of French infantrymen had been clad in bright red trousers for more than eighty years, this conspicuous item of clothing having been introduced in 1829. Originally called pantalon garance, this name refers to the fact that the distinctive red color of the trousers was achieved using a vegetable dye produced from the herbaceous madder plant. Worn with a blue jacket or vest, long dark blue coat (the capote), and a red-and-blue kepi, the profile of the French soldier represented the national colors of the flag—a factor that was to create some debate and dissent among those modernists who viewed the clearly visible uniforms as a distraction in a modern army. Nevertheless, the French soldier was distinctive, and in common with the military fashions of other nations, his brightly colored uniform was used throughout the nineteenth century, including at the ill-fated battles of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, this style of dress had become a severe drawback as the effective ranges of rifles increased and as smokeless powder increased visibility on the battlefield.
The red trousers illustrated are a pair marked with many acceptance and issue stamps. Mothballed in 1914, this model of trouser had been first issued in 1867 and was characterized by pockets and a short belt at the rear that could be tightened to improve fit. The 1867 model trousers had been modified a few times since then, but not radically; for instance, in 1897, internal pocket openings were removed, and the hem of the trousers was reinforced in order to prevent wear from boots and leather gaiters. The fact that these trousers have survived for 100 years is perhaps a testimony to both the level of manufacturing skill and the garishly bright color that precluded easy wear in any setting other than a military one.
It was the very brightness of the color and the depth of the contrast that were to seal the fate of the pantalon garance. In the late nineteenth century, the madder-based vegetable dyes were replaced with those created through a chemical process, the cultivation of the plants superseded by a chemical process producing alizarin red, a dye that had been perfected and developed, ironically enough, in Germany. With the madder industry dead and the dangers inherent in retaining a garish uniform apparent, alternatives were sought—but the gray uniform versions suggested in 1902–3 were too close for comfort to those of the Germans. Modernizers had an even greater challenge, as the question of the retention of the red trousers became a debate between the radical left and conservative right in government. As late as 1913, the French minister for war, Eugène Étienne, exclaimed, “Red trousers are France!” It is not surprising, then, that the French went to war in the opening campaigns of 1914 dressed almost as they would have been in the opening campaigns of their last war against Germany. With France taking massive casualties, it was only in late August that a new uniform shade was produced—light blue or bleu clair (soon to be christened “horizon blue” or bleu horizon)—which would become standard. This color was achieved by pure accident; efforts to produce a homogenous “tricolor” cloth that would embed the Republican ideals into the uniform cloth—using red, white, and blue threads—came unstuck with the recognition of the German origin of the red color, leaving just blue and white. These, combined, were the origin of the color that would come to personify the uniform of the French poilu: horizon blue.
Country of origin: Germany
Date of manufacture: c. 1915
Location: Private collection
IN 1914, ALL ARMIES were equipped with some form of uniform cap or ceremonial helmet, but it is perhaps the German Helm mit Spitze, popularly known as the Pickelhaube, that is the preeminent example of the type: gaudy, impractical and affording little protection from either the elements or from shell fragments and bullets. This headdress was adopted in 1842, reputedly the design of König Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Presumably adopted for its martial appearance, the spiked helmet drew on several possible antecedents. With the Prussians adopting the helm, most of the German states followed suit, distinguished by their own distinctive helmet plates (Wappen). With its long history, the Pickelhaube was a prominent part of the military imagery of the Prussian state and, with the unification of Germany following the Franco-Prussian War, of Germany itself. The image of the strong German soldier in a spiked helmet was a striking one; with military fashion following the victors, it is possible to identify the emergence of spiked helmets at the expense of French-style kepis in the late nineteenth-century armies of many countries, including Britain and the United States.
The basic component of the German 1895 pattern Pickelhaube was a glossy, hardened leather helmet shell, the Helmkopf, which had been pressed into a mold and covered with layers of lacquer to gain a high shine, with leather front peak (Vorderschirm) and neck guard (Halswache) sewn on, both finished in brass with a rear spine. The shell was then furnished with bright brass fittings, the spike (Spitze) complete with ventilation holes (Luftlocher) and the ornate state Wappen. Artillerymen wore a ball (Kugel) representing the cannonball. Both were finished with a mostly ceremonial leather chinstrap and a pair of cockades sporting the national and state colors. To protect it, and reduce its visibility, a cloth cover (Überzug) was created for field use. All in all, the helmet was expensive to make, complex, and used many important war materials. In an army that grew rapidly, its production was unsustainable. Ersatz or replacement materials were quickly utilized—steel, or even felt, to create the complex helmet shell.
A crude French postcard aimed at British soldiers; the Helm mit Spitze is used to represent Germany.
The example illustrated is Prussian, of a type first issued in June 1915. Gone were the shiny brass fittings, a metal much in demand to serve the munitions industry. In their place were oxidized steel fittings, cheaper to produce and less visible. The helmet spike was also removable. To some, the Pickelhaube helped define the image of the German soldier as an aggressor, particularly with its prominent spike. On the front line, the Pickelhaube was the natural target of souvenir hunters, and there are countless photographs of British soldiers “larking about” in what they termed “hunnish” headgear. This helmet was one such soldier’s haul, brought back to entertain the people at home.
The alien appearance of the Pickelhaube made it the target of Allied propaganda, and the helmet appeared in images intended to invoke national hatred. The spiked headgear was worn by snarling beasts, inhuman ravishers of women, and despoilers of Europe’s cultural heritage. Political cartoonists such as Louis Raemaekers had a field day with its ungainly image. It was destined to be replaced in 1916 by the steel helmet (Stahlhelm), and with it, fatalities from head wounds declined dramatically. With the passing of the Pickelhaube came the birth of industrialized warfare; there was little room for the ceremonial in the killing fields of Flanders, Artois, or the Argonne.
A German soldier, equipped with a Pickelhaube.
Country of origin: Germany
Date of manufacture: 1914–18
Location: Private collection
THE IRON CROSS was first founded on March 10, 1813, in Breslau and was awarded to soldiers during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon. Awarded only for actions in this war, the medal was reauthorized by König Wilhelm I of Prussia on July 19, 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, and the distinctive medal would make its symbolic reappearance at the very outbreak of the Great War, on the authority of Kaiser Wilhelm II. In all cases, the Iron Cross was an award of the Kingdom of Prussia, but given Prussia’s preeminent place in the German Empire, formed in 1871, it was awarded across the empire and was widely parodied by the Allies, who claimed that it was “brought up with the rations.” There was little truth in the allegation.
The Iron Cross was awarded in three classes. Although the medals of each class were identical, the manner in which each was worn differed. Employing a pin or screw posts on the back of the medal, the Iron Cross 1st Class was worn on the left side of the recipient’s uniform. The Grand Cross and the Iron Cross 2nd Class were suspended from different ribbons. The Grand Cross was intended for senior generals of the German Army. An even higher decoration, the Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, was awarded only twice, to Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher in 1813 and to Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg in 1918.
The Iron Cross 1st Class and the Iron Cross 2nd Class were awarded without regard to rank. One had to already possess the 2nd Class in order to receive the 1st Class (though in some cases both could be awarded simultaneously). The egalitarian nature of this award contrasted with most other German states, where military decorations were awarded based on the rank of the recipient. In the First World War, approximately four million Iron Crosses of the lower grade (2nd Class) were issued, as well as around 145,000 of the higher grade (1st Class).
The Iron Cross (2nd Class) illustrated here was kept by its recipient in its original paper of issue. Makers provided the crosses in these small folds of blue paper, protected by a thin piece of tissue; each was packed in boxes typically containing thirty examples at a time. This cross was either never issued or, in common with many others, never worn. In contrast to medals of other nations, the Iron Cross has a very simple design and is made from relatively cheap and common materials. It was designed by the neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel and was based on the Cross of the Teutonic Order, used as their symbol since the thirteenth century. When Schinkel designed it, he consciously avoided using gold and went for silver and iron instead. These materials stood for chivalry, purity, and the self-effacement and modesty of the Prussian soldier.
The Iron Cross itself was far more than a medal or combat award. It was awarded only in times when the Fatherland was in danger (in 1866, it obviously was not). For the soldiers and Prussian people of the nineteenth century and up until the First World War, it symbolized the cause: the protection of the homeland and the will to shed the last drop of blood for it. To all those who received it, it was coveted, cherished, and valued.
German soldiers receive their Iron Crosses.
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Date of manufacture: c. 1914–15
Location: Private collection
IN 1914, THE INVADING German Army swept through Belgium and northern France en route to encircle Paris. In 1870, a Prussian army had invaded France and had suffered at the hands of armed irregulars, of Francs-tireurs, who had grown out of rifle clubs and were intent on defending their country from the invader. For the Prussians, these irregulars had doubtful military legitimacy and had acted “illegally,” according to standard military practices. For the French, the Francs-tireurs had a perfect right to defend their homeland from invasion. It is not surprising, then, that with the enactment of the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans would be sensitive to any civilian involvement in the defense of Belgium and northern France.
As the German armies swept through northern Europe, any suspected acts of “terrorism” were dealt with severely. Where shots had been heard from buildings—or had been suspected as such—occupants were taken out and summarily executed, their homes burned. In all, it is estimated that 6,000 Belgian civilians were killed and some 25,000 buildings destroyed. In Dinant alone, 674 civilians were shot, and the university city of Louvain (Lueven) was sacked and burned. Elsewhere, in northern France, cultural centers were bombarded as the armies wheeled in their arc in an attempt to encircle Paris. At Rheims and Amiens, the great Gothic cathedrals were bombarded and badly damaged. In the wake of these actions, the Allied propaganda machine moved into top gear. The crimes perpetrated by the Germans were given a new spin and were presented as inhuman acts of savagery against the innocent. Lurid tales of murder, mutilation, and sexual depravity were commonplace, and the invasion of Belgium was transformed into the “Rape of Belgium.” For the British, the opportunity to castigate the Germans as the “Hun” ravaging Europe was too much. They turned to the task with gusto: posters, political cartoonists, and journalists all fell on the ever-more extreme “horrors and atrocities” in an attempt to build up national indignation and bolster recruitment.
One output was the production of cast-iron propaganda “Iron Crosses.” With both iron and the Iron Cross symbolizing purity and chivalry within German culture, it was inevitable that this medal would be selected as a means of ridiculing the enemy. The most common examples, like those illustrated, depict the cross with the words “For Kultur.” Kultur was a concept of German supremacy in the arts and other high ideals of Western civilization. It was not surprising that the Allied propagandists quickly siezed on this and depicted half-crazed, jackbooted madmen striding across Europe, all “For Kultur.” Some of the crosses simply state, in heavily ironic overtones, “For Brave Deeds,” while others list the cultural sites damaged by the invasion: Louvain, Rheims, Amiens. Later additions, like the other example pictured here, even reflect on the naval bombardment of the northeastern coast of England in late 1914. Who produced the crosses is unknown; perhaps Gordon Selfridge, later responsible for reproducing the Lusitania medal. Probably sold in order to propagate hatred and sponsor recruitment, these simple devices are material evidence of the anti-German campaign waged by the Allies in the opening months of the war. The selection of the Iron Cross was surely intended to be the greatest insult to the integrity of German deeds.
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Date of printing: 1914
Location: Private collection
FOR CENTURIES, BRITAIN had been reliant on volunteers to join its armed services. Unlike many European nations, which had introduced conscription in the nineteenth century, Britain’s army was a small one and the nation’s commitment to land warfare limited. Since 1881, the British Army had been composed of sixty-one infantry regiments and twenty-nine regular cavalry regiments (supplemented by units of volunteer Yeomanry cavalry), together with major arms such as the artillery and a host of ancillary units destined to keep the army in the field and fighting fit. Each infantry regiment had at least two regular, professional battalions (the norm); a “special reserve” battalion that was there to receive and train recruits; and at least two part-time “territorial” battalions, intended for home service but entitled to volunteer for overseas service, too, on what was known as their “Imperial Service Commitment.”
The regular battalions available at home in 1914 were to form six infantry divisions; each division was to have three infantry brigades, with each brigade in turn composed of four infantry battalions. Brigades rarely had more than one battalion from a given regiment. The typical infantry division of 1914 would also have a significant artillery presence and an attached cavalry squadron, as well as components from all the other arms and services required to keep it operating in the field—a massive undertaking with around 15,000 men in a typical, full-strength British division.