By Christopher Martin

A couple of notes about this list: This is an extremely subjective topic. There are literally hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of classics for which a good argument can be made for their inclusion on this list. If you read through this list and disagree with some of the inclusions or absences, chances are good that I agree, at least partially, with your judgment as well. As an homage to this subjectivity, I have included one or several related books to each spot on this list.

My list is largely based off of the four-year cycle of “Great Books” courses that I have taught (one year each of Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, Medieval & Renaissance, and Modernity). In these courses (and therefore also in the list below), I chose the books that I feel are most likely to help my students understand how the world has developed.


1- Homer: The Iliad
Homer gives us, among other things, some idea of the notion of sovereignty for the Ancient Greeks. Part of it is the gods’ blessing, part of it is the fealty of subordinates, but mostly it’s a tribal type of organization. Students enjoy the analogy of Achilles and Agamemnon acting like enraged gorillas, pounding their chests to compete for the title of king of the banana pile. It’s easy to dismiss the characters of the Iliad as obnoxiously petty, but Homer’s world is far different than the one we experience today, and discovering how that world and its actors operate stands as one of the enduring attractions of the text.

One could easily place Homer’s Odyssey, or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in this spot as well.




2- Plato: Republic
I love pointing back to Anne Carroll’s Christ the King as providing signposts to a Catholic interpretation of history. To her, the Ancient Greeks made, primarily, two significant contributions to the development of Western Civilization: the expansion of the West via Alexander’s conquests, and the invention of philosophy. Plato’s Republic provides an excellent introduction to this latter contribution, as it’s one of the best articulations of the Greek’s philosophical achievements, outlining how best to order citizens and the city-state.

While a number of texts by Aristotle could easily fit here as well, the dialogue format of the Republic makes it much more approachable than many philosophical texts.




3- Virgil: Aeneid
Virgil’s text immerses us into the world of the ancients as only a poet can do. Just in terms of the notion of sovereignty, the Aeneid, in many ways, builds directly off of the themes present in Homer. Whereas in Homer, the gods often interfere with human events as a matter of course, Virgil’s text suggests a retreat from this position. The hero vocally expresses his frustration with his goddess mother, and Jupiter/Zeus himself states that human beings should make their own way. Virgil therefore lays the groundwork for the modern man’s independence from fate.

Lucan’s “The Crossing of the Rubicon” (in his Pharsalia) suggests very similar themes, and in no less epic tones for its comparative brevity.



4- Tacitus: The Annals
Tacitus serves the twofold purpose of giving us a very approachable history of Rome, while also telling us exactly what one Roman thought of its characters. Tacitus made no effort to hide his biases, and especially his disdain for Nero: “Though his heart never knew remorse for the worst of his crimes, his ear, unaccustomed to the voice of truth, shrunk from the sound of freedom, and startled at reproach.”

Livy, Pliny, Plutarch and Sallust all give us worthy histories as well (Livy, in particular, gives a lovely history of Rome’s early era), but Tacitus stands out for his candid and engaging appraisal of Rome’s heroes and villains, victims and tyrants.



5- Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
Marcus Aurelius’ text shows just how far pagan natural law philosophy could go. It is a remarkable achievement on many levels, indicative of impressive understandings of social ethics, metaphysics, and even political theory. To highlight the philosophical compatibilities with Christianity, one might read the Meditations alongside the Gospel of Mathew, where Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism almost seems to pave the way for the notion of an omniscient, intelligent God.

Seneca’s Morals of a Happy Life also includes much of the same natural philosophy, but with more emphasis on proscriptive ethics.




6- Augustine of Hippo: Confessions
Augustine’s Confessions stands one of the most famous stories of conversion, and arguably the best and most important among Christian literature. Augustine literally bares his soul to the reader, and in doing so expresses the beauty and magnetism of pure Christianity to an intelligent man struggling with self-discipline and self-honesty. His story is one to which everyone can relate, and, as it emerges from the early centuries of Christianity, set a precedent of how we “come to Jesus.”

Selections from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica might also have been in this spot as a wonderful example of the development of Christian philosophy and theology, but it isn’t nearly as approachable as Augustine.



7- Dante: Divine Comedy: Inferno
Dante’s text evinces just how inherent Christianity had become to Western Civilization, that entertainment, theology, and romance can all be bound up in the same poem. While the entire three-part epic is probably too much for a high-school student, the Inferno by itself paints a compelling and vivid image of the fate of the damned. Students of history will be delighted (and sometimes amused) to identify all of the names who Dante places in hell, as well as the reason(s) why he does so.

De Villehardouin’s Memoirs of the Crusades might also take this spot, though is more medieval than renaissance, and more historical than literary.



8- Shakespeare: Henry V
Shakespeare has to be on this list, but as I’m not really a fan of Shakespeare, I include the text which I appreciate most. Henry V gives us laughs, action, and (of course) rousing monologues of a martial tone. Beyond its readability, the text’s influence (and therefore Shakespeare’s) on modernity can clearly be seen when encountering such passages as “we band of brothers” and “once more unto the breach.”

A number of Shakespeare’s works might fit into this spot instead, and certainly a close runner-up is Hamlet.




9- Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
It’s difficult to pass on a lot of texts ranging from Voltaire and Locke to Defoe and deTocqueville, but Stowe absolutely has to be on this list. Slavery is unequivocally wrong, and yet abolitionists in America struggled mightily for generations to attract more members to their movement. In many ways, it was Stowe’s text which finally provided the movement with the momentum necessary to translate into political power, eventually leading to a split of the Union and the start of the American Civil War. Stowe’s text methodically destroys every defense of slavery then in vogue, but does so with an engaging narrative both emotionally and ideologically compelling.

For further understanding of the ideas and context to which Stowe was responding, one might also read Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government and/or Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All!




10- Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross
Much like Shakespeare, Chesterton has to be on this list. His importance to the Catholic literary revival, and to Catholics in modernity, is far beyond dispute, and this text in particular is a masterpiece resulting from Chesterton’s attempt to marry a novel with a criticism of modern social norms of “tolerance.” Chesterton’s conclusion leaves few without guilt, ranging from the overzealous Christian conservative to the aggressive hyper-liberal atheist, arguing instead that true Christian virtue is in a type of moderation and sensibility we ought to have noticed the whole time.

For those who prefer a more straightforward, and less narrative presentation of Chesterton’s social criticism and theological expositions, Orthodoxy could be read instead.



11-Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
In many ways, Harper Lee has updated Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but done so in a manner which tells a common story through the uncommon eyes of a child. In so doing, we are forced into a sort of innocence which heightens our awareness of the injustices of the world, the cruelty of adults, and the goodness of which everyone is capable. The importance of this text lies in its ability to communicate in a manner which few other texts have achieved, evoking emotional, as well as ideological responses in its readers.

No less emotionally evocative, and demonstrative of the importance of loyalty and friendship is Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, though this text noticeably lacks much of the social criticism present in Lee’s masterpiece.



12- Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People / Sheen: Finding True Happiness
In the last 400 years, Western Civilization has endured an immense democratic revolution greatly changing the manner in which people interact with the world. Carnegie understood the dynamics of this new form of communication very well, even giving his text a deceptive title. Really, the text is about teaching people to be sensitive to each other’s selfishness and high sense of self-importance as the key to being an effective communicator and leader.

Sheen’s text is very short, and serves as a Catholic addendum to Carnegie’s treatise. Whereas Carnegie focuses on handling others, Sheen focuses on handling oneself. In the modern world, there can be so much noise and distractions that it’s easy to lose sight of the simplicity inherent to our Catholic pursuit of happiness. As the pre-eminent Catholic communicator of modernity, Sheen well understood and reminds us that happiness needs to be actively sought every day, but inwardly, not outwardly.




What Spanos done wrong: a comparison to two Wisconsin franchises

Well, it’s official: The San Diego Chargers will be moving to Los Angeles.

For my part, I just can’t get over what a shame this is.

It’s a shame because I know that the relationship between a professional sports franchise and its fans can be so much better than what the Chargers have right now. Full disclosure: I grew up in Wisconsin, and remain an avid fan of the MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers and the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.

The comparisons of the Chargers with those two franchises aren’t entirely fair, but then, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to point to the core problems that the Chargers and their fans have in their relationship.

#1: The Green Bay Packers and the Commitment to remaining in one place

If there is one franchise that will never, ever be moved from its current city, it’s the Green Bay Packers . . . their fans won’t let them . . . literally.

It’s well documented that the Packers remain the only fan-owned NFL franchise, and therefore a decision to move the team would have to be approved by the majority of the over 360,000 stockholders holding over 5 million shares. Would a sportsfan EVER vote their team to move away?

So then the Packer’s are stuck, for better or for worse, in Green Bay WI, permanently. Now, I understand that this may not be the cause, and perhaps there’s a disconnect with the effect, but I would argue that this permanency is one of the main reasons why the Packer’s have such a rabidly loyal fanbase.

Consider the climate: Green Bay is a friggin miserable place to live during the winter months. While living in Wisconsin, I can honestly say that from November through early January, the Packers represented the main distraction from generally miserable weather.

Consider the stability: With the assurance that your favorite team will NEVER abandon you, it’s that much easier to allow yourself commit to the relationship.

I’m not just being a homer here. Indeed, Forbes used an objective set of metrics that ranked Packer’s fans as the best in the NFL, citing loyalty (as opposed to bandwagon hoppers) as one of the major criteria

And the Packers, as a franchise, have reaped immense rewards. Deadspin fell off of its chair in 2011 in disbelief for how easy it was for the Packer’s to raise money from their fans: Packer’s fans jumped at the chance to become new stockholders, quickly (and easily) raising money for Lambeau Field renovations.

Meanwhile, Charger’s fan’s have mutinied, largely saying “goodbye, and good riddance” as owner Dean Spanos threatened to move the franchise to Los Angeles. Their response is hardly shocking, because the Chargers represent a near opposite to the Packers with respect to commitment to remain in San Diego.

First of all, the Chargers have only been in San Diego since 1961, having moved there from Los Angeles.  This doesn’t exactly compare to the Packer’s existence in Green Bay wince 1919, but hey, 55 years OUGHT to be long enough to create both stability and loyalty. After all, I think most of us have a certainly loyalty, or at least an affinity for some part of the country, and San Diego is one of the easiest pieces of the country with which to start a  love affair. It’s gorgeous there! So then what’s the problem?

It’s not the lack of heritage, or the weather, it’s the recent ownership history. As evidenced by Dean Spanos’ 2002 letter to the San Diego Mayor, the Chargers have been threatening to move to Los Angeles for the last 15 years, citing the abysmal conditions of their old, outdated home turf of Qualcomm Stadium.

The message to Chargers fans was both obvious and menacing: buy me a bigger wedding ring (er, better stadium), or I’ll leave you. Does that sound like a team committed to its fanbase?

Admittedly, this is an entirely unfair comparison (Chargers and Packers). First off, the Packers have generally been a more successful team in the last 25 years, and further, Chargers fans have never had, and will never have an opportunity to own and control their team the way that Packers fans do: in 1960, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle changed the NFL constitution to prevent further NFL franchises from emulating the Green Bay model.  The idea is that there MUST be a principle owner which can be held accountable, or responsible to the NFL.

So then if Chargers’ owner Dean Spanos cannot get Chargers fans invested into the team in that manner, what can he do? He cannot control (at least, not entirely) whether his team is successful. This is where I think a comparison with the Brewers helps.


#2: The Brewers and the commitment to putting fans in the stands.

I haven’t always been a Brewers fan. In my childhood, I remember watching Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, B.J. Surhoff and Gary Sheffield propel the franchise through some years of hope, but after 1992, they failed to deliver a winning season for a number of years, plagued by injuries, poor finishes, and ill-advised trades. When owner Bud Selig pushed for a new stadium amidst this frustrating mediocrity, a lot of Brewers’ fans (myself included) rebelled. To most of us, the Brewers had become Selig’s hobby horse, a toy with which he played and abused when he wasn’t botching up his duties as MLB commissioner.

And the new stadium? Well, most of us regarded Miller Park as Selig’s attempt to build a monument to himself, and we didn’t want it. Indeed, we even voted to recall state senator George Petak because we were so angry that he had switched his vote on Miller Park, finally throwing his support behind a measure to tax SouthEastern Wisconsonites in order to help finance the stadium. Yes, we all went to Miller Park in 2001 in order to check out the new stadium, but after that, we went back to not caring about the team.

So what changed? Well, Mark Attanasio’s purchase made him principle owner in 2004, and he quickly made efforts to help Wisconsonites understand that he was committed to us. Not only did he quickly dismiss any notion that he had current or future ideas about moving the Brewers from the smallest market in all of Major League Baseball, but kept up his communication, penning other public letters to let us know that he had directed management to follow other small-market models (such as Oakland) in order to attain eventual success, but he also humbly pleaded with us to continue to come out to see the team, offering, for example, free tickets to the final game of the 2005 season, and free money to spend at the park during August of 2013.

These offers, Attanasio said, had two purposes: first, a “thank you” to fans for their continued support of the team, and second, a material way of saying “sorry” that the team had performed poorly.

Well, the team has only been marginally successful since 2004, reaching the playoffs only twice since then, but we let the Brewers and Attanasio know that we appreciated the attention, attending Brewers games from 2010-2016 to the tune about 18.6 million . . . good for a solid middle-of-the-pack ranking, despite being the league’s smallest market. And Miller Park? We’ve gotten past our initial hatred for it, and have instead developed an extreme loyalty to it, voting it the best ballpark in the nation not once, but twice . . . impressive considering that most critics usually place it in the middle or lower third in their rankings. Since he bought the team, Attanasio has seen the Brewers double in value. Attanasio gave us his loyalty, and we rewarded him for it.

And what has Dean Spanos done for Charger’s fans in order to gain their loyalty? Not much. Whereas the Brewers sold discount packages to games vs. the Cubs in order to minimize the impact of “Wrigley Field North,” the Chargers have merely refrained from raising ticket prices, failing to offer deeper discounts to season and packaged tickets. As a result, Chargers fans have struggled in recent years with the overwhelming presence of other teams’ fans, sometimes turning it into a visiting team’s homefield.

In toto: for failing to commit to the city of San Diego, for failing to earn the fans’ loyalty, for the semi-annual teams’ struggles and dubious front office decisions (e.g., many would question the handling of Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner), fans of the San Diego Chargers have largely become lukewarm to the team, and turned downright angry and ownership. Whereas Attanasio might apologize and offer something conciliatory, Dean Spanos has largely remained distant from fans, his communications usually limited to whether he has reached a decision to keep the team in San Diego or move them to LA. Understandably, these letters merely stirred the fans up even more.

The one time Spanos addressed fans’ frustration directly, he did so not by apologizing for the mistakes and the failures, but rather by bemoaning how difficult it was to deal with the fans’ anger.

What a shame. Nevertheless, the saddest part isn’t that Chargers fans are loosing their team. Indeed, it’s been difficult for them to love a girlfriend/team who is uncommitted to staying around. No, the saddest part is that Spanos thinks that he may be better off in Los Angeles. Spanos has already proven his incompetence as an owner in generating fan loyalty. After destroying a pre-existent fan-base in San Diego, how well will he do in Los Angeles where he has to start from scratch?

Can a donkey dance a minuet? The bloody summer of 1916- Pt. 4.

This is the final part of a four part series on the summer of 1916:




This part examines some of the remaining events to unfold in 1916, as well as the long-term consequences of the Battles of Verdun and the Somme.

To begin, 1916 saw the Battle of the Verdun take a turn, and conclude. The French were desperate to restore the front lines to a location which made Verdun more secure, and launched major attacks throughout October. When the French moved new, massive artillery pieces into position, they began to knock Forts Douaumont and Vaux apart, leading the Germans to abandoning them without a fight, opting for more defensible positions further East. The French celebrated as if they had won the Western front, but they would continue their ill-advised attacks up through December. By the time both French and German commanders were ready to close the book on Verdun, casualties had reached nearly 500,000 on each side, with both Germans and French listing approximately 150,000 killed. By the time the battle ended, both sides were so exhausted that it was easy to mistake the living for the dead.

French troops at Verdun loiter in the trenches, awaiting their next orders.

Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, events proved equally violent. The French had begged the Russians to do something to ease the pressure at Verdun, and the result was the Russian offensive at Lake Naroch: a disaster. The Russians lost between 110,000 and 76,000 troops (12,000 of which perished from hypothermia), while the Germans counted only 20-40,000 in casualties. Later in the year, Russian general Aleksei Brusilov was given the authority to organize a broad offensive in which he pioneered new tactics: many localized, probing attacks designed to achieve one or two breakthroughs before the masses of troops were ordered forward to the weak points. The result was the greatest Russian success of the war: Brusilov’s army advanced approximately 50 miles, and successfully diverted huge numbers of German troops towards the Eastern Front. Even so, Brusilov’s army was but one of several involved in the attack, and the failure of another Russian army (led by Alexei Evert), combined with supply problems, spelled the end of the offensive, and also resulted in massive loss of life. The Russians counted over 500,000 casualties (440,000 dead or wounded), the Germans 350,000, and the Austro-Hungarians a staggering 975,000.

Left: plan of the Brusilov Offensive. Right: frontlines after the offensive.

Back on the Somme: The British reasoned that such events proved that the Germans couldn’t possibly have pressed more troops into the area, and renewed their attacks up through November, even employing tanks for the very first time, albeit in rudimentary form.

Nevertheless, the Germans successfully defended the region, though at great cost to both sides. By the time the British finally gave up on attacks at the Somme in November, it had become a slaughterhouse to rival that of Verdun: combined French and British casualties numbered nearly 800,000, and the Germans counted about 540,000

Captured German trenches at The Somme.

In other news, Rumania signed a secret pact with the Allies in August, agreeing to enter the war on their side in exchange for Transylvania. It was perhaps the biggest miscalculation of the entire war: Rumania quickly invaded Transylvania, inviting a massive German counterattack which smashed the entirety of the Rumanian army. Rumanian retreats and surrenders would continue up through 1917, when a formal armistice was signed in December. Though the Rumanians had at times fought well (and had successfully diverted over 1,000,000 troops from the Central Powers), the end result was a little over 200,000 Central Power casualties, measured against over 550,000 Rumanian casualties, most of them prisoners. There are even reports of Rumanian troops being so shocked by battle with the Germans that they even tried to surrender to approaching Russian troops, their Allies. Supremely un-amused, the Russian commander in the Rumanian front found himself ordered to coordinate a join defense with the Rumanians. He replied that “trying to turn the Rumanians into a disciplined force” was like “trying to get a donkey to dance a minuet.”

While the inconclusive Battle of Jutland maintained British control of the sea, the real changes of 1916 were in political and military leadership:

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph died in November, his Grandnephew Charles becoming the new emperor, and he wanted Austria-Hungary out of the war.

In August, Kaiser Wilhelm was convinced that Erich von Falkenhayn would never deliver Germany to victory, and elevated Paul von Hindenburg to the German chief of staff, effectively handing over all military decisions to Hindenburg’s chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff.

Joseph Joffre was replaced as commander of the French forces by Robert Nivelle the “hero” who had planned the assaults on the abandoned forts of Douaumont and Vaux.

Though Douglas Haig retained command of the British Expeditionary Force until the end of the war, Prime Minister H.H. Asquith was blamed for many of the disastrous strategic decisions, and was replaced by David Lloyd George in December.

Finally, apart from the Brusilov Offensive (which itself was also costly), the Russian experience in the war had been a series of defeats and disasters. 1916 represented proof that the Tzar’s regime would both continue in an ill-executed war, and do so against the will of the people. A revolution in early 1917 would dismantle his imperial government, and another in late 1917 would place the Bolsheviks in power.

We would do well to remember that wars are fought by men, but caused and prolonged by leaders. Though death from old-age, being deposed by revolution, and military replacement are regrettable fates, the real price for the war was paid by the men on the ground. In 1916 alone, the number of casualties would reach unbelievable numbers:

Britain- over 620,000

France- over 870,000

Russia- over 1,000,000

Germany- over 1,300,000


At night on the Somme, near Beaumont-Hamel, when the guns and rifles fell silent, the Germans would leave their trenches and wordlessly help the British sort through the piles of dead in order to find the few men who were still alive.





The Somme: The bloody Summer of 1916, Pt 3

(For preceding posts on the summer of 1916, click here for the background, and here for Verdun)

When we started to fire, we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.

~German Machine-Gunner

“If it had been possible to win the war in the west by sheer force, by overpowering the enemy with manpower and firepower, the Battle of the Somme would have done the job. The British and French attacked a German army that they outnumbered by an enormous margin. They had an equal advantage in artillery and total control of the air. They were backed by all the resources that modern industrial economies could put at the disposal of their soldiers.”

~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (New York: Bantam Dell, 2007), 435.

Like Falkenhayn, their German counterpart, the Allied military planners had used the winter of 1915-1916 to strategize the best way to attack their enemy. The solution seemed easy enough: to apply simultaneous pressure on the Germans and Austro-Hungarian armies on the Eastern, Western, and Russian fronts. Even if none of these attacks proved successful, they could at least ensure that each attack would keep German resources from being funneled to the other attacks, and thereby create a predictable enemy. These plans were upset, however, when the Germans launched a major offensive at Verdun in early 1916.

The supreme French commander, Joseph Joffre, had no idea whether the Germans could maintain the strength of their offensive against Verdun. What was important, instead, was to insure that the Germans did NOT capture Verdun, and he thus demanded that the British launch an offensive somewhere else in an attempt to draw German strength away from the vicinity of Verdun.

Joseph Joffre

As with Falkenhayn’s decision to attack the well-fortified region of Verdun, we may certainly critique Joffre’s selection of the Somme for the offensive. The Germans had not been attacked in that region for nearly two years, and had worked feverishly to build up their defenses in that region. Even so, these defenses did have one weakness: The Germans were so confident in the strength of their defensive works in the Somme that their lines there were proportionately less populated than in other areas.

With Joffre’s French armies preoccupied at Verdun, the Somme offensive became the responsibility of the supreme British commander, Douglas Haig, and he could scarcely be accused of failing to plan the offensive. He moved over a 500,000 men to the Somme front, alternating them in turns to the rear, where they trained in mock assaults. Combined with the French pieces, over 1,600 units of field artillery, 1,000 medium and over 400 pieces of heavy artillery were moved to the area, creating a saturation of artillery that amounted to about 1 piece of artillery for every 8 yards of battlefront. To protect against being cut by German artillery, 7 miles of telephone wire were buried. 120 miles of pipe were laid in order to maintain a supply of fresh water to the troops. 10 squadrons (185 planes) were moved to the area to suddenly dominate the air war in the area, allowing for un-hampered artillery spotting. Preparation and planning for the attack on the Somme was very thorough, and Haig was responsible for every bit of it.

Douglas Haig

The rub, however, was in the tactical preparation within the high-command system: there was none. Haig had come through the military as a cavalryman, and therefore intended to smash the German lines, achieving a breakthrough to be exploited by tens of thousands of cavalry waiting in reserve. However, Haig’s primary infantry commander, Sir Henry Rawlinson, was a career infantryman, and had drawn the lesson from the first two years of war that breakthrough was impossible. Instead, he favored attacks with more localized objectives: to seize just enough ground as to lure the enemy into a counterattack, during which both infantry and artillery could obliterate them. Thus, Haig sought a quick victory, destroying an entire German army and collapsing their defenses in the region, whereas Rawlinson sought a long victory of attrition, where success would be measured by the number of enemy soldiers killed. The Battle of the Somme opened with the two major British commanders having different tactical strategies and expectations, and neither attempted to discuss them with the other.

Henry Rawlinson

Even so, the Allies’s advantage in numbers were almost laughable: combined with the French troops, they would send over 750,000 men into battle. The Germans would oppose them (initially) with barely half that number. Given the number of artillery pieces involved, Haig was confident than the artillery barrage alone would blow the Germans apart, as over 1.5 million shells fell on the German lines over the course of a 5 day bombardment. On the evening of June 30, Germans on high observation points noted the numbers of troops and cavalry being marched up to the front lines. Clearly, the day of attack was at hand.

Allied artillery bombardment began at 6:25am on July 1, the same as the 5 days preceding it. At 7:20am, they detonated a mine underneath the German lines at Hawthorne ridge. Yet for the limited destruction which this explosion rendered upon German defenses, it seemed the trigger for German artillery, which suddenly opened up, falling with stunning accuracy upon the Allied lines. Ten other British mines were detonated at 7:28 am, and at 7:30, whistles blew, and the attack began.

Empty shells casings from artillery fired on the first day of The Somme, July 1, 1916.
The explosion at Hawthorne Ridge, the planned detonation of a mine beneath German lines.

The men who went forward quickly learned two stunning truths: First, almost a full third of the Allied artillery shells had failed to explode (due to a collapse of quality control as British factories rushed to manufacture as many shells as possible), leaving German dugouts and barbed wire intact, and forcing the troops into deadly funnels of kill-zones in front of German machine guns. Second, the Germans had not been obliterated by the artillery barrage. Assuming that the barrage would indeed wipe out the Germans and their defenses, Rawlinson had ordered his troops to advance slowly, shoulder to shoulder, to give the inexperienced men courage. Instead, they made astoundingly easy targets for the German gunners. Of the 66,000 men of the first British wave, fully half of them became casualties. The Germans became so repulsed by the carnage that they became unwilling to continue firing when they saw the British falling back. By the end of the day, over 60,000 British troops had become casualties. The bloodiest day in the history of British warfare.

On the Northern and Southern ends of the line, however, the French had been surprisingly successful. To the South, the Germans were surprised by the attack, having seen no preparatory buildup of troops. To the North, an effective creeping barrage paved the way for the French to advance easily past their first day’s objective. As opposed to the British, forced to march with over 70 pounds of equipment, shoulder to shoulder,  French troops were told to leave behind everything unnecessary for the day’s fight, and encouraged to run, duck, and doge their war forward. In the South, however, the swampy marshlands of the Somme river blocked further advance, and in the North, Rawlinson had given orders to advance only as far as the day’s limited objectives allowed, and he thus sent no troops to exploit the breakthrough achieved there. By the end of July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme was already deadlocked, though the slaughter would continue for almost another 5 months, with very limited gains.

The allies made a slow, painful advance over the course of the Battle of the Somme.

As the losses from the Somme continued to pile up, Englishmen became more and more horrified, looking to the 23 men on the British war-cabinet for an explanation. Placards, printed by an English newspaper, began to appear on the streets bearing bold, black print:


(A summary and conclusion of the events of the summer of 1916 will be forthcoming in my 4th and final post of this series.)

Verdun: “They Shall not Pass!” (The bloody Summer of 1916- Pt 2)

(For the background to this post, see Pt 1, FOUND HERE)

The supreme German military commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, had chosen to attack Verdun for a number of reasons. Secondarily, the city and its surrounding fortifications, once in German hands, would be an easily defensible position. Primarily, however, he wanted to lure the French into launching desperate attacks to recapture a region, and there were few cities or areas which the French placed more value upon than Verdun.

A historic depiction of Verdun, the jewel of Northeastern France, c. 17th century.

Its position dominated a bend in the Meuse river, thus ensuring its importance as early as the 5th century, when the city had successfully resisted an attempt at capture by Attila the Hun. When the Peace of Westphalia divided up the old Holy Roman Empire in 1648, Verdun became a part of France, and the French quickly transformed the city into the heart of their Eastern defenses. A citadel in the center of the city was erected in the 17th century, with a double ring of forts surrounding the city as well. Several modernization programs kept the defenses up to date, spurred on by French defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. By 1914, Verdun had become a symbol of French resistance: It’s concrete reinforced forts and other defenses were linked by telephone and underground narrow-gauge railways.

An example of what some of the defenses of Verdun’s forts looked like.

While we in modernity can point to Falkenhayn’s folly in attacking such a seriously fortified area, we would also do well to remember what was at stake: if Falkenhayn succeeded in taking Verdun, it would essentially end the war. Defensive tactics were far more successful than offensive tactics in the First World War, and Falkenhayn could have simply spent resources on increasing defenses in the area, confident in the knowledge that the French would repeatedly launch desperate attempts to recapture the city which symbolized their resistance to invading forces.

Attacks began in February, 1916, with a 12-hour long German artillery barrage. Over 100,000 shells fell on French defenses every hour. Over the course of the first month, the Germans managed to push forward only two miles. Even so, the threat to Verdun was very real.

Map of the Verdun battle-region. Notice the ebb and flow of the front lines over the course of 1916, with the Germans first advancing, then eventually falling back.

Mistakes by the French allowed Fort Douaumont to fall to the Germans. Supreme French commander Joseph Joffre quickly dismissed those who suggested a retreat from the area, even though they pointed out, correctly, that holding the rest of the region with that fort in German hands would cost them dearly. Indeed, the Germans soon realized that the French only had three very small supply lines into the region (A railroad, a narrow-gauge railway, and a macam road), and soon began lobbing artillery shells on them, taking a terrible toll both on supplies and reinforcements, as well as those attempting to retreat and recover. To this day, that road is called “The Sacred Way,” and is marked not by mileposts, but by the helmets of French soldiers.

A mile marker on “The Sacred Way”

By the end of March, the offensive had resulted in over 80,000 German casualties, and Falkenhayn was forced to admit that he had failed to seize the strategically important bulk of the Verdun region. The element of surprise was wholly gone now, as the French had heavily reinforced the area, realizing that their best chance to beat the German deathtrap was to prevent it from fully forming, defending Verdun at all costs, their troops shouting all the time: “Ils ne passeront pas!” (“They shall not pass!”). Falkenhayn  now had to make another difficult decision: to abandon the offensive as a failure, and risk the French counter-attacks, or to believe in those few commanders who urged that the attack on Fort Vaux be redoubled. They suggested that the Western edge of the battlefield, in front of the captured Fort Douaumont, had been strengthened, to the weakening of the area of Fort Vaux. If Fort Vaux could be captured, they reasoned, they might yet use these forts to wedge their way through the defenses.

What both sides failed to realize is that the majority of their casualties came not because of attacks, defenses, or the coordination thereof, but rather because of artillery. The longer their forces were concentrated in the area of Verdun, the greater the toll would be, and neither offensive nor defensive actions were likely to produce  strategically important results while the big guns continued their punishing work.

A French 370mm mortar.

The Germans indeed succeeded in capturing Fort Vaux, but only after fighting tooth and nail to remove every Frenchman from the underground tunnels, exacting a heavy toll on both sides. By July, the cost of the battle had risen to c. 185,000 French casualties, while the Germans had lost c. 200,000 troops. Two facts make these numbers even more horrific:

1) Though the German offensives would not continue as they had during the first half of the year, the Battle of Verdun would continue all the way through December 1916.

2) An entirely different battle would be launched in July in order to leech German reinforcements away from Verdun, and this new battle would become a bloodbath in its own rite: The British were attacking along the Somme river.

(I hope to finish the series about the summer of 1916 in two more posts)



The bloody summer of 1916: Pt 1

With my coursework finished, my qualifying exams done (and passed), and a number of other major tasks and events behind me, I finally find myself with enough time and inclination to add to my blog series on WWI. I have no illusions about making up for lost time or even maintaining a semi-daily schedule in the future. Instead, for now, I merely feel, strongly, that some attention should be drawn to the events of the summer of 1916.

As usual, some background must first be explored before we can properly understand what was going on.

In the winter of 1915-1916, the Supreme German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, found himself with a decision to make. Perhaps the biggest decision a German commander had to make since deciding selecting where and when to attack the Allies at the start of the war. Falkenhayn had to select the “sweet spot” which would knock one of the Allies out of the war.

Erich von Falkenhayn, supreme German commander, September 1914 – August 1916.

Selecting the enemy proved an easy decision. The Russians had turned out to be a numerous, though weak enemy. The Battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes in late 1914 – early 1915 had each decimated almost entire Russian armies (approximately 100,000 Russian casualties each, many of them captured by the Germans) at little cost to the Germans. 1915 proved even more disastrous for the Russians, as German offensives damaged, punctured, then crumbled the Russian lines. By the end of the year, the Eastern front had developed into a steady series of hasty Russian defenses and crushing defeats. They lost over 2,000,000 troops that year, a full half of them taken prisoner by the Germans. Tzar Nicholas became so desperate to turn the tide that he assumed personal command of the Russian armies, a decision which would only further solidify their doom. By the winter of 1915-16, Falkenhayn had dismissed the Russians as incapable of major offensive operations.

Russian prisoners wait for transportation, following the battle of Masurian Lakes.

Thus, there were only two major threats to German victory: The French and the British.
Interestingly, Falkenhayn did not view the French as the key opponent. France could be bombed, her troops could be killed, the very country itself was playing host to the war, gradually being transformed into a horrible moonscape sculpted by trenches and artillery. No, reasoned Falkenhayn, France stayed in the war because of Britain.
Britain played a much smaller price for her place in the war. Only those troops ready for the fight ever saw the meat of the conflict, as Britain herself was invulnerable to German invasion. As Falkenhayn saw it, the war went on because this invulnerability buffered the illusion that, by aiding, France, Germany could be beaten: “She is staking everything on a war of exhaustion. . . . We have not been able to shatter her belief that it will bring Germany to her knees. What we have to do is dispel that illusion.”
Falkenhayn saw two ways of potentially shattering the British illusion of victory. One was to threaten starvation on the island-nation through intensified submarine warfare. Though the Germans had reeled in their subs significantly after the sinking of Lusitania in early 1915 had threatened to bring a new enemy (America) into the war, Falkenhayn now decided that every tool had to be employed to the detriment of the British. As for potentially angering the Americans, Falkenhayn decided that they “cannot intervene decisively in the war in time.” Thus, German strategy risked much on winning the war in 1916.

The New York times helped spur American outrage at the conduct of the German submarines.

The other method of knocking Britain from the war, reasoned Falkenhayn, was to remove the French from the war. Here, the solution proved more difficult to identify: German armies had been fighting French armies since 1914 without any decisive battles being fought. Clearly, a wholly different strategy would have to be developed in order to manufacture such a victory against the French. Falkenhayn concluded that the static nature of the front lines prevented him from trying anything tactically novel, but instead, he could focus on a strategically significant region: In choosing where to launch his next major offensive, he could select a target region so intensely valued by the French that they would risk anything to protect it. In protecting this region, reasoned Falkenhayn, the French would empty themselves of their strategic reserve of troops, and remove themselves as a significant threat in the war. At that point, the British could either withdraw from the war, or wait until German had begun to crush France before withdrawing. Either way, argued Falkenhayn, the key to victory, Britain’s withdrawal, would be accomplished.
Falkenhayn therefore spent much of the winter of 1915-1916 on carefully selecting an area for his next offensive which would draw the French into a German-deathtrap. He needed a place which would be not only easily defensible from the German side, but also highly valued by the French side.

He selected Verdun.
(More on the events of the summer of 1916 in my next post)

March and April, 1915: War drags on, manifesting competitions for casualties.



13- Battle of Neuve Chapelle


It has often been argued that WWI demonstrated an intense disconnect between the military leaders and the ordinary soldiers. The strongest evidence for this disconnect would probably be the unwavering reliance upon frontal assault even until the later stages of the war despite the huge toll in casualties and the intense lack of gains from such attacks. But another interesting consequence can also be found in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

This battle occurred because British and French military leaders were jockeying to have first priority for any reinforcements which became available. The French military commander, Joseph Joffre, hoped to use future reinforcements in a way that allowed his own forces to gain all the glory of the attacks. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French, was determined instead to prove the worthiness of his area of responsibility for these reinforcements, and planned an attack for the express purpose of demonstrating the potential benefits should he be given more reinforcements: French “chose Neuve Chapelle [for the area of his attack] because the Germans, who were thinning out their defenses in order to send troops to the more turbulent east, were known to have made especially severe cuts there.” Finally, an unprecedented amount of artillery was to be dropped on the Germans before this attack, the hope being that they would be broken up and smashed before the attack actually began.

~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone (New York: Delta, 2006), 239.

When the attack began on March 10, following the artillery barrage, the infantry found that most of the enemy positions had been blasted, or even abandoned months ago. They moved forward quickly and accomplished their first day’s objective in less than two hours. When they continued to press forward, they found something utterly remarkable: nothing. This was the first time of only three instances in the entire war that the allies managed to achieve a complete breakthrough. Though about a thousand German troops were close enough to the breech to move towards it, the British, for some hours, found themselves faced with naught but potential, it’s benefits dependant only upon how well they exploited it.

The German military leader Erich Ludendorff once quipped that the British soldiers “fought like lions.” His chief of staff, Max Hoffman, replied that, fortunately for the Germans, they were “led by donkeys.” The Battle of Neueve Chappelle supported this position. First, the area of attack had been too narrow to provide proper mobility for the amount of troops supposed to funnel through the area, and it soon became hopelessly congested. Also, just north of the breakthrough, a series of machine guns continued to fire upon the British because there had been a mix-up in assigning a artillery battalion to barrage the position. Finally, inexplicably poor communication between the attackers and their leaders led to delay after delay in further movements.

In the end, the Germans managed to pull in troops from all directions, bit by bit, and set up new positions, lightly guarded but with machine guns. The British tried again and again to coordinate, but never again managed to overrun the German positions, though major attacks continued through March 13. Losses on both sides were about equal, nearly 10,000 troops each. The Germans gained new confidence in their ability to resist superior attacks with minimal defenders, while the British, tragically, attributed their failure to the brevity of the preceding artillery barrage.




17 First Battle of Champagne


At the same time, the First Battle of Champagne had finally been brought to a close. Ever since the Germans had pulled back to more defensible lines following their initial push into France, Supreme French commander Joseph Joffre had felt confident in breaking through in one of the areas where the Germans had pulled back, near Champagne.

Joffre had been perhaps the strongest adherent to the notion of offence a l’outrance (offensive to totality), the idea that both victory and morale relied upon direct, massed attacks with nothing held back. Certainly Joffre’s troops paid the price. The Battle of Champagne (December 19, 1914 — March 17, 1915) was a simple attempt to gain back land from the Germans, and it resulted in over 96,000 allied casualties, and about 46,000 for the Germans.


22- The Siege of Przemysl ends


Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarians had been attempting to lift the Russian siege on Przemysl, a fortress town in Galicia. Having initially surrounded the town on September 24, 1914, the besieged Austro-Hungarian forces (approximately 93,000 men) surrendered to a Russian army of nearly 300,000 men.


To wrap up a few more things that have happened since the last time I wrote:

April 12- The Russians end their campaign in the Carpathians, the winter forces proving to great a cost for putting the pressure on the Austro Hungarian forces.


April 14- The Battle of Shaiba sees the Ottomans attempt to reclaim the city of Basra, in lower Mesopotamia. Their failure to pry the city back from the British would mean that the region’s crucial oil resources would remain in Allied hands.