Having posted on the machine gun crews, I’ve now completed the rest of the Pegasus box of WWI French infantry, so here are some pics of the end result. The figures wear the Horizon Blue coat and Adrian helmet. The trousers are white which were worn by some French units when serving on the Salonika front in 1917-18, which these troops are supposed to represent.
A chap on Benno’s Figures Forum queried whether the white trousers would have been such a bright shade. My response was ‘probably not’, but my WWI encylcopedia states that the trousers worn overseas on the Salonika or Macedonian front were “Horizon Blue or white”, so I suppose that can be taken literally as I have here. Shades and colours during WWI could vary considerably for many nations suffering supply problems with clothing and dyes, so these trousers are probably as likely worn as anything else!
Below are two figures carrying the Chauchat light machine guns, a weapon featured and discussed in previous posts.
Another nicely sculpted figure is in the act of throwing a hand grenade. An illustration in my WWI encyclopedia depicted French hand grenades having been painted in the same horizon blue as the uniform, for some reason, and I’ve reproduced that here.
The officer wears leather gloves and leather gaiters instead of puttees. He’s armed with a revolver and beckoning his men to follow.
The separate arms allowed for a number of figures advancing with their rifles at different angles, like these poilus below:-
The firing figures came together very nicely, once again in very convincing poses:
There were also two kneeling poses which once again I thought were very effective.
They certainly took their time to paint up, despite the fact that I didn’t paint the whole box, just about 2/3rds of it. .I’m not sure why painting these figures seemed so demanding on this occasion. All I can say is that I think the end result is one that I’m pleased with and so it was all well worth the effort.
These are probably the last WWI figures I’ll paint for 2018 I think, although I’ve a number of kits ready for resuming the project again next year. Meanwhile, I’ve been making plans on what to paint in the run up to 2019, more on which will be announced in due course.
Until then – On ne passe pas! On les aura! En avant et vive la France!
Suburban Militarism has received a communication from a nice fellow from Serbia enquiring about purchasing my Strelets WWI Serbian Infantry figures. He explained that he and some other colleagues are intending to create a display in Belgrade’s Military Museum on a key WWI battle involving Serbian troops (Cer or Drina were mooted).
From research the internet, Belgrade’s military museum looks extremely impressive and is located in a part of Belgrade’s ancient fortress, in the historical core of the city.
Glad to help out with any military museum, I waived a fee for the figures and just requested a contribution for postage. Using a little spare underlay from a newly laid carpet at home, I fashioned a padded box for my troops safe transport over to their homeland. A little double-sided tape under their bases will hopefully keep them all in situ during transit.
By way of introduction, I’ve written a few words of greeting on the back of a postcard that depicts a man of the local Leicestershire Yeomanry cavalry.
Seems appropriate that, much like the liberating men of the Serbian army themselves at the end of the Great War, these troops are returning to their homeland as though from exile. Godspeed my Serbian lads (and perhaps lasses…)
And in other Serbia-related news, in an astonishing coincidence the BBC News website chose this week to include a story on Flora Sandes, a British woman who served in the front line with the Serbian army during WWI. Earlier in the year, I included a post on Flora Sandes and other Serbian soldier women who fought with great bravery in combat for Serbia in WWI. The BBC item also includes some information on the Salonica front during WWI and the nature of memorial commemoration of the fallen in the region. Well worth a read.
In the Great War, fashion eventually gave way to function for the French army and their bright colours of the previous 200 years finally disappeared from the European battlefield. I concluded my blog post by mentioning that the French army had been forced to adopt a new uniform with a colour known as Le Bleu Horizon (horizon blue).
My reference guide “An illustrated Encyclopedia of Uniforms of World War 1” by Jonathan North and Jeremy Black describes the process of choosing a less conspicuous uniform colour:
“Although experiments with grey-green had proved a failure in 1911…a mix of red, blue and white was attempted, although red dyes were more difficult to guarantee in sufficient quantity. Once red was taken out of the equation, a light blue resulted and this was quickly branded horizon blue. Production of horizon blue cloth had begun in the summer of 1914… However, it was only in the spring of 1915 that the cloth was issued in sufficient quantities… Production was so urgent that a variety of colours resulted, most of which could be called light blue or steel blue.”
Interesting that the authors suggest that the red dye originally earmarked for the new colour mix was in short supply (Germany had been a major producer, ironically). Was this another factor in the more away from the le pantalon rouge? Previous research that I’d made suggested that French red dye manufacturers were a contributing factor in retaining the red trousers.
Alongside the change of uniform colour, another significant change from 1914 was in the headgear. The soft, bright red kepi provided insufficient protection from shrapnel and concealment to the soldier on the modern battlefield. An uncomfortable metal skull cap was unsuccessfully utilised underneath for a while but eventually a new helmet was adopted, the iconic Adrian helmet.
North and Black’s encyclopaedia suggests that the Adrian helmet was not the first one to be trialled by the French;
“In February 1915, (General Joffre) was urging that a design by George Scott be put into production, and some thousands were produced before production ceased at the end of September 1915. The Scott helmet was too expensive… so a simpler design by August Louis Adrian, an officer of the commissariat, was commissioned instead. By December,a total of 3,125,000 helmets had been delivered.”
I’m not sure what the Scott helmet looked like. A video on YouTube shows a short film of allegedly of a “Steel Helmet For French Army (1914-1918)” by British Pathe. The helmet looks much like a version of the Portuguese Army’s fluted Brodie helmet, which was made in Britain. Casting further doubt on whether this could be a Scott helmet, the soldier in the video looks like he’s wearing English khaki?
The Adrian helmet had a broad brim, a flaming grenade insignia and a crested ridge running from front to back. This was held in place with rivets. The emphasis was on protection from shrapnel from above rather than stopping oncoming bullets. The Adrian helmet was put to use by other forces such as the Belgian, Serbian and Polish armies, with minor variations such as changes to the insignia.
Last week, I spotted a newspaper article showing re-enactors. The blue horizon uniform and the colour of the helmet was subject to different interpretations as can be seen reflected in the different shades of the reenactors’ uniforms.
Pegasus WWI French Infantry (1917)
So, my latest contribution to the growing Great War project will be more French Infantry. This time they’ll be wearing le bleu horizon uniforms and the Casque Adrian on their heads. The box indicates the year to be 1917/1918, although some stirring text on the back of the box suggests these figures are for the 1916 battle of Verdun. Plastic Soldier Review seem to suggest the equipment date the figures more from late 1915 to 1916.
The box cover shows some nicely painted figures wearing white trousers. To provide a little variation for my painting, I’m opting to reproduce this colour of trousers. My encyclopedia explains;
“Troops sent to theatres beyond Europe (French infantry regiments operated in Gallipoli, Salonika and Macedonia and in Palestine) generally wore a tunic (in horizon blue) with horizon blue or white trousers… Although horizon blue was stipulated for all troops from metropolitan France, as of February 1915 troops serving in hot climates could also be issued with a light (linen) khaki tunic and trousers.”
So, boosting my battle of the Balkans figures, I’ll have some Salonika French troops with white trousers.
The figures are by Pegasus, a manufacturer that I’ve never used before. I must say that the figures are terrific, as good as anything I’ve seen in 1/72 plastics. It’s a shame that Pegasus seem to concentrate on WWII, which is an era this blog seldom ventures near, or I would be purchasing a lot more!
I often seem to have 2 or 3 painting projects on the go lately. Aside from these French infantry, I’m also painting another two 54mm figures, more on which I will no doubt share at some point soon.
My latest venture into WWI figures is complete. HaT’s choice of figures is an inspired one, the Belgian army’s bicyclists being both an interesting and somewhat neglected subject. Much like Belgium itself, the bicycle’s contribution to the Great War can be easily overlooked, yet both played a small but nonetheless significant role in the conflict. Mark at Man of Tin blog, however, has mentioned that the same figures have at least been previously produced in 15mm scale by Peter Laing.
HaT’s figures are a great attempt a reproducing something which I imagine is extremely complicated to replicate on a 1/72 scale plastic sprue; a bicycle and a rider with rifle over the shoulder.
That said, some poses I found easier to construct than others and the figure requiring both of their fiddly arms and handlebars all attaching and gluing together was far beyond my ability to make look acceptable! The four separate poses supplied in the box are below:-
I’ve based on them on what I hoped would look something like a flat dirt track, a little off-roading which would be well within the capability of these Carabiniers on their ‘Belgica’ cycles and made even easier by Belgium’s flat landscape.
I think the poses are very good too. Maybe some extra dismounted poses would have been even better, with some carabiniers engaged in a fire fight, cycles lying flat on the ground? Can’t complain, though. Extremely fiddly assembly aside, these figures have been really interesting to research and good to paint – a great addition to my Great War project.
And with that, it’s time to look to the next painting task. I have many possibilities and kits coming out of my ears, so too much choice is the problem as ever. What’s more, there are also a few other posts to come to tell of my recent trips out and about. In the meantime, if you’d like to review the other WWI figures I’ve painted so far, feel free to visit my page on the Great War!
“The reasons of the success of the soldier-cyclist are not far to seek. In the first place it must be realised that his mount, unlike that of the cavalryman, is silent in progress. This gives him an enormous advantage over his noisy foe… But silence is by no means the cyclist’s sole advantage. He has a good turn of speed, which is a factor useful alike in attack and retreat.
“… the ability to take cover often spells the difference between victory and defeat, and here the cyclist scores distinctly. He has but to lay his mount down flat upon the ground and it is practically invisible.” Cycling Weekly Magazine, October 1914.
Cycling and Soldiering
Cycling and soldiering may at first appear to some to seem almost mutually exclusive. Cycling, particularly of the sort from over a century ago, may suggest a rather quaint pursuit. It may bring to mind scenes of gently wayfaring Edwardian ladies riding prettily through leafy English lanes, or middle class gentlemen with their tweed suits and flat caps. Yet, as the mass industrialised slaughter of the Great War began, cyclist battalions were a common feature in many armies. Indeed, the very first British army casualty of the Great War was to be a cyclist.
On August 21, 1914, in southern Belgium, a 17-year old British soldier named John Henry Parr was sent on a mission with another reconnaissance cyclist to obtain information on the German army’s position. While offering covering fire for his comrade, who escaped on his bike, Parr was shot and killed, thus becoming the first British soldier to die in the Great War. The Bicycle Times, “From the Archives – World War I: Cycling Into Battle”, 27 Dec 2016.
Germany, USA, Austria, Italy, Russia, Japan, France, Belgium and others all had their own cycling forces too. Great Britain had 14,000 cyclist troops in 1914. In the French and Belgian forces during WWI, an estimated 150,000 troops had made use of the army bicycle at various times. The practice was by no means exclusive to WWI, either. In fact, I painted some metal WWII Dutch army cyclists by Early War Miniatures for a Benno’s Figures Forum Group Build a couple of years ago. Surprisingly perhaps, the practice continues right up to the present day with some troops adopting the cycle for patrols even when deployed in global hotspots.
The use of the bicycle in warfare first began to be initially explored in the British army by militia and volunteers, not in the more conservative regulars. Cyclist manoeuvres involving volunteer units was first held in 1880 and repeatedly thereafter gathering support amongst those who could see in their use great tactical advantage, speed of movement, and affordability. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even argued the case for the Yeomanry switching from horse to cycles. Bicycles, it was argued, were silent and swift, increasing mobility on the battlefield for troops. They enabled soldiers to carry more equipment and were far easier to replace when compared to horses or vehicles and required minimal maintenance.
The Anglo-Boer War gave the first significant opportunity for the British army to explore the bicycle in warfare. It was used by both the British and the Boers, although it met with some opposition by disdainful cavalry commanders at the time. It also came in for criticism as some general staff questioned its ultimate value on the rugged terrain of the ‘trackless veldt’.
The BSA and Military Bicycle Museum describes the types of bicycle used by the military:
“There were two types of military bicycle: the roadster and the folding bicycle. Armies experimented with bicycles from the earliest era, but they were not generally accepted until cycle design had evolved sufficiently to produce a robust machine capable of withstanding typical military use. Roadsters were ideal for dispatch riders. Folding bikes were used first by Italian and French armies, and the Faun design, patented in 1896, was used by various British manufacturers, culminating in BSA’s well-known WW1 Folding Bicycle.” The BSA and Military Bicycle Museum
Belgian’s Bicycle Battalions
With the advent of WWI, the thickly-roaded districts of France and Flanders meant that military cyclists would find the ground better suited for their wheels than combatants found in the South African veldt. The flat landscape of the low countries meant that Belgium in particular was an ideal environment for military cyclists and they were well used in the initial stages before the static stalemate of the trenches set in.
Four Carabinier battalions of the Belgian army had attached companies of cyclists. They wore a distinctive uniform with a somewhat old-fashioned peaked hat similar to a kepi. Their cycles were the “Belgica” which was a foldable cycle. This allowed the bicycle to be slung across the shoulder when encountering difficult terrain.
A dedicated military cycling school in Belgium provided troops with specific training in reading maps, reconnaissance and communication techniques, as well as the mechanical skills needed to maintain the bicycles. Innovation with the military bicycle was rife:
While attempts to convert them into actual weapons by mounting machine guns on handlebars and makeshift sidecars ultimately failed, the bicycle did prove to be very adaptable during the war. Bicycle ambulances were created by welding two bicycles together, side by side, and placing a stretcher in between them. Tandem bikes allowed for a primary pilot to sit at the front and a gunner at the rear. And some bikes were rigged to tow machine guns and other small artillery into position. The Bicycle Times.
The German invasion of Belgium began on 4 August 1914 and their own Jaeger cyclists went ahead of the infantry with leaflets requesting calm from Belgian civilians. Reconnaissance was often made by bicycle but the cyclist troops were also often hotly engaged, being the first into contact with the enemy. At the very first battle in Belgium, at Halen, the Belgians successfully repulsed German cavalry attacks with a force which included a company of 450 cyclists. Their concealed massed rifle fire inflicted large casualties upon the Germans.
Model soldier manufacturer HaT has recently produced a couple of WWI cyclist sets for German Jaeger and Belgian Carabinier cyclists, and it’s the latter which I’m currently working on for my latest edition in my WWI project.
The cycles themselves are already painted, as you can see below, and are simply awaiting their riders which I’ll be presenting as soon as I’ve finished painting and mounting them on their bikes!
My Austro-Hungarian Pucherna infantry regiment has a pedigree that goes back to 1741. Garrisoned in Transylvania, its ranks are filled by ethnic Romanians. The multi-ethnic empire of Austria-Hungary fought Russians, Serbs, Greeks, Italians, Poles, and indeed other Romanians. In the K & K army, it was not uncommon for Poles to find themselves fighting other Poles, Italians fighting other Italians and Slavs fighting against other Slavs.
Anyway; the figures. First up; this is the finished officers armed with revolver, binoculars and, somewhat anachronistically, a sword. No Austrian officer would have worn one in the Great War but I suppose it’s a way for Strelets to identify the officer more clearly for wargamers.
None of the Other Ranks are wearing any metal helmets, just the kepi which, along with the rest of their dress, probably dates them to the early war period.
I like this next figure, head down, holding on to his hat and running through the storm of bullets and shrapnel – though whether it is towards or away from the enemy lines, who can tell!?
I’ve painted a couple of men carrying some type of machine gun. Being more knowledgeable than I about Austro-Hungarian machine guns, I can only quote Plastic Soldier Review who had this to say about it:
The standard machine gun of the war was the Schwarzlose M07/12, but this is not that. It has a bipod just in front of the ammunition feed, which must be fairly close to the point of balance, and it has a drum feed rather like the later Thompson sub-machine gun. This makes it look like the lightened German MG 08/15, although when this weapon was given a drum feed it was on the side rather than underneath. As an intended assault weapon its water jacket would have been emptied before being carried like it is here, yet it would still have been much heavier than this figure seems to suggest. However we can find no evidence that the Germans gave numbers of this weapon to the Austrians, so the question must be why it is in the arms of an Austrian.
Perhaps, then, Strelets have simply been unfussy in their desire to include a machine gunner in the set, useful potentially for wargaming purposes. Incidentally, I have forgotten to paint the stock a wooden colour, something that I will attend to one day…
Other weapons include, of course, the rifle which is depicted being fired either standing or kneeling.
Also, there are examples of men throwing a hand grenade. It appears to be similar to the German stick grenade, nicknamed the ‘potato masher’ by the British troops. I understand that the Austrians hand their own version of the stick grenade which was thicker and bulkier, so this might be a good match. With the empire having supply problems, I suspect that shortage of materials may have resulted in different versions or even German imports.
The faces of Strelets figures often seem to suggest something of an individual character about them, such as this chap kneeling and loading his weapon.
Finally, the use of the bayonet is being practised by this soldier who is holding a suitably aggressive expression.
And with that group of Austro-Hungarian infantry now despatched, I’m left musing what to paint next in my growing WWI project…
For now, with my summer holiday immanent, a short hiatus will begin as Suburban Militarism will be putting down the brush and taking a well-deserved vacation and heading for a beach. Until next time, best wishes to all my friends and visitors!
All of my Strelets Austrian WWI infantrymen are now finished and based. I’ll present my handful of figures wearing gasmasks first and then reveal the other more numerous troops in a second post soon.
I’ve said it before, these troops in gasmasks present a nightmarish sight. The ‘dehumanisation’ of 20th century mass industrial warfare somehow becomes almost literal when the face of a soldier is replaced with such a mask. The expressionless, glassy eyes are very disturbing. Strelets are to be praised for having the vision to be the only manufacturer of 1/72 scale to produce these figures. I previously painted a handful of their British and French infantry in gasmasks just prior to the inception of this blog on WordPress way back in 2014.
The Austro-Hungarian army of WWI was increasingly reliant on Germany as the war progressed and in the case of supplying its troops with suitable gasmasks it came to rely mainly on German imports rather than their own creations. This imported gasmask would have been variations of the Gummimaske.
So I’ve painted my mask in a similar style to the example above. Strelets, in an apparent oversight, have not included any gasmask storage canisters on the figures, so we must assume that it is either not used and the mask simply stuffed into the haversack or is obscured by other accoutrements.
A very 2-dimensional figure below, almost like an old-fashioned ‘flat’ model soldier really. With a bit of paint, I think the fellow looks quite effective though.
Strelets, somewhat eccentrically, often like their officer figures to be fitted out in the full regalia due to the rank, even it seems in the midst of a Great War gas attack! The officer below is wearing a yellow sash and has drawn his sword. He is also aiming his far more practical revolver ahead through the gas cloud.
More regular visitors to my blog may notice that I have spent a little extra attention on my bases this time for these figures. Rather than just throw some loose grass scatter over a base, in a completely new approach I’ve created a mix of sand and rock and glued that to the base. Once dry, I applied a soil wash for shading and then added dry brushed layers of paint to highlight the texture of the ground. I’ve included just a few tufts of grass to leave areas of bare earth and rock. This is no doubt pretty basic stuff for modellers but is a ‘giant leap forward’ for Suburban Militarism! It takes a bit of extra time to do so whether I’ll be prepared to take a similar approach all the time is in doubt.
In 1916, the Austro-Hungarian army attacked the Italian troops at Monte San Michele deploying a mix of phosgene and chlorine gas. This was the first use of gas on the Italian Front and thousands of unprotected Italian soldiers died.
There were many ways to become a casualty in the First World War, none of them anything less than terrible, but even in the midst of the industrialised mass killing of that conflict, gas attacks seemed a particularly barbarous and cruel manner to harm the combatants, even to people of the time.
The use of such chemical weapons was actually banned under 1899 Hague Declaration, so it’s use was already illegal and therefore a war crime. Being difficult to deploy against the enemy in a targeted and effective way (wind direction could be crucial), and also being easily subject to counter-measures thanks to the development of the gasmask, its use thankfully has largely died out in subsequent conflicts although, as in the recent Syrian allegations, the threat of this dreadful weapon sadly persists even today.
Gas and my Great-Grandfather: some final words
For years, I had always been told that my great-grandfather had been a victim of a gas attack in the First World War. This, I had been informed, was the reason his mind had been affected to such an extent that after military discharge he was apprehended chasing his family down a street with an axe. Harry Bennett was incarcerated in an asylum where he died only a few years later seemingly in poor physical as well as mental health. I offered a few words about this in a very early blog post back in November 2014.
A soldier in the Leicestershire Regiment, it was whilst he was serving in France that he had written to his wife to suggest that his latest child (my grandmother) should be named Francis, it being a reference to the country where he had found himself while separated at her birth. Actually, at my nan’s funeral a few years ago (she was 98!), it was reported that he rather less romantically suggested she be named “one-too-many” before then proffering Francis! My brother carries the masculine version of that name, and now my own daughter does too, in her middle name.
More recently, some information came my way from my mother regarding his service record. It made no mention of gas poisoning but instead made some references to an injury received in battle, from which he’d recovered, and also a persistent foot problem (“trench foot”?) which resulted in discharge. It now occurs to me that, at a time when post-traumatic stress was not understood – much less accepted – the ‘mental effect of gas poisoning’ story might have been a way in which his shattered mental health could be understood and accepted within his family and community. Traditional notions of bravery and cowardice in war made severe psychiatric breakdowns caused by modern warfare appear to be signs of weakness or moral failing. Being employed by a mental health NHS Trust, perhaps I of all people in my family am in a better position to offer a far more compassionate understanding of my poor grandfather’s condition, a century on from his breakdown.
My Austro-Hungarian troops of the First World War have come on apace. Althoug a little ‘rough and ready’, Strelets are always fun to paint with the result usually containing unusual poses and characterful faces.
The Austro-Hungarian army consisted of three distinct parts:
the Common army (Gemeinsame Armee),
the Imperial Austrian Landwehr (a territorial reserve)
the Royal Hungarian Honved (the Hungarian equivalent of the Landwehr)
These troops of mine represent a regiment from the Common Army. Specifically I’ve nominated them as being from the Infanterieregiment Pucherna (numbered the 31st) and given them the yellow facings that characterised the regiment. It was a Romanian regiment garrisoned in Nagyszeben, capital of Transylvania which was then under the dominion of Austria-Hungary.
Anyway, with some remaining ‘bits’ still to do and of course the basing still to sort, here’s how some of them are looking so far. First off; a handful of troops from the Strelets WWI Austrian Infantry set:
And a preview of the other Strelets figures from the WWI Austro-Hungarian infantry in Gasmasks set. I only have one sprue of this set, bought in a private sale with another hobbyist, hence only a handful of figures. The reflection in their eye pieces give them a suitably nightmarish aspect.
Being an early Strelets set, there are lots of poses, some of which I haven’t displayed as yet but will do so when I’ve got them all based and ready to present; hopefully some time later this week.
Earlier this year, I had begun to paint some 1st World War figures, starting with Serbian infantry, followed by some 1914-era French. Figuring that I’d like to turn my attention to the Great War once more, I’ve reached for some figures from a country that has been overlooked by plastic 1/72 scale manufacturers hitherto; Austria-Hungary. This is perhaps surprising given the nation’s size and significance to the conflict. In fact, only HaT and Strelets have made any Austro-Hungarian figures that I’m aware of at 1/72 scale.
Neither manufacturer has made sublime figures, in my opinion, but I’ve opted to go for figures by the Ukranian manufacturer Strelets. Strelets have recently manufactured an impressive new kit; the WWI Austro-Hungarian Honved (a Hungarian version of the Austrian Landwehr). However, I’ve gone for their earlier, and now increasingly rare, sets of “WWI Austrian Infantry” and “Austro-Hungarian Infantry in Gasmasks’.
The style of Strelets figures tends to prompt a polarised response from hobbyists but I must confess to being a fan. They’re not ‘beautiful’, but typically they’ve plenty of character and loads of crisp detail to hang your paint on.
Going into the Great War, the Austro-Hungarian Army introduced a uniform colour known as “Pike-Grey” (“hechtgrau” in German) for general issue to the infantry in 1908. The main headdress in the field was the kepi, also coloured the same pike-grey. I’m unsure as to why the shade of grey was named Pike. ‘Hecht’ refers to the predatory freshwater fish, yet that is largely olive-green in colour with little in common with the light grey uniform shade.
A little history:
The empire of Austro-Hungary was inaugurated in 1867, being a dual-monarchy split between Austria and Hungary in place of the former single Austrian Empire. The empire’s full official and very wordy name was “The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Holy Hungarian Crown of St. Stephen”. The new dual monarchy was formed following Austria’s defeat at the hands of an increasingly powerful Prussia in 1866, which marked the decline in power and influence towards Prussia (and consequently Germany) and away from Austria. The empire and it’s army was colloquially known as the “K und K”, or the Kaiserlich und Königlich, referring to the Empire being both Imperial and Royal (i.e of the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king).
It was certainly a curious conglomeration, the Austro-Hungarian empire, which eschewed the increasing popular idea of nations bound by ethnic identity then sweeping Europe. The state instead consisted of many different ethnic groups speaking different languages (including German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukranian, Croat, Slovenian, Italian and Romanian). Their ageing monarch at the outbreak of the war in 1914 had ruled these disparate lands for 66 years.
The cataclysm began with the declaration of war by the Austro-Hungarian empire upon Serbia in 1914. As the other Great Powers were drawn inexorably into the conflict, the Dual Monarchy found itself faced with war against Russia to the east as well as Serbia and Montenegro in the Balkans to the south. In May 1915, another front opened with Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies.
From the very beginning, things did not go well for the empire. It’s invasion into Serbia saw the K&K army ignominiously expelled to the dismay of the Emperor, being badly beaten by the Serbs at the battle of Cer. A second invasion later briefly took the Serbian capital Belgrade only for the army to be badly defeated and ejected once again by a Serbian counter-attack at the battle of Kolubara in the winter of 1914. Another front then opened with the Austro-Hungarian campaign in Russian-controlled Poland which was to prove another failure. A counter-offensive by Russia them also cost the Austrians many casualties and prisoners of war and resulted in lost territory.
With German and Bulgarian assistance however, the Austrians eventually managed to conquer Serbia and Montengro (see my earlier post on the flight of the Serbian army through Albania) but were confronted by renewed assaults by a re-equipped Serbian army and its allies, the French, British, Romanians and, latterly, the Greeks. Their heavy reliance on German help effectively made the Austrians increasingly subordinate to their allies. To the embattled Germans, fighting with an ill-equipped and beleaguered ally was akin to being ‘shackled to a corpse’ (a quote widely attributed to German General Erich von Ludendorff).
As the war progressed, Italy exerted great pressure on Austria-Hungary who, once again, required the assistance of German armies to turn the tide. The Russians withdrew from the war after the 1917 revolution but eventually, terrible food shortages and political strife at home, together with declining fortunes both in the Balkans and the Italian front, led to the empire’s own disintegration and collapse. The Czech, Slovaks and Hungarians eventually declared independence and forced the remainder of this once extensive ’empire’ to sign an armistice on the 3rd of November 1918, 8 days before the Germans did the same.
Despite defeats, setbacks and poor equipment; and despite the fractured ethnic and linguistic nature of the empire, the Austro-Hungarian army had endured for four long years of war against the allies. In its battles across the mountains of the Alps and the Carpathians; in Italy, Slovenia, Serbia, Poland and Romania; against the Russians, Italians, Serbs, Montenegrins and others; the K&K army had suffered over 1 million military combat deaths (the 4th highest of any country in WWI) and a further 3 and half million soldiers wounded. It was a terrible price to pay for a defeat that would ultimately see its old empire disappear into history.
I’ll be presenting my Austro-Hungarian army of 34 figures, gas-masked or otherwise, soon.
Following on from a post earlier this year, I came into a snippet of further information regarding John Neal, which I thought I’d share. He was a soldier in the 2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment during the Great War, being my great-uncle and brother to my paternal grandmother.
This extra information came in the form of a copy of his medal roll, demonstrating that he was entitled to the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1914 Star. This trio of medals was commonly awarded to the early participants in the war and collectively were wryly known as “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” (after a popular newspaper cartoon of the day).
The 1914 Star was a medal only awarded to men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces who had served in France or Belgium between Britain’s declaration of war on the 4th August 1914 and the end of the First Battle of Ypres, 23rd November 1914. This confirms that John Neal was not one of Kitchener’s new army of volunteers as I had speculated in the previous post. Instead, he was likely to have been one of the first troops in France, a member of the so-called ‘Old Contemptibles‘ (that is to say a man who was already a serving regular soldier with the BEF at the beginning of the war, or had joined up very early on). He was therefore likely to have been considered a well-trained veteran when he died in September 1915, not some green volunteer fresh out from basic training in England.
As part of the Garhwal Brigade in the Indian Corps, the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment had taken part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. The battle was a costly success for the British army and a private from the 2 / Leicestershire won a Victoria Cross that day. Private William Buckingham enlisted in 1901 aged 15, serving in India and Egypt with the battalion, and was therefore a very experienced soldier at the inception of the war. Private Buckingham’s citation reads:
For conspicuous acts of bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing and rendering aid to the wounded whilst exposed to heavy fire, especially at Neuve-Chapelle on 10th and 12th March 1915.
He was wounded in the chest and convalesced back in Britain. Though he could have spent the remainder of the war recruiting and training new troops, he chose to return to the front and died in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Being in the same battalion, it is entirely possible that my relative and Private Buckingham will have known each other.
Returning to my great-uncle John Neal’s medal document, it wrongly lists his rank as ‘Private’, instead of Lance Corporal. Under the remarks section, he is “presumed dead”. Yet, from the information listed on the re-interment form of the same year (1920), it shows that he was at last belatedly identified by means of the discovery of an identity disc. The British Army introduced these identity discs, replacing previous identity cards, in 1907. They were made out of aluminium with the soldier’s basic details being pressed into the thin metal one letter at a time.
The disc would have included his initial and surname, details of his regiment, and crucially his army number – 8666. John Neal was relatively fortunate in that regard; at least his body was identified via that identity disc. Of the 8500 soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos, incredibly barely 2000 have a known grave.
The writer and poet Robert Graves was one of those also present at the Battle of Loos, his first experience of battle which he called “a bloody balls up”!
In his book, Goodbye to All That, an appalled Graves tells the following anecdote of an officer advancing at Loos.
“When his platoon had run about twenty yards, he signalled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on the left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole and waved and signalled ‘Forward.’ Nobody stirred.”
“He shouted, ‘you bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go alone?’ His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped out….
‘Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all fucking dead!'”
Apart from John Neal, there was another notable death that day on the 25th September 1915 at Loos. The son of another famous writer, Rudyard Kipling. John Kipling was one of those who, like John Neal, was ‘presumed dead’ while missing in action. Unlike my great-uncle John, however, John Kipling was not found with his identity disc. However, many years later in 1992, the body of an unknown soldier was finally identified as being John following careful research, despite the continued absence of his metal disc. This caused his identity to be disputed by some historians until finally it was positively confirmed as bring John Kipling as late as 2016.
Rudyard Kipling was devastated at the loss of his only son, having been instrumental in securing his commission through his high-level personal contacts in the army, when severe short-sightedness had already prevented John from joining up in either the navy or the army. Kipling Senior later elected to be closely involved in the Imperial War Graves Commission, the body which had ultimately re-interred soldiers such as John Neal into newly established cemeteries. Many, many years later, it would also do the same for his son.
In his commission role, Kipling contributed to the liturgy of remembrance with his choice of biblical phrase “Their name liveth for evermore” on the stones of remembrance; the phrase “The Glorious Dead” which appears on the Cenotaph in London; and he even suggested the phrase “A Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God” which appears on the graves of unidentified servicemen – including, for many years and with great poignancy, that upon the headstone of his unidentified son.
Kipling also worked with Winston Churchill to ensure that all of the gravestones of the soldiers were the same shape and size, regardless of rank. Thanks to this, Lance Corporal Neal and Lieutenant Kipling, both casualties of the 25th September 1915, both belatedly identified, have gravestones which differ only in inscription.