Thomas Wictor

The eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month

The eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month

Today is Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2013. It was Armistice Day, the end of combat operations between the belligerents of World War I. The ceasefire took place at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

It’s always been rather disgusting to me that people can negotiate and fight at the same time. While diplomats talked, this is what happened in the trenches:

The knuckle knife is a dagger affair, the blade of which is about eight inches long with a heavy steel guard over the grip. This guard is studded with steel projections. At night in a trench, which is only about three to four feet wide, it makes a very handy weapon. One punch in the man’s face generally shatters a man’s jaw and you can get him with the knife as he goes down…

You blacken your face and hands so that the light from the star shells will not reflect on your pale face. In a trench raid there is quite sufficient reason for your face to be pale. If you don’t believe me, try it just once.

Then another reason for blacking your face and hands is that, after you have entered the German trench at night, “white face” means Germans, “black face” English. Coming around a traverse you see a white face in front of you. With a prayer and wishing Fritz “the best o’ luck,” you introduce him to your “persuader” or knuckle knife…

—Arthur Guy Emprey

On this Armistice Day, I’ll post some of the photos in my extensive collection of soldiers who fought in World War I.

Trench Mortar Company, Assault Battalion No. 6, German army. This was a Bavarian unit. By this time in the war, the light trench mortars this boy would have used were mounted on flat-trajectory carriages so that they could be fired horizontally. He would have been expected to drag his wheeled gun out into No Man’s Land to fire at concrete pillboxes and tanks from point-blank range.

3rd Light Infantry Battalion, Romanian army. The name is a misnomer; these Vânători were extremely heavily armed assault troops. They overwhelmed the enemy with massive firepower from machine guns, machine rifles, light mortars, and light cannons.

Private, 97th Alpine Infantry Regiment, French army. This soldier is part of a half-section consisting of a machine-rifle squad, hand-grenade throwers, and rifle grenadiers. As a member of an assault unit, he has a long-handled shovel which he will use to convert the enemy trench into a French position by changing the back of the trench—the parados—into the front—the parapet.

The Duke of Corwall’s Light Infantry Regiment, British Expeditionary Force, Great Britain. This soldier was killed in action in 1917.

United States Marine, American Expeditionary Force, displays his trench-raiding weapons, used for hand-to-hand combat: two revolvers, brass knuckles, and a curved knife.

Infantry regiment, Russian army. These are young women who the Germans captured. Russia allowed women to serve in combat units, at the discretion of the individual commander. The women billeted, bathed, and fought with the men.

Second Assault Company, Third Army Assault Battalion, Austro-Hungarian Common Army. Austrian assault battalions were armed with heavy and light machine guns, grenade launchers, trench cannons, infantry accompanying cannons, and flamethrowers. The Austrians and Italians fought so savagely and ineptly that a German soldier who took part in the battles dubbed the Italian front the “Clown Apocalypse.”

Royal Tank Corps, British Expeditionary Force, Great Britain. The interiors of the tanks reached 130˚F, and the vehicles were full of exhaust and gunpowder smoke, along with fumes from melting solder. When not vomiting, the crews had to communicate in sign language due to the roar of the engines. With a speed of three miles per hour, the tanks were sitting ducks, requiring that the inevitably dismounted tankers be trained as assault infantrymen, using pistols, hand grenades, and the tanks’ machine guns to try and take trenches.

Light infantry regiment, Italian army. The Bersaglieri were—like all light infantry of the war—heavily armed assault troops. They were called “light” as a long-standing tradition, in the manner of this soldier’s black rooster feathers.

Infantryman, German army. He’s not much taller than his rifle.

143rd Battalion (British Columbia Bantams), Canadian Expeditionary Force. This was a unit of men whose maximum height was five feet, two inches. Using pistols and sawed-off rifles, they served as “tunnel rats” to clear out underground passageways between German machine-gun nests and blockhouses.

Assault infantry officer, Bulgarian army. The Bulgarians were extraordinary fighters known for their incredible physical strength and skill at counterattacks. In their final battle of the war, they repulsed all Allied attempts to take their mountain positions.

Machine gun company, Russian army. The curved dagger is the bebout, a close-quarters weapon.

Pioneer of Assault Battalion No. 5 (Rohr), the first special forces unit, German army. This battalion created tactics still used today, almost a century later.

Frank Sauliere, 18th Engineer Regiment, American Expeditionary Force. He enlisted at the age of twelve—lying about his age with his parents’ consent—and was the youngest American soldier to see action. Wounded in the face in France, he survived the war, became a newspaper reporter, and served as a U.S. Marine in World War II.

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