the book

The First World War was the ultimate in stupid, pointless human endeavors. I've studied it since I was eight years old.
     In 1991, I started building models of First World War tanks, aircraft, and soldiers again. I'd stopped when I graduated from high school because I felt guilty about it, as if I were celebrating death. But the urge resurfaced, much as the urge to smoke cigarettes occasionally resurfaces. I have an addictive personality.
      This time around, I published several articles in hobby magazines and thought I might become a professional model maker; a good builder can charge wealthy private collectors thousands of dollars for a single museum-quality model. If that didn't pan out, I could get a job at the special-effects department of a movie studio. They still use a lot of models, despite the prevalence of computer graphics. Well, nobody wanted to buy my models because collectors prefer every historical era except 1914-1918, and nobody gets work at movie studios in any capacity whatsoever without personal contacts. I could have forced myself to build Napoleonic dragoons or Nazi Tiger tanks or Top Gun jet fighters, but I'm such a maniacal perfectionist that I didn't see the point of putting all that energy into creating something that I didn't even like.
      Currently, I'm in a fallow period again. I've lost the desire to build. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.

click on images for larger view

American infantryman attached to the French Army. In the segregated American Expeditionary Force, African Americans served as laborers because they were seen as mentally unfit for combat. Since the French had a long tradition of using non-Caucasian troops, they requested four black regiments for front-line duty. One of these, the all-volunteer 369th from New York, was in combat longer than any other American unit. It lost half its men and ended the war as the most highly decorated American regiment.

British Medium Tank Mark A. Nicknamed the Whippet because it was twice as fast as all other armored vehicles, this tank tore across the battlefield at eight miles per hour. The steering mechanism had a separate clutch and set of gears for each track; using it was like driving two stick-shift cars at the same time.
     The crew of this Whippet has dismounted to inspect a pile of abandoned German equipment. The anti-tank rifle held by the tank commander on the left weighed thirty-nine pounds and fired a steel bullet that could puncture most armor at close range. Tank crews usually wore a pair of slitted metal goggles and a chain-mail mask to protect their faces from the jagged splinters knocked off the walls even when the bullets didn't penetrate.

Portuguese sentry with gas mask and signal rockets. Telephones weren't as reliable as rockets because the lines could be cut by shell fire. The Portuguese were assigned to the British sector on the Western Front in 1917. The Brits didn't respect them much, referring to them as the "Geese" and the "Pork and Beans." The Portuguese were totally routed during the enormous German offensive that began on April 9, 1918. Of the forty thousand soldiers sent to France, seven thousand were killed in action.

German Roland C.II observation aircraft. The Germans applied very colorful camouflage schemes, and they allowed much gaudier personal markings than the British, French, or Americans. This type of two-seater was nicknamed "Whale" and was often decorated with fishy mouths, scales, sharks' teeth, and painted curtains on the windows. It's my favorite model because it perfectly illustrates why I'm ambivalent about this hobby: light-hearted artwork on something that drops bombs and shoot bullets.

French infantryman. This model was inspired by a propaganda poster from 1918, titled, "They Shall Not Pass!" I was struck by the way the dirt and ragged clothes made the soldier look like a zombie or an ugly, diseased plant struggling up out of the ground. The French Army was known for the bizarre appearance of its soldiers. They wore whatever they could to keep warm and dry, including blankets wrapped around their legs, sheepskin vests, wooden clogs stuffed with straw, and the waterproof red-and-white checkered tablecloths that you can still see at French cafés.

Turkish assault trooper. In the First World War, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire--Turkey--made up the Central Powers. The Germans trained and equipped the armies of the other three nations; this soldier has two bags of German "potato-masher" hand grenades under his arms. His unit engaged the British in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. In the Ottoman Army, boys as young as ten could fight in place of their fathers, either because the men had too many responsibilities at home or because they had already been killed in action.

German stormtrooper wearing steel body armor. Despite the thirty-five-pound breastplate, this soldier probably wouldn't have made it to the enemy trench. Stormtrooper battalions were composed of very physically fit, unmarried volunteers of twenty-five and under. They spearheaded major assaults and sometimes lost 50 percent of their manpower during a single operation. I never understood why people under that kind of stress would bother cultivating such high-maintenance moustaches.

American Browning Automatic Rifle team. These three-man teams saw action in the last weeks of the war. They consisted of the automatic rifleman on the right, the assistant rifleman on the left, and the ammunition bearer in the middle. I made the automatic rifleman an Asian American because I don't usually picture someone named Fong or Nakamura or Cho singing "Over There" and "Mademoiselle from Armentieres." They did, though.

German Friedrichshafen G.II bomber. Painted dark blue for night missions, this three-seater has been loaded up with the sky-blue bombs peculiar to the German Army Air Service. Skull motifs were popular because the death rate among fliers was high--they flew primitive, mechanically unreliable wooden aircraft covered in linen coated with highly flammable nitrocellulose varnish. Since they usually didn't have parachutes, they had to choose between burning or jumping when something went wrong. Aircrew sometimes took pistols or hand grenades up with them so they could have another choice.

British infantryman with German prisoner. So many British soldiers were killed in the first year of the war that the government lowered its physical standards and established the "Bantam" regiments for men between five feet and five feet three inches tall. This is a Bantam with a German prisoner taken during the Battle of the Somme. On July 1, the first day of the battle, each British soldier came out of his trench with an average of seventy-seven pounds of equipment and walked across No Man's Land into heavy German machine-gun fire. By nightfall, the British had lost sixty thousand men killed or wounded. By the end of the battle in November, they had lost 450,000.

German trench raider. Along with the usual sacks of grenades, this soldier also has a spade that has been sharpened around the edges. He is lightly equipped for a trench raid, a mission to gather intelligence and capture prisoners for interrogation. Raiding parties would sneak over at night, armed with spiked clubs, knives, and sharpened spades--implements of silent killing. They would snatch people or kill them and tear off their unit insignia to take back as identification, and then they would throw grenades everywhere as they left. Another function of trench raiding was to disrupt the informal truces often set up by the front-line soldiers of both sides. These "live and let live" arrangements were seen by military leaders as defeatist and immoral.

French assault troops with abandoned Renault FT-17 tank. This was the only successful French tank design, a two-man vehicle armed with either a machine gun or a small cannon. Its main weakness was that the fan belt often broke, and it was impossible to change it under fire because the crew had to get out and open the engine cover. These tanks were usually just ditched instead of repaired.
     The soldiers taking cover next to the tank are wearing gas masks and the "horizon blue" uniform. At the start of the war, the French had dark blue coats and bright red hats and pants, and they used massed bayonet charges against emplaced machine guns and artillery. All those red pants made beautiful targets, according to the Germans who mowed them down by the thousands.

German Halberstadt CL.II ground-attack aircraft. This two-seater was used in a tactic called "contour fighting." The plane would swoop in at very low levels and follow the contours of a trench, the pilot firing the front machine gun while the gunner dropped mortar shells from the racks on the sides, threw hand grenades, and fired his own machine gun. The aircraft flew so low that they sometimes returned to base with barbed wire wrapped around the wheels. During dogfights, the gunners often got airsick and threw up from the violent maneuvering. Dramamine had not been invented yet.

Austrian assault troops take Italian prisoner. The Battle of Caporetto was fought in the Alps from October 24th to the 28th and resulted in a massive defeat for the Italians. Some sources put the number of dead, wounded, missing, captured, or deserted at almost 800,000.
      The Austro-Hungarian Army was incredibly chaotic because of the number of nationalities involved. The officers were usually German speakers, but the ordinary soldiers could be Magyars, Romanians, Slovaks, Czechs, Italians, Poles, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Dalmatians, or Ruthenians--men who understood only their own languages. The non-Germans also had ancient ethnically-based resentments that made them less likely to fight for national pride and honor. The success at Caporetto was due in part to German training and the participation of seven German infantry divisions.

Senegalese infantryman. The Senegalese--mostly Wolofs, Serers, Bambaras, and Mandinkas--were sometimes "recruited by force" into the French Army, meaning that they were kidnapped from their villages and taken to training camps in chains. Others went voluntarily even though they didn't know what or where Europe was, had never seen white people, and had no conception of what was waiting for them. They were used as assault troops and died at twice the rate of non-colonial infantrymen. At least a quarter of the thirty thousand Senegalese sent to France were killed in action.

German assault troops with captured British Mark IV tank. The Germans called their captured tanks "booty tanks." This one has been given multicolored "disruptive" camouflage that was supposed to break up its outline. It had a top speed of four miles per hour and was so noisy that the crew had to communicate in sign language. The temperature inside could get as high as one hundred thirty degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt the soldered joints and release more toxic fumes into the funk of engine oil, gasoline, exhaust, and gunpowder smoke.
     The assault troops are accompanied by a messenger dog carrying grenades. The Germans were better than the British or French at using dogs because they didn't treat them as pets and weren't sentimental about what happened to them in combat.

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