Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 306th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

APRIL 9-MAY 1, 1918: “WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL”

The second mighty blow of the final German offensive on the Western Front in spring 1918, Operation Georgette, was German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s attempt to force the British Expeditionary Force into the sea with fresh troops arriving from the victorious eastern front. Known to the British as the Fourth Battle of Ypres or the Lys Offensive after its location along the Lys River, from April 9 to May 1, 1918 Georgette pitted a total of 35 divisions from the German Fourth and Sixth Armies against a defensive force initially totaling just 12 divisions from the British First and Second Armies around the village of Armentières, south of Ypres.

World War I in Europe, April 1918
Erik Sass

Once again, German gunners used the new mathematical registering technique perfected by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, targeting artillery without the need for range-finding and test firing, helping to preserve the crucial element of surprise. The bombardment would be virtually unprecedented, with the German Sixth Army’s artillery firing a total 1.4 million shells on the first day alone, averaging 16 per second. As in Operation Michael, the German infantry advance would be spearheaded by thousands of storm troopers in special battalions armed with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and sometimes field guns.

World War I Operation Georgette, April 1918
Erik Sass

Georgette debuted at 4:15 a.m. on April 9, 1918, with 2210 German guns opening fire along a 25-mile stretch of front, including five miles held by the demoralized, undermanned Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. Following an Earth-shattering bombardment pounding the Allied artillery and saturating British and Portuguese trenches with a combination of high explosives, poison gas, and tear gas shells, the German guns laid down a creeping barrage with shrapnel and high explosives to protect the advancing stormtroopers and regular infantry (top, British soldiers wounded by poison gas). John Tucker, a 20-year-old British infantryman, described being wounded in the German bombardment on April 9:

"Suddenly a barrage of shells came screaming over and dropping a short distance beyond us, several bursting quite close. We moved to the trench side, bunching to get down at a convenient place. It is possible after a little experience to tell from the scream of an oncoming shell to know if it is going to fall within a few yards or to pass over one’s head. I heard one coming that I knew was going to land on us. I did not hear the final scream of the shell, nor what must have been the awful noise of its explosion. I felt a terrific blow on the left side of my back, like the kick of a horse, felt my knees buckle under me, and lost consciousness. I have no idea for how long I was in this state, but came to with an awful pain in my back and stomach, and hearing a lot of moaning noises. Realizing that some of the moaning was coming from me, I shut up, but there was much of it still going on around me … Now convinced that I was dying I had a peculiar hallucination of a light opening between clouds in the sky and voices singing and calling me in. I was not at all scared during all this, but apart from the pain felt quite calm. After a while I began to think how much I would like to see my mother, father, and sister just once again before I died, and then, of all things, a longing to walk once more at night along by Finsbury Park, and became determined that I would last out to do these things."

Chief strategic Erich Ludendorff had chosen his target with typical precision: the main blow fell squarely on the weak, demoralized Portuguese force in the middle of the line, causing the Portuguese divisions to simply disintegrate. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs described the overwhelming destructive power of the German shelling:

"It was a tragedy for the Portuguese that the heaviest bombardment, in a storm of gunfire as atrocious in its fury as anything of the kind since March 21, was directed against the center which they held. It was annihilating to their outposts and mashed their front-line defenses, which were stoutly held. It beat backwards and forwards in waves of high explosives."

Captain R.C.G. Dartford, a British liaison officer attached to the Portuguese 2nd Division, described the extraordinary speed of the German advance over the Portuguese positions, largely abandoned in panic, followed by the swift collapse of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps on the morning of April 9:

"I think the Boche must have taken our front line about 8:30 and the B line 8:45 and was up to batt H.Q. by 9:15 or so. One message from X. de Costa (CO 29th Batt.) said he no longer had any command and that it was now a question of individuals fighting out. He was killed, we learnt after … Stragglers passed thro’ Laventie but most of them chose the open fields and wisely. We got hold of one and he said, “Everyone was running from the B line, so I did too,” though he hadn’t seen the Boche. We put two sgts to try and collect stragglers but they soon came back saying it was impossible to stop them and that officers were getting away too."

As during the first days of Operation Michael, the German Sixth Army’s steamroller of artillery and men advanced inexorably at first, taking over three miles by around noon on April 9, reaching one of their first day objectives, the River Lys, by mid-afternoon, and penetrating up to six miles by nightfall. Once again, however, the Germans failed to achieve all their ambitious first-day goals, especially on the left wing of the attack, where they faced a fierce defense by the British 55th Division around the villages of Givenchy and Festubert. And as in Michael, this delay gave the Allies critical breathing room, a few precious days in which to assess the direction of the latest German thrust and rush hastily summoned reinforcements to the battlefield, including ANZAC and South African troops.

The following day Ludendorff sent the German Fourth Army to the north, rumbling into action to support the Sixth Army’s attack, widening the scope of the offensive to include the whole Ypres sector. By noon the Fourth Army had captured the strategic area of Messines—first conquered by the British in summer 1917, and briefly recaptured by an Australian brigade on April 10 before being lost again. The combined advance by the Fourth and Sixth Armies threatened British control of the Channel ports, critical supply bases for the British Expeditionary Force—a disastrous scenario.

The ensuing struggle was undoubtedly grim for the Allies, as the Germans came alarmingly close to breaking through the British line in Flanders, and the Allies’ new supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch, claimed he was unable to send help. On April 11, as 31 German divisions battered 13 Allied divisions, British GHQ staff officer Brigadier-General John Charteris confided gloomily in his diary:

“It looks as if we should have to fight out this battle alone, and we have no reserves. It will decide the war. God grant the decision is not against us! Everything else fades into insignificance.”

That evening, as the Germans menaced Bailleul, closed on the rail hub at Hazebrouck, and almost split the British First and Second Armies, BEF commander Douglas Haig issued one of the most dramatic communiqués of the war, an order of the day reading in part:

"Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

As Haig indicated, the Allies couldn’t expect to stop the German onslaught without suffering considerable further losses in terms of casualties and territory. With British losses mounting, thousands of Flemish peasants fled their homes to avoid falling into German hands, and once again the countryside burned. On the night of April 13, Gibbs, the British war correspondent, recorded the firelit spectacle:

"It was a clear, starlight night, and for miles the horizon was lit by the flame of burning farms and stores and ammunition dumps, and all this pale sky was filled with the wild glare of fires and by the flash of guns. German air-raiders came out dropping bombs. The sound of their engines was a droning song overhead, and our shrapnel winked and flashed about them."

SHIFTING BALANCE

However, the situation was already turning against the Germans attackers. As the German offensive surged ahead in the middle, the left wing of the advance remained stuck near Givenchy to the south, and everywhere progress came at a heavy price, as in the first offensive. Though forced to retreat again and again, the defenders of the British First and Second Army fought fierce rearguard actions as they withdrew; the Germans faced major difficulties bringing up artillery and ammunition over wrecked battlefields to keep the offensive going. One German soldier, Franz Xaver Bergler, noted their stalled progress—as well as the generally miserable conditions—in his diary entry on April 12:

"We have been back in position since 3 April and are still here. Right in the midst of a completely devastated area, everything is shot into pieces, only grenade craters are left. We haven’t even started yet advancing against the English. The Englishman is just firing against us with his massive grenade fire all day long … Now we have been sitting in this position for eight days, often covered in mud and dirt up to the knees. We are freezing during the night and have no shelter. Or we are lying in an old tunnel, so tightly squeezed against each other that all limbs hurt terribly."

Disappointed by the Sixth Army’s failure to advance on the left, Ludendorff allowed a brief pause to resupply and move up artillery before resuming the attack all along the front. Over the next few days the Sixth Army encircled and captured the village of Bailleul together with the Fourth Army, while to the north the Fourth Army forced the British to withdraw from the area east of Ypres, won at such a terrible price in Passchendaele. However, the Germans didn’t notice the withdrawal right away, while the British received a boost with the arrival of more French reinforcements sent by Foch.

On the evening of April 16, as the German Fourth Army tried unsuccessfully to separate the British Second Army from the Belgian Army to the north, Gibbs described the long, curving inferno of the Ypres salient to the south, where British and ANZAC troops were staging desperate counterattacks against the advancing Germans:

"It was just before dusk that counter-attacks began northwards from Wytschaete southwards for Meteren, and although before then there had been steady slogging of guns and howling of shells, at that time this volume of dreadful noise increased tremendously, and drumfire broke out in fury, so that the sky and Earth trembled with it. It was like the beating of all the drums of the world in a muffled tattoo … It was a wet, wild evening, with few pale gleams of sun through storm clouds and smoke of guns, and for miles all this panorama of battle was boiling and seething with bursting shells and curling wreaths of smoke from batteries in action … When darkness came each battery was revealed by its flashes, and all fields around me were filled with red winkings and sharp stabs of flame."

To the south the Germans renewed their attack on Festubert and Givenchy, without success, although at a heavy cost to both sides. A British soldier, Lance Corporal Thomas A. Owen, described being wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert on April 18, 1918:

"Looking over the top I saw the long gray lines sweeping along 400 yards away. They were marching slowly, should to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations. We scrambled to the fire-step. We fired madly and recklessly. The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste … Still the gray hordes advanced … I thought my arm had gone. If it was death I was numb, careless, and content. I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of gray uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror. They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame. How many of them would see another dawn?"

By April 18 and 19 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam, but Ludendorff was determined to win some objective of strategic importance in order to justify the terrible bloodshed. In a renewed attack on April 25 the Germans captured Mount Kemmel, an important observation point for targeting artillery, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, but there weren’t enough troops to exploit the victory, allowing the British to reform defenses at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, to the south the Germans still hadn’t captured Festubert or Givenchy, spelling the end of the strategic plan for Operation Georgette. The other final thrust of the German offensive failed at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux from April 24 to 26, 1918, again due to challenges with artillery and ammunition, and the intensifying defenses of the enemy. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described the German attack at Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918:

"At a blow, more than 800 guns sent over their iron greetings and then went on and on; for a full hour the guns thundered and roared. The shells flew over us continuously. From the other side you could hear the individual shell bursts. It was almost impossible to communicate with each other. You had to shout the words in the other person’s ear … The artillery fired continued unabated, we could now hear the crackling of the rifles as well. The attack was in full swing. Wherever you looked it was crawling with German soldiers pushing forwards. Infantry, machine guns, small and medium-sized mortars were all moving forward. A swarm of German aircraft flew low over us in order to contribute to the success of the attack with bombs, hand grenades, and machine-gun fire. As we approached the corner of the wood there were already a number of dead lying on the churned-up ground. We were suddenly showered with a hail of artillery and mortar shells, and all jumped in the shell-holes or holes that had been dug by the men."

It soon became clear that this attempt was also doomed to failure, although commanders far from the battlefield were either isolated from this information or simply indifferent, according to Richert:

"As a result of the enormous losses the attack had ground to a stop. Everyone had sought cover in the numerous shell-holes. The whole area was constantly covered in black shell smoke. All at once officers and orderlies ran around the occupied holes and shouted: ‘Divisional orders: The attack must be continued!’ We were all appalled. Individual groups who had been driven out of their holes started to jump forwards. Our captain got out of a hole near us and ordered us to advance. What choice did we have?"

The German troops were undoubtedly exhausted. On the other side, on April 25, 1918, Philip Gibbs described German prisoners of war captured during the fighting at Villers-Bretonneux:

"Many of the others whom I now saw, and who lay down on the grass in every attitude of exhaustion, were bespattered with blood, which mixed in clots on the white dust of their clothes. The field in which they lay was all silver and gold with daisies and buttercups, and these heaps of field-gray men, in their grim helmets, which gave them a strange malignant look, spread themselves out on this lawn, and some of them slept until their sergeants shouted to them again, and they lined up for their rations."

By the time Ludendorff called off Operation Georgette on May 1, 1918, both sides had suffered another round of nauseating losses. On the Allied side, British casualties stood at over 80,000, including killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the French suffered around 30,000 casualties, and the unfortunate Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was devastated by the loss of a third of its total strength. On the other side the Germans had suffered at least 85,000 casualties in all categories—an intolerably high price, drawing down significantly on the roughly million men freed up from the Eastern Front—in return for few strategic gains and no strategic breakthrough.

THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

In fact, the conquests would soon become a positive liability, as the Germans were left holding longer defensive lines while the Allies drew strength from the arrival of more and more American troops. By the end of April 1918 there were 434,081 U.S. troops in France, while 245,945 more would embark for the continent in May alone. Stateside, the massive construction and training program was producing vast numbers of fresh troops: By June 1918, the U.S. Army’s total strength would approach 2.4 million and counting.

Although the Americans naturally took some time to learn the vagaries of trench warfare, usually starting in a relatively quiet sector along their French and British allies, during the dark days of the first German offensive General Pershing had committed to sending American troops wherever they were needed in the Allied line. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, described the scenes as the doughboys (widely considered overpaid) passed through Paris while moving up to the line in France:

"Other American troop trains had preceded us, because where the railroad embankment ran close and parallel to the street of some nameless faubourg, our appearance was met with cheers and cries from a welcoming regiment of Paris street gamins, who trotted in the street beside the slow moving troop train and shouted and threw their hats and wooden shoes in the air. Sous and 50-centime pieces and franc pieces showered from the side doors of the horses’ cars as American soldiers, with typical disregard for the value of money, pitched coin after coin to the scrambling move of children."

After more than a year of waiting, ordinary British and French civilians were surprised and relieved to finally see the long-promised troops arriving in large numbers. Vera Brittain, a young British woman serving as a volunteer nurse’s aid in France, remembered her initial mystification on encountering doughboys for the first time:

"They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was now too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigor in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed … 'Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted dominions?' I wondered ... But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of sisters behind me. 'Look! Look! Here are the Americans!' I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!"

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
WWI Centennial: July 4 in France
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 312th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JULY 4, 1918: CELEBRATING INDEPENDENCE DAY IN FRANCE

In July 1917, three months after the United States declared war on Germany, there were just 20,000 American soldiers in France—a rounding error compared to the French Army and British Expeditionary Force, with around 2 million men each. One year later, however, the picture had changed dramatically: By the end of July 1918 there were 1.2 million American soldiers in France, a figure that would rise to over 2 million by the war’s end in November 1918.

With hundreds of thousands of Americans billeted in French villages near the front, undergoing crash training in the French countryside, operating a vast logistics network connecting French ports of disembarkation to the “forward zone,” or relaxing on leave in big cities and scores of provincial towns, in many places France seemed completely transformed, to the degree that more than one observer remarked that by the end of the war Paris had become “an American city.”

U.S. supply routes in France, World War I
Erik Sass

While this was obviously an exaggeration, the influx of Americans was yet another culture shock for ordinary people in France, especially in rural areas unused to seeing visitors of any stripe—even from other parts of France—before the war. Elmer Harden, an American soldier volunteering with the French Army, wrote home on July 9, 1918, describing the sudden change in the small French village where he was stationed:

“For the last three days we’ve been surrounded by American soldiers (our blue streets changed in a short summer night to khaki color); they are simply all over the place—sitting against the houses, sleeping under the hedges, walking up and down and across the roads. When the café opens they rush in and get “lit up” and dance and sing and make improper proposals to the “doll” who brings them their sarsaparilla … They make a noise they call French.”

U.S. forces in Europe, World War I
Erik Sass

On July 4, 1918—just a few days after America’s victorious fighting debut at Belleau Wood had helped turned the tide of the fourth German offensive of that year—French soldiers and civilians across the entire country celebrated America’s Independence Day in almost hysterical fashion, apparently spontaneously but with plenty of encouragement from the national, provincial, and local governments. The U.S. flag was ubiquitous, according to Mildred Aldrich, a retired American author living in France:

“Everywhere, even in the quiet and deserted streets of the other quarters, were the American flags. There was no shop too small to show one. Bonnes on the way to market had the Stars and Stripes on their market baskets. Every taxi cab was decorated with the flag … It floated on the tram-cars and the omnibuses, it hung out of almost every window, and at the entrance of the big apartment houses … Crippled soldiers distributed tiny flags on all the streets.”

Paris was the epicenter of this countrywide fete, probably one of the few instances in history when one country celebrated another country’s national day with as much enthusiasm, or even more, as the natives. The celebrations in the French capital focused on a parade by U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers who had just forced the Germans from Belleau Wood near the Marne, as part of the successful Allied defense against the third and fourth German offensives in May and June, and received a deafening reception from a crowd of several hundred thousand Parisians (top, the Marines on parade). Elizabeth Ashe, a chief nurse with the Red Cross, participated in the July 4 parade and described the event:

“The 4th celebration in Paris made that day a never-to-be-forgotten one for those who were privileged to take part in the ceremonies. For a week before we watched with the deepest interest the preparations which were made all over the city, in fact all over France. The Stars and Stripes decorated every building … Our flag was placed in the center, flanked on each side by French flags … Our splendid Marines got the ovation they deserved.”

Ashe and her subordinates joined the parade:

“To our delight the nurses were asked by the French government to march in the parade. It was the first time women have ever marched in a parade in Paris … I carried the flag, it was the proudest moment of my life, in fact don’t think I ever had that proud feeling before. But when we fell in line behind the Marines, our band playing Dixie and I held that banner on high the cheers of the crowd, “Vive l’Amerique,” I really felt that I had reached the supreme moment of my life … every now and then someone would dart from the crowd, saying: ‘I want to touch that flag.’”

However, as in the case of other combatant nations, it would be inaccurate to attribute undiluted patriotism and martial spirit to Americans involved in the war. Many American soldiers and civilian volunteers headed for the war zone nervously anticipated how their own personalities might change once they came face to face with the brutal reality of warfare. Others rejected the war outright on religious or moral grounds. “This whole business, far from being one of my choice, [is] by no means in accord with my bringing up or education,” wrote Donald E. Carey, an American soldier at Camp Custer on July 2, 1918. Another American soldier, Emmet Britton, a first lieutenant, worried that hatred would scar him psychologically:

“Right now I bear no personal hate toward the Hun but more of the feeling that I have had when sitting on a court-martial. The Hun has done wrong, therefore he must be punished. But no bitterness is in my soul and if I can fully do my duty without it entering into my heart I pray to God that I may do so. For bitterness is too liable to warp one’s outlook on life so that none of the beautiful things may be enjoyed.”

At the same time, Americans already serving in France found themselves undergoing their own personal transformations, as they remembered the reasons they initially enlisted and compared these with their subsequent experiences and outlook once in France. In a letter home on May 30, 1918, Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, noted that he had gained a firmer grasp on the reasons for U.S. participation in the war “to make the world safe for democracy,” as President Wilson had explained:

“Would I be content to see the war end in a German victory tomorrow? It would mean the end of all this misery and suffering, an end of sleepless nights, an end of crawling slowly thru pitch blackness alone and badly frightened, an end of being 3000 miles from home and in a strange land. But we have been long enough in France to have caught the Frenchman’s infectious love of his country and his hatred for the Boches and I decided then that if only France could be saved, if only the Germans’ wrongs could be avenged, I would gladly endure the discomfort, fears, and hardships of war for five more years. When we enlisted it was from no love of France and not from any poignant hatred of the Germans. It was a duty, a duty to be accepted gladly because thru its performance we should see new sights and experience thrills and strange sensations. Tonight all this is changed; the cause of France has become our own real cause and her hatred has become our own real hatred. We are no longer supernumeraries in a show; we are part of the cast itself.”

These feelings of affection for France were hardly universal, however, as Americans expressed a range of feelings about the host country they were now fighting to defend. Katharine Morse, an American woman volunteering in YMCA canteens, described American attitudes (strongly colored by primitive conditions in rural France, as well as inclement French winter weather) in January 1918:

“Altogether we are inclined to take very pessimistic view at present of our surroundings. ‘This land is a thousand years behind the times,’ is the reiterated comment, and who can blame them, having seen nothing of France but these tiny primitive mud-and-muck villages? ‘It ain’t worth fightin’ for. Why if I owned this country I’d give it to the Germans and apologize to ‘em.’”

On the other hand, many Americans enjoyed new-found affinities with other Allies, particularly English-speaking soldiers from the British dominions Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (the latter two designated ANZAC troops). According to observers from both hemispheres, Americans seemed to get along especially well with Australians. Kenneth Gow, an American officer, wrote home:

“I like the Britishers, particularly the Australians. The officers are all gentlemen. The Englishman has a reserve very hard to break through, but once it is down he is very much a human being … The Australians seem to be the particular cronies of all the American troops. They are more like ourselves than any of the other allies.”

In the same vein, Caspar Burton, an American officer, wrote home in September 1918, “The Americans and the Australians, I venture to remark, hit off better than any two forces in this whole war.”

Conversely, sectional tensions between soldiers from different parts of the United States persisted once in Europe, pitting northerners against southerners but also easterners against westerners. Emmet Britton, from California with the 363rd Regiment, wrote home disdainfully of being forced to bunk with signals officers from the East Coast on July 28, 1918:

“After five minutes I told them all to go to h—l and walked out hearing one of them say, ‘he must be one of those rough persons from that Western camp.” I turned around and told him he was ‘— right.’ Since then three other doughboys have joined me in misery and we are down in one corner, and the rest of the barracks have declared an armistice, but will have nothing to do with us—which just suits as, as they are all from the eastern states and don’t talk our talk.”

Overall, many diaries and letters home written by American soldiers and civilians, while acknowledging the horrors of war, express positive feelings about the conflict and their own roles in it, probably reflecting the fact that their participation was recent enough to retain the sense of novelty and adventure which had long ago worn off for European troops. Bowerman wrote on June 28, 1918:

“Say what you will, and admitting that war is a terrible thing, it still has its compensations for those who live. What has the war done for me? This—I have traveled in a ‘far country’; I have partially learned another language; I have met all manners and breeds of men and have learned true human values … I am living in a time when history is being made and am doing my infinitesimal ‘bit’ to help make it.”

Similarly, Mildred Aldrich, the American author retired in France who had endured four years of war (albeit as a civilian), expressed a common sentiment that the war, for all its misery, had led to a heightened appreciation of existence among those who managed to survive. “It is a great disaster. Of course it is,” she wrote. “But we are all terribly alive.”

PERILOUS CROSSINGS

As more and more Americans arrived in France, with monthly embarkations at U.S. ports peaking in July 1918 at 308,350, millions of young American men (and tens of thousands of young women volunteering as nurses, drivers, telephone operators, or canteen workers) had their first experience of what was, in prewar years, a literal rite of passage: the ocean journey to Europe. Now, though, there was nothing glamorous about it, as the specter of German U-boat warfare stalked the Atlantic.

Shipping net losses, World War I
Erik Sass

True, the Allies were making significant progress in the battle against the undersea scourge. A wide range of measures had helped turn the tide against German U-boats, including the implementation of the convoy system, with groups of troop and cargo transports heavily guarded by Allied warships and airships, which employed evasive tactics such as sudden, unpredictable shifts in direction. Other methods included increased patrols, submarine nets, and minefields to make key chokepoints impassable to subs, most notably in the Dover Strait at the eastern end of the English Channel; new technology like hydrophones and depth charges; and more controversial, unproven measures like “dazzle” camouflage, intended to confuse enemy U-boat commanders observing surface ships through periscopes (below, the U.S. transport Leviathan).

U.S.S. Leviathan in dazzle camouflage, WWI
Naval History and Heritage Command, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Thanks to this piecemeal strategy (below, an Allied convoy) and massive industrial mobilization, by the second quarter of 1918, greatly expanded American and British shipbuilding outweighed the total tonnage lost to U-boats, and the margin soared in the second half of the year. On July 4 alone, American shipyards launched an incredible 500,000 tons of new shipping (although much of this was a propaganda exercise organized with help from the U.S. Committee of Public Information, with prior launchings delayed and a large number of renovated ships included to reach the impressive total).

Convoy approaching Brest, WWI
Robert W. Neeser, U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy Historical Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, Allied shipping was still under serious threat. Available British merchant tonnage was almost 5 million tons below its pre-war figure, while the French merchant fleet was down by a million tons and Italy’s merchant fleet, a key component in the Mediterranean shipping network, had lost a third of its total.

U.S. merchant marines in Europe, WWI
Erik Sass

These losses were somewhat offset by the confiscation of Central Powers vessels, the questionably legal requisitioning of neutral shipping from countries like the Netherlands; and America’s sprawling shipbuilding program. But the fact remained that the world’s total stock of available shipping was about 5 million tons lower in 1918 than 1915, a 10 percent decline—enough to massively impair the global logistics system in wartime, as many ships were forced to return from the warzone “in ballast,” contributing to overall inefficiency.

World merchant marine tonnage, WWI

At the same time, the Germans remained committed to an aggressive U-boat strategy to the end, in hopes of disrupting the transportation of American troops to the battlefields of France as well as deepening material privation among soldiers and civilians alike in Britain and France. As noted, the direst phase for the Allies had now passed, but U-boat production rose steadily into the last months of the war, reflecting Germany’s undiminished industrial might, meaning that the German U-boat fleet was at its largest in the final months of the war, with 177 in service in September 1918 compared to 166 a year before.

WWI submarine production
Erik Sass

Thus, the Atlantic crossing, usually a romantic experience or tedious necessity before the war, was nerve-wracking and perilous to the very end of the war (below, German submarine U-38, commanded by Wilhelm Canaris, later head of German military intelligence in the Second World War). By 1918 passenger ships had fallen under the same military discipline as troop transports, beginning with strict secrecy surrounding boarding and time of departure, to frustrate enemy spies believed to be reporting sailings to Berlin or directly to the U-boats via wireless—but they didn’t always enjoy the protection of the convoy system. William Edgar, an American trade journalist visiting Britain, remembered boarding ship in an unnamed American port in summer 1918:

“A hot night at an Atlantic port, with a violent thunderstorm preceding it, which failed to cool the air … It is no longer easy to embark on an Atlantic liner; all sorts of formalities must be complied with before one gains access to the ship. The place of embarkation is very quiet, and no friends are permitted to come down to say good-bye; they are not even told the ship’s name. Once aboard, it is impossible to return ashore … No one knows just when it will sail; there is an air of secrecy and mystery over the whole proceeding.”

German U-boat U38, World War I
Oberleutnant zur See Hans Wendlandt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Edgar then reported the ambient anxiety aboard ship as it raced at top speed, unaccompanied, across the Atlantic:

“By night the suspense becomes more acute, for the preoccupation of daily pursuits is absent. All are ordered below early, and the long evenings begin. The ports are painted black inside and out, and are closed when sunset comes; not a ray of light is permitted to escape from the ship to mark her course for the watchful and dreaded enemy. Below, in the brightness of one’s cabin, it is very still and silent; the muffled throb of the engines if felt and dimly heard … The ship is a hunted fugitive on the face of the waters, ever pursued from beneath.”

Most passengers necessarily adopted a somewhat fatalistic attitude and found that there were still things to enjoy in the ocean voyage, including the beauty of nature. Heber Blankenhorn, an American intelligence officer, described crossing the Atlantic in July 1918:

“I have seen stars overhead as I slept on deck and enjoyed magnificent sunrises. A deal of routine eats up our time, and brainless matters like sleep, meals, [and] drills consume the days. The ship at night rides like a great ghost, without a ray of light; stairs and companions are blind dark, with here and there an eerie purplish bulb to mark corners, but giving no light.”

U.S.S. President Lincoln, WWI
U.S. Naval Historical Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The feelings of anxiety were certainly justified. Although the number of ships sunk was dropping, with dozens of U-boats at sea at any one time, a significant proportion of ships were still sent to the bottom, including some protected by convoys. Edouard Isaacs, a U.S. Navy officer captured by the German submarine U-90, recalled the sinking of the U.S.S. President Lincoln (a requisitioned German passenger liner, above) on May 31, 1918:

“We were finishing breakfast. Two bells had just struck. Suddenly the ship was rocked by a double explosion, the second following the first with scarcely a perceptible interval between … As I ran aft another explosion shook the ship. The first two had been forward, but this one was aft directly in my path. The force of the explosion crushed in No. 12 lifeboat and threw it up on deck not 10 feet from where I stood, but only showered me with water … At 10 minutes past nine I received the report that holds No. 5 and No. 6 were flooded and the water approaching No. 1 deck. I reported this over the telephone to the captain, who ordered me to abandon ship. At 9:15 all hands aft were off the ship in lifeboats and on rafts. The main deck was then within a few inches of the sea … In fact some waves were already washing over the deck … At 9:30 we were well clear, and the old ship, turning over gently to starboard, put her nose in the air and went down. As the waters closed over her we rose and gave three cheers for the President Lincoln.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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12 Facts About Born on the Fourth of July
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

The effects of the Vietnam War reverberated for years after it ended, both in the lives of the people who'd fought or lost loved ones and in our popular entertainment. One man forever changed by the war was Oliver Stone, the maverick director who served as an Army infantryman from 1967 to 1968 and subsequently made three movies set in 'Nam: Platoon (1986) won him a Best Director Oscar; Heaven & Earth (1993) fizzled with critics and audiences; but in between was Born on the Fourth of July (1989), a star-spangled Tom Cruise vehicle that earned Stone another Oscar and Cruise his first Best Actor nomination. Here are a dozen items of interest about this turning point in both men’s careers.

1. AL PACINO ALMOST PLAYED RON KOVIC.

This was in 1978, when Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic first wrote the screenplay based on Kovic's 1976 book. William Friedkin (The Exorcist) was going to direct it; he dropped out and was replaced by TV director Dan Petrie; and then, less than a week before shooting was set to begin, the German financiers behind the project got cold feet and pulled out. Stone later said that while Pacino would have been great, he had qualms about the then-38-year-old actor being too old for the part. (Tom Cruise was 27 when he played the role.)

2. KOVIC HAS A SILENT CAMEO.

Ron Kovic in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

He can be seen in the parade at the beginning of the film, playing the wheelchair-bound soldier who flinches at the sound of firecrackers. 

3. CHARLIE SHEEN'S FEELINGS WERE HURT.

Charlie Sheen, who had starred in Stone's previous Vietnam blockbuster, Platoon, believed Stone was going to cast him in Born on the Fourth of July, too, and said (in 2011) that Stone had flat-out told him the part was his. When Cruise was cast instead, Sheen heard the news not from Stone but from his own brother, Emilio Estevez. Sheen said he was "hurt ... I wouldn't have cared if Oliver had called me personally, based on what we'd been through." Stone didn't respond to Sheen's claim, but news outlets in 1989 reported that Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage had also been considered for the role. 

4. THEY CONSIDERED ACTUALLY PARALYZING TOM CRUISE.

Stone found a nerve agent that would paralyze Cruise for a few days, and Cruise was open to the idea of using it. But the studio's insurance company—spoil sports—nixed it.  

5. CRUISE PREPARED FOR THE ROLE BY USING A WHEELCHAIR FOR A WHILE.

Wanting to relate to Kovic's experience as much as possible, Cruise got himself a wheelchair and role-played for weeks, even staying "in character" when doing media interviews and going to studio meetings. He also accompanied Kovic on public outings to see how a pair of paraplegics were treated. (They were once asked to leave a store because their wheelchairs were leaving marks on the floor.) 

6. VIETNAM WAS THE PHILIPPINES AND LONG ISLAND WAS DALLAS.

Shooting on location in Vietnam wasn't an option (U.S.-Vietnamese relations were still a bit frosty), so Stone used the Philippines as a stand-in. (That's where the Mexico scenes were shot, too.) As for the scenes set in Ron's Long Island hometown and at the Republican convention in Miami, those were all shot in Dallas—not far from places Stone would soon revisit to make JFK

7. KOVIC WAS SO MOVED BY THE FILM HE GAVE CRUISE HIS BRONZE STAR.

Kovic had been skeptical when Cruise was first cast, but was soon won over by the actor's commitment to the role and his sincerity. When the film was finished, Kovic gave Cruise his Bronze Star as a token of his admiration. 

8. UNIVERSAL PAID $500,000 TO MAKE ONE SCENE BIGGER.

Tom Cruise in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

The film ends at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, with Ron about to give a speech. After seeing a rough cut of the movie, Universal ordered that the scene be re-shot with a larger crowd—6000 extras instead of the 600 Stone had used. It cost $500,000, but was accomplished in one day at L.A.'s Forum arena. 

9. STONE LATER APOLOGIZED TO A POLICE DEPARTMENT.

In the film, Ron is shown being beaten up and arrested at an anti-war demonstration in Syracuse, New York. In real life, Kovic had not attended that event, which was peaceful and was not broken up by police (though others were; Stone had consolidated several incidents into one). After complaints from the Syracuse Police Department, Stone reportedly sent a letter of apology in March 1990. 

10. KOVIC'S VISIT TO THE FAMILY OF THE SOLDIER HE KILLED WAS FICTIONAL.

One of the most emotional sequences in the film is when Kovic travels to Georgia to meet the parents and widow of the soldier he accidentally killed in Vietnam. In real life, though Kovic expressed his remorse to the family publicly in his book, he never met them. Apologizing via a memoir isn't very cinematic, though, so Stone and Kovic invented a face-to-face scene. 

11. STONE AND CRUISE WORKED FOR NEXT TO NOTHING.

The director and star were both so enthusiastic about the film that they agreed to keep production costs low by forgoing their usual high salaries (Cruise's especially) in exchange for a percentage of the profits. It paid off. The film cost about $18 million to make and grossed $161 million worldwide. 

12. ITS TELEVISION DEBUT WAS DELAYED BY A REAL WAR.

Tom Cruise and Willem Dafoe in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

As you can imagine, it took a lot of work to make Born on the Fourth of July suitable for broadcast on network television. CBS had a version ready to air in early 1991, barely a year after the film's theatrical debut, but called it off because of the impending Persian Gulf War. It finally aired in January 1992. 

Additional Sources: Oliver Stone's DVD commentary "Cruise at the Crossroads," Rolling Stone 

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