Rescued From Obscurity – The Bulgarian Naval Officer’s Tunic at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City

This past week I was finally able to visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. All the acclaim I had heard about the museum turned out to be true. The two short films I watched, including one entitled “Europe Before the War” were excellent. The exhibits were first class, especially the replicas of French, British and German trenches. Characteristic German thoroughness was on display in their replica trench. Even in the mud of northern France and Flanders, the German Army managed to be neat, clean and uber-organized. The same could not be said for the French, whose trenches looked ramshackle at best. As for the British ones, they were pragmatic and functional. One could learn a great deal about the warring nations just by studying their trench systems.

Liberty Memorial in Kansas City

Liberty Memorial in Kansas City – the National World War I Museum is beneath the memorial

The Forgotten Fronts & A Memorable Artifact
My lone disappointment was with the museum’s treatment of the Eastern and Southern Fronts during the war or should I say the lack of a treatment. There was a small section within one exhibit that gave a broad overview of the front. This oversight is quite remarkable considering the Eastern and Southern Front’s dramatic influence on the Western one during the war. Consider that the German Army committed millions in men and material to these fronts during the war. Not to mention the fact that at critical junctures the Russian Army launched offensives in the east that drew German forces away from the western theater.

The outcome of the Marne and Verdun campaigns would have been very different if not for Russian offensives which benefited their western allies.  I have to admit I was not surprised that the Eastern and Southern Fronts were given short shrift. This was the National World War I museum of the United States after all. American forces only fought on the Western Front. Their experience was similar to that of the other Western Allies. The First World War has been seen in America through the prism of the Western Front and trench warfare, overcoming this bias was a bit too much for the museum. That being said, it is quite astonishing that my most lasting impression of the museum concerns an artifact from an obscure netherworld of the war. Behind a glass case in the exhibit area dedicated to the naval aspects of the war was a blue tunic. The text for this piece of clothing stated:

Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic

In 1915 the Bulgarian navy had six torpedo boats, a royal yacht, and several smaller vessels. Its largest vessel was a torpedo gunboat, the Nadiejda

The blue tunic looked to be in fine condition, with all of the brass buttons still attached. There were no signs of wear or tear.  I could almost imagine the owner, exactly a century ago, standing on deck as his boat patrolled close to the shoreline. The Black Sea calm, under a clear blue sky, the sunlight glittering on the water, war never looked so beautiful or benign. My imagination took me back to that distant sea for a moment before I came to my senses. Then I realized just how bizarre this tunic actually was. No imagination was required for such a unique artifact.

Bulgarian naval officer's tunic

Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic on display at the National World War I museum in Kansas City

What Little Is Left Of Nothing – The Bulgarian Navy In World War One
Start with the fact that the tunic was a product of the Bulgarian Navy. As the exhibit text made quite clear Bulgaria’s naval fleet was miniscule. Its force of sailors would not have been much more substantial. Officers would have made up a tiny proportion of the force. This was a very rare find and research I did over the next several days confirmed the obscurity of artifacts related to the Bulgarian Navy. Searches on the internet and through my own personal library brought up only a couple of references to the Bulgarian navy during the war. The topic proved that even Google has its limitations. The only information available was a paragraph in a Wikipedia article on Bulgaria during World War One. It said, Bulgaria possessed a small naval force of torpedo gunboats and patrol boats that were restricted to operating only in the coastal areas of the Black Sea and along the river Danube. Following the Second Balkan War the country acquired an outlet on the Aegean Sea and in January 1915 the “Aegean” Section of the Bulgarian Navy was created by a royal decree. Initially only 78 soldiers were assigned to the small force and were given a task to observe and defend the coastline by laying naval mines. These activities were centered on the ports of Porto Lagos and Dedeagach but the true development of the facilities there was hampered by financial difficulties”

My beloved 12 volume Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, unsurpassed in breadth and thoroughness when it comes to coverage of the Great War, dismissed the Bulgarian Navy with a single sentence, “The negligible Bulgarian fleet, as we shall see, played no role at all in the First World War.” For all intents and purposes the fleet was a non-starter during the war. As for the sailors there was virtually nothing to go on, at least as far as a cursory search of English language sources goes. It is safe to assume that the Bulgarian Navy was essentially useless during the war with the result that it had become anonymous to history.  At least that is a logical explanation, but it still does not account for the fact that a world class museum in the heartland of America had rescued the tunic from obscurity.

A World Gone Mad
The most fascinating aspect of the tunic are the questions it has raised in my mind. Who gave it to the museum? How was it acquired? Was the donor a collector of obscure artifacts or a Bulgarian war veteran? Of the thousands of potential artifacts for display why did the museum decide to showcase a Bulgarian naval Officer’s tunic? The questions were many, but how and where to begin finding the answers? The most fascinating question for me is what does the Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic really represent? Does it somehow communicate the scope and scale of a far flung world war? How the war was fought not just in the trenches, but also on the high seas? Or how one hundred years ago in a world gone mad with militarism, in the process of committing suicide, small nations as well as large ones built military forces just to have them, no matter their usefulness or uselessness.




The Unknown Centenary – Gorlice-Tarnow: World War I’s Forgotten Breakthrough (Part One)

The centenary of the Great War is now in its second year. After highly publicized ceremonies to commemorate the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the resulting lead up to and outbreak of war, remembrances have been much fewer. There has been an uptick of late with the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign and the Armenian Genocide, but by and large commemorative events are no longer front and center in the media’s or public’s consciousness. To be sure 2016 will be host to major ceremonies that commemorate the centennials of the Battles at Verdun and the Somme. Conversely, the current year 2015, lacks many signature events. Look a bit closer though and a century ago, in May 1915, a landmark offensive took place. The centennial of that event offers an opportunity to reflect on both the most successful advance and greatest retreat of the war.  The offensive occurred on the often overlooked Eastern Front, between the Galician cities of Gorlice and Tarnow. These localities proscribed the boundaries of a stunningly successful attack, that exploded and expanded from a narrow start into an offensive the likes of which would never be seen again in the war. The consequences of the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign were long lasting and led to an event that would change the war forever.

A plaque in Gorlice commemorating the victims of the  World War I battle

A plaque in Gorlice commemorating the victims of the World War I battle

The Unknown War – Gorlice-Tarnow & The Eastern Front
A Google search of “Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive” yields only 10,500 results. By way of comparison, a search of “Gallipoli Campaign” gives 426,000 results. The 2nd Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Isonzo both show 229,000 results. To say that the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive has been overlooked is a classic understatement. Unknown might be an even better description. No less a personage than Winston Churchill named his 1931 history of the Eastern Front in World War I, The Unknown War. This was an apt description both then and now. Conversely, historians that have studied the Eastern Front are aware of the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive’s importance. Norman Stone in his seminal work The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 says, “The six weeks’ campaign turned out to be one of the greatest victories of the war.” Hew Strachen in The First World War makes the bold statement that, “Mackensen and Seeckt (the Commanding General and Chief of Staff of the offensive) were the most successful double-act in the German Army in the First World War.

The fact of the matter is that Gorlice-Tarnow was an unmatched achievement. Yet the gulf between knowledge of the war and the offensive’s shattering ramifications are huge. Of course, the Eastern Front of World War I is scarcely studied by English language historians. Places such as Gorlice and Tarnow seem to belong to another world. Perhaps it is the size of the front that swallows all attempts to comprehend it. Language is a strikingly difficult barrier for even the most gifted of historians to overcome. Then there is the fact that the three empires involved: the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian all ceased to exist by the end of the war. Despite such obstacles to historical knowledge, the offensive was a landmark at the time and still stands out today.

Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces on the move during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces on the move during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Tough, Sturdy & Totally Helpless – Peasants To The Slaughter
The name given to the offensive comes from the city of Tarnow and the town of Gorlice. The war did Gorlice no favors as it was utterly destroyed in battle and would later have to be rebuilt. The main thrust of attack came in the area between these two locales. It was delivered by the German 11th Army with help from the Austro-Hungarian 3rd and 4th Armies. The German 11th Army was created prior to the offensive. It was a fine example of the German High Command’s ability to improvise in order to provide the troops needed to carry out operations. The soldiers used to create the 11th Army were taken from existing Western Front regiments and supplemented with new recruits. Though the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were greatly outnumbered by Russian forces, the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive mitigated these factors with a high degree of innovation. The German and Austro-Hungarian commanders selected an area of weakness to attack, the Russian 3rd Army.

On the verge - soldiers look up at smoke rising above Gorlice in 1915

On the verge – soldiers look up at smoke rising above Gorlice in 1915

These Russian troops were largely illiterate, ill-equipped and incompetently led. This was an army made up primarily of peasants, tough, sturdy and totally helpless when confronted by industrial weaponry on the field of battle. Many were raw recruits, lucky to even have a full uniform. Tens of thousands did not carry rifles, simply because they had not been given one. At this point in the war, for every four recruits there was one rifle being produced by the Russian war effort. The only option was for soldiers to take a rifle from one of their dead or wounded comrades in the midst of battle. Then there was the Russian trench system along this part of the front. These were little more than rifle pits. If this was not bad enough, the attackers had a tremendous advantage in artillery. According to historian Hew Strachan, “The Central Powers collected 334 heavy guns to 4 Russian, 1,272 guns to 675 and 96 trench mortars to none…the densest concentration of the war so far: one heavy gun every 132 yards and one field gun every 45 yards.” The result would be a massacre, quickly followed by breakthrough and breakout.

Click Here To Read The Unknown Centenary – Gorlice-Tarnow: World War I’s Great Retreat (Part Two)

War For The Unconscious – The Memory of World War I In Hungarian Villages

Villages in Hungary are strikingly similar. There are usually several blocks of houses in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The tallest structure is almost always a church with its steeple visible from just beyond the village limits. Behind wooden gates large dogs bark at the slightest hint of movement. Transport around the village is usually done with a bicycle or on foot rather than by car. The streets and sidewalks are cracked, but still walkable. And close to the center, there is almost always a four sided monument with a soldier atop it. These memorials honor those soldiers killed in the First World War serving in the Hungarian Landwehr (Royal Hungarian Honved) fighting for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A Frightening Lethality – The Great War & Hungary
The monuments are a stark reminder of the toll that the war took on Hungary. For example, in Fertod a village of no more than 200 inhabitants, there are 36 names listed on the monument to the “Great War.” Some might take offense to the word “Great” to describe the war. That was the name given to it because these monuments were installed in the 1920’s and 30’s before there was a Second World War. The war may have been “Great” for the victors, but it was the opposite of that for those who ended up on the losing side. It is hard to overstate the unmitigated disaster World War I was for Hungary.

Villages such as Fertod act as a measuring stick for the horrific loss of life that occurred in Hungary because of the war. The village was never much bigger than its present size. Thus the frightening lethality of the war and the exacting toll it took upon the community can be extrapolated by dividing the number of names on the monument from the population of the village. If thirty six men died at the front, that means every fourth family in Fertod lost a son, brother or husband. Everyone in the village would have personally known multiple men who died fighting at the front.

Weather worn, but still standing - World War I Monument in the eastern Hungarian village of Tiszadob

Weather worn, but still standing – World War I Monument in the eastern Hungarian village of Tiszadob

Last Testament – Hungarian Villages & the Memory of World War I
Consciousness for those Hungarian soldiers killed in the conflict still survives today, if barely. This happens most notably through the names inscribed on the Great War Monuments which can be found in almost every Hungarian town and village. The slabs of carved and sculptured stone are often topped with a soldier rushing towards an invisible foe. Some monuments show ladies with their heads bowed in mourning, silently grieving for the lost sons, brothers, fathers and husbands. These monuments are the last testaments to those who gave their lives. They are the only thing left standing between grief and oblivion when it comes to historical memory of the common Honved soldier’s sacrifice during the war.

Often military history is viewed through the prism of “great men” or “decisive battles.” But what courage could “great men” have possessed that the average Honved soldier did not? On a personal level, what implications of a “decisive battle” can compete with the loss of a loved one? Were the upheavals in Hungary after World War I caused by anonymous social and economic forces or because good men died fighting for empire, honor and homeland? By the latter part of 1918 the ranks of men who could have defended Hungary against their gathering enemies had been decisively thinned.

Hungarian soldier on the Italian Front during World War I

Hungarian soldier on the Italian Front during World War I

War on the the Unconscious – Remembering World War I in Hungary
To a foreigner, all those monuments to Honved soldiers lost in the First World War come as a shock. World War II dominates historical discussions of the 20th century. Hitler, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of Berlin and Hiroshima are all common topics in history classes worldwide. The First World War has become a forgotten afterthought or at best, is given a handful of pages in a history textbook. The monuments in Hungary say something quite different. The centrality of the war in the history of modern Hungary cannot be overstated. In those village squares, with their endless lists of Nagys and Vargas, Baloghs and Banffys, it seems the war was lost over many years, in many battles, with thousands upon thousands suffering. Their names are both known and unknown, but even the known are so numerous as to render them numbingly faceless. The final result was not decided by brilliant maneuvers or heroic leadership, but by the sheer weight of numbers. By this reckoning Hungary nearly lost it all. The monuments tell this story in row upon etched row of names.

In the wake of this overwhelming loss is it any wonder that Hungary was thrown into chaos. Radical forces extolling the virtues of communism, fascism and even royalism all reared their ugly heads in a Pandora’s Box of competing ideologies. When the armies of these rival movements appeared, all those men who could have defended their villages had long since perished in burned out fortresses such as Przemysl, disappeared into the marshes of Galicia, froze to death in the snowy passes of the Carpathians, shattered by splintering stone on the rocky ledges of the Italian Alps or slowly succumbed in the squalor that of prisoner of war camps on the Russian steppes. In those forlorn locales, blood soaked the soil and consecrated the ground with human stains that would soon disappear, much like the ideals of honor, glory and heroism had on the battlefield.

World War I propaganda poster for the Hungarian Army

World War I propaganda poster for the Hungarian Army

One Life At A Time
Meanwhile back in Hungary all that remained were empty beds, unplowed fields and a deep, penetrating grief. An all-consuming silence was pervasive in the years that followed. Those villagers left behind passed weeks, months and years without end and without loved ones. And at dates that are now lost to history, the monuments were dedicated as a reminder of those who vanished forever at the front. These monuments are now all that is left in those quiet little towns and villages. Places where the losses of a nation can still be counted one life at a time.