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.




Deeply Personal – A Mad Catastrophe: Recapturing Galicia’s World War (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #4)

I purchased Geoffery Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the Natrona County Library Book Sale this past spring. I was not expecting much of a selection to choose from at the sale, especially when it came to Eastern Europe. This was mainly because the city of Casper, Wyoming, the Natrona County seat, happens to a blue collar energy boomtown, not known to be a community of booklovers. Case in point, though Casper is the second largest city in the state, it only has a couple of bookshops, both with very modest selections. The best chance of finding books on Eastern Europe in the area is by checking the mailbox, after an order from Amazon. I thought the book sale would be low key, with the usual volumes of romantic novels, self-help tomes and celebrity biographies usually on offer at these events.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and The Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

A Mad Catastrophe – the Austro-Hungarian opening offensives of World War I were just that

A Mad Catastrophe at a Bargain Price
Because my expectations were so low, I was shocked to find a hundred person long line had formed by the time the sale was due to open. Those who arrived at opening time were forced to wait upwards of an hour before entering the sale, as only a limited number of customers were allowed in at any time. Those who arrived earliest were the first to be allowed in to the sale. Soon they reappeared with shopping bags, baskets and carts filled with books. I began to grow a bit nervous that all the best volumes might be taken before I got inside. After 45 minutes of waiting I was permitted to enter. I was pleasantly surprised to find books on the history of the Serbs, the Poles and several that dealt with World War One in east-central Europe. These included a hard cover edition of Wawro’s book with a pristine dust jacket. The book had only come out a year before and dealt specifically with the Austro-Hungarian Army’s cataclysmic defeats in Serbia, Galicia and the Carpathians in the first six months of the war. I gladly purchased it for just five dollars. What a bargain!

I was interested to see what new information Wawro would bring to light concerning the Empire’s catastrophic performance in the opening campaigns. English language books on the Eastern Front of the war are extremely scarce. The most reliable scholarly work continues to Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front which was published in the 1970’s. A Mad Catastrophe was published just in time for commemoration of the war’s centennial, certainly not a coincidence. Like many books that I have purchased in the last several years, I did not read the entire volume cover to cover. I focused on the chapters concerning the Battles for Galicia and the Carpathian Winter campaign. Wawro illuminated the decisions, tactics and battles which occurred with many fascinating details. The book was well written, but Wawro could not help but take every opportunity to let the reader know just how bad the Austro-Hungarian leadership was. He had trouble hiding his opinions, to the point of bias.

Wawro used much of the narrative to point out every last flaw of the high command, both personal and professional. On many occasions Wawro would have been better off just letting the facts speak to the points he was trying to make.  Conversely, Wawro pretty much ignored the Russian Army’s incompetence. They were victorious only because the Austro-Hungarian high command was so bad. Both sides were sorely lacking in leadership, common sense and discipline. The Russians were victorious because Austria-Hungary committed suicide with frontal assaults, multi-day marches that exhausted the troops and a lack of artillery support. If anything, it is a wonder that the Austro-Hungarian Army did not disintegrate. Of course the Russians played a large role in this because they were not capable of delivering the fatal death blow that a more competent army would have done.

Zbarazh, Ukraine

Zbarazh, Ukraine – when Vasil and Anna Wawro left the town in 1914 it was at peace, but not for long

A Family Affair – The Wawros & World War
The most gripping part of the book – in my opinion the best – had nothing to do with battles and tactics. Instead it came in the acknowledgments. This is not a section I normally read, but in this case I was certainly glad I did. Wawro used the first half of the acknowledgments to talk about his family connection to Galicia and his trips to the region while researching the book. He tells of his great grandparent’s immigration from Galicia to the United States in 1914. This occurred just in the nick of time to avoid the war. If they had waited a few months longer, it is likely that both of his grandparents would have perished. Reading this suddenly made me aware of all those voices which had been silenced by the war. In all likelihood, the history of the Eastern Front has been lost to westerners as much because of the massive casualties as any language barrier. How many stories were lost, would be historians killed and descendants never born because of the war. Thank goodness that the Wawros left when they did.

Family was the critical force in both Wawro’s interest in the Battle of Galicia and his field research. The most memorable part of the acknowledgments section comes when Wawro writes about the research trips he took with his mother together across the region. He says, “my mother…gamely rented a car in Vienna and drove with me all the way to Zabaraz sharing the potholes, watery beer, bribes, thefts, and other tribulations (including being struck and nearly obliterated by an army jeep at an intersection in Bukovina).”  Wawro’s mother was well beyond senior citizenship when she traveled with her son to a wild and mysterious Eastern European backwater. She’s a lovably confused guide. Wawro recalls “an indelible memory of her in the passenger seat of our rented Opel, peering at grainy photocopies of old Habsburg general staff maps, patiently cross-referencing them with modern maps, and affecting not to notice as I slewed around country lanes roaring things like: ‘Mother, for the hundredth time, Hradec Kralove is Koniggratz.”

Geoffrey Wawro

Geoffrey Wawro – Author of A Mad Catastrophe The Outbreak of World War I and The Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

Deeply Personal – A Mother and Her Offspring
Judith Stoughton Wawro raised seven children after her husband died in a tragic accident that nearly killed her as well. An entire family matured and prospered under her tutelage, none more so than her youngest son, Geoffery. She kept up with him even when they were oceans apart. When he was lonely and depressed in Vienna, drowning in a sea of archives, Ms. Wawro installed Skype on her computer (she was in her mid-80’s) and called her son to perk up his flagging spirits. The acknowledgements section of A Mad Catastrophe makes it quite apparent that without the deep bond between mother and son, the book would likely have never been written. Family roots are an abiding inspiration for Geoffery Wawro. From grandparents to parents to son, several generations of Wawros crisscrossed the Atlantic, first in search of a better life and then in search of the past. It is a story almost too good to be true. Like the best kinds of history, its roots are personal, deeply personal.

A Shot In the Woods – Solzhenitsyn, Knox & Tuchman on the Suicide of General Samsonov

“His sense of ease grew and grew. He had lived out a long life of army service in which danger and the risk of death were inevitable; now that he had reached the moment of death and was ready for it, he realized as never before how easy, how much of a relief it would be. The only problem was suicide was counted a sin…He began now with the set prayers, then none at all: he simply knelt, breathing and looking up into the sky. Then casting aside restraint, he groaned aloud, like any dying creature of the forest: ‘O Lord, if Thou canst, forgive me and receive me. Thou seest – I could do no other, and can do no other now.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, August 1914

All the night of the 29th-3Oth they stumbled through the woods that fringe the north of the railway from Neidenburg to Willenberg, moving hand in hand to avoid losing one another in the darkness. Samsonov said repeatedly that the disgrace of such a defeat was more than he could bear. “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” He went aside and his staff heard a shot. They searched for his body without success, but all are convinced that he shot himself. – Sir Alfred Knox, With the Russian Army: 1914 – 1917 

Riding through the woods that fringed the railroad, he and his companions reached Willenberg, only seven miles from the Russian frontier, but the Germans had arrived there before them. The General and his group waited in the forest until before nightfall and then, as it was impossible to proceed over the swampy ground in the dark on horseback, continued on foot. Matches gave out and they could no longer read their compass. Moving hand in hand to avoid losing each other in the dark, they stumbled on. Samsonov, who suffered from asthma, was visibly weakening. He kept repeating to Potovsky, his chief of staff: “The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” After covering six miles, they stopped for a rest. It was then 1:00 a.m. Samsonov moved apart into the thicker darkness under the pines. A shot cracked the stillness of the night. Potovsky knew exactly what it meant. Earlier Samsonov had confided his intention of committing suicide, but Potovsky though had argued him out of it. He was now sure the General was dead.” – Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

The three excerpts given above are separate accounts of the same event: the suicide of Russian general Aleksandr Samsonov in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Russian Second Army which he commanded at the Battle of Tannenberg. The battle was the first major clash on the Eastern Front during World War I. In the space of just five days, Samsonov’s army lost 140,000 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Of his original force, a mere 10,000 escaped. Samsonov was also killed, not by an enemy bullet, but by his own hand. The difference between the excerpts offers a concise study of how history is shaped and interpreted.

Aleksandr Samsonov - ill-fated commander of the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg

Aleksandr Samsonov – ill-fated commander of the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg

History Being Made & History Being Made Up
The first of the three excerpts, comes from one of the least known works of famed Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, his novel August 1914. It is a fictionalized account in which Solzhenitsyn took creative liberties with what he had read about the suicide. One of Solzhenitsyn’s main sources was Sir Alfred Knox’s With the Russian Army 1914 – 1917 who provides the second excerpt. Knox actually appears as a character in Solzhenitsyn’s novel. That being said, there is a vast difference between the two. Knox’s account is seemingly factual, while Solzhenitsyn’s is very loosely connected to the facts. This is the difference between how history is made (or written) and how it is made up.

That is not to suggest there is anything wrong with what Solzhenitsyn has done. If anything, his psychoanalytical approach gives the reader a window into the mindset of Samsonov in the moments just before he committed the ultimate act. Even for those who last saw Samsonov, they could not possibly know exactly what was going through his mind while under such shocking distress. It is rather obvious from what transpired that Samsonov was deeply disturbed and not thinking straight in the wake of the battle. He must have felt that his life’s work as a soldier and leader had all been a terrible failure. There was only one way out for this career soldier – by taking a bullet. In Solzhenitsyn’s retelling, death was the best option left to Samsonov. The key words in the excerpt are: “how much of a relief it would be.” Death offered not only an escape, but also redemption. It was the only thing left that could alleviate his suffering.

August 1914 - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great novel on the Battle of Tannenberg

August 1914 – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s great novel on the Battle of Tannenberg

After Such a Disaster – Tragic Loyalty
Knox’s account is the most reputable English language source on the event. At a glance, it comes across as a first-hand observation and is seemingly factual. It is actually based on what Knox heard, not what he exeprienced. He was not actually there. He had heard from people who had intimate knowledge (or said they did) of what occurred. From Knox, we get an idea of the chaotic effort to escape by Samsonov and his staff. Crucially from a purely historical standpoint, he gives us the telling quote “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” Those words followed Samsonov to the grave and would provide the most intimate part of the incident. The way in which Samsonov is viewed historically has much to do with this quote. It shows him as a tragic, loyal figure rather than an inept and overwhelmed commander. Which was he? Most likely a little bit of both. He was in over his head, probably should have never been appointed to such a high command and though loyal, had little idea of how to lead an army. In sum, Knox presents us with a confused and lost man, whose shame will not allow him to face the light of another day.

Sir Alfred Knox - gained first hand experience with the Russian Army and a second hand account of General Samsonov's suicide

Sir Alfred Knox – gained first hand experience with the Russian Army and a second hand account of General Samsonov’s suicide

Swallowed By Darkness – The Moment & the Man
The final excerpt is from perhaps the most famous work on the beginning of World War One, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Tuchman’s book deals very little with events on the Eastern Front, but it does cover the Battle of Tannenberg. She does a fabulous job of setting the scene for Samsonov’s final act. Whereas Solzhenitsyn is concerned with the psyche of Samsonov, Tuchman sets up the suicide with a foreboding description of the natural surroundings which the ill-fated Samsonov and his staff find themselves lost within. A cloistered world of darkness and nightfall, covered with woods, swampy ground and pines. It is a world that closes in on Samsonov. He ends up both literally and figuratively swallowed by the darkness.

The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman's classic work on the beginning of World War One

The Guns of August – Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the beginning of World War One

Each of the excerpts lends a different perspective to the suicide of General Aleksandr Samsonov. Solzhenitsyn is psychoanalytical and spiritual. Knox is tragically descriptive. Tuchman’s piece is filled with a deep and ambient darkness. From these unique passages we have the same event cast in radically different forms. Through these writings we see history being created, molded and reimagined. Solzhenitsyn, Knox and Tuchman may have been distant in space and time from Samsonov, but through their writing they managed to resurrect both the moment and the man.

The Strain of Success – Alexei Kaledin & Nervous Breakdown on the Eastern Front

During World War One many commanders were driven to the limits of sanity by the stress of battle. Campaigns would last for months on end and result in little to no success. Even a commander as accomplished as Erich Ludendorff, who had led the German Army to some magnificent victories earlier in the war, cracked under the collective strain caused from managing a war seemingly without end. Famously, on September 28th Ludendorff collapsed as he came to the shocking realization that the Germans were going to lose the war. Witnesses said that he fell to the floor and began frothing at the mouth. Ludendorff had suffered a nervous breakdown at the supreme moment of crisis for Germany. The unyielding stress of constant campaigning destroyed men both physically and psychologically. In Ludendorff’s case the latter led to the former. He was reduced to a blathering shell of his once supremely confident (or arrogant) self. It is understandable how a commander of the defeated side could end up in such a mental state. More revealing as to the nature of the war was the rarer instance when a commander cracked under the strain of success. During World War I, the brutal nature of the fighting so conditioned field commanders to an unceasing war of attrition that after a couple of years many of them no longer believed a resounding victory was even possible.

Russian troops on the attack during the Brusilov Offensive

Russian troops on the attack during the Brusilov Offensive

Inventing Victory – Brusilov’s Offensive
Nowhere was this truer than in the Russian Army. In 1915 the Russians were involved in what came to be known as The Great Retreat. Between June and September of that year they were forced into a retreat hundreds of miles eastward due to a devastating offensive by the German led Central Powers. Russian losses during this time totaled over two million men. Yet if there was one thing the Russians had it was men. By the middle of 1916, the Russian Army had lost a mind boggling five and half million soldiers, yet they could still summon armies with hundreds of thousands of new recruits. At this point in the war, the Russians were hoping the weight of numbers would eventually defeat their enemies. They were no longer looking for a brilliant tactical victory. Their strategy was to just hold on in the belief that the weight of Russian numbers would eventually force the Germans and Austro-Hungarians to sue for peace. The idea of success had changed dramatically since the beginning of the war. Victory had a much different meaning after only two years of fighting.

Such was the thinking up until the shockingly successful Brusilov Offensive in June 1916. The Russian army was used to incurring casualties at a horrifying rate. This was due to a tactical doctrine which valued mass human wave attacks on narrow sectors in the hope of a breakthrough. The brave Russian peasant soldiers were mowed down by machine gun and artillery fire. Russia’s military leadership planned on continuing these lethal tactics. Troop levels were boosted to the extent where the Russian forces would soon outnumber the enemy by almost a million soldiers. Nevertheless, many of their generals did not believe that this would be enough to break through the enemy lines. One who believed otherwise was Alexei Brusilov. He commanded Russian forces on the southwestern sector of the Eastern Front. His forces did not have the numerical superiority that other Russian commanders enjoyed further north. Brusilov was forced by necessity to innovate new tactics based on detailed advance preparation, precision artillery bombardments and the use of assault troops to exploit breakthroughs. This tactical doctrine worked wonders as it led to the most successful Russian offensive of the entire war.

Map showing the initial advance of Kaledin's 8th Army - It could have been so much more

Map showing the initial advance of Kaledin’s 8th Army – It could have been so much more

Enemies of Imagination – Kaledin & The Psychology of Defeat
On June 4th the Russian Eighth Army commanded by Alexei Kaledin – a subordinate of Brusilov – surged forward after a sensationally precise bombardment against the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army. The bombardment cut over fifty gaps in the barbed wire. Through these exposed gaps poured the assault troops which quickly overran the Austro-Hungarian front line. Soon they were upon the second line of trenches, which had been thrown into chaos by the sudden swiftness of the Russian attack. The defense was no more successful. By the time, the Russians reached the third line the Austro-Hungarian soldiers were in full flight, proceeded only by their officers. The Austro-Hungarian leadership was in shock, they had never experienced such a finely executed attack by Russian forces. Within a matter of days, the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army was either, dead, wounded or had been taken prisoner. At the start of the battle, the Fourth Army had numbered 150,000, after just four days there were only 27,000 men left in its ranks. It was an incredible breakthrough, but strangely enough the Austro-Hungarians were not the only ones in shock. Kaledin was just as stunned by the victory. He had counseled against attack in the first place. Now that he was staring victory in the face, his nerves were totally frayed. As the historian Norman Stone relates, “Kaledin practically had a nervous breakdown at the extent of his own victory, suspecting that there must be a trap somewhere….A combination of real and imagined weakness stopped Kaledin’s offensive just when it was on the threshold of a gigantic victory.” This was remarkable. Kaledin’s Army had finally found success, now an even greater victory was there for the taking. All he had to do was push onward, yet he found this impossible.

Enemies began to appear in his imagination, all the more powerful since they were not real. He believed the Germans would strike the Eighth army’s northern flank, roll it up and possibly destroy his army. After all, a similar thing had happened to him the year before. Conversely, a dramatic breakthrough was not something Kaledin had experienced. How could this be possible? It must be a trick or a trap. An entire German army was somewhere hidden in the vast spaces of the Eastern Front waiting to strike. Kaledin was wrong, but the enemies in his mind proved tougher to overcome than those in the field. As the Eighth Army’s forward movement stalled in order to bring up reserves, Kaledin convinced Brusilov that another success was impossible. In Kaledin’s mind it certainly was, even though the success of his own army had put the lie to his worries. Brusilov tried to get Russian troops further north of Kaledin’s Eighth Army to go on the attack. Their commander, Alexei Evert did not have an attack of nerves, instead he believed that victory was impossible despite commanding a massive army that outnumbered the opposition by 800,000 on his end of the front.  Success proved impossible because Evert stalled, came up with a litany of excuses and finally had his force make a half-hearted attack which inevitably failed. An incredible opportunity to put the Austro-Hungarian Army out of the war on the Eastern Front had been lost. The Germans reinforced the front with stouter resistance. Brusilov shifted his attack further south. Kaledin’s nerves calmed, he would no longer have to deal with success or imagined defeat. A historic opportunity had vanished.

General Alexei Kaledin - success caused his nerves to fail him

General Alexei Kaledin – success caused his nerves to fail him

Moment of Surrender – Kaledin’s Nerves
For all of its initial success, the Brusilov Offensive ground down into a quagmire over the next several months. The Russians had gained thousands of square miles in territory, but this was not much of a victory for an empire that had plenty of land to spare. They had been on the verge of destroying the Austro-Hungarian Army. Such an outcome would have transformed the Eastern Front. Instead they ended up only gaining some of what they had lost the year before and these gains would soon be lost again. The Russian war effort was characterized by waste and futility, but the Brusilov offensive was much more than this. It was the one moment during the war where they could have dealt the Austro-Hungarians a mortal blow and at the same time grievously wounded the German war effort. It was not failure that undid this offensive, it was success. Alexei Kaledin’s nerves were shattered by just the opposite of what he had expected. Success was staring him right in the face and the best he could do was turn away.