Sunday 29 March 2015

”We will bleed France white” Von Falkenhayn's strategy for Verdun

Latest batch of Poilus for the front.
Minis are all from Forgotten & Glorious.

The past week saw me continuing the preparatory work for our Verdun 1916 project, as the Voie Sacrée of my painting table produced some fresh Poilus reinforcements, in the form of the wonderful WW1 French from Paris-based Forgotten & Glorious Miniatures. 

No Man's Land can be an unwelcoming business.
British infantry goes over the top - this time with air support.

Meanwhile, a club event also offered me a chance to arrange and photo the beautiful trench terrain we’ll be using for the project. All the terrain boards were scratch build by fellow club member, Nils. Pictures of these impressive boards can be found throughout this blog post.

Close Up of the Poilus.
The Forgotten & Glorious sculpts are really amazing to paint.

In my research on the battle of Verdun, I’ve found a new “friend” –
This Amazon service offers historic audiobooks in abundance, and many classics as well as new titles on the Great War. So far, I’ve been painting miniatures while listening to “The Guns of August” by Barbara W. Tuchman and “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918” by G. J. Meyer. They both offered around 30 hrs of superb entertainment, consumed with the appropriate period miniatures and a brush in my hand. But let’s leave the cosy comfort of the hobby table and go back in time to the cold, muddy February of 1916 at Verdun.

Germans coming out of their underground "Stollen" shelters to receive the enemy.

Von Falkenhayn and the German plan of attack:

Born on 9/11 in 1861, Erich von Falkenhayn was a coolheaded and pragmatic man with more than 30 years experience in the officer ranks of the Imperial German army. He was favoured by the Kaiser, and thus became a natural rival to the Hindenburg-Ludendorff branch of the army. On the contrary to Hindenburg, von Falkenhayn believed that the war would be won on the Western Front, and thus in his role as Chief of General Staff, preferred a strategy of limited engagement on the Eastern Front, while pushing any reserves into the Western theatre.

Erich von Falkenhayn.
Chief of the General Staff until Verdun proved a failure.

Von Falkenhayn had replaced von Moltke in 1914, when the latter’s health failed him due to stress after the defeat at the Marne, and consequent failure of the Schlieffen Plan. When assuming office, von Falkenhayn had the fresh offensives of August 1914 as available data, on which to base his strategy. He would see Germany through the difficult transition of mentally and strategically converting the outlook from a quick summer war, to the long war perspective. His key to success: Attrition.

An aerial view of the German trench lines.

1915 had seen the Western Front settle into a static war, fought from trenches, and with artillery, machine guns being joined by new terrible weapons like gas and flamethrowers. Army Commanders on both sides struggled to adopt strategies that would be prove even limitedly fruitful in this new scenario of war. 

The Forgotten & Glorious minis come with a variety of heads and arms,
offering good animation in the ranks.

Von Falkenhayn had his own unique approach. His idea was to find a spot of great moral importance to the French, hit them there and thus goat the French into expensive counter attacks at well-prepared German positions, drawing the French into an downward spiral of manpower attrition – a sophisticated phrasing for what was in effect slaughter. In his own words he would “Bleed France white”.

The British trench left nearly empty as the Tommies go over the top.

In preparation for the attack, von Falkenhayn had massed around 1.200 guns at Verdun, while the busy German engineers had built 10 new rail lines into the back country, with 20 stations as drop of points for reinforcements. The improved rail-logistics would offer the German artillery an average of 33 munitions trains per day during the battle, equalling a constant flow of some 2.000.000 shells to the hungry guns. In addition several thousand km of telephone cables were laid in the Verdun area, to guarantee communications would flow uninterrupted as the fighting commenced. 

Caught in the wire.

For the 5th Army, who was to undertake the attack, huge catacomb-like “stollen” (underground shelters) were dug, some of them up to 14 meters deep and each accommodating 1.000+ men. Thus the scene was set to create Hell on Earth.

A forward German machine gun position greets the visitors.

The attack started on the morning of February 21st 1916 by a colossal 1.000.000 shell “trommelfeuer” – an artillery barrage of such intensity that the explosion of each individual shell just merged into the sound of the next, becoming an indistinguishable rumble. This apocalyptic phenomenon was heard some 160 km away. 

To be continued - Thank you very much for reading!

Wednesday 18 March 2015

SMS Seydlitz – The Shell Magnet

The SMS Seydlitz in 1/2400.

Named after one of Prussia’s greatest cavalry generals of all times, the SMS Seydlitz had quite a name to live up to. Contributing in no small amount at all mayor actions on the North Sea from Heligoland, Dogger Bank and to the turbulent Battle of Jutland, she was however going to live up to the named legacy of dash and tenacity in every way. 

The Seydlitz looking her finest for a WW1 commemorative postcard. 

More modern than her battle cruiser predecessors Von der Tann and the two ships in the Moltke-class, the SMS Seydlitz saw the introduction of a new innovative propulsion system allowing an improvement in armor without any loss of speed. The new layout of her propulsion system, would give her 63.000 shp, no less than 21.000 shp more than Von der Tann. 

Aerial photo, the white circles would help pilots set her apart from any entente ships.

This increased power needs to be considered off set against the increase in armor, with the SMS Seydlitz getting a belt armor of 11 inches compared to Von der Tann’s of only 9.5 inches. The effective cruise speed of the boat was the same as the rest of the High Seas Fleet’s battle cruiser force – with a max output of about 28 knots. With these innovations, she was laid down for construction at the Krupp subsidiary; Blohm & Voss in Hamburg in 1911.

Seydlitz steaming out to sea.

With fate having a severe beating in store for the SMS Seydlitz, this heavy armored but fast moving beauty was going to need all the nickel-refined steel plate protection she could get from the Krupp works at Essen. Leading at the front of Hipper’s force at Dogger Bank in 1915, the SMS Seydlitz was going to take some critical, but very instructive damage. 

Barely noticeable, but I tried to add the Seydlitz ship crest,
 with three red fish on a white shield.

A critical hit scored on the SMS Seydlitz by fire from Tiger and Lion, almost blew up the ship, as internal flash from a penetrating shell, was traveling down towards the main magazines. An alert German officer ordered the magazines flooded, and the damage was contained to the reloading chamber, which however blew up killing 159 men. This important learning point would result in an important anti-flash updating of German ammunition and cordite practice, which would prove to be crucial at Jutland.

The Seydlitz barely afloat, limping home after Jutland.

At the Battle of Jutland, the SMS Seydlitz was initially locked in a duel with the Queen Mary in the late afternoon, resulting in a penetrating shell causing an internal explosion ripping the latter ship in two. With terrible consequences, the tables had now turned, and it was the British battle cruisers, which were being schooled in how to handle cordite and contain flash from explosions.

In dock after Jutland, waiting for repairs. 
Notice the large torpedo damage to her starboard side.

 During the later engagement with Beatty and finally the epic showdown with Jellicoe, the Seydlitz was in all hit 21(!) times by heavy shells, and even torpedoed. When she limped back towards home during the night after the battle, she carried an extra 5.300 tons of water due to flooding, with her deck barely remaining above the waterline. As her crew prepared to abandon her, two pump boats from Wilhelmshaven came out to stabilize and bring her home for repairs. Like her historic namesake, the Seydlitz had refined the German forces, been at the heart of the battle, bore the brunt of the charge, and taken a beating to write home about.

Technical drawing of the SMS Seydlitz.


Laid Down: Feb 1911

Launched: Mar 1912

Completed: May 1913

Constructed at: Blohm & Voss, Hamburg

Displacement: 24.988 tons (Full load)

Dimensions: 658ft x 94ft x 30.5ft

Main guns: 10 x 11inch

Armor: 12in belt, 3.1in deck and 9.8in turret armor

Machinery: Parsons Turbines creating 63.000 shp 

Speed: 28 knots

Endurance: 4.200 miles at 14 knots

Thank you very much for reading!

Thursday 12 March 2015

"My blood belongs to the Emperor" - General Lasalle

Lasalle with his pipe.
The figure is from Front Rank.

For this week’s blog post I’m leaving the trenches of Verdun, traveling only a short distance east to Metz, the birthplace of the legendary “Hussar General” – Lasalle.

Early Life

Born on May 10th 1775 into a family of minor nobility, Antoine-Charles-Louis showed a flair for the military trade from an early age. Already at 14 he had joined the local regiment and merited a rank of Second Lieutenant. 

Lasalle leading the 5th into battle.

When the Revolution threw France into turmoil, Lasalle was in 1792 stripped of command due to the idealistic view of the revolutionaries, wanting to wash out all the old aristocratic officers. Lasalle was however not deterred, and took this setback with great calm. He moved to Paris and enlisted in the revolutionary army as a private.

Campaign in Italy

In 1793 Lasalle joined the Army of the North on its campaign in Italy, and his conduct soon earned him advancement in the ranks. He was present at the Battle of Rivoli, where he proved to be beyond fearless, charging down and breaking an complete Austrian regiment with only 26 chasseurs at his side. The Italian campaign thus saw Lasalle’s star rise, and Napoleon personally asked the young cavalry officer to join him for the Invasion of Egypt in 1798.

Lasalle smoking his pipe.

The Invasion of Egypt

At the Battle of the Pyramids Lasalle made yet another daring charge, storming a garrisoned village at the head of no more than 60 horsemen. The wild charge bore home, and Lasalle continued his advance down an unknown path amongst the Giza Pyramids, offering him an opportunity to cut off the enemy, and serving them on a plate to Napoleon. Greatly impressed, Napoleon promoted Lasalle to Lieutenant Colonel of the 22nd Horse Chasseurs and the 7th Hussars.

Lasalle at the head of his brigade.

Lasalle would soon repay Napoleon for this advancement, when he saved the life of Davout. The General had been cornered by mamulukes at the Battle of Remedieh and was about to be cut down, when Lasalle dashed in, chopped both hands off the mameluke in front of Davout, broke his own sword over the head of Osman Bey, but kept on fighting by picking up swords and guns from the battlefield around him. The mamelukes eventually broke, and Lasalle had once again proven to have a cool head in the heat of action.

The Libertine Lasalle

Lasalle’s passions extended further than the battlefield. He consumed life in great breaths, or should I say in big gulps. A true light cavalryman he founded the “Society of Alcoholics”. Reputedly Lasalle drank, swore and was quite the libertine. After a night of heavy drinking, Lasalle proudly asked Paul Thiébault to count all the empty wine bottles. Thiébault remarked: “Do you want to kill yourself”? Lasalle answered: “My friend, any hussar who is not dead by thirty is a blackguard”

The libertine in a quiet moment of reflection.

No stranger to the passions of the flesh either, Lasalle had a long standing affair with Minister of War, Berthier’s wife Joséphine. When Berthier finally had enough and divorced Joséphine, Lasalle was quick to propose to her. To help out with the costs for the wedding, Napoleon gave 200.000 Francs to Lasalle. When the two men met up only a week after, Napoleon was keen to know how the planning was coming along. Lasalle remarked that he had spent the money on old debt and the rest he had gambled.

A view at the sabretasche and the dolman.

Normally this kind of insolence would have seen any other soldier stripped from rank and scorned, but Napoleon simply gave Lasalle another 200.000 Francs, and told him to get on with it. When Napoleon’s astonished staff asked why this Lasalle got such a soft treatment, Napoleon quietly answered: “It only takes a stroke of a pen to create a prefect, but it takes twenty years to make a Lasalle".

The “Brigade Infernale”

At the famous battle of Austerlitz, Lasalle won the admiration of Murat, who then put him in command of a Light Cavalry Brigade consisting of the 5th and 7th Hussars. Under the leadership of Lasalle, this brigade would become known to history as The Hellish Brigade – Brigade Infernale.

Detail: Lasalle raising his pipe signaling the charge. 

At the Battle of Jena, Lasalle and his brigade captured the King of Prussia’s bodyguard, and pursued the Prince of Hohenlohe off the battlefield at sword’s point. Later during the Prussian campaign, Lasalle and his small contingent of hussars reached the fortified city of Stettin. The well defended city had a garrison of 5.000 men and 281 guns, but Lasalle calmly demanded their surrender stating: “If, by 8 a.m. you have not surrendered, the town will be bombarded by our artillery, stormed by 50,000 men, the garrison will be put to the sword and the town will be plundered during twenty-four hours"

The commander of Stetting believed the message from Lasalle, and surrendered his entire force to the little group of French cavalrymen. This feat made Lasalle more famous than ever, and upon hearing of the city’s surrender, Napoleon wrote to Murat: "If your Light Cavalry captures fortified towns, I’ll have to discharge my Engineer Corps and have my heavy artillery melted down"

Lasalle punishing his brigade at Golymin.

But Lasalle could be brisk as well as dashing. During the Battle of Golymin, the Hellish Brigade was charging a battery of 15 Russian guns. As they closed in on the enemy the fire on the horsemen intensified. A big portion of the brigade broke, and they fled to the rear. The furious Lasalle spurred his horse and pursued his fleeing men. Catching up with them he screamed “Halt!” - the men obeyed their enraged commander and stopped their wild stampede. Lasalle quietly brought the brigade back to the front line, positioned it across from the Russian guns, and told them to hold ground. Lasalle rode forward to a position 20 paces in front of his men, and calmly took the murderous fire from the Russian battery. The brigade accepted this punishment with no further disobedience. 

The final battle and immortality

On July 5th 1809, Lasalle fought what was to be his last battle at Wagram.
On the morning of the battle he had a strange feeling, that the fight before him might be his last. When he opened his baggage he found his pipe broken and a wine glass that his wife used to be crushed. The passionate Lasalle read this as an omen of death to come.
He then wrote two letters, one to the Emperor and one to his wife.

The final charge.

Later during the battle of Wagram, while charging at the head of the 1st Cuirassiers, Lasalle was shot between the eyes, dying instantly. The farewell letter to his wife became famous. The last part of it reads: “"Mon coeur est à toi, mon sang à l'Empereur, ma vie à l'honneur" (My heart belongs to you, my blood to the Emperor, my life to honor)

The dashing libertine general had almost kept his word. He died 34 years old.

Thank you very much for reading!

Friday 6 March 2015

Poilus! – Verdun 1916

First batch of skirmish-based Poilus.
The minis are from the wonderful "Forgotten & Glorious" 28mm range.

In some aspects I hesitate to even write about this battle out of pure respect.
But then I remind myself, that there is a generation now, which needs to apprehend and value the lessons inherent in true catastrophes like Verdun.

How do we teach our children, that human life can be so utterly stripped of meaning and consumed by violence? I find it hard, but I also know that it’s important. It’s the road to not making the same mistakes twice.

Young men became veterans.

Ever since I first read about the Great War as a teenager, I’ve been drawn by this epic battle, and to understanding the legend of the “generation sacrifié”. When working a short summer job in Strasbourg at the age of 19, I took my car one weekend, and drove over to see the actual place. I still recall the discomforting feeling in the air, not lost on a Danish teenager about the same age then as many of the 900.000 dead, who’s bones lay buried in the field below. I saw the collapsed trenches, where you still today see rusty bayonets sticking up through the ground, marking the resting place of men buried alive. It was as if it the place itself was one big scar. 

View towards the Douaumont memorial.
Inside the bones of 130.000 unknown dead are stacked. 

Next year we mark the centennial of Verdun, the longest and bloodiest of all the battles in the Great War. With that occasion in mind, I’ve set out together with a few club members here in Stockholm, to paint up a suitable skirmish based collection in 28mm. The goal is to run a series of scenarios from the almost 10 months long battle. There will be plenty of visual candy coming up, as I’m going to photo the impressive trench-terrain club member Nils have made. Look out for that soon.

Close-up on three Poilus - the FG Minis are in my opinion 
the best WW1 French available out there.


The name Verdun rings out with importance in history, all the way down to the Romans.
First mentioned during the conquest of Gaul as “Verodunum” (meaning: Strong Fortress), Verdun had a DNA of military significance right from the start. After Roman control of Europe faltered, none other than Atilla the Hun later sacked the city. But, it was during the Frankish era, that Verdun would start to become a symbol of Franco-German rivalry. The sons of Charlemagne meet here in Verdun, to devide their fathers empire into what would later be France to the west, and to a large extend what was the Holy Roman Empire to the east.

The “Generation Sacrifié”
The Battle of Verdun lasted almost 10 months, 
and demanded close to 900.000 casualties.

It was here at Verdun, that the French master architect of defensive fortresses, Vauban, build his line of defence, to bolster and strengthen the conquests of Louis XIV. It was Verdun that became the last French fortress to surrender during the initial campaign of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and it was Verdun to which France anchored it’s hope once again in 1914. 

A view on the back - equipment and the iconic buttoned-up long coat.
Boots and socks touched up with earth pigment.

In 1916 Joffre had robbed the place of any real defensive artillery, and one could argue the actual strategic importance of Verdun. But, the morale of a people is a tricky size altogether, building on pillars of national symbols and subjective feelings, not always in line with what is militarily practical or even strategically sound. After the initial battles of 1914, acting as an anchor in the French line as the Battle of the Marne played out, Verdun had in many ways become just that. A symbol of France’s ability to hold on, to stand it’s ground.

Poilus getting ready for the charge.

German commander Erich von Falkenhayn, had counted on just that symbolic value, when he planned to strike at Verdun in 1916. His direct tactical dispositions were not made to conquer Verdun, but rather to draw the French army into a mass slaughter. In effect he wanted to “Bleeding France White” as he himself put it. In February 1916 the massive German onslaught would set in.

To be continued – Thank you very much for reading!