Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New weapons in World War I as photographed by Leo Lessmann

Eight months ago, we began publishing photographs from Leo Lessmann's war diary. He was a German Jewish soldier in the first World War. The pictures captured Lessmann enlisting and the first months of the war, including the German invasion of Belgium and France and the beginning of trench warfare. We then ran into all sorts of technical problems and had to neglect Lessmann's continuing story.

Now let's return to him and his service in the war.

Leo Lessmann was stationed in France with his unit, Field Artillery Regiment 103 (FAR 103) in the Somme river sector and areas north of it, between the towns of Péronne, Bapaume and Arras.

The war spurred the development of new weapons and phenomena that Lessmann caught on camera:
1)     Aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons: The first airplane, the Wright brothers Flyer I, flew successfully in December 1903. In a little more than 10 years, the airplane rapidly became an important mean of transportation and when WWI started – an important war machine. Aircraft were used in the early days of the war for observation and intelligence gathering (a French airplane was the first to spot the German change of direction, a discovery which helped the French and the British to regroup and push them away from Paris) and for the direction of artillery. Soon enough, air battles began when opposing airplanes met. Pistol duels turned to rifle shots and then to machine guns. Pilots started throwing hand grenades and improvised satchel charges and later specially designated bombs for different targets: infantry units. artillery batteries, headquarters, train stations etc. Counter measures were used against these attacks: fighter planes, fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft guns.  The well-organized Germans created large fighter units that were commanded by "aces" – fighter pilots that shot 5 and more enemy airplanes. These units were nicknamed "flying circuses" and their commanders were illustrious fliers such as Oswald Boelcke, Max Immelmann, Hermann Göring and the most famous of them all - Manfred von Richthofen "the Red Baron".
The invention of the airplane prompted different armaments companies such as Krupp in Germany and Schneider in France to produce anti-aircraft guns. However, when the war started, the different armies had to improvise their own weapons either because the guns were not purchased or were more suitable for shooting down balloons or airships.
In Leo Lessmann's war diary we can find photos showing airplanes and anti-aircraft guns.
Lessmann photographed several downed aircraft such as this British plane, shot down in the summer of 1915. The plane is surrounded by curious German officers and soldiers.

Another plane Lessmann photographed is this one, which looks like one of the models manufactured by the French Morane-Saulnier company which was in the use of all allied air forces. The plane was shot down, dismantled and packed on a truck for inspection (It is not clear which air force the plane was part of since the only recognition mark on the plane, the tricolor on the vertical stabilizer on the airplanes aft, was painted on both British and French airplanes).

Another airborne weapon was the observation balloon. Lessmann photographed one by Bapaume in the summer of 1916. 

Balloons were used for observation on the frontlines and for artillery direction of fire. It was a not a new means of war - balloons were used in the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and in the Russian- Japanese war in 1904-1905.   Léon Gambetta, the French minister of the interior, escaped from besieged Paris in a hot air balloon. The observation balloons were prime targets for fighter planes but these same balloons were well defended by a ring of anti-aircraft guns and the balloon observers had parachutes for a quick escape during an attack (it's interesting to note that aircraft pilots were not given parachutes, so they would not bail out too quickly during battle and continue fighting…)
Lessmann also photographed anti-aircraft guns:
This one seems to be a mountain gun (supplied to mountain warfare units which need light folding equipment) with a high elevation, stationed on a wooden platform for more elevation, and converted to an anti-aircraft gun.

Here is a photograph from the last months of the war which shows an anti-aircraft machine gun (maybe a Maxim 08 light machine gun) positioned in defense of the flank of Lessmann's battery. Since at this time the different armies already had standardized anti-aircraft guns, this machine gun is in position to defend against low flying attacking aircraft – a common tactic at this period of the war.

2)      Artillery – Guns had been used in battle since the 15th century. The First World War was the first in which artillery was used in indirect fire capacity and not in only in direct line of observation as for the last 5 centuries. The lengthening of the artillery's range enlarged the size of the battlefield and turned large sections of land into battlefields, while in the past battles were limited to a certain field. Guns were classified according to their caliber or diameter of their cannon barrel. Guns with 75, 76 or 77 millimeter (or centimeter in the German army) were designated "field guns" – light artillery, used for close support of the frontline troops. Leo Lessmann's unit, the FAR 103 was such a unit. (The British used a different way of measuring guns – by pounds or weight of the shell. Larger calibers were measured by inches). Larger caliber guns – 105, 120. 155, 203 and 210 mm – were used to pound the entire front, including positions in the close vicinity of the front and several miles behind. During great offensives they were used to try and destroy the main obstacle of attacks during the First World War – the barbed wire fences.
      A third type of guns were the monster  guns – the Germans introduced them early in the war when they used 420 mm cannons and Austrian 305 mm mortars (made by the Czech firm Skoda) to smash the formidable defenses of the Belgian city of Liège. These type of guns were used against long distance targets - the most famous of all was the "Paris gun" or the Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz which bombarded Paris from a range of 120 km in the summer of 1918. These mammoths needed special trains to carry them, their crew and their huge ammunition.
Leo Lessmann's war diary shows many photographs of artillery – he was, after all, serving in an artillery unit. But one photograph is especially interesting: It shows Lessmann's unit's ordinary ammunition – a 77 mm (7.7 cm in German marking) shell side by side with a monster British shell, 305 mm (12 inch) caliber, which did not explode. This gun was originally a naval gun and was adopted for use for the British army.

3)      Machine guns – The machine gun was invented during the American Civil War (although Leonardo da Vinci planned one in the 16th century) when Richard Gattling joined several barrels together and shot them while turning a crank and loading the bullets from above. The idea was not accepted by the Union army due to its conservative set of mind (although it was purchased after the war). In 1884, Hiram Maxim, another American, invented the modern machine gun by using the recoil power of the previously fired bullet to reload rather than being hand-powered (by a crank), enabling a much higher rate of fire. Until the end of the 19th century, most modern armies had machine guns and these were used to great effect on numerous occasions – the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898 was one example. These machines were heavy: 40-60 kg and a team of 4 men and additional men to carry ammunition and other equipment.
Here is a short but excellent clip explaining the operation of machine guns in the First World War.
Although artillery was the deadliest killer of WWI, the machine guns were a formidable obstacle to an offensive and a cause of huge casualties in these attacks.
Here is an interesting photo from Lessmann's collection: Lessmann is seen standing on the right in a machine gun dugout of the 170th Infantry regiment (a unit that Lessmann's artillery regiment supported with fire) with the machine gun crew standing by. Lessmann wrote on the photograph that that the dugout was only 80 meters away from the enemy lines! This is an excellent illustration how close some of the frontlines were. 

The soldiers could smell the food their enemies were cooking in the trenches, hear them singing and talking and sometimes conversations with them would take place during quieter times of the war. On the other hand, this proximity also caused a large number of casualties – grenades were thrown into enemy trenches, and a machine gun so close meant that any attack from the opposing lines would meet total destruction.
4)      Gas – Gas warfare (or chemical warfare) was one of the more striking and horrific characteristics of World War I. It is now known that gas warfare started earlier than was accepted – the usual date given is April 22 1915, or the "Second battle of Ypres". It seems that at the beginning of war the French threw tear gas grenades, a new innovation that had just entered the French police's inventory, and it seems several French policemen brought it with them when they joined the army. The gas made no impression on the German army, which may have not been aware that it was attacked at all. The same happened in October 1914, when the Germans shot tear gas on the British lines – with the same effect as the first attack. In January 1915 they used gas on the Eastern front by the village of Bolimov (between Lodz and Warsaw), and again the gas failed to affect the enemy – the gas simply froze in the intense cold. On April 22, 1915 the Germans unleashed chlorine gas from 5000 canisters towards the French lines by the Belgian town of Ypres. The attack killed thousands of French soldiers and wounded many more. In the battle that took place in the following weeks the Germans used gas again several times, with diminishing success – allied soldiers were hastily equipped with rudimentary gas masks and fought back, even during a gas attack.
Here is an aerial photograph of a gas attack during WWI:
British gas attack at Montauban June 1916 (Wikipedia)

Counter measures were adopted rapidly – only 2 (!) days after the first attack, soldiers started using improvised masks made of goggles and packs of gauze soaked with urine or ammonia and strapped to the mouth and nose of the soldiers. Newer types of masks were introduced during the war. Here is a photo of different kinds of gas masks in British service during the war:
Various gas masks WWI (Wikipedia)

Soon enough all sides started to use gas in their attacks – in September 1915 the British used gas in their attack at Loos (described in length in Robert Graves's book Farewell to all that ) and failed – the wind changed its direction and sent the gas back to the British lines). New gases were introduced – the Wikipedia article cites 20 different types – the best known were chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas.
Although gas did not kill as many soldiers as did the artillery and machine guns, it scared the soldiers. It left terror – the plunging of war into the complete barbarism and industrial slaughter to the limit. It left its mark on art and literature – Wilfred Owen's poem on a soldier dying from gas Dulce et Decorum Est or Otto Dix's gruesome painting of soldiers in trenches, wearing ghostly looking gas masks with total devastation and death around them.
Otto Dix, Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas 1924 (Wikipedia)

Otto Dix - War (Wikipedia)
Here is a soldier, probably Lessmann, wearing a gas mask in autumn of 1915, long after the weapon was introduced.

In future posts we hope to show you more aspects of Leo Lessmann's experience in the First World War.

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