IamA Clyde Cremer, military historian and author of “The Life And Times Of A World I Soldier.” It’s the 100th anniversary of the start of the World War I AMA!
My name is Clyde Cremer. I have studied military history for 50 years. I find World War I facinating since the decisions in breaking up the colonies and empires of the central powers after the war has a big influence in todays news headlines. e.g. the Middle East, Balkans, Africa.
I spent 13 years researching a book on World War I titled, The Life And Times Of A World War I Soldier based on the diary and letters of a relative who was in the war. I went everywhere from where he was born to the actual spot where he died in north eastern France as well as spending time doing research in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
It’s a complex subject but I’ll try to do my best to answer questions about the war and American involvement.
My Proof: http://imgur.com/a/IrtW9
(I don't internet so my son is helping me with the typing etc.)
Edit: If you would like to contact Clyde just send an email to [email protected]
Edit2: (7/29/14) Back answering questions today. Also, I am an avid collector of historical firearms. Here are some videos that you may find interesting:
*WWI Sniper Rifle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMjwsh-4gbI&list=UUBKjJLs30nlriirs90YapvQ
*WWI Wire Cutter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fm85vPD-Rg0&index=3&list=UUBKjJLs30nlriirs90YapvQ
The main thing is that he was an excellent pilot and took lots of risks. He had an excellent plane and knew how to handle it. When he went into combat he didn't hold back and went in to get blood. It is believed that he was actually shot down by Australian ground forces, who were firing up at him with machine guns, rather than shot down by an enemy pilot. He was buried by the Australians with full military honors then later disinterred and buried in Germany.
Which countries came out of the war better than when they entered it?
I can't say that there were many winners in the war except the states that got their independence. Poland became an independent state, they weren't an independent state since the 18th century. Hungary became an independent state. Arabia was split up into states but they didn't get their independence like the British promised because they were colonized by the French and British. British got Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia because they were looking for oil. France got Lebanon and Syria. The United States became a major world power after the war.
Did you have the diary and letters as family possessions already or did you have to find them in a library or archive somewhere?
Also, did you find it easy to get your hands on original documents and records at libraries or did you do your research more with history books?
I did very little research via history books. When I started my research I was able to obtain the diary and letters. The diary actually had a bullet hole through it.
Aside from the diary my main sources were primary sources:
Period newspapers from 1913 - 1920 from places where he lived and served in the Army.
Secondly, the national archives original documents and after action reports written by his company commander and other reports and data on the division he was in.
Original maps of the 77th divisions movements in WWI.
Recollections of other soldiers in his division that I obtained from newspaper documents in the national archives.
I also used the original ships manifest for the ship that he was shipped to Europe on.
I was able to get a lot of information from the disinterment records at the National Archives about soldiers that died with him and in his unit.
After the war the US government published various books about war material production, shipping of soldiers on land and sea, military training etc.
I also took five trips to France and visited the Argonne forrest.
When you use other peoples history books to write your book you only get the books authors spin on things. I found that primary sources were the best sources of information because you get the feel and tempo of the people from newspapers. How they felt about the war, food prices, and what what was happening on the home front during the war such as "wheatless meatless days" which is when they cut back on the use of flour and had one day a week where they wouldn't eat meat. There was also information about the flu epidemic of 1918 and the Sedition Act of 1918 which suspended the first amendment and made it so that nobody could write anything negative about the war. This was while we were at war to save the world for democracy.
During the war soldiers letters were censored but after the war censorship was lifted and the soldiers could write about their experiences such as what they saw and where they served. The newspapers were allowed to publish these letters which I used while researching the book.
I join the British Army in early 1915 and am sent to the Western Front. What are my odds of surviving unscathed until 11/11/18? My odds of being injured and returning to the front? Odds of the so-called "Blightly wound" (enough to send me away and not be sent back, but not be permanently debilitated)?
Thats a great question. I don't have exact odds but I took the following information from the appendix in my book The Life And Times Of A World War I Soldier and I think that you might find it interesting:
MARCH OF THE DEAD
If the dead killed in WWI were lined up 20 abreast and began marching from sunrise to sunset this is how long it would take for them to march past the reviewing stand:
- The French dead would take 11 days
- The British dead 10 days
- The Russian dead would take 5 solid weeks
- The entire allied parade including Americans, Serbians, Romanians, and Greeks would take two and a half months to pass.
- The enemy soldiers would take 6 weeks
- If all of the dead in WWI were marched past the reviewing stand it would take 4 months for them to pass.
- SOURCE: Lewiston Morning Tribune. May 16, 1918 and Cottonwood Chronicle, April 11, 1919.
- For every 100 American soldiers serving in the war, two were killed or died of disease
- The total battle deaths of all nations involved in the war was greater than all the deaths, in all the wars, in the previous 100 years.
- Russian battle deaths were 31 times as great as the United States; 32 times greater than Germany, 28 times greater than the French, and 18 times greater than the British.
- The number of American lives lost was 125,500 of which about 10,000 were in the Navy.
- In the U.S. Army, the Infantry had the highest causalities with the officers having a higher rate of causalities than enlisted men.
- For every man killed in battle, six were wounded.
- Five out of six men sent to the hospitals with wounds was cured and returned to duty.
- In the AEF, battle losses were twice as large those from disease.
- In this war the death rate was lower from disease and the death rate from battle was higher than in any previous American war.
- Inoculation, clean camps, and safe drinking water, practically eliminated typhoid fever among our troops in this war.
- Pneumonia killed more soldiers than were killed in battle. Meningitis was the next most serious disease.
- Of each 100 cases of venereal disease recorded in the United States, 96 were contracted before entering the Army and only four after entering the Army.
During the war, hospital facilities in the AEF were in excess of needs.
SOURCE: Ayers, Leonard P. Four Million Men – The War with Germany. Page 130
BATTLE DEATHS AND CASUALTIES
- Total battle deaths, of the AEF during the war: 50,280
- Killed in action: 35,560
- Died of wounds: 14,720
- Wounded severely: 90,830
- Wounded slightly: 80,480
- Wounded, degree undetermined: 34,380
- Missing in action (August 1, 1919) 46
- Taken prisoner: 4,480
- Total number of lives lost in the Army/Navy from the declaration of war until July 1,1919: 125,500
- Deaths in the Army, including Marines attached to it: 115,660
- Of the 115,660 deaths 69% were in the AEF and 31% were stationed in the United States.
- Of the 115,660 deaths, 57,460 (50%) were from disease, 50,280 (43%) were from battle, and 7,920 7%) classified as other.
Author’s Note: Figures will vary from source to source which attests of a state of ignorance as to the exact number of soldier’s in any particular category. War is not an exact science and neither is the tallying of the pain and suffering by various categories!!
Germany's 2nd greatest fighter pilot, Werner Voss, painted the nose of his triplane with eyes and a mustache, which many have said was an homage to Kaiser Wilhelm II and his mustache. Is this a true story? And Werner was honored by the Kaiser and met him, so obviously the Emperor must have known about Voss' plane. Did Wilhelm ever express an opinion about this homage? Or was it a caricature of Wilhelm painted by Voss? Thanks,
Thank you for the question and the link. I never heard of that before.
After WWII, the USA and Russia grabbed a lot of German scientists and engineers and had them work for them, which resulted in advanced development of rockets and jet aircraft. How come this didn't happen after WWI? It's not as if Germany wasn't advanced in many areas... The Fokker D-7 was considered the best fighter of the war, they were the leading users of Zeppelins, U-Boats, and had a lot of good small arms, to name a few. Thanks again,
Thats a very good question. After WWI we didn’t expect to go to war again. We stopped all weapons production and let the army camps go into ruin. We sold off surplus clothing and blankets. Nobody tried to modernize anything. We destroyed lots of good German weapons after the war. After WWI we went back to isolationism. When WWII came along we were caught off guard.
Also, even after WWII there were lots of weapons and technology that the Germans had after WWII that we didn’t go after: machine guns, tanks and synthetic fuels to name a few.
I've given some thought about being a historian of some sort for awhile--primarily either a military or film historian. I read a lot of historical accounts and non fiction readings, but I'm not sure whether to keep it a hobby or pursue it as a profession. How did you know this was something you wanted to dedicate your life to?
This isn’t my profession. I actually manufacture log homes.
I wrote the book because I felt that so many soldiers died in the war and were forgotten. I wanted to take one solder and write about his life which is the life of so many other soldiers. This makes it so this soldier is no longer forgotten because his life has been reconstructed.
I was interested in history since I was a child and I’m not sure why. I remained interested in it because a person who doesn’t know history has no past and has no future. When you don’t know history you are bound to repeat the mistakes of history.
I like all kinds of history besides military history. Its nice to know what has happened around you. When you walk across the prairie you can know what happened at that spot in the past. Its also interesting to visit Europe and find out how towns get their names, why they were formed and what made them prosper
History is all around us.
If you aren’t interested in it thats find but I don’t think that your life will be enriched. Your life is enriched by learning what goes on around you in the past and what will happen in the future.
A lot of U-Boats were sunk from ships ramming them. How is that possible? Isn't it easy for a U-Boat Captain to see a ship coming at you from a long distance away? And even if the U-Boat is stationary, wouldn't it be easy to blow tanks and submerge, or just gun the engines and move out of the way?
I have heard that some were sunk that way but I don't know if it was a lot. Usually the subs were taken out with deck guns or depth charges. When they were rammed it was because they were surfaced and charging their batteries. It wasn't a common occurrence but once in a while they were caught off guard. The Olympic, the same ship that I wrote about in my book, rammed a sub and sunk it. I also heard of another sub being sunk by a biplane. The biplane fired at the sub with a first generation recoilless rifle and sunk it.
Fun Fact: The biplanes recoilless rifle had a special design. The recoilless rifle had the high explosive charge in on oneside and on the other side they had a ball of shaved lead and grease. When you would fire the rifle the explosive shell would fly out of one end and the lead and grease would fly out one end reduce the recoil.
What happened to all those massive ~40-foot tall wooden statues of Paul von Hindenburg? I could not find any information about what happened to them after WWI. How were they made and did any of them survive?
Thanks for the link. I wish I could answer your questions but I have never heard of that before.
I am Australian and when we learnt about WW1 ofcourse we were told that ANZAC soldiers (diggers) were exceptionally brave and strong fighters. I'm sure most countries would say this about their own soldiers but I'm wondering if there was anything stand out about the Australian soldiers? We were sort of told horror stories about Australian men sent in waves to bayontte rush enemy trenches while their british commanders were on the beach drinking tea (Gallipoli)
I don't think that you could point to any one country that had soldiers that were braver than the other. The only bravery that the all soldiers had was that they perceived in foxholes and trenches. The ANZAC soldiers persevered at Gallipoli and the British and French persevered at the western front.
Interesting fact: The reason that they were called diggers is because since they couldn't move forward against enemy lines they would just dig deeper into the ground to escape the enemy shell fire.
I'm actually aspiring to become a history teacher and wars have always interest me. Do you have any tips, advice, or general knowledge you'd like to share to help me become a better historian?
Read. Read a lot of books. Not just the history books that they hand out in high school. Try to visit the battle fields and read a lot of different books about the wars you are interested in.
Who is your favorite WWI poet?
My favorite WWI poet is Siegfried Sassoon because he was in the war and wrote his poetry about what it was really like on the western front. On the home front the poetry was very patriotic but the poets who were actually there wrote about death, shell shock etc. and how it really was. I talk about this in my book.
Is it true that some pilots would pretend to shoot at each other since they could, in theory, look each other in the eyes?
Also, why would the death of an Arch-Duke spark a world war? If this event did not happen, wouldn't the war have happened anyway?
Finally, why does WWII get all the attention? Is it because there was such a great cast of characters (Hitler, Churchhill, Roosevelt, etc)?
The war would have happened anyway. The French and Germans were eying each other as another possible war. This is because France and Germany were always arch enemies.
The Germans had the Von Schlieffen plan on how they would attack France a number of years before the assassination. They had railroads built up to the Belgian border to move supplies into France if they attacked. The Germans also built up their navy to be equal to Britain since the Kaiser of Germany felt intimidated by the British navy.
The death of the arch duke sparked the war because the Austrians wanted a lot of reparations from the Serbs due to the killing of the Arch Duke. They didn’t get it so they invaded Serbia.
Russia was an ally of Serbia so they declared war on Austria/Hungary.
Germany was an ally of Austria/Hungary so they declared war on Russia.
France was an ally with Russia so they declared war on Germany.
Germany went through neutral Belgium to invade France and Britain had a treaty with Belgium so Britain declared war on Germany.
Then Britain and France brought in their colonies to help fight the war: The British brought in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India to fight for them and France brought in people from Morocco and Algeria to fight on their side. Bulgaria and Romania sided with the Central Powers and the Ottoman empire also sided with the central powers.
The whole time the United States was giving weapons to the French, British, Belgium and Russia while maintaining that they were a neutral in the war although that wasn’t actually the case.
It was a domino effect caused by various treaties.
Never heard about the thing with the pilots.
Why is Germany generally blamed for WWI instead of Austria-Hungary, when Austria/Hungary was the first to invade Serbia, and Franz Ferdinand was an heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire?
One reason is that Germany was the major player in the war of the Central Powers. Another thing is that there was a lot of propaganda put out that was against the Germans because Kaiser Wilhelm was easy to pick on as being a beast and despot. Propaganda referred to him as the “Beast of Berlin.” I don’t know if you can really blame one country for being more warlike than another one. If they didn’t have these various treaties then all the different countries wouldn’t have been pulled into the war.
The British, French and Americans used the Germans as propaganda. They said that the Germans were using babies for bayonet practice and killing women and children. That was never proven after the war. They could pick out Kaiser Wilhelm as being a bloodthirsty savage because he was a militarist. It was easier to pick on him than a person from Bulgaria/Austria or Hungary. It was easy for the propaganda machine to work because German invaded neutral Belgium on their way to France.
The British also put out a lot of propaganda against the Germans such as the sinking of the Lusitania and sinking of various of other troopships when actually very few were sunk by the Germans.
WWII gets more attention for the following reasons:
- Film, Photos and Survivors - WWII is more recent and there are lots of WWII survivors that you can talk to. There are also lots of photos and video of WWII where all this doesn’t exist with WWI.
Films, photos and people to interview make good content for the media. WWI has basically sunk into the past and people don’t really talk about it.
- It was personal - In WWII we were directly attacked by the Germans and Japanese. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and also fired artillery shells at a refinery in California. They also sent balloons into Oregon with incendiary devices attached to start forest fires. WWI never felt like it had the same urgency as WWII.
The Germans also sank our ships off the east coast of the United States. German spies landed on the east coast for sabotage and people could see US ships burning off the east coast from being sunk by the Germans.
In WWI we just went to Europe to help the allies.
- Economy - In WWII there was also a tremendous switch from a peacetime economy to a wartime economy where everything went into war production. That type of war footing was never found in WWI.
Thank you Mr. Cremer & son. I didn't expect such thoroughness in your answers. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this IamA.
Not a problem! Thank you for your interest!
Why weren't the use of tanks in WWI a massive failure? They only move at ~3mph, had thin armor (8-12 millimeters), and the Germans had plentiful artillery? Perhaps it is an artillery question as well... How hard was it to just adjust aim on a field cannon? Was 3mph too fast of a moving target?
Tanks actually weren’t that big of a success. The WWI battlefield wasn't a good place to be as a tank driver. Artillery did take out a lot of tanks. It was pretty easy to change aim on a field cannon. They didn’t really need it though. The tanks were coming directly at the trenches so they didn’t really have to adjust aim that much. The tanks were subject to battlefield breakdowns. It was always raining and the battlefields had a lot of clay of them and it made things slippery. They also had trouble getting across trenches. As time went on the tanks got better. The tanks weren’t what won the war. They aided in the war but it wasn’t a miracle weapon. Tanks started getting slightly better after World War I. Even in WWII the allied tanks weren’t that good. The armor was thin and they tended to breakdown.
Fun Fact: The British had female and male tanks. Female tanks just had a machine gun. Male tanks had a canon.
I lived in Eastern Iowa for a bit, where in NE Iowa are you from originally?
I'm also a history lover, I really really really hate that the germans are blamed for starting the war. I will always say the Serbs started the war.
I'm from New Albin, IA. It is near La Crosse, WI
Were parachutes used in Zeppelins? And if not, why not? I know they were used on Observation Balloons, and I know they were only sometimes used on airplanes because the parachutes would tangle due to a damaged airplane spinning out of control and leaders were worried that pilots would abandon their expensive plane prematurely if they knew they had a parachute. However, a Zeppelin seems as if it would be as easy to parachute from as from an Observation Balloon. Also, it's easy to tell when there is no hope of saving the Zeppelin... it starts burning like the Hindenburg!
Thats a good question. Parachutes weren’t used in Zeppelins and I doubt that they even had them onboard. They used Zeppelins for bombing cities like London and if it got hit with tracer fire they would explode. I wish I knew more about it but its out of my realm of expertise.
What is some tips/advice you could give about researching WWI?
I would first get an overview of WWI first by reading some of the basic books such as “The Guns of August” and “Eleven Eleven by Paul Dowswell” about the last day of the war.
Also, in the 1940’s the American Battlefields Monuments Commission wrote unit histories on each division that served in WWI. You can also find reports in the newspapers in the Fort Leavenworth, KS about the war that were published in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
If you want to do research on it use the National Archives in College Park, MD. They have lots of field reports and after action reports. They also have lots of information in their disinterment records.
Period newspapers are also a tremendous help.
Its good to keep in mind that when you read the information during and after the war a lot of the info ration contains errors because people were afraid to say anything due to the Sedition act.
I devote a few pages to this in my book in "Chapter 21 - Killed in Action Fact or Fiction" of my book
Man I'm late but this is an incredibly fascinating subject. I'll be sure to give it a look.
If you or your dad see this, do you know if the book includes anecdotes about shell shock sufferers? I'd love to know more about how it was viewed by soldiers at the time, I know people faked injuries to get out of the trenches and am unsure if they even had psych discharges like that back then.
The book does include information about shell shock.
Interesting story: One guy was on disability from the army after World wWar I. He complained about bad dreams and that he couldn't sleep etc. The army said that there was something wrong with him so they stripped him of his disability.
Also, the british poet Siegfried Sassoon suffered from shell shock and wrote about it in his poems.
Corporal Donald Kayler (1st Infantry Division) at 17 years of age was fighting in the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. He was still a teenager on the outside, but was a very old man on the inside. He had seen far too much in the short time that he had spent on the Western Front.
“I had seen many men, my friends, my acquaintances, and others, maimed and killed. At no time, either at the front or behind the lines, was I ever away from the sound of battle. Sometimes it was faint and far away, but always there. At first, I had been very much afraid. Then gradually, insensitiveness to danger, so far as fear was concerned, came. I realized danger with my mind, and could take measures to counteract it, but the emotions of life or death were sort of blocked out. It seemed to me then as though the dead were luckier than I was. I could see no end to the war, and did not expect to survive it. It did not seem probable at the time. I was tired physically and mentally. I had seen mercy killings, both of our hopelessly wounded, as those of the enemy. I had seen the murder of prisoners of war, singly and as many as several at one time. I had seen men rob the dead of money and valuables, and had seen men cut off fingers of corpses to get rings. Those things I had seen. But they did not affect me much. I was too numb. To me, corpses were nothing but carrion. I had the determination to go on performing as I had been trained to do…to be a good soldier.”
As a final testament to the horrors of war, it is believed that Adolph Hitler formed much of his “anti-social” behaviors from his horrific experiences in World War I.
Out of the research you have done. How many GI's did you interview and even all are/were important individuals. Did anyone stand out the most? How many did you see as the most vivid in recalling WW 1. Any one or few that stood out the most to you?
Unfortunately I wasn't able to interview any WWI soldiers because they were all dead. I talked to their sons and daughters about what they saw and did but not the individuals themselves. The sons and daughters were all in their 70's when I talked to them.
I hope I am not too late.
Near the end of the fighting, I heard France was prepared to capitulate, Germany unknowingly skipped an assured final victory and went after the British and American forces in the north instead. This seems so painfully ridiculous that Germany was that close to victory and blew it to attack a greater force.
Is this accurate?
I wouldn't say that this is accurate. The French and British were in tough shape in 1915 and 1916 but at the end of the war the Germans made a major push during the second battle of the Marne because they wanted to knock the French and British out of there before the Americans got there in force.
The Germans didn't win the battle of the Marne because so they were exhausted from fighting.
Interesting Fact: When the Germans took over the French and British positions the found lots of food and wine. They hadn't seen food like that for years so they stopped to eat. By doing this they lost momentum in the battle and eventually lost the battle of the Marne.
Why does it seem to me like France was more psychology affected by the war?
This is because so much of the northern part of France was totally destroyed in the war.
France also lost a lot of men in the war, especially at Verdun. In that battle the French lost 500,000 men and the Germans also lost 500,000 men.
Verdun is a holy site to the French and the French military runs all their new recruits through there to see what war is all about. The troops see unidentified bodies as well as trenches that caved in that now only have bayonets sticking out.
When people talk about Frances inability to fight they have never been to Verdun to see how the French held the lines in WWI.
Do you think the English commanders of troops sent in the Canadian's and other colony peoples into higher risk situations than their own British units?
No I don't think so. There was squandering of lives on all sides.
The British took most of the heavy casualties for doing stupid things at Flanders and at the Sommme. They marched men directly against machine guns at those battles. They sent so many of their own men to die that Prime Minister Lloyd George was reluctant to send more men to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig because he wasted their lives and sent them to their deaths. The French and British wanted the Americans sent in to replace their units but we refused because we knew what would happen to them.
At the battle of the Chemin des Dames while the French were marching into battle whey made noises like sheep going into slaughter. In fact, it was such a slaughter that the French soldiers (called Poilus) fighting at the Chemin des Dames mutinied and some of the guilty ended up in front of the firing squad and many others were sent to Devil’s Island; all of this transpired without the knowledge of the German Army! In a final analysis 52 Divisions consisting of 100,000 men were involved in the mutiny. From this pool of men 23,385 were court marshaled with 412 given death sentences and 23 being executed.
I love military history, what drives your love for history, and how did you end up with your current profession?
I've always been into history: natural history, world history, military history etc. When I first visited the battlefields of WWI I saw all the mass cemeteries and saw all these names and wondered who they were and how they lived and died. When I read about my grandmothers cousin I thought that it would be a good person to expand upon. I wanted to bring life back to a man who had been dead for 90 years.
What countries had the worst tactics?
The Germans had the best tactics and everyone else had bad tactics or no tactics at all. This is because they were in trenches and every now and then they would charge a machine gun.
For years the British and French sat in trenches making occasional attacks.
Why were the Japanese being little girls during the meeting for the Treaty of Versailles?
During the Treaty of Versailles the Japanese asked for German possessions in the Pacific and also wanted part of China. They also wanted that there could be no more prejudice against Asians. They didn't get any of it and went home mad. They said that they would be back and actually came back in the 1930's and took over the possessions that they originally asked for as a prelude to the war in the pacific. A good book on this is "Paris 1919" by Margaret MacMillan
What was the Red Baron like?
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