While writing my next novel in the Western Desert of Egypt (something I’ve discussed in several previous posts), I came across an interesting local landmark. Behind my campsite in Bahariya Oasis stands a grim heap of black volcanic stone called “English Mountain”. When I asked around about this unusual name, the local Bedouin told me that it was once home to an English soldier who kept watch for attacking tribes back in the days when Egypt was still a colony. I was told the ruins of his house could still be seen.
So of course I went up to see them!
But not before taking Ahmed Fakhry’s excellent book Bahariya and Farafra out of my backpack to see what he had to say about this. Yes, I travel through the Sahara with a bag full of books.
Written in 1974 but mostly based on expeditions the archaeologist took in the 1930s, Fakhry’s book is full of useful information and folklore. In it he says that English Mountain is actually named after a New Zealander named Claud Williams, who commanded No. 5 Light Car Patrol during World War One. Williams, Fakhry says, kept a lonely vigil atop that mountain for hostile Senussi tribesmen.
I’ve been a history buff all my life, and this interest led me to a career as an archaeologist before becoming a writer specializing in history and historical fiction. Thus it’s not surprising that I want my ten-year-old son to have a firm grounding of history, even though he takes more after his astronomer mother and will almost certainly go into one of the STEM fields.
One of my main interests is World War One, so when I visited Belgium a couple of years ago for the centenary I brought him back some Belgian comics on the conflict. Now we’re watching the excellent Channel Four series The First World War. I’m also vocally hoping he’ll read my Trench Raiders series, so far with no luck! I’ve been pushing this particular era of history because we live in Madrid. Since Spain wisely stayed out of the war, I don’t think the Spanish educational system will teach him as much about WWI as I think he should know.
So why not add a little extra knowledge through wargaming? He’s been expressing an interest in it lately since his favorite comics shop has some wargaming tables, so I invested in issue #280 of Strategy & Tactics, a classic wargaming magazine that’s older than I am. This issue comes with the game Soldiers 1918: Decision in the Trenches, which one BoardGameGeek labeled as “medium light” in difficulty.
With the centennial of World War One in full swing, there’s a lot of press repeating the received truths about the war. If one listens to the UK media, it sounds like the British dealt with the Germans almost single-handed, saving Brave Little Belgium with a bit of help from the French and of course the Commonwealth allies.
American media coverage, such as it is, stresses the American role, while glossing over the first three years they missed. Neither of these national media spend much time on the wide diversity of people involved in the conflict.
After the initial couple of months of World War One, the front stagnated and both sides began to dig in. The war settled in for four years of trench warfare. While trench warfare was nothing new — the American Civil War, Russo-Japanese War, and the Balkan Wars all saw the use of trenches — this was on an unprecedented scale.
The new situation called for new measures. None of the participating armies had an adequate number of grenades and it took a year for supply to catch up with demand. Some countries never managed to produce enough. Artillery commanders discovered that shrapnel, deadly in the open battles of the past, did little against entrenched enemies unless the gunners were lucky enough to score a direct hit. There was a long lag before enough high explosive shells made it to the front.
At the start of World War One, the armies of Europe were still thinking in the terms of the nineteenth century. Many soldiers sported colorful uniforms more suitable for the age of black powder, radio operators broadcast in the clear not thinking anyone would be listening, generals still advocated cavalry and bayonet charges and sneered at newfangled inventions such as the airplane, and forts were considered the best way to defend a country.
Belgium was officially a neutral country. Still, it feared invasion from its more powerful neighbors. It built a string of forts at Liège and Namur to protect against attack from the Germans and French respectively. When the Germans attacked Belgium in their daring sweep to take Paris, they brought heavy siege artillery in order to deal with these forts.
When we think of the Western Front during World War One, we tend to think of the static killing grounds of trench warfare. While this was true for many grueling years of war, during its first months in 1914, WWI was a war of movement.
The German offensive in August 1914 involved a sweep through Belgium in an attempt to take Paris and knock France out of the war before its ally, Russia, could mobilize. What the Germans didn’t expect was the fierce resistence put up by the Belgians. Its small but determined army slowed down the German advance, aided by a string of outdated but stubbornly defended forts.
In my last post, we looked at some of the medieval arms and armor at The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History in Brussels, Belgium. The impressive medieval collection is only one part of this huge museum, which covers all periods of Belgian history. The Napoleonic and World War Two sections are extensive, but of most interest to me were the Colonial and World War One sections. You won’t find much about Belgian colonial wars outside of Belgium and the small nation had a unique role in the First World War.
Belgium may have been small, but it had colonies in Africa, China, and Guatemala, as well as economic interests in many other areas. The Colonial hall follows the history of Belgian military interventions in these regions.