In the 11th hour — connecting the Great War and modern virology research

Today is November 11th, also known as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day, or Armistice Day. On this day in history, 94 years ago, on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I — also known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars — ended.

The Great War, which resulted in a staggering nine million soldiers dead and 21 million soldiers wounded, ended, as it started, with a stroke of a pen. It ended with Germany’s signature being placed on an armistice document in a railroad care outside Compiégne in France, and, although triggered in the summer of 1914 as reaction to an assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia, it really started with the sign-off by the German General Staff on the Schlieffen Plan in 1905.

Count Alfred Schlieffen in 1890

Count Alfred Schlieffen in 1890

The Schlieffen Plan — Failed assumptions

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the subsequent German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, French territories for almost 200 years, it was clear to Germany that relations with France would be problematic and that war with France was likely.

When relations between France and Russia strengthened after Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert, a decisively aggressive person with a clear agenda to raise Germany’s status to that of a world power, became German Emperor and King of Prussia in 1988, Germany had to face the political and military reality that the expected war with France would involve a war with Russia as well, leading to the dreaded two-front war scenario.

After Britain and France in 1904 entered into the Entente Cordiale, a normalization of the relations between the two countries, the military reality for Germany was quite clear, and Emperor Wilhelm asked Count Alfred von Schlieffen to devise a plan which would allow Germany to fight a war on two fronts. The plan was drafted throughout the year 1905 and would be revised numerous time, including a most significant revision by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger after Count Schlieffen’s retirement from the German General Staff.

The basic idea behind the plan, an annihilation of the French army first, followed by a shift of operations to Russia, second, rested on two key assumptions: (1) that the French and their Western Allies would be a lesser threat that Russia; and (2) that Russia’s mobilization would be sufficiently slow, at least six weeks, and that the Russian threat could be contained by Austria-Hungary until such time that the German army could shift its focus from the Western Front to the Eastern Front. As such the plan called for 91% of German troops to be allocated to the Western Front, and expected that France would capitulate in 42 days after which the highly capable German army, which was of such high quality relative to the Russian army that it did, in fact, make mince-meat of a numerically superior Russian field-army in the battle of Tannenberg in 1914, would shift its concentration of forces to the Eastern Front and decisively beat the Russian army.

As it were, both assumptions were false. The French army, supplemented by the elite British Expeditionary Force — consisting of battle-hardened veterans who had learned a lot about trench warfare, the effect of massed defensive rifle fire applied by highly trained marksmen on an opposing force, mobile warfare, and asymmetrical warfare during the Boer war — would be no push-over, and Russia mobilized in record-time and quickly made gains on the Eastern Front, effectively threatening Berlin from the outset of the war. The rest, as they say, is history.

The BEF — Harbinger of things to come

From a military historic standpoint, the very first run-in with the British Expeditionary Force, starting August 21st, 1914, is notable in that it gave the German army its first indications that this war would be different than any conflict before then, with the British army assuming lightly dug in positions at Mons in Belgium and pouring high volume of precise rifle fire on German soldiers who, in perfect accordance with a hundred years of tactical doctrine, attacked en masse over terrain devoid of cover in something that amounted to parade ground formation.

The riflemen that were members of the British Expeditionary Force, an entirely professional force consisting of long-service volunteers, equipped with the excellent .303 Lee Enfield bolt rifle fitted with an easily loaded ten-round magazine, were trained to pour out fifteen rounds a minute, hitting a man-size target at 300 yards, and were capable of putting down effective fire out to a range of 1,000 yards. And at Mons they did just that, pouring such volume of fire on the advancing German line that German intelligence concluded that each battalion of British infantry was equipped with 28 machine guns, when, in reality, primarily out of cost considerations, each battalion was allocated only two machine guns.

The object lesson about the significance of prepared positions and massed fire that would be taught by the British at Mons would eventually be accepted as de rigueur by all combatants in the early and middle stages of the Great War. However, in 1914 the German army, which had learned its latest and most significant lesson of modern warfare in 1866 in Saxony and Bohemia, a full 30 years before the British learned their latest and most significant lesson in South Africa, was assuming that the most important factors for winning wars were not training in fire disciplines, application of modern firepower, defensive protective positions, or attrition, but, rather, speed of mobilization and speed of concentration.

In the Western theater, the Schlieffen Plan called for rapid double envelopment, executed through a gigantic right hook. This double envelopment, inspired by execution of the Carthagian army under Hannibal at Cannae in 216 B.C. against a superior Roman force, avoided a frontal assault on the bulk of the Allied’s forces, instead using a flanking maneuver to get on the sides and the rear of the armies, with the farthest right side of the hook reaching all the way to the English channel and down through the South of France.

The British army, consisting of 75,000, or so, men and being outfitted as an expeditionary force, was deliberately placed in a guarding role on the left flank of the allied defensive line, an area thought to be non-critical, primarily because it was considered to be a weak force unable to stem the full brunt of the German onslaught. In reality, with the German army attempting to exercise the right-hook double enveloping maneuver, reaching the English Channel before swiping back into Southern France, under Paris, the left flank became the most critical part of the early part of the war, and, ironically, it would be the British army’s superior application of firepower combined with the Belgian army’s spirited static defense that weakened the right-hook sufficiently to cause the German army to ultimately abandon the double envelopment part of the Schlieffen Plan and, instead, swing east towards Paris.

This break allowed the French and British armies to mobilize and concentrate their troops in one critical battle along the Marne River, the First Battle of the Marne, in which the German army would be forced to first retreat 40 miles in order to avoid encirclement and destruction, and, then, to dig in and engage in a war of attrition, which it could not possibly win with the Russian army engaging it on its Eastern front.

Wrapping up the Great war

Technically, what went into effect on 11th hour of November 11th, November 1918 was a ceasefire, which was agreed to at 5:20 in the morning, and the two sides was still at war until Germany entered into the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th, 1919.

Coincidently, the last allied soldier to be recognized as having been killed in the Great War, was an American, Henry Gunther, who was killed 60 seconds before the armistice came into force while bayonet-charging astonished German troops who, like Mr. Gunther, were aware the Armistice was nearly upon them. The last reported German casualty occurred after the armistice was in force, when a German lieutenant went forward to inform approaching American soldiers that he and his men would be vacating houses that they had been using as billets, and was shot dead by the American soldiers, who had not been told about the ceasefire.

Thomas Edward Lawrence

From the Great War to Sir Sykes to the Spanish Flu and to Sir Sykes again

I was reminded of the Great War not just because of today’s date, but also because I yesterday watched the remastered version of Lawrence of Arabia, a master-piece of movie-making and the crowning achievement by director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel.

The movie deals with the Arab Revolt and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of the Great War (mostly a campaign against the Ottoman empire, an ally of Germany) — in particular the decisive attacks on Aqaba and Damascus and the involvement of Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, the eponymous Lawrence of Arabia, in the Arab National Council.

Sir Mark Sykes

The connection I made was rather subtle, and came about when I reflected on the early deliberations by the British, French, and Russian of how key parts of the Arab peninsula would be divided into spheres of influences and control among themselves after the cessation of hostilities, ultimately manifesting itself as the establishment of the secret Asia Minor Agreement in 1916.

On the British side, the agreement, also known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement, was master-minded and negotiated by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, a character every bit as remarkable as his contemporary T. E. Lawrence, and the sort of person that only the British Empire’s Foreign Office — a remarkably efficient organization — and hundreds of years of nobility could create.

Sir Sykes would die in 1919 while in Paris in connection with the peace negotiations, a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which, in a severe twist of fate, would enable a remarkable connection through to modern history.

The Spanish Flu — not so Spanish after all

Today, the Spanish Flu is little thought of by most of us, but it cannot be underestimated. This remarkable influenza pandemic — spreading across the globe from January 1918 through 1920 — killed a conservatively estimated 20 million to 50 million people and possibly as many as 100 million people, amounting to up to 3% or 6% of the world’s population, thereby easily dwarfing the killing efficiency of the armed forces during the Great War. To understand the spread of this pandemic, consider that an estimated 500 million people, a full third of the world’s population in 1918, were infected at some point or another during the pandemic and the only recorded instance of a major region in the world that did not report an outbreak was the island of Marajo in Brazil’s Amazon River Delta.

Spanish_flu_death_chartAlthough it has been difficult to determine an epicenter for the Spanish Flu there is broad agreement that the pandemic was linked to the incredibly increase in global interconnectivity that the Great War prompted and was directly related to the exceptional high concentration of multi-ethnic groups in relatively small areas. In fact, one theory by a British virologist team from the reputable St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the Royal London Hospital almost certainly identified a major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples in France as the center of the pandemic, while some historian has identified Fort Riley in Kansas, a major mobilization and training center for the United States army, as the epicenter. In a sense, the Spanish Flu may have been the very earliest and one of the most lethal unintended consequences of globalization.

So, the Spanish flu did not, in fact, originate in Spain. In fact, the name came about because of aggressive censorship during the Great War. Whereas wartime censorship by the belligerent nations successfully managed to initially minimize or suppress information about the scope and lethality of the illness in their home territories, papers were free to report on the effect of the pandemic in Spain, a neutral country, and, therefore, the initial impression was that Spain was particularly hard hit and that Spain was the epicenter of the outbreak. Somehow, through almost a century, the name has stuck, although, of course, a more correct name is 1918 Flu Pandemic.

It is difficult to wrap ours head around how fast moving and lethal the pandemic was, but we can try…. Overall, the disease killed approximately 20% of those infected, as opposed to the usual flu epidemic mortality rate of 0.1%. For the United States, for instance, the death count exceeded 500,000 over a period of approximately two years, which, of course, is an enormous number of fatalities incurred at an enormous speed (as a reference point, this number is on par with the total number of United States fatalities attributed to all warfare by the United States through the 20th century — a period of 100 year) and caused the population count to become negative in 1918 — the only time when this has happened in the 20th century. Moreover, if we population adjust the fatality count, the fatalities would in year 2000 have numbered between 1.5 million and 2 million, approximately the population of Alaska, Delaware, and the District of Columbia — combined.

However hard and fast the United States was hit, it pales next to Tahiti where 14% of the population died in only two months and Samoa where 20% of the population died a similar period.

Sir Sykes’ Coffin

Because of the exceptional lethality of the Spanish Flu and a very real concern that influenza strains can be cyclic, there is an ongoing medical investigation of the pandemic, frequently involving exhumation of its victims. And, so, Sir Sykes would in 2008, again, be expected to play a significant role in human history, when, 88 years after his death, his body was exhumed. Sir Sykes remains were of particular interest because it was known that he had buried in a lead-lined coffin, and it was thought that this lead-lining might have served to preserve Spanish Flu viral particles, which could be critical for the development of a defense against similar future pandemic (if this seems like a far-fetched possibility, consider that the Spanish Flu became a human infection through a mutation from the now infamous H1N1 avian virus.)

Since there are only five extant samples of the Spanish Flu virus in the world, Mr. Sykes was poised to return to fame. Unfortunately, however, Sir Sykes’ coffin was found to have collapsed from the weight of the soil over it, and, although samples were taken, the exhumation did not yield the results hoped for.

Memorial and Reflections

So, tonight, on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 2012, I will be lighting a candle in memory of not only the millions of soldiers who died in an around the trenches of the Great War, but also for the many more who died from the Spanish flu, for T. E. Lawrence and for Sir Sykes. In doing so, I will reflect on war, pandemics, globalization, and the unique and disproportionate roles that singularly minded individuals have played throughout history.

As a motorcycle rider, I will also reflect on T. E. Lawrence’s rather silly death in a motorcycle accident in 1935 in the English country side, seemingly an unsuited end for someone who had traveled the world and avoided certain death on several occasions.