Last Month’s Talk
Michael LoCicero presented an adaptation of his recently published book ‘Midnight Massacre’. This had been his university thesis and he brought light to this generally unknown action
The night action of 1/2 December 1917 during the First World War, was a local operation on the Western Front, in Belgium at the Ypres Salient. The British Fourth Army (re-named from the Second Army on 8 November) attacked the German 4th Army. The Third Battle of Ypres (31 July – 10 November) proper had ended officially on 20 November but the attack was intended to capture the heads of valleys leading eastwards from the ridge, to gain observation over German positions.
On 18 November the VIII Corps on the right and II Corps on the left (northern) side of the Passchendaele Salient took over from the Canadian Corps. The area was subjected to constant German artillery bombardments and its vulnerability to attack led to a suggestion by Brigadier C. F. Aspinall that, either the British should retire to the west side of the Gheluvelt Plateau or advance to broaden the salient towards Westroosebeke. Expanding the salient would make the troops in it less vulnerable to German artillery-fire and provide a better jumping off line for a resumption of the offensive in the spring of 1918.
The British attacked towards Westroozebeke on the night of 1/2 December but the plan to mislead the Germans by not bombarding the German defences until eight minutes after the infantry began their advance came undone. The noise of the British assembly and the difficulty of moving across muddy and waterlogged ground had also alerted the Germans. In the moonlight, the Germans had seen the British troops when they were still 200 yd (180 m) away. Some ground was captured and about 150 prisoners were taken but the attack on the redoubts failed and observation over the heads of the valleys on the east and north sides of the ridge had not been gained.
The speaker calculated that the 8th Division losses from 2 to 3 December were about 552 men; the 32nd Division had 1,137 casualties and infantry regiments 117, 94, 116 and 95 had about 800 loses. The Official History made no mention of the action.
This was an excellent presentation which included the reason for the assault and the build up to the actual action. The full account can be read in the speaker’s book* which is well researched fully delves into the reasons for its conception, the preparations and actions of both sides
*‘A Moonlight Massacre. The Night Operation on the Passchendaele Ridge 2 December 1917’.
100 Years Ago
Quentin Roosevelt (19 November, 1897 –14 July, 1918) was the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt. Family and friends agreed that Quentin had many of his father's positive qualities and few of the negative ones. Inspired by his father and siblings, he joined the United States Army Air Service where he became a pursuit pilot during World War I. Quentin was only four years old when his father became president, and he grew up in the White House. By far the favourite of all of President Roosevelt's children, Quentin was also the most boisterous. With American entry into World War I, Quentin thought his mechanical skills would be useful to the Army. He dropped out of college in May 1917 to join the newly formed 1st Reserve Aero Squadron, the first air reserve unit in the nation. He trained on Long Island at an airfield later renamed Roosevelt Field in his honour.
Finally sent to France, Lt. Roosevelt first helped in setting up the large Air Service training base at Issoudun. He was a supply officer and then over time ran one of the training airfields. Eventually he became a pilot in the 95th Aero Squadron, part of the 1st Pursuit Group. The unit was posted to Touquin, France and, on July 9, 1918 to Saints. Here he roomed with supply officer Ed Thomas. Roosevelt had one confirmed kill of a German aircraft he shot down on July 10, 1918. Four days later, in a massive aerial engagement at the commencement of the Second Battle of the Marne, he was himself shot down behind German lines.
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, Commander of the 94th Aero Squadron (also known as the "Hat-in-the-Ring" Squadron), in his memoirs described Roosevelt's character as soldier and pilot in the following words:
"As President Roosevelt's son he had rather a difficult task to fit himself in with the democratic style of living which is necessary in the intimate life of an aviation camp. Everyone who met him for the first time expected him to have the airs and superciliousness of a spoiled boy. This notion was quickly lost after the first glimpse one had of Quentin. Gay, hearty and absolutely square in everything he said or did, Quentin Roosevelt was one of the most popular fellows in the group. We loved him purely for his own natural self”.
"He was reckless to such a degree that his commanding officers had to caution him repeatedly about the senselessness of his lack of caution. His bravery was so notorious that we all knew he would either achieve some great spectacular success or be killed in the attempt. Even the pilots in his own flight would beg him to conserve himself and wait for a fair opportunity for a victory. But Quentin would merely laugh away all serious advice."
Quentin's plane (a Nieuport 28) was shot down in aerial combat over Chamery, a hamlet of Coulonges-en-Tardenois (now Coulonges-Cohan) He was felled by two machine gun bullets which struck him in the head. The German military buried him with full battlefield honours. Since the plane had crashed so near the front lines, they used two pieces of basswood saplings, bound together with wire from his Nieuport, to fashion a cross for his grave. For propaganda purposes, they made a postcard of the dead pilot and his plane. However, this was met with shock in Germany, which still held Theodore Roosevelt in high respect and was impressed that a former President's son died on active duty. According to his service record, the site was at Marne Grave #1 Isolated Commune #102, Coulongue Aisne. The French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre with Palm.
Three German pilots have been credited with Quentin's "kill" at various times, and all three of them may have been his killer. Lt. Karl Thom of Jasta 21, one of the greatest German flying aces of the war, was in the vicinity and had confirmed kills nearby; he was often credited with Quentin's downing, but never claimed the kill. Lt. Christian Donhauser of Jasta 17 claimed credit and publicized himself as Quentin's killer after the war. Sergeant Carl Graeper of Jasta 50 also claimed credit, but if he did fire the fatal shots, it was his only kill during the war. All three of them may have been in the dogfight which claimed Quentin's life.
Web ed footnote: Quentin reputedly was only able to become a pilot because he memorised the eye-test chart, as otherwise his eyesight would have stoppped him doing so. This was the suppposed cause of his death as he did not recognise the other planes as being German. After WWII, he was re-interred in the American ABMC cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, to lie next to his brother Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr who died of a heart attack in Normandy, just after D-Day.