Context for the BAR WWI Field Reports

Like commenter waltons and some others, I also wondered what modifications, if any, were actually made to the BAR in response to the not terribly favorable reports from the field prior to the expansion of its use in later conflicts. Sigivald notes that most of the complaints in these weren’t every really addressed beyond maintenance and “not doing week-long trench assaults.”

That reminded me of a picture we scanned that gives context for the kind of terrain where you would find these rifles. This picture is dated September 11, 1918, so it is about a month before the memo was issued requesting feedback on the guns, but about two weeks before the 79th Division (which included the 316th) would be arrive here.

The caption gives no estimate of altitude of the plane taking the photo. Regardless, you can see how small the trees appear in comparison to the shell craters. Oh, did you even notice the trees and trenches among all of the craters? Look closely at the full size by clicking on the image. Now think about all of that being mud, given that some of those reports mention days and days of rain.

While there were pretty universal complaints in these reports, this photo gives very important context that we weren’t exactly using them in any kind of conditions regularly experienced during the design process. Honestly, I don’t see how most guns would stand up to such extreme conditions and work particularly well without people focused on their maintenance nearly 100% of the time.

This is certainly not the first battlefield photo I’ve ever seen from WWI, but still, just wow. How does France even exist today after all of this destruction in WWI and so much again in WWII? I guess it’s a handy reminder that both mother nature and people are pretty damn resilient.

In related news, if NARA would allow me to bring my sleeping bag past security, I could move into the Still Pictures Research Room for at least a week and never get tired of exploring. They have giant card catalog files that are divided by topic, and excellent finding aids for an amazing variety of topics. Want to find photographs of WWI anti-aircraft guns? Oh, just flip through the card catalog and you’ll find all sorts of photos to pull and peruse. (These are on the list for a next visit since one of Sebastian’s great grand uncles served in an anti-aircraft unit during The Great War.) The Matthew Brady collection? They’ve got that, too. I just wanted to pull open each drawer and go through every topic imaginable. I didn’t even make it to the Motion Picture floor to see what exciting things can be discovered there.

15 Responses to “Context for the BAR WWI Field Reports”

  1. Sebastian says:

    Those parts of France those battles were fought in are still pretty pock marked.

    • Jaime says:

      I visited the D-Day historical site at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy and was amazed by the number and size of the craters, even almost 70 years later, from one day of shelling. The pictures in the link below give an idea, but it’s really striking to walk around. There was almost no part of the site that was flat and even. The largest crater was large enough to fit a house, left from an artillery magazine bunker towards the north. The bunker suffered a direct hit, detonating the magazine and throwing sections of concrete the sizes of cars and a large moving van 80 feet and more away. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be there during the shelling.

  2. Paul says:

    The world wars did not wreck France nearly as much as Poland and Russia. Most forget that there was an eastern front to both wars.

  3. Good chance that picture was taken by a balloon. A slight chance it was taken by a balloon manned or supported by my grandfather, as his unit arrived very early and was one of the earlier American units to advance to the front.

    Sadly he would never talk about all the action he saw, just a few muttered comments about how the various German things he brought back were from soldiers who “didn’t need them anymore” and somewhat about the baloons he flew and the motorcycles he wheeled around in (both in the Signal Corp).

    • Bitter says:

      I do love the stories of the balloon makers and such from WWI. The local genealogical society did a profile of one last year when they kicked off their WWI database effort.

      In this case, it was a plane based on the caption. But you could find photos taken of and by balloons in WWI in the card catalog on the still pictures floor. :)

      • I’ve read up on what I could about my Grandfather’s unit. He wouldn’t talk about battlefield experiences much, but my grandmother kept all the letters he wrote home and I’ve read through those. He also brought home some trench art, a 76mm shell casing and another piece, which are interestingly decorated and I still have right now.

        He sometimes went up in the balloons as a gunner. He trained to parachute out but I don’t know that he ever did. He was a big, scrappy kid from the country (dirt poor/4th grade ecucation) who within months of joining was a sergeant. He rose to that position so quickly by being the unit boxing champ and smacking guys around to get them to do things (different army/different times). Very interesting.

  4. LCB says:

    I remember reading somewhere about GI’s in WW2 spending the night on a WW1 battlefield and waking in the morning to find bits of bones and war debris all around them.

  5. “How does France even exist today after all of this destruction in WWI…” The soil was fully and deeply plowed then filled with with fertilizer rich in bone-based calcium.

    • Bram says:

      Yes – some of the most productive vineyards in southern Europe were sites of gigantic battles between Romans, Goths, and / or Huns.

      People always underestimate how persistent and resilient nature is.

  6. harp1034 says:

    It looks worst than what Viet Nam looked like. After the war the Vietnamese gov’t put men to work filling in the craters.

  7. Jeff says:

    Is there any plans/effort to digitize this stuff? It would be a shame to lose it to a fire or neglect.

    • Bitter says:

      Honestly, I don’t know much about their digitization plans. I know there are some programs, but I’m not sure how extensive they are. They definitely have enough staff with downtime to digitize – at minimum – the finding aids. Even those would be a huge help in assisting researchers who could get more of it digitized than employees could alone.

      And, as all of us who could desperately use the 1890 census know, those are fair concerns.

  8. andy b says:

    “Bois de Malancourt,” it says, maybe looking north towards Mort-Homme?

    The Battle of Verdun is certainly in the running for the “worst time and place to be in all of human history” award.

    The French really were not kidding when they labeled these “Zone Rouge” areas as “Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible.”

    How did anyone survive that? Physically, or mentally?

  9. Sid says:

    One of the TV programs has a gun torture test. Although it is somewhat tongue-in-cheek because of taking ludicrous steps of burying and then firing…. it would be just about what the WWI generation experienced on a daily basis.

    Reports from that generation have to be taken with a grain of salt.

  10. Bitter says:

    For readers interested, the Congressional Research Service just posted a finding guide for military service records. There’s nothing radically new in there, but if you haven’t started yet or just need some new ideas (such as the branch history centers) for something you’re interested in researching, here it is: