Vintage Saturday: Smoke Break

Belgian soldier smokes a cigarette during a fight between Dendermonde and Oudegem Belgium in 1914.
Belgian soldier smokes a cigarette during a fight between Dendermonde and Oudegem Belgium in 1914.

This is a really good photo of a Belgian Maxim, although it appears to be staged – the man has his thumbs on the trigger, but there does is not ammo belt in the gun.


    • It’s not clumsy like the M10 backpack… At least the Belgians didn’t toss a good machine gun away given the stupidity that the French command had concerning national pride…

      • “concerning national pride”
        Even worse, in fact Hotchkiss M1900 was produced in France, so it looks like rather government can make better machine gun than private firm issue.
        When not big problem in peace-time with start of war it become obvious that St. Etienne machine gun don’t work as intended.

        • And even worse, the French Army command believed that fighting spirit would win the day (misinterpretation of the Prussian triumphs over the old Mitrailleuses). The Germans on the other hand eventually came to realize that sending their infantry charging into machineguns, however badly designed, was suicidal beyond reason. The British learned the hard way, and so too did the Americans…

          Did I mess up?

          • Before and during the Battle of the Marne, in 1914, the french 75mm guns (something like 4000+ of them, even the Cavalry divisions have some) did great damage against packed german attacks, this was one of the few times when the gun was used as wanted by the French High Command, a rapid fire frontline gun using shrapnel shells to do massive damage against exposed infantry.

            In Flanders (First Ypres), in late 1914 the Germans throw theirs reservists units against semi well protected allied defensive lines…it’s seems that many, even them, doesn’t realize until the end of 1915 that massive infantry attacks in packed formations was out of question against machine guns nests supported by artillery. But everyone learned the lesson with time.

          • II

            The ”Elan” thing is also why the French Army could support the great losses of the battles in the frontiers, retreat in good order, reform (the GREAT diference with the 1870 situation in Sedan) and even create a brand new army unit with frontline and reserve units (mobilizing their railroad assets a la prussian) to counter attack the overconfident germans that were thinking that the worst has passed and that they only have a defeated army and the small british BEF in front of them befor victory.

            Same thing with the Belgian army, it’s seems they never realized that the belgians never give away or even that they would fight a all to defend their country, the belgians were the only ones with France to fight a total war since day one to the 1918 armistice in the Entente. They did a great job preventing the germans to achieve their strategic goals in Belgiums in time to move the great blind and sloe dinosaur that was the Von Schlieffen plan.

          • You gentlemen (Daweo and Roberto, not to miss Mr.Cherndog) are all well informed about tactics and weapons use of WWI particularly in Western front.

            I have a gap in my own ‘knowledge’ to fill. With beginning of appearance of mortars, there was one effective means how to deal with pesky machinegun-nests. My question is WHY this capability was not pursued more vigorously? Is it because there was not enough of them, or they did not have required range?

          • Denny: Mortars are an area weapon and of limited use against well dug in troops, MG positions are a point target. The gunners can be suppressed if the MG position isn’t dug in properly. MG doctrine called for targets (i.e. the gap in the wire) to be covered by at least two guns. If the T&E mechanism allowed it targets could be registered and fired on without the gunner putting his head over the parapet. The British even perfected indirect fire.

            Lots of artillery would seem to be the answer but the Germans took to hiding the guns in deep bunkers (the Somme 1916) and then racing to reinstall them after the barrage stopped. Later (Ypres 1917) they made their defensive positions far deeper with the result that the attacking allied infantry would advance beyond communications with their guns and then be exposed to counter-attacks. A combination of infiltration to attack MG positions from the flanks and rear, heavier artillery in creeping barrages and tanks were the eventual answer.

  1. Max Hasting’s “Catastrophe” is an excellent one volume study of WW 1 up to XMas 1914. In it the author notes that many if not most photos of the period were staged.

    • Staging was often necessitated by the camera technology of the day. In the 1910s photographic film was still a relatively new invention and actually less prevalent than digital photography is today. Most high quality photos were still taken on large format glass plates.

  2. I am concerned that the image of someone actually smoking a cigarette could possibly encourage others to engage in the same unhealthy activity. Fortunately, a pre health warning cigarette packet is not to be seen.
    I trust Ian, that in future you will abstain from publishing such disturbing images. I believe the technology to correct past Hollywood movies is being perfected, however in this instance judicious use of Photoshop would suffice
    Also the missing ammo belt could be added.

    • Don’t do “political correction” where it isn’t necessary unless you really like the Chinese Communist Party (the group of my grandfather’s sworn enemies). While censorship is necessary for protecting those who cannot protect themselves, we shouldn’t try to rewrite history as though it were prim, proper, and nice as a game of checkers on a sunny summer day. Real history is darker, edgier, and so politically incorrect that you’d likely murder me in cold blood for claiming that the best soldiers of the American Civil War were mixed blood Cherokee Indians.

      I think that Belgian in the photo would strangle you if you stole his cigarettes. How do you relieve stress when you could die at any moment? In battle, there is no time for a game of poker or for a newspaper (pretty rare on the frontlines). And besides, he’s likely just playing around with the machinegun just to get a feel for it (a true training session would require him to ditch the cigarette, wear his hat, and have his friends in support, just in case he does something stupid).

      Did I mess up? SAY SOMETHING!!!!

    • I suspect whatever the real situation is, this fellow has more on his mind than….You are joking, aren’t you?

    • Nothing like running a belt through a Maxim and burning one at the same time. ACN the photo doesn’t make me want to light up, the comment you posted does.

    • What about an explicative note about tobacco use at this time?

      This would preserve truth and inform people.

  3. The other clue to this being a staged photograph is the gunner’s body position relative to the gun — not exactly conducive to proper aiming and fire control during an actual live engagement.

  4. @ Cherndog & 103David :

    Just my two pfennigs’ worth, but I got the distinct impression that ACN was simply being facetious and a little tongue-in-cheek about the whole “political correctness” thing, so I think he’s really on the same page and there isn’t any cause for concern.

  5. That’s okay, Cherndog. I’ve always respected your knowledge and outlook on FW, and I guess we all have our moments for one reason or the other, as part of simply being human. I certainly have mine and I hope you and the others will be there to calm me down if I get out of hand!

  6. BTW, apropos of the preceding, cigarettes were a Spanish idea going back to the mid-1700s. They were first made and marketed commercially in France in the late 1820s, but didn’t become popular in the U.S. until just before the American Civil War.

    So no, the old story about Turkish soldiers and cartridge papers isn’t really so. Although in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1820s, it certainly could have happened.

    BTW, I’m a lifelong non-smoker.




    • Russians most notably, during both preceding great wars (and all before), would not pull trigger without prior puff of “makhorka” and sip of vodka:

      From my little knowledge I cannot imagine anyone of fighting statue without this habit, at least practised temporarily. It elevates manhood to higher level.

    • This all reminds me of my days as smoker (before the by-pass op.) when it was considered unlucky to accept the third light from a match. The first alerted the sniper, the second allowed him to take aim, the third….
      The experiences of so many in the trenches seems to have had their echoes down the generations.

  7. The gunner looks nonchalantly enough, true. That’s for the entertainment part. The hidden and more essential is the fact that in both wars ‘small’ Belgium did stand on defense of their country – and lost at least momentarily.

    When I look at another small country in centre of Europe makes me think: why they did not do the same? I think I know the answer. Does anyone want to offer their interpretation of past events?

    • If you’re talking about Czechoslovakia, perhaps the reason it didn’t fight back was because it felt abandoned by the international community. Had the Czechs and the Slovaks decided to ambush the incoming German soldiers, what do you think would happen?

      • Thank you for your view Cherney(if you do not mind). You are right, CSR government felt resistance was futile after ‘allies’ (France and Britain) reneged on their commitments.
        Another ‘piquant’ question is IF German command would attack in case that resistance materialised – a Big question. My humble view is that it might happen but after some 3-5 days it would be over; Germans would make first big stick impression and than offer ceasefire – which would be likely accepted. Yes, Belgium had a direct backer(s); big difference. Of course forces behind would actually take the steps which would suit to them and future course of the war. You can compare for example what happened with Poland; both France and Britain declared war on Germany but no action took place.

        Now about odd cases of Czech resistance in October 1938. It is known that at least in one case (in region of Moravian Silesia) a base commander refused to surrender and combat ensued. Movie looks good, reality is more-less unknown. Basically (the movie version) says that German artillery support won the day.

      • Here is a common source at what the German plan was:
        … at least the officially accepted version.

        Besides, Hungary (Horty’s regime)have immediately applied their own territorial claim in southern Slovakia, which was after short opposition heeded. In area of Transylvania Ukraine (part of prewar Czechoslovakia) resistance lasted for some time later.

        There are partly restored tombs of Czech and Slovak soldiers who fought there (currently Ukraine’s territory). So yes, some limited resistance took place; in greater part it continued on side of both France and Britain and later Soviet union.

  8. Hi, Denny :

    It’s great to hear from you! I haven’t been able to write in as much as I would like to, but I have nevertheless been diligently following the FW articles this whole time. I wouldn’t miss FW articles for the world as there is so much in-depth knowledge to learn from and share within the community. I have also found that nearly all of the members are open and unselfish with their hard-won knowledge, something which makes FW quite unique, to say the least.

  9. The same people who want to ban cigarettes,
    are the want to ban guns as well…
    they even spout the same taglines…
    “they can kill you”
    “for the children”

    • “Oh no, he’s got a gun! He’ll kill us all!” And what would you do if a bunch of North Korean soldiers showed up at your house, cower in fear and pray for the US Army to appear out of nowhere to save you!? Forget it. It’s not the guns or the cigarettes themselves which will kill you if you’re the user. Your decisions regarding how to use them will either help you or kill you. “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” You can’t say you were not warned…

      • If a bunch of ennemy soldiers really appears in your house, you can try to shoot first, but be prepared to get your house blown up. (hard to keep family safe and alive in that situation)

  10. Self accountability seems to be a dead concept in today’s world. This is in contrast to reality, nothing more than double speak.

  11. Everyone is talking about politics, and authenticity, and gun rights and nobody seems to have spotted Ians blunder in the discription.

    “but there does is not ammo belt in the gun.”

    I lol`d. 😀

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