WWI Centennial: Battle of Bazentin Ridge

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 243rd installment in the series. 

July 14-17, 1916: Battle of Bazentin Ridge

The disastrous opening of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 is still remembered as the bloodiest day in British military history, but it was merely the beginning of five months of horror that resulted in 1.3 million casualties on both sides, including 310,486 killed and missing. The lion’s share of these were inflicted in a series of incremental Allied offensives throughout the summer and fall of 1916, as the British and French pushed forward again and again in search of an ever-elusive breakthrough.

The second big push fell just two weeks after the first assault, during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge from July 14-17, when the British scored a rare victory but then failed to exploit it, giving the Germans a chance to regroup and dig in again – by now a frustratingly familiar result on those rare occasions when either side scored a success. 

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In the wake of the blood-soaked initial assault, which yielded gains in the south but disaster in the north, British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig ordered the Fourth Army under General Henry Rawlinson to push ahead on the southern front, resulting in ineffectual piecemeal attacks that failed to breach the second German defensive line, or “Braune Stellung” (Brown Line), the original objective of the offensive. 

Where the British had succeeded in capturing the German first line, terrible scenes prevailed, as described by brigadier general Alexander Johnston, who visited captured trenches near La Boisselle on July 10: “I have seen some bad places this war but have seen nothing like this place, piles of dead all over the place both German and British, most of them about 10 days old in an awful state black in the face and stinking horribly, the battered communication trenches are full of them, and one has merely to walk over the top of them.” Incredibly, wounded British soldiers were still dragging themselves out of no man’s land as well. One British officer, Lionel Crouch, wrote to his father on July 10: 

One man lay out wounded for five days. He finally crawled into our trenches. He had been unable to tell which were ours and which were German until he saw a bully-beef tin lying outside, which made him guess that they were British… He had subsisted on grass. He had a fractured thigh, but the wound had healed. His arm was badly hit and there were actually maggots in his arm. He was very cheerful and ate a large meal. Old Summerhayes attended him, and says that he will lose his arm but ought to live. 

After the meager gains won by the subsequent British attacks from July 2-13, Rawlinson, still determined to pierce the Braune Stellung and achieve a breakthrough, laid out a new plan for an attack along a low rolling hill, Bazentin Ridge, just south of two villages, Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand. Unusually for the First World War, Rawlinson actually drew on recent lessons from the battlefield when formulating his strategy, including the experiences of the Fourth Army during the Somme offensive over the previous two weeks. 

Among the lessons learned, Rawlinson insisted on an overwhelming concentration of artillery against the enemy’s second line positions, which were still vulnerable, as the Germans hadn’t had time to replicate the 40-foot-deep dugouts of their abandoned first line. The plan also called for close air reconnaissance and support to ensure British shelling was hitting the right targets. Finally, Rawlinson’s plan also called for the element of surprise mostly lacking in the original assault: infantry from the 3rd and 9th Divisions of the British XIII Corps would advance deep into no man’s land under cover of dark (a perilous stratagem, to say the least) and then spring their attack on the German second line in the early morning, advancing behind a precisely measured creeping barrage. Meanwhile the 7th and 21st Divisions of XV Corps would attack to the north, where the jumping off trenches were much closer to the enemy’s. In a sign of their confidence, the British also brought up three cavalry divisions, two British and one Indian, to exploit the hoped-for breakthrough.

The plan required considerable preparation, as described by the war correspondent Frederick Palmer, who wrote:  “New roads must be made in order that the transport could move farther forward; medical corps men were establishing more advanced clearing stations; new ammunition dumps were being located; military police were adapting traffic regulations to the new situation. Old trenches had been filled up to give trucks and guns passageway.” 

The huge bombardment that began on July 11 left no doubt of the Allied advantage in artillery on the Somme during this period. For three days straight British and French guns of all sizes pumped shells into the relatively exposed German second defensive line along the Bazentin Ridge (now actually the frontline), wiping out trenches and cutting off communications with the rear. Palmer left the following, somewhat surreal impressions of the bombardment:

The ruins and the sticks of trees of Fricourt and Mametz with their few remaining walls stood out spectral in the flashes of batteries that had found nesting places among the debris. The whole slope had become a volcanic uproar. One might as well have tried to count the number of fireflies over a swamp as the flashes. The limitation of reckoning had been reached. Guns ahead of us and around us and behind us as usual, in a battle of competitive crashes among themselves, and near by we saw the figures of the gunners outlined in instants of weird lightning glow, which might include the horses of a caisson in a flicker of distinct silhouette flashed out of the night and then lost in the night, with the riders sitting as straight as if at drill. 

In the early morning of July 14, the shelling culminated in a five-minute “hurricane” bombardment, described by Major Neil Fraser-Tytler: “The whole world broke into gunfire. It was a stupendous spectacle – the darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes – the flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, followed a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps.”

At 3:25 a.m. the British troops, who had already succeeded in infiltrating no man’s land undetected, began advancing behind the creeping barrage, which protected them from German counterattacks. The British quickly reached the first German trench, which they discovered was already abandoned in many areas, and began rolling up the German defenses with flank attacks down the trenches. As the morning went on, support battalions brought up trench mortars and machine guns to consolidate the British gains, while the first wave of attackers continued on past the ridge and into the woods in front of the villages Bazentin le Petit and Bazentin le Grand. After clearing most of the German defenders from the woods, around dawn they fought their way into Bazentin le Petit, the first major objective, where they fought off fierce German counterattacks. 

By 10 a.m. on July 14, the British 3rd and 7th Divisions had torn a hole in the German defenses, clearing the way for an advance into the High Wood north of Bazentin le Petit, but the divisional commanders were under orders to hold their positions and couldn’t call on reinforcements, which were being held in reserve in case of potential German counterattacks elsewhere. Thus the British 33rd Division was left kicking its heels in nearby Montauban while the Germans rushed to reestablish their defensive line. 

Meanwhile the British attack didn’t succeed everywhere: the 9th Division in particular, attacking the German lines near the village of Longueval, suffered very heavy casualties as it tried to push the Germans out of Delville Wood (Delville Wood would soon earn the baleful nickname “Devil’s Wood”; below, a scene from a trench near Delville, top, survivors of the 9th Division returning). South African troops continued to battle for Longueval and Delville Wood from July 14 to July 17 (and beyond), but the planned cavalry attack was called off after an abortive advance by the Indian cavalry division revealed the Germans were still well entrenched; the Indian cavalry were further hindered by shell holes and debris strewn across the battlefield, and forced to retreat. 

On the two following days, July 15-16, the British occupied most of Delville Wood and held it in the face of intense German bombardment with heavy artillery and gas shells, but the Germans still occupied the northwest corner of the wood, allowing them to hit Allied troops around Bazentin le Petit with machine gun fire. The British next tried to push the Germans out of their positions here with a pincer attack from Bazentin le Petit and the positions already gained in Delville Wood, but the situation remained a stalemate – albeit an extremely violent one, with the wood and village continuously raked by machine guns, heavy artillery, mortars, and gas shells. F.J.G. Gambling, an artillery signaler, remembered being forced to suddenly take shelter by German artillery outside Bazentin le Petit: “Some of us were lucky enough to get there, but two of the chaps were not. One of them was blown to smithereens and the other’s head was completely cut off. That finished our signaling there for that day. The body of the one chap and the few pieces we could find of the other were buried where they fell.” 

By July 17, the arrival of growing numbers of German reinforcements finally spelled the end of the fleeting British success at Bazentin Ridge (below, exhausted British troops resting). 

The British troops were left to consolidate their gains amid conditions that defy comprehension by modern readers. In the aftermath of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge one British soldier, Stanley Spencer, described advancing up a key trench known as Longueval Alley: 

It was full of dead men, both visible – lying about as they had been killed in the trench itself – and invisible – killed and buried with loose earth from the caved-in sides of the trench – and now formed part of the floor in which everyone walked… Some of the bodies under the floor of the trench had swollen and the result was a springy, cushiony feeling when walking along which gave us a rather queer and very unpleasant sensation.

On July 19 the British officer Lionel Crouch described similar conditions in a captured German communication trench:

It was extraordinary to see all these men lying there apparently asleep. About fifty yards of this trench was a veritable charnel-house; the dead were everywhere on the sides, in the floor of the trench. It was like walking through a bivouac of sleeping men. One had to step over and round them. I found one of my men sitting on one; he thought that it was a pile of sandbags! All this sounds very horrible and all that from home and peacetime standards, but isn’t so really. We don’t worry over this kind of thing.

Meanwhile the physical landscape of the Somme River basin was being completely transformed, as village after village were simply erased by relentless artillery shelling and counter-shelling, in most places leaving a smudge of masonry dust and little else. Crouch noted of one unnamed village in the same letter home, one of his last before his death on July 21, 1916: 

I had never before realised the power of high explosives. This village must have been once a pretty little place in its cluster of trees on the crest of a rise. According to the map, there was once a church, no doubt with its usual pointed spire showing through the foliage. That village is now completely off the map. I know you will think it an exaggeration, but it is true. There is not a vestige of a brick wall. I never even saw a brick. The place is merely an area of several acres of mounds, craters, and banks of earth and chalk, with a few burnt stumps of trees emerging from heaps of debris; there is not the slightest indication of a house of any sort. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

The 25 Greatest War Movies of All Time

Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
© 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC. All Rights Reserved.

It makes sense that master filmmakers keep returning to old wars to tell new stories, because war and cinema go hand-in-hand in many ways. War has everything you want to make a good story: Scope and spectacle, high stakes, dramatic tension, and emotional distress both at home and on the battlefield. It’s all right there, just waiting to be woven into an epic on the big screen.

What sets the best war movies apart, though, is their ability to never lose sight of the real human cost of war. The true masterpieces of the genre can deliver spectacle, yes, but they also tell us something more essential at the heart of every epic struggle in human history, something that unites us all no matter which side of the battle we may be on. With that in mind, here are 25 of the greatest war films ever made, from medieval epics to modern thrillers. To help narrow the list down, we mostly focused on movies that directly address the combat aspects of war versus dramas that are set during wartime.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Lewis Milestone’s film about a group of German soldiers drawn in by nationalism and then picked apart by the ravages of war remains the film against which all other World War I epics are measured. It was released more than 80 years ago, and its depictions of the horrors of war—blood-streaked men screaming in foxholes, bare hands clinging to barbed wire—still hold up to modern eyes. It’s one of the great war epics as well as one of the great anti-war films.

2. La Grande Illusion (1937)

One of the greatest anti-war films ever made, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion succeeds in no small part because of the tremendous empathy running through every frame. No matter the side of the conflict each character falls on, they are treated as pawns within the greater illusion that war will do any of them any good. Renoir’s humanistic touch, coupled with his dazzling cast, make this film an all-time classic to such a degree that Orson Welles declared it one of his desert island movies.

3. Sergeant York (1941)

There are other "conscientious objector becomes war hero" films out there, but none has ever quite risen to the heights of Sergeant York for one simple reason: Gary Cooper. In the title role, Cooper delivers one of the finest performances of his storied career, and even as Howard Hawks infuses the film with a sense patriotic glory and duty, he trusts Cooper to imbue the story with an essential humanity. Sergeant York is a hero, yes, but Cooper never makes him into a superhero. The toll the war takes is right there in his eyes the entire time, and that makes this film a classic.

4. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Among Air Force-based war dramas, Twelve O’Clock High holds a particular place of reverence for a great many fans, and it ranks as perhaps among the best of the World War II dramas made while the war was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. Led by Gregory Peck’s tour-de-force performance as Brigadier General Frank Savage, the film builds in intensity right up to the climactic battle, and remains one of the most emotionally satisfying films of its genre.

5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is the only director with two films on this list, because … well, he’s David Lean. The Bridge on the River Kwai is Lean’s seminal World War II epic about a group of prisoners, the bridge they build and then attempt to destroy, and the shifting allegiances that come with the emotional upheavals of war. Lean’s tremendous attention to detail, combining sweeping tracking shots with smaller moments like close-ups of ruined shoes on soldiers’ feet, and the Alec Guinness-led cast combine for a thrilling, often surprisingly funny, masterpiece.

6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Steven Spielberg once said that David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is one of the few films he re-watches before every new project, and it’s easy to see why. The World War I drama is synonymous with epic filmmaking even now, nearly six decades after its release. Lean’s film, led by Peter O’Toole’s splendid work in the title role, retains a sense of wonder even after all these years thanks to jaw-dropping visuals, flawless editing, and a sense of scope to rival anything on the big screen today.

7. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Few films have ever been able to depict both sides of an escalating conflict with as much unflinching intensity as The Battle of Algiers. Based on the events of the Algerian War and focusing specifically on the guerilla warfare that erupted during the conflict, Gillo Pontecorvo’s film is shot like a searing, unflinching docudrama, and the sense of verisimilitude is palpable and deeply affecting.

8. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Some war films are reverent, measured, and delicate with their depiction of the particular horrors of conflict and what it does to the people on the front lines. Then there are films like The Dirty Dozen, a film without which we might never have gotten things like Inglourious Basterds or the modern version of DC Comics’s Suicide Squad, which appeared in the 1980s. Robert Aldrich’s film takes a murderer’s row of acting talent and a tremendous sense of adventure and infuses it all with the kind of chaotic energy that only soldiers with nothing to lose could muster. The result is the kind of film those who love it want to watch over and over again.

9. M*A*S*H (1970)

One of the greatest anti-war films of all time, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H combines an irreverent, sometimes surreal sense of humor with realistic dialogue and some truly absurd situations to create a tapestry of comedy and tragedy. The film places its characters right on the edge of the action, just close enough that the blood is often quite literally on their hands as they work, then examines what that kind of precarious placement can do to a group of people whose job is to heal. It’s an essential film, and not just because of its afterlife as a legendary TV series.

10. Patton (1970)

Even if Patton had nothing else going for it, the film would likely still succeed thanks to the sheer force of will of George C. Scott. The actor’s legendary, knockout performance as the title character carries the movie, but it’s not all that makes Patton great. Director Franklin J. Schaffner uses Scott’s performance as a linchpin, framing the narrative of war through Patton’s bombastic eyes and tireless spirit. The result is a war film unlike any other, one driven by a single unstoppable personality.

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

To say that Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is one of the more “problematic” Vietnam War films ever made might be a bit of an understatement to some, but more than 40 years after its release it’s hard to deny the visceral power at the heart of the film. Some aspects of the storytelling—most famously, the Russian roulette sequences at the heart of the movie—function as rather blunt instruments that hammer the point home, but they strike so hard and ring so true that the film is impossible to ignore.

12. Apocalypse Now (1979)

The New Hollywood era of the 1970s gave rise to several prominent filmmakers who would eventually turn their attention to the Vietnam War in critical, satirical, and often incisive ways, but none of them ever did it better than Francis Ford Coppola. After crafting two masterpieces with the first two Godfather films, Coppola went through hell to craft his hellish journey into the heart of darkness of a generation-defining war, and the result is the greatest Vietnam War movie ever made.

13. Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is a film that succeeds in part thanks to its sense of contrast. It’s a war epic and it delivers the goods of a war epic, but much of it takes place within the tiny confines of a German U-Boat. It’s packed with tense, explosive action, but it counterbalances that action with stretches of quiet, contemplative boredom. The result is one of the most gripping portrayals of the mundane horror of war ever, told in an environment few other films in the subgenre have ventured into.

14. Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa was a master of many aspects of cinematic storytelling, but one of his greatest strengths was easily his ability to make violence explode out at his audience with unpredictable ferocity. Ran, Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, is perhaps the best example in the director’s entire filmography of his knack for creating epic conflict. The film’s gorgeous sets and detailed costumes are all set up beautifully only to be swept up in the chaos of the story in some of the most realistically kinetic war sequences ever shot.

15. Platoon (1986)

Based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam, Platoon steers clear of the most bombastic, epic level depictions of the war and instead focuses on the titular unit of men and the transformative effects the crucible of war has on them. Led by powerhouse performances from Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, and Tom Berenger, Platoon remains one of the most relentlessly intense war movie experiences of all time.

16. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick made a habit out of directing war films thanks to Spartacus and Paths of Glory. Full Metal Jacket was his last experience with the genre, and it feels like he poured everything he had learned into it. The film’s genius lies largely in its structure, as it shows us just how far these soldiers are pushed by basic training before they’re actually thrown out into the war. The training sequences, led by R. Lee Ermey’s amazing drill sergeant performances, are the best-remembered of the film, but the Vietnam sequences near the end are truly stunning.

17. Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson’s epic about the life of William Wallace and his rise as leader of a Scottish revolution in the late 13th century is one of those films that just compels you to watch until the end every time you see it on cable. Gibson’s magnetic, charismatic central performance is key to this, but somehow his directing is even more powerful. From the sweeping scenic beauty of Scotland itself to the rapid-fire brutality of the battle sequences to James Horner’s goosebump-inducing score, Braveheart is medieval epic filmmaking at its best.

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg’s harrowing World War II film is perhaps best remembered for its relentless, breathless opening sequence that depicts the brutal D-Day landing of Allied Forces at Omaha Beach. It’s an all-time great war movie sequence, but that’s not the only reason Saving Private Ryan endures. Its stacked ensemble cast, powerful yet simple central story, and overwhelming emotional resolution combine to make it a modern classic.

19. The Thin Red Line (1998)

No one else could make a World War II film quite like Terrence Malick, and as proof we have The Thin Red Line. The film defies easy description, despite the relatively straightforward backdrop of its emotional journey. What is ostensibly the story of a company of men fighting at Guadalcanal in 1942 becomes a deeply philosophical film that documents the overwhelming intellectual and emotional gauntlet of war. And while war is by its very nature not a beautiful thing, this just might be the most visually stunning war film made since Lawrence of Arabia.

20. Downfall (2004)

Few films have ever wished or dared to interact with Adolf Hitler on a personal, intimate level, for obvious reasons. In the realm of war cinema, the leader of Nazi Germany often exists as some kind of near-supernatural embodiment of ultimate evil, but Downfall sought to change that. The film does not sympathize with Hitler’s madness, but through Bruno Ganz’s unforgettable performance, it does allow us an opportunity to see the man’s unraveling in a compelling, perhaps even cathartic, way.

21. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Ridley Scott’s modern war epic Black Hawk Down narrowly missed inclusion on this list, because while it’s a masterpiece, his Kingdom of Heaven is a brilliant piece of work that remains underseen. Scott’s attempt to turn a modern lens on the Crusades—specifically Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187—combines a spectacular cast with some of the best epic visuals of the esteemed director’s career. Look for the Director’s Cut of the film for an even more robust experience.

22. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make a World War II film that feels like it came from both an alternate universe and straight out of our own warped rage fantasies. Inglourious Basterds combines Tarantino’s legendary knack for dialogue with a truly brilliant cast and a brutal sense of humor to tell the story of a unit of Nazi hunters and their efforts to bring down Hitler himself in the midst of a German movie premiere. Taut, violent, and hilarious, Inglourious Basterds walks a line few other war films ever could.

23. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Kathryn Bigelow’s film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and what their high-pressure job does to them works because it attacks your psyche on two fronts. On one front, there’s the human side of these soldiers, which we see through the film’s dark sense of humor and compelling ensemble cast. On the other, there’s the kind of virtuoso directing that won Bigelow the Oscar for Best Director (making her the first—and still the only—woman to take home that particular award). A lot of directors could have made The Hurt Locker suspenseful, but only Bigelow could have made it this suspenseful.

24. Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk turns the filmmaker’s masterful eye for pacing, visual elegance, and structural intrigue to the events of World War II, and the result is one of the most pulse-pounding movies of the 2010s. Anchored by a tremendous cast, the film tells the story not of one of the war’s great attacks, but one of its most essential retreats. Nolan’s brilliant sense of tension, coupled with Hans Zimmer’s ticking-clock score, combine to keep you on the edge of your seat—even if you know how it ends.

25. 1917 (2019)

Sam Mendes’s Golden Globe-winning World War I epic, based on stories told to him by his veteran grandfather, has gained a lot of press because of its “one-take” style, which might lead you to believe that it’s a gimmick film. Instead, 1917 rises beyond the structural hook of its filming style to become a meditation on the relentless nature of life in battle, and the way even the quietest moments can pivot into horror at any moment. Roger Deakins deserves another Oscar for his stunning cinematography, and George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman carry the emotional heft of the film like true champions, even when surrounded by A-list names like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

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