July 2005

26 July 2005
The Somme was a victory

A chap called Neil Hanson uses a review of Peter Hart’s The Somme to do some spleen-venting in the general direction of Field Marshal Haig.  He says:

The traditional view of the battle as a blood-soaked catastrophe has been challenged in recent years by revisionist historians, claiming that the grinding, attritional strategy of Haig (as Peter Hart notes, even his birth certificate omitted his Christian name) was the necessary, indeed the only means to ultimate victory.

But later on (in not a particularly long piece) he says:

Hart’s attempts to defend Haig’s much derided obsession with cavalry are no more plausible;


Attrition by artillery, “pinch and hold” attacks and the ever-widening disparity between Allied and German war production would have achieved the same ends for a much smaller loss of life.

So, is attrition good or bad Mr Hanson?  Because I do not see how those two statements can be reconciled.  What is “pinch and hold” (usually referred to as “bite and hold”, by the way) if not “grinding”?  The best you can say is that Haig did not know himself as at various times he was both predicting a “wearing out fight”1 and seeking a “breakthrough”.

He goes on:

Haig ignored the brutal lessons of the Russo-Japanese war and Britain’s own colonial wars, describing the machine-guns that were to wipe out tens of thousands of his men as “much overrated”, and his failure to learn from the disasters of Neuve Chapelle and Loos caused the same errors to be repeated on the Somme.

Now, I appreciate that this is a short piece but it is still tremendously vague.  Perhaps he did (at some stage) think the machine-gun “overrated” but does it matter?  Firstly, for the lion’s share of the war the Germans were defending and the British attacking.  A heavy machine-gun, of the type available in the First World War is very useful in defence but not (because, as its name suggests, it is heavy and therefore not very portable) much use in attack. Secondly, it was under Haig that every platoon got its own Lewis gun section.  Thirdly, he does not appear to have minded the existence of the Machine Gun Corps (born in 1915).  Hardly the actions of a man who thought little of automatic weaponry.  Fourthly, the British Army of 1914 had machine guns in exactly the same proportion as the German Army2.

And then there’s this stuff about “failure to learn from the disasters of Neuve Chapelle and Loos”.  If I recall correctly, the lessons of Loos included the need for secrecy, proper planning, neutralising machine guns, cutting wire and proper placement of reserves.  But most of these things were at least tried at the Somme.  They didn’t always succeed but that is the nature of warfare. 

He goes on:

Haig did not trust the civilian “Kitchener army” recruits “in any tactic that needed either brains or skill”. They were, therefore, ordered to walk in ranks across no-man’s-land and were cut down like corn.

Oh dear, we really are deep into the Cliché Jungle.  Machine guns, attrition and now this.  And because it’s all cliché one is forced to wonder how much Hanson really knows about the First World War. While it is certainly the case that men on occasion walked in ranks across no-man’s-land, it is far from clear how often it happened and who ordered it.  I do not know if every single division that attacked at any stage in four-month long battle adopted this tactic but crucially, I doubt if he does either.  The precise nature of infantry tactics in battle tends not to be recorded.  And anyway, I very much doubt if specifice infantry tactics, such as this, had much to do with Haig.  Haig was a “hands off” commander3.  And what would Hanson have had them do?  Run headlong into a creeping barrage?

And was Haig wrong on the brains and skill front?  We know New Army musketry was not up to much.  But what about the rest?  There are only two ways armies get good: training and experience.  Up until the Somme, the New Army had almost no experience.  So its (military) brains and skill depended on its training.  But who was doing this training?  The BEF suffered 90% casualties in 1914 and was hanging on by its fingernails in 1915.  There weren’t that many instructors around.  This was particularly felt at the NCO and junior officer level.

Hanson’s conclusion is hardly any better:

There was nothing efficient or essential about the meat-grinder of the Somme; as one Australian officer remarked in a quote that has eluded Hart, “Let us not hesitate to confess that strategically the battle was a failure. We are now threatening the communications of Bapaume, Vely and Achiet after four months. We had meant to do that in as many hours.”

This is utter drivel.  The aim of the Somme was not to gain territory, it was to wear out the Germans and relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun4.  The Germans paid a terrible price on the Somme.  According to Ian Passingham, the Somme marked the death of the old German Army.  Meanwhile, Verdun as a battle, began to peter out.  The Somme, ghastly as it was, was a strategic victory.

In 1914 Britain was (by today’s standards) relatively free.  If that relatively free society did well that suggests that freedom is a good thing.  On the other hand, it can be shown it did badly, it provides a pretext for statism.  Regrettably, First World War history still matters. 

Footnotes to follow.

1.  This is mentioned in John Terraine’s biography of Haig.  And here.
2.  p131 ”Mud, Blood and Poppycock”, Gordon Corrigan
3.  It’s an on-going theme in Terraine
4.  p257 Corrigan

21 July 2005
Light blogging

Apologies for the sparsity of posts over the last couple of weeks.  This is because I am working on a little project that is taking up a lot of my time.  Hopefully, you will see the fruits of this before too long.

17 July 2005
Do car seats save lives?

Maybe not (registration required).  Hat-tip Marginal Revolution

08 July 2005
There is no reason to think that Britain will stand up to terrorism

Over the last few hours I have heard it said from several quarters how Britain will stand up to and defeat the perpetrators of yesterday’s atrocities in London.  Which staggers me.  I find myself wondering what on earth makes them think that.  All, and I mean all, the evidence is that British politicians will talk tough before conceding.  Here is a list (by no means complete) of British acts of weakness in the face of the IRA, every single one of them made after earnest speeches championing the virtues of democracy decrying the vileness of terrorism and claiming how we would never, never give in:

  • the creation of no-go areas
  • the abolition of the B Specials
  • 1972 talks with the IRA
  • the abolition of Stormont
  • Sunningdale
  • the weakening of internment
  • the abolition of internment
  • the introduction of religious discrimination laws
  • allowing the Irish government a say in Ulster affairs
  • concessions to the hunger strikers
  • 1993 talks with the IRA
  • negotiations without disarmament
  • allowing the IRA into government without disarmament
  • the release of IRA convicts
  • the rerouting of Orange Order parades
  • the abolition of the RUC
  • the destruction of army bases
  • the abolition of the right to self-determination

The last few were all made by Tony “we must never give in to terrorism” Blair.

It is, of course, possible that for once the British government will demonstrate some backbone.  There are significant differences between the IRA and al-Qaeda.  The IRA’s aims are limited - as yet it has no claims on the British mainland.  The IRA’s propaganda is more effective.  The IRA has never done something so outrageous that the government has had to act.  But that can change.  Al-Qaeda can learn.

The British government has a lot to prove.

Mark Steyn seems to agree with me.

Update 09/07/05.  Bearing in mind the comments a couple of further points:

1.  You should never make concessions to terrorists even if those concessions are perfectly sensible.  It only encourages them.

2.  We would all like to live in a world where we can be nice and win - just like in Hollywood.  But what if that isn’t an option?  What if the options are a) be nice and lose and b) be nasty and win?  Me?  I’ll take b) every time.

07 July 2005

Remember: no amount of French misery can compensate for the waste of money and human effort that this will involve.

06 July 2005
Let’s go to Birmingham - in the driver's cab of a Blue Pullman in 1962, marvellous …link
03 July 2005
You know you are in trouble when maths gets political

Sometime ago, I was watching some BBC Educational programme.  It was about education in Nazi Germany and featured a chap called Harry Mettelman who was a schoolboy there at the time.  His parents, who were very much not Nazis, told him never to believe anything that was opinion but that maths was fine.  Little did they know that the Nazis had managed to sneak their propaganda into maths lessons as well.

So, you can guess how I felt when I read this:

In a comparison of a 1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 “contemporary mathematics” textbook, Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics. In the 1973 book, for example, the index for the letter “F” included “factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions, and functions.” In the 1998 book, the index listed “families (in poverty data), fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises, and fund-raising carnival.”

Uh oh.

A Guide to Freedom - how it might be done and how Wiki can help

Blogs are great.  They allow us to get things off our chests and to be read.  But they lack depth.  As a friend likes to put it: “I have met many people who have changed their minds from reading a book but never from reading a blog.”

What would be good is a guide to libertarianism.  Something that describes what it is and why it would be a good thing.  Something that has all the arguments and all the facts (or, at least, as many as possible).  Something that answers the reader’s questions.

Describing libertarianism is easy but assembling the facts and arguments difficult.  Brian Micklethwait described this in the Tyranny of the Facts.  He argued that it was pointless for libertarians to indulge in fact fights because our opponents were simply too numerous and too well-funded.

That was before the age of the internet which changes everything.  In theory, the internet allows every libertarian in the world to collaborate with every other one to create a guide that is thorough and constantly up-to-date.

But how?  Blogs don’t really cut the mustard.  Although collaboration is possible, editing (pretty much) is not.  Once a post is up that’s it.  Wikipedia, on the other hand, postively welcomes editing.  Watch this online lecture (hat tip Adriana) about the evolution of the Wikipedia page on the heavy metal umlaut.  See how it evolves from one line (a stub as it is known) to a comprehensive page.  See how it resists attempts at vandalism.  See how good it gets and remember that every single word has been written by volunteers.

Wikipedia’s only real problem is when it strays into controversy.  Everyone in the world can edit a page - and they do.  Victory goes to the biggest bully.  This is a problem for libertarians.  Firstly, there aren’t that many of us.  Secondly, we have better things to do than take on those who make up with persistence what they lack in rationality.  Fortunately, there is a solution: membership.  And Wiki software (yes, they have that too) allows you to do this.

Looks like I’ve just given myself a job.

02 July 2005
Goodbye, Richard Whiteley, great man

I was saddened by the death, earlier this week, of Richard Whiteley, normally best known as the presenter of Channel Four’s gameshow, Countdown, though sometimes as the presenter who got bitten by that ferret.

For many years I have mentally referred to him as the “Great” Richard Whiteley.  This is not because I particularly liked seeing him on the screen.  In the days when I used to watch Countdown, before they moved its timeslot (bastards) I used to switch off the sound when he was on.  No, I used the term “Great” to refer to his ability to just keep going.  Countdown was an island of charm and civility in a sea of Johnny Vaughan. Producing bad pun after bad pun day after day, year after year while retaining your good humour couldn’t have been easy.

I wonder what Top Gear is going to make of it this Sunday.  For some time Whiteley has been propping up their Star in the Reasonably Priced Car leader board.  I suppose they’ll say that this is proof that slow speed kills.

Last night a friend and I were speculating on who would replace him.  Part of the trouble is that he and Carol Vorderman were very much a double act.  So were Morecombe and Wise but Carol is no straight man to Whiteley’s genius.  I guess they’ll end up promoting someone from Dictionary Corner.  At least that way there’ll be some element of continuity and also the element of keeping it in the Countdown family.  Geoffrey Durham, Martin Jarvis, Phillip Franks, Nicholas Parsons would all be good candidates.