Liverpool, 100 years ago:
Rioting has begun again to-night in the “danger zone.” A crowd was smashing the windows of tramcars in Burlington-Street, and troops were sent to disperse them. The crowd was not disturbed by the mere display of force, but when the Infantry were ordered to kneel in the attitude for firing they hurriedly scattered.
Some thoughts and observations:
- Amazing how quickly food supplies dried up. In much the same way plasma TVs did last week.
- Heartening what Lloyd George has to say about the elementary duties of the state: “to protect life and property”. Has Cameron said that? Does Cameron even know that?
- The parallels are interesting ie a big riot, calls for the troops to be deployed etc but is that as far as it goes? You can’t blame police incompetence, light sentencing and the welfare state for these riots.
- A hundred years ago they were bâtons not truncheons. Also employés rather than employees.
Oh my God, there’s going to be a war in 3 years’ time! Are these two things related? War as a way of uniting a divided nation, perhaps?
At least, that’s how it starts. But soon enough we’re talking about the Battle of Jena and all points between, which include the Franco-Prussian War, the siege(s) of Paris and the Dreyfus Affair.
This is the cartoon I mention:
“Above all, let us not discuss the Dreyfus Affair!”
1. I don’t know what these people do.
2. I am stingy.
3. I don’t like charity. This is partly because I am (as I said) stingy. Partly because I don’t like guilt trips. Partly because I get nothing from it. Actually, that’s not quite true. I rather like the Remembrance paraphernalia. I like the sight of poppies. I like the ceremonies, the Cenotaph, the Unknown Soldier, the Two-Minute Silence. I think they are marvellously dignified. (I was at Heathrow Airport a couple of years ago when it was called and, blow me down, it was observed! Any foreigner there must have thought we were nuts.) I like the collective message that is sent out to the world at about this time: “We had two appalling wars and we have not forgotten.” Oh and the international confusion: “What are they wearing?” - it causes. I like the fact that we share precisely the same poppy-wearing business with the Canadians (and probably a few other former colonies too). Maybe, if the buying of the poppy were separated from the giving to charity I wouldn’t mind so much.
On this subject, Brian made some interesting points about charities a few years ago. I am not entirely sure if I agree with him.
It occurs to me that he also made a rather good point in a speech to an Libertarian Alliance conference (this time talking about political correctness) about “package deals” (of which this is one): where along with the good stuff (being nice to black people) you get a whole load of bad stuff (speech codes, state violence etc)
4. The black plastic centre. This used to bear the words “Haig Fund”. Because the appeal was in aid of the Haig Fund, the fund set up by Field Marshal Haig to aid veterans of the First World War. About 20 years ago, at a time when the “Blackadder” school of history had managed to convince the world that the guy was a callous bungler, these words were changed to “Poppy Appeal”. This has always struck me as an act of appalling cowardice. And I don’t think I should be giving my money to cowards.
So, if they changed the words back would you buy a poppy? Probably not. But if they separated the poppy from the charity I probably would.
But, Crozier, “Haig Fund” is a charity. How can you have something that mentions a charity but isn’t actually connected to it? Errrrr. Hmm, yes that is a bit of a hole.
But, Crozier, the Chinese went mental when they saw Dave and Co wearing poppies. Isn’t that excuse enough? Almost. Given that Dave has managed to anger both the Chinese and students in the same week I really should have more sympathy for the guy but the problem is I don’t think he means it.
5. I am very suspicious of universal conventions.
Do you walk around naked? OK, there are some universal conventions I respect. Why this one and not that one? Dunno. Because it feels right. Given long enough I could probably intellectualize it but I can’t just this minute.
I’ve always been rather disappointed by 50-years-ago, 100-years-ago-type columns. They always seem to be compiled by someone who just doesn’t like history. Or just doesn’t get it and so can’t put it into context. Or, maybe, does get it but can’t put it into context because in point of fact that particular day’s edition didn’t have anything particularly poignant.
So, I’ve always tended to think of it as a pointless exercise. Until, that is, a bored few moments a few days ago when I thought it might be fun to look at the world of a century ago through the pages of the Times. Even if it was the silly season. A worthwhile exercise as it turned out.
In the silly season of 1910 there was none sillier than the Kaiser. Here he is inspecting the German colonies in Poland. The what!? Colonies. Sounds awfully like an early version of Lebensraum.
And here (warning: you may need to hit zoom to read it) he is appearing to proclaim the divine right of kings. In NINETEEN TEN FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE! Remind you of anything, like the Führerprinzip, for instance?
And here is a by-election in Germany in which the socialists defeat the anti-semites. Yes, that’s electable anti-semites. Long before Hitler got going.
Which makes me think you may not be able to see the seeds of the First World War in August 1910 but you can certainly see the seeds of the Second.
I am currently rather pre-occupied with what I would rather not call libertarian anti-war theory. Examples of this include this podcast by Ralph Raico on the First World War, his piece on the Blockade of Germany and this article by Murray Rothbard.
“If you have a right to fight you have the right to win.” is for the time being my riposte.
In which we cover the Blackadder school of history, tanks, the German character, whether Britain should have fought or not, why Germany lost and Crozier’s Grand Theory of 20th Century History.
Before we recorded this conversation Brian put up a trailer on Samizdata which reaped a bumper crop of good comments. Sure, there was some wheat in with chaff but a lot of them were first rate. It was an exercise I suspect Brian will repeat in the future.
Field Marshal Haig (as Blackadder would have it) appears in this clip (it’s the second scene in):
This is General Melchett and Haig’s secret plan:
As funny as they are inaccurate.
Belgian neutrality did indeed date back to 1839.
The late Chris Tame was head honcho of the Libertarian Alliance.
The development of the tank was indeed sponsored by the Admiralty and the Landships Committee.
This is the Bloch we mention, the one who predicted how awful the war was going to be.
This is Brian on DUKWs.
I was right that Haig’s conception of the war included four phases. The one I missed was the initial clash.
The BBC screened a documentary on the Battle of Amiens the other day - part of a series fronted by Peter and Dan Snow. Amiens the British-led battle of 1918 that marked the beginning of the end of the war. Ludendorff described it as “the black day of the German Army” before suffering a nervous breakdown.
The documentary itself may well mark the beginning of the end of the “Donkey” school of history. This is the school of thought that the British Army was made up of lions led by donkeys who continually ordered their men into futile frontal assaults - a school which has been so intellectually dominant for so long that its views have seeped into the popular culture in the form Blackadder goes Forth and, indeed, last weekend’s, otherwise rather good, Doctor Who.
It is the first time, that I am aware of, that a television documentary has allowed itself to believe that the British Army of 1918 was not just competent but actually rather good. The Snows talked about tanks (I had no idea that the crews had to be taken to field hospital after a stint in one), creeping barrages and the role of aircraft, but most importantly they talked about how all these elements were co-ordinated. Perhaps most impressively, they made the point that the modern British Army makes use of exactly the same principles today.
While overall, an excellent documentary there were a couple of things that I wasn’t entirely happy about:
1. They described Ludendorff as a “strategist”. That was the problem - he wasn’t. Indeed, I am pretty sure he’s quoted as denying the need for a strategy.
2. They spent a lot of time on the Ludendorff offensive but got no nearer to answering my question as to why the Allies found themselves in such a strong position come mid-1918.
3. No mention of the RAF’s losses. Apparently they lost some enormous number at Amiens. “The black day of the RAF” as it is sometimes known.
4. No mention of the revolution in infantry arms and tactics. Soldiers of 1918 would have had access to a whole range of equipment - such as Lewis guns, mortars, grenades and helmets that either didn’t exist or only existed in tiny quantities in 1914.
But this is relatively small beer and we have to be aware that in an hour-long documentary there is only so much that you can cover. The point is that the point is that the British Army knew their business. And that is a good thing.
Here are a few of the items I enjoyed this week:
- Tony Blair holds a summit on gun crime but somehow fails to invite Rob Fisher: “I know the solution, and it is really very easy and straightforward. Drum roll please. Are you ready? Legalise drugs. No-one ever got shot over cigarettes, alcohol, or anything you can buy for £2.99 from Boots.”
- Jeremy Black has a couple of good articles on the First World War. Here and here.
- Also from the Social Affairs Unit, William Rubinstein offers an historical perspective on the current cash for honours scandal.
- Live Aid: “Fund-raising event which helps needy African dictators enlarge their fleets of Mercedes, while simultaneously enabling white, midole class people to demonstrate conspicuous compassion.” Harry Phibbs reviews How to be Right: The Essential Guide to Making Lefty Liberals History.
- Stewart Brand, environmentalist heretic. (hat-tip: Instapundit)
- Want to get ahead in the USA? Easy: brag. OK, so that’s a bit of an over-simplification of a thought-provoking, if long, article. (Hat-tip: Instapundit)
- An academic bemoans the state of British education before the Guardian journalist interviewing him proceeds to prove it: “It’s superficial stuff, fine for the general populous,...” Oooh.
- “At last, a machine fully compatible with Windows Vista.” Heh.
This is the text of the talk I gave to Christian Michel’s 6/20 Club on Saturday which Brian Micklethwait has been kind enough to mention.
This talk comes out of a conversation that Christian and I had shortly before Christmas. He wanted me to do a talk and I suggested the First World War. He asked me which particular aspect and I said that while I could talk about the origins my real expertise was how it was fought. He suggested that perhaps I could combine the two which I thought would be difficult. The argument was solved when he casually remarked that as he understood it the Germans didn’t want war in 1914. My howls of protest down the phone convinced both of us that perhaps the origins talk was the one to go with.
To say the First World War was a huge event in world history is to imbue the word “huge” with a scale it does not entirely deserve. 10 million lost their lives. 2 empires disappeared. 4 emperors lost their thrones. A whole host of new states were created. The war also saw the creation of the first communist state. To Britons, who suffered far less than most, it created a collective nightmare image of mud, wire, machine guns, cemetries and poppies that persists to this day.
It is a depressing war. All wars are depressing but most wars have moments of dash and heroism. The Second World War had its Battle of Britain with its brave young Spitfire pilots. The Napoleonic Wars had their thin red lines. But the First World War has nothing to compare. It’s colour is brown. There was almost no opportunity for the individual to excel or make a difference.
Mind you, relieving war of its heroic side is probably no bad thing.
Perhaps the most depressing part to it was that it didn’t really solve anything. With the exception of the Soviet Union it marked (until the founding of the EU) the end of multi-national super-states. But otherwise it didn’t solve the question of what boundaries industrial states should occupy and how they should be governed. In that respect it was only the first in a succession of conflicts that didn’t properly end until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
So. What was it about?
The standard version - the one I was taught in school - goes something like this: Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated, by assassins who were probably under the control of rogue elements of the Serbian government but no one is quite sure. Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia (for reasons unclear - though probably to do with Serbia being an ally) mobilised her armed forces.
At this point the Schlieffen Plan enters the fray. Russia and France were allies. Thus, if Russia attacked Austria, Germany would be obliged to attack Russia and France to attack Germany. So, Germany would be facing a war on two fronts which had long been the ultimate nightmare. So, Germany needed to knock one of her enemies out of the war as quickly as possible. Russia was too vast to be defeated quickly, so it had to be France. The plan was to go on the defensive in the south while sending the bulk of her Western forces through Belgium, then south through Northern France to attack the French army from two sides. If everything went to plan, France would be defeated in 6 weeks. The plan hinged on the assumption that the Russians would be slow to mobilize in the event of war. This would allow Germany the time to send the bulk of her forces westwards, to defeat France and be able to send those forces back East to fend off the now-mobilised Russian forces.
But what the plan did not allow for was for the Russians to have mobilised before they went to war. So, for Germany, Russian mobilisation meant war.
War with Russia meant war with France. War with France meant the invasion of neutral Belgium and the invasion of neutral Belgium meant war with Britain.
There is usually some mention of railway timetables, the idea being that they made the Schlieffen Plan rigid to the point that there was no flexibility. Germany could not simply have a war on one front. War with Russia meant war with France.
Variations on the standard version will also tend to mention the tensions of the time: Germany’s industrialisation but lack of empire, the naval arms race and Alsace-Lorraine.
The overwhelming impression given is that it was an accident. I have never quite bought that. I find it difficult to believe that such a huge event could be brought about by accident. Not impossible, mind. The death of Princess Diana was clearly a huge event in all sorts of people’s minds and that was an accident. So, not impossible but unlikely.
The Kaiser did it
So, what theories are there out there? One, I know well, not least because I have blogged about it, was that the Kaiser did it.
When he stepped down as Chancellor in 1890, Bismark left Germany a golden legacy. It was united and industrialising. It had friendly relations with Britain because he had kept Germany out of the hunt for empire. And it had made deals with Russia and Austria to keep the peace in Eastern Europe.
The deal in question was a couple of (I believe) secret treaties which said that if Austria attacked Russia, Germany would side with Russia. If Russia attacked Austria, Germany would side with Austria. Seeing as Germany was by far the strongest of the three powers it made no sense for either Austria or Russia to go to war. So, they didn’t.
The only real worry for Germany was France who wanted to regain Alsace and the parts of Lorraine she had lost in 1870. But France was the weaker power and lacked allies so there was precious little she could do about it.
And then William tore up the agreement (I believe it was known as the Re-insurance Treaty) with Russia. Russia now lacked an ally and was soon making alliances with the French. Why William did this is not clear. But what is clear is that it created a huge headache for the German Army. Its doctrine had always been to avoid a war on two fronts and now this was precisely the scenario it had to deal with. So, it came up with the Schlieffen Plan - the idea being to defeat France in 6 weeks and then be able to concentrate all its forces on Russia. Only one problem - it was barking mad. It had no slack. It was entirely dependent on nothing going wrong: Britain not intervening, Russia mobilising slowly, Belgium being a pushover, soldiers being able to stay on the march for over a month and at the end of it: France losing.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Just to make matters even worse, Germany built itself a Navy. A German Navy can only used against the British Navy. But Britain wasn’t even an enemy at the time. It was a hostile act towards a power that wasn’t hostile. The only argument for it that makes sense - or rather makes sense in the fantasy world of the German court - is that they were running out of aristocrats. Running out of aristocrats meant that if they wanted to expand the army they would have to allow all sorts of hoi polloi into the ranks of the officer corps. This they did not want to do. So rather than do that they restricted the size of the army and put the money into the navy instead.
This expansion was wrapped around Tirpitz’s doctrine, the Risk Theory. The idea was that if Germany had a large navy, although it couldn’t defeat the Royal Navy it could weaken it to the extent that it would be vulnerable to the navies of France, Russia and, possibly, the United States. So, the British would avoid conflict.
This, again, was barking mad because it made no allowance for what Britain ended up doing. What the British actually did was to cut a deal with the French in the form of the Entente Cordiale.
Having done that in 1905, a year later, in 1906, the British upped the stakes by launching the Dreadnought Class of battleships. These rendered all other battleships obsolete. Had Germany been sensible it would have folded at this point. Instead it started to build dreadnoughts of its own.
It’s a neat theory that the Kaiser did it. But it’s wrong. At key moments the Kaiser was placed in a very weak position. He did not want to see the end of the treaty with Russia but his Chancellor, von Caprivi, threatened to resign. It came in the very week that William had sacked Bismarck. To lose one chancellor might be regarded as misfortune would look like carelessness. At the height of the July crisis in 1914 he tried to prevent war with France but was told by von Moltke, the Chief of Staff, that war plans were so reliant on complex railway timetables that they could not possibly be changed. This, incidentally, was a lie.
David Fromkin in his book “Europe’s Last Summer” makes a number of points and suggestions.
He points out that alliances rather than encouraging war tended to act as a brake. France did not want to go to war over Serbia. Russia did not want to go to war over Alsace-Lorraine.
In a similar vein, Germany did not want to go to war over Serbia. I can’t remember the exact numbers but between 1908 and 1913, the Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf had proposed war with Serbia over 20 times. Each time he was turned down. Part of the reason he kept on being rebuffed must have been Germany’s reluctance to get involved in a Balkans dispute.
In a similar vein he makes much the same point about monarchies. Nicholas II may not have cared much for his cousin William II but war would have made all sorts of things inconvenient.
But the main thrust of Fromkin’s argument is that August 1914 was the tale of two wars. Austria wanted to crush Serbia. Germany wanted to crush France and Russia. The sooner the better. Germany wanted war in 1914 because her already desperate strategic situation was getting worse by the day. Russia was industrialising. That was threatening to shatter both parts of the already fragile Schlieffen Plan. It would shatter the first part (defeating France) by allowing Russia to mobilise faster. It would shatter the second by holding out the prospect of a one on one defeat. For the German High Command it was now or never. That was why the Chief of Staff, von Moltke went to the Kaiser and told him bluntly that rigid railway timetables meant that war with Russia meant war with France.
It was a lie. We know this because the then Director of Transportation went on to write a whole book debunking it. But it was a lie that worked and one that managed to overcome the Kaiser’s usual (when it came to the crunch) pacifism.
Perhaps Fromkin’s best evidence is the paper trail - or rather lack of it. Von Moltke destroyed most of his papers. By and large people do not destroy documents unless they have something to hide.
Fromkin’s is an explanation I like. It suggests method in their madness. It suggests that the war was no accident. But what it doesn’t do is to explain how the system of alliances that were essential to creating those conditions came about. It explains how leaders reacted to the situation that they found themselves in but not how they got into that situation in the first place.
States do not go about randomly making alliances. They do so for reasons.
So, let’s have a look at some of these alliances to see what clues they yield.
The Anglo-French Entente isn’t really an alliance at all and for about a day in August 1914 this created all sorts of ructions when France found itself at war while Britain hummed and hawed. It’s creation was a direct response to the creation of the German High Seas Fleet. Britain saw in this a threat to trade and a threat to empire.
So, why does Germany have a navy? As Winston Churchill remarked: “For Britain a navy was a necessity, for Germany it was something in the way of luxury.” I’ve already mentioned the meritocratic/aristocratic conflict in Germany as one of the drivers. And I’ve also mentioned Tirpitz’s Risk Theory. Another argument that occasionally gets raised is that it had something to do with the idea of getting an empire but it is difficult to see how. The scramble for Africa is pretty much over. All that’s left is scraps. The only real means of gaining an empire is to seize somebody else’s. But to even think about that would be to undermine the Risk Strategy - which aims to keep Britain at bay and relies on the presence of a French navy.
Going back to Germany’s class conflict - this is still big. Germany is in the bizarre situation of having the institutions of a democracy but not the reality. If I recall correctly, the Reichstag was elected on a broader franchise than that in Britain but it had a lot less power. Germany’s aristocrats, who dominated the army, were desperate to cling on to power and the idea that you could send the best of the lower orders off to sea must have had quite an appeal.
France was simply happy to have an ally in its attempts to regain Alsace-Lorraine. At this point it is worth thinking about the basis of France’s claim. It was partly historical: Alsace-Lorraine had been part of France so should it again. And partly democratic: Most people in Alsace-Lorraine are French, therefore its should be part of France. This is not quite as clear cut as it is sometimes presented. To the best of my knowledge there was no great re-unification movement in Alsace-Lorraine. At the end of the war Alsace-Lorraine declared independence before the movement was crushed by France. German immigrants were expelled.
I can even add some personal observations to this. While waiting for my cousin’s wedding ceremony to start at Colmar Town Hall I looked at the (I assume) World War Two War Memorial. I counted 36 names. More than 30 of them were German. Of course, a German name does not imply a German speaker does not imply a would-be German but it doesn’t contradict it either.
Of the France-Russia alliance little has to be said beyond what has already been said. It owes its origin to Alsace-Lorraine and Russia’s nervousness over the end of the Re-Insurance Treaty.
That in itself was caused by Germany’s decision to back Austria over Russia. Why they decided to do this beats me. Although Austrians might speak German most of the empire’s subjects did not. And while Russia seemed to be a coming power, Austria was anything but. “We have shackled ourselves to a corpse” was a frequent German comment.
Could ethnic or racial tensions be at the root of all this? I have this vague idea that nationalism (which was in the air at the time) arose through industrialisation and the spread (and perversion) of Darwin’s ideas. But if so, you’d be looking for growing German suspicion/hostility towards Russians and other Slavs. While anti-semitism was growing (on both sides of the border) and hatred of Slavs was a big deal for the Nazis, I can’t find much evidence of it before 1914. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there - just that I can’t find it.
The German hostility and suspicion towards Russia is central to the outbreak of the First World War and yet it is difficult to see where it was coming from. It’s not as if the two had a territorial dispute to keep them at one another’s throats.
It’s a puzzle.
How to govern industrialised societies
There is another way to think about it and that is in the context of the 20th Century. The idea is that the conflicts of the 20th Century were attempts to answer the question: how should industrialised societies be governed? At the beginning of the 20th Century the options were: liberal democracy, imperialism, nationalism and socialism. The First World War saw imperialism drop out of the running, the Second World War, nationalism, and the Cold War, socialism. It left liberal democracy, albeit in a heavily-modified form.
It’s a neat theory and it fits the facts of the 20th Century, but does it fit the facts of 1914? While Britain and France might fit the bill of liberal democracies, their empires certainly don’t. And France’s claim to Alsace-Lorraine is dubious. Indeed, if lack of empire were the yardstick, then Germany was about the least imperial power in Europe. But it isn’t. The yardstick is how institutions are elected and what powers they have. In that context, Britain and France undoubtedly come out on top.
But that doesn’t quite get them off the hook. Although they were the better powers, they still have to have acted correctly. Liberal democracies should not involve themselves in aggressive wars. But while Britain and France were clearly preparing for war there is very little evidence to suggest that they were seeking to provoke one.
Liberal democracy is not perfect. I decry its injustices on an almost daily basis. But it’s a lot less imperfect than the alternatives and it holds the best chance of something better emerging in the future.
I was intrigued by the BBC’s documentary on the Battle of the Somme on Sunday night. I can remember watching a similar documentary some 30 years ago which was very much of the “Donkeys” school of Great War history.
But this one was very odd. The first part was very much the usual kind of thing: brave men, idiot generals etc. But the second was quite different: brave men, some not-so-idiot generals and an army that was learning its trade.
- Equal billing with the “Donkeys” is a huge victory for the revisionists
- Boy, does it take time
- I think the claim about Morland was probably nonsense
- The “Donkeys” history is badly skewed. They overplay some aspects and completely miss others.
- It is amazing how long it takes to come up with an even remotely balanced picture of what happened.
So, this Morland claim?
The claim is that on the morning of July 1916 with his left-hand side division having succeeded and his right-hand side division having failed, rather than using his reserves to attack on the right Morland should have have sent them to the left to have attacked the Germans on the right from behind (if that’s not too complicated)
I think this is preposterous (although I would bow to anyone with superior military knowledge). A Great War division has about 20,000 men. It is not an easy thing to move. It takes weeks to prepare them for an attack. To ask them to change their plans on the fly seems absurd. How are you even going to get them to the new start line? They won’t have maps. Even if they did they would constantly be bumping into each other.
So, what do the “Donkeys” overplay?
They are forever going on about how the British crossed no-man’s land in waves. Or “walking slowly towards the enemy” as Blackadder would have it. I think this misses the point. If your enemy has unsuppressed machine guns behind uncut wire it doesn’t matter how you advance towards him - you’re going to get massacred. You can run but then you can’t carry much. You can crawl but what you gain in terms of silhouette is lost in terms of speed. You are less of a target but the enemy has more time to shoot you.
Why would you want to carry much over No Man’s Land?
Because of the difficulty of resupply. No Man’s Land is still a dangerous place even when you’ve captured the opposite trench. It can be swept by enemy machine guns in front and to the sides and by enemy artillery. Attacking infantry have to have enough food, water and ammunition to hold out until help arrives.
And what do the “Donkeys” underplay?
The real reason 1 July was such a disaster. At Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the British Army stumbled on the formula for destroying an enemy position. It was essentially, a certain weight of shells in a certain amount of time. In the initial plans for the Somme, Rawlinson - the General in charge - kept to this. And then, under pressure from Haig, he changed it - halving the weight of shells to accommodate the greater depth of frontage that his commander demanded. So, neither the wire nor the trenches were destroyed. The tragedy of the greatest bombardment in history was that it wasn’t great enough.
So, you don’t think that we had a balanced picture until recently?
Well, perhaps balanced is the wrong word. Detailed would be nearer the mark. No, that’s wrong too. Clear - that’s the word. In the 1920s people were still in shock. In the 1930s, the Donkey-bashing started. Although, the BBC’s Great War documentary series from 1965 is balanced, it gives you little idea of how the war was actually won on the Western Front. After that the “Donkeys” had a field day - culminating in the 1976 documentary I remember so well. It was only after that that the “revisionists” started to look into the difficulties that the British Army faced and how it (eventually) overcame them.
So, what were the difficulties?
Well, they include the sorts of things: trenches, barbed wire and machine guns, that we all know about. But they also include things like communication - there wasn’t any. The small starting size of the British Army was another. It meant that it lacked experienced men. Counter-bombardments. Artillery tends to get overlooked because it is difficult to visualise. But if you attack the first thing that the defender does is to bring down shell-fire on you. Artillery was responsible for 60% of casualties on the Western Front.
So, how did it solve them?
Artillery mainly. More guns, more shells, new types of shells, better shells, better techniques. It’s not glamorous stuff or the stuff you can easily put on celluloid but it was a war winner. Of course, other arms and other techniques had their part to play, and we shouldn’t neglect the impact of the Blockade, but artillery was overwhelmingly the most important.
- Good special effects. I especially liked the battle sound effects and the whizzing sound of the bullets. OK, so we’ve heard it a fair few times over recent years (starting with Private Ryan) but it’s still good.
- One gets the feeling the Blackadder Goes Forth school of history is having a hard time of it. Although this was still very much of that ilk one got the impression that they were drawing in their horns. There was a lot less of the walking in rows, generals were buffoons of the sort I can remember from the 1970s. The revisionists are starting to win the argument.
- War is awful. Yup, message received loud and clear. Several times. But so what? Ok, try to avoid it. Splendid. But what if you can’t avoid it? Answer came there none. Now, I suppose I might be being a tad optimistic to hope for a discussion of how the British army improved its ammunition, fire plans, gun registration, infantry tactics secrecy and reconnaisance but I would expect something…
- The real problem is that although they mentioned most of the key issues: Verdun, Britian’s tiny pre-War army etc, the producers failed to join up the dots. What was the impact of Verdun on the Somme? What was the effect of Britain having such a small pre-War army (an army that got a lot smaller by Christmas)? Their biggest failing was omitting to state what the Somme was for. It was not to gain territory. It was to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun and to wear out the Germans. It achieved both of these things. Within days of the opening of the Somme the Germans went on the defensive at Verdun. The German Official history describes the Somme (not Verdun) as the “muddy grave of the German field army”1.
- Then a real howler. At the end, they stated that very little ground was gained at the Somme. Wasn’t it? A few months later the Germans withdrew up to 30 miles in operation Alberich. Intelligent readers might like to ask themselves why.
1. All the Kaiser’s Men, Ian Passingham, Sutton (2003), p127
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.
I was watching an otherwise excellent BBC Timewatch documentary today about the establishment of trench warfare in 1914. It made the point that all sorts of otherwise unrelated inventions from the machine gun to barbed wire to canning contributed to making trench warfare possible. Unfortunately, the BBC in their wisdom marred the whole programme by one line at the end. It was something like: “…a war characterised by mass slaughter and a lack of imagination from senior commanders.”
Lack of imagination? What an extraordinarily ignorant remark. Senior British (and I assume French) commanders made enormous efforts to find technical and tactical solutions to the problem of trench warfare. In Britain, an entire department spent the war commissioning and evaluating inventions proposed by the public (most of which were completely useless). They tested body armour, body shields, helmets, periscopes, sniperscopes, rifle batteries, mortars, Bangalore torpedoes, wire cutters, automatic weapons and much more. Weapons such as the Stokes mortar, the Lewis gun, the tank, gas and smoke shells were all introduced. In artillery, sound ranging, flash-buzz (not quite sure what it is but it was apparently very useful) were adopted. It has been said that the 105 (or was it 109?) fuse (again I am not quite sure what it did) was a war winner all by itself.
Tactically, the British army experimented with creeping barrages, Chinese barrages, machine-gun barrages, night attacks, predicted firing, mines, camouflage and air re-supply. As the war progressed the British army became extraordinarily good at keeping build-ups of men and material from the enemy. There was a huge expansion of the air force along with the introduction of both tactical and strategic bombing.
Much of this willingness to experiment can be traced to that supposed butcher Douglas Haig. There is some extraordinary tale of him ordering 1000 tanks sight unseen. He also engaged in a lengthy correspondence in the search for effective body armour for his troops. But perhaps Haig’s greatest strength was his willingness to allow his commanders to command. In some cases eg Hubert Gough his trust was misplaced. But in others eg Plumer and Monash it was rewarded in spades. After Monash’s highly successful attack on Le Hamel in July 1918, Haig ordered his battle plan to be widely circulated. All this effort was in the end rewarded. By the end of 1918 the British Army had restored a level of mobility to the battlefield that (as Paddy Griffith points out) would be regarded as perfectly acceptable by its Second World War heirs.
It is not an unnatural human desire to search for someone to blame for disasters on the scale of the First World War. But the truth is that there is no one to blame. It was just bad luck that the war was fought at a time when defensive technologies were so much more superior to offensive ones. It would take another couple of decades before the internal combustion engine and the wireless had developed to a stage where they would render trench warfare obsolete. In their absence senior commanders pursued just about every avenue available to them and it is about time their efforts were recognised.
[Incidentally, should you wish to read further you might want to take a look at the following: Battle Tactics of the Western Front, Paddy Griffith; Dominating the Enemy, Anthony Saunders; Douglas Haig: the Educated Soldier, John Terraine; Forgotten Victory, Garry Sheffield.]
I caught the end of an episode of the Great War on BBC2 this afternoon. They’ve got up to 1918 and the Lundendorff Offensive which got me wondering: how come the Allies went from a situation in early 1918 where they were on the defensive to a situation in late 1918 where they were carrying all before them?
Was it the entry of the Americans? Frankly, I doubt it. I don’t see how it could have been. The Americans simply didn’t mount anything big enough. Nothing on the scale of the Somme, Passchendaele or the Hundred Days. This is hardly surprising. When Britain entered the war it had a tiny army. It took the best part of two years before it was able to make any sort of serious contribution. When America joined the war it, too, had a tiny army and there’s no particular reason to think that it could have ramped up its size any faster than the British.
Was it that the Ludendorff Offensive was more costly to the Germans than the Allies? Possibly, but all the figures I’ve heard quoted suggest the opposite: that the Allies lost more men. In other words, the Ludendorff Offensive strengthened the position of the Germans. But, if that is the case, why did it stop? The only conclusion that makes any sense is that the Ludendorff Offensive was much more expensive than the Germans let on. The only way their figures could be correct would be if their losses included a disproportionately high proportion of their best troops.
There is one other possibility (and one you won’t hear that often) - and that is that the Allies had better tactics. What us, better tactics? We of the “get out our trenches and walk slowly towards the enemy” brigade of popular imagination? Surely, not. Well, Blackadder myth-making aside there is plenty of reason to think the Allies would have been better on the offensive than the Germans. The principal one is that they had been doing more of it. From September 1914 the Germans had been content to sit tight while the Allies had been seeking to eject them. Up until 1918 the Allies had had little tangible success but they had learnt a lot.
There is a widespread myth that the Germans were better than the Allies. But it seems to me that a simple examination of the observable facts indicates the precise opposite: the Germans lost because they weren’t as good.
Starting tomorrow, the BBC are reshowing this classic 1965 documentary series. It is one of my favourite TV programmes of all time. Let’s put it this way, when I heard it was available on DVD I bought the set. Then, I bought the DVD player. It’s great strength is that at the same time as having no agenda it manages to avoid sinking into cliché Well, that’s one of its great strengths - interviews with survivors and stacks of archive footage and a haunting soundtrack are another.
Whether the BBC will be able to screen all 26 episodes remains to be seen. It tried a couple of years ago but the airings seemed to peter out about half way through.
The Great War, 2.20pm, Mon 14 March 2005, BBC2, (40mins)