06 June 2007
The beginning of the end marks the beginning of (another) end

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.

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  1. I read ("War Cars”, David Fletcher, HMSO) that our armoured cars did a very good job during that battle:

    “The part played by the armoured cars at Amiens was out of all proportion to the size of their force. They were soon in among enemy troops and transport, who could do nothing but flee in all directions if they weren’t wpied out on the spot. Lieutentant E.J. Rollings M.C., commanding No. 8 section, found the German HQ in Framerville, caused its immediate evacuation and even nailed a small Australian flag to the door as evidence of his visit.
    ....
    One car managed to shoot up and stop a train while others even captured and held two villages for a while, but their greatest value was in spreading fear and rumour far and wide. Unable to distinguish one armoured fighting vehicle from another, German troops reported a new British tank that could travel at 30mph and spout fire in all directions; rumours like that are worth more than a cavalry division.”

    Posted by knirirr on 06 June 2007 at 10:38pm

  2. I did not know that.

    Incidentally, apparently in 1916 the Germans identified 3 or 4 different types of tank when only one was around.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on 07 June 2007 at 03:56pm

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