Sunday, November 28, 2010
Fiction review, Historical or Hysterical?
Good day my well regarded viewers, I hope this missive finds you all in excellent health, no need for the application of leeches? As promised we are now embarking on a rollercoaster ride of book reviews. Just to remind you I will be assessing these works on three criteria. The first is the quality of the story is it well written? Secondly then is it engaging with good characters and an absorbing plotline that pulls you in? Thirdly, how does it rate on the hysterical or historical metre?
Oh yes I just remembered another important factor to check out, the Reviews description on the Amazon website. Is it an accurate description and assessment? Perhaps since that’s what most buyers base their purchase on we will have a look at that revealing statement to start. Please note this qualifier, these reviews will be without fear or favour and is my personal opinion based on my research and my perception of the novel.
The Last Legion by Valerio Manfredi
“Ancient Rome, Roman history, gladiators. This novel has them all. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Dino De Laurentiis, producer of Gladiator, wants to make the film of this historical epic by the author of the bestselling Alexander Trilogy. Set in the twilight years of the Roman Empire, a band of British Roman soldiers try to save the decadent crumbling Empire by rescuing Romulus Augustus, the young son of the last Emperor, and installing him as the figurehead of a rejuvenated Empire. But it all comes to nothing and they return to Britain where further adventures await them. Stirring, atmospheric and factually accurate historical fiction (the author is an archaeologist and historian) that certainly makes the most of the current interest in Roman adventures, Hollywood style. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title”.
The Novel or the Film
Ahh… cough cough! I must admit I watched the film at the same time as reading the book and well, what can I say? Hollywood History did not disappoint, it was truly dismal and plumbed new levels of Rotten Tomato-ness. Unfortunately it had top line actors like Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth who really really tried to pull the pathetic script up to standard. I can only hope they were well rewarded for their efforts. However that is straying away from the book and all I can honestly say of this fantasy Sword and Sandal piece is that it is a considerable improvement on the novel.
As for the accuracy of the above blurb, it kind of describes the book, well at least two sentences do. Dino de Laurentis did produce the film and they do rescue Romulus Augustus. However after that ahhh… no, the claim that the author is an archaeologist and historian has no internet discoverable basis in fact. Now I do understand that a number of publishers and authors want to boost their profile and credentials and have been known to err on the side of ‘creativity’. That is a standard tactic of advertising. Be that as it may, I have found no proof that the awards listed as given to the author actually exist. At least one can be proved to false (Hemingway Award) while another appears to be of dubious credibility (American Biographic Association). As to the professional credentials of archaeology I have found no evidence for any site reports or literature in that name. I also have other doubts about that but I will cover them in the third section.
The Story… Quality?
Need I say anything? Those beastly Barbarians!
Despite the above criticisms many a poorly reviewed story has proved to be hidden gold. The real quality of a story is in the way it grabs the reader and carries them along with the plot, engaging and sympathising with the characters. Well if that is what a good story does, in this case that is not so. I am not sure whether the translation has let the novel down and I will be charitable and allow that this may be the case. The story starts with a sudden attack on three of the main characters, we do not yet know or understand. From there it limps along lightly skimming across plot and character justifications and events, except when it is decided to linger on the odd blood thirsty detail of battle, rape or murder.
'A Barbarian Warrior'
The key antagonist is Wulfila the bloodthirsty and incompetent lieutenant of Odoacer the usurper of the remnants of the Western Empire. Wulfila, despite his overwhelming bestial obsessions and limited cognitive abilities seems to possess an uncanny knack of always tracking down the fugitives in an otherwise empty European landscape.
As for the heroes good romans all, except for the druidic merlin type character who steps striaght out of popular fantasy. As you would expect they are beset by problems and set backs, difficulties almost insurmountable especially the Xenia-ish Livia. Still they soldier on, though the excuse for heading to Britannia deserted by Rome for some twenty to sixty years is less than lame. All the characters are conflicted as expected in such a story, each with deep dark secrets that I found no interest in discovering. However I found them all without exception flat and two dimensional and the coincidences were more farcical than interesting. The Barbarians are extremely barbaric and suicidally dim, while the Romans on the other hand were upright skilled and trustworthy, well most of them, but you can easily pick the traitors. In short I’m glad I only borrowed this from the library and didn’t waste any money on it, it goes back tomorrow!
Historical or Hysterical?
Britannia Reenactment group Later Roman Legionaires
This novel truly plums the depths of Hysterical. Its grip on history is tenuously linked to a scattering of Late Roman titles, a basic grasp of Late Roman geography and a shaky knowledge of the time of Romulus Augustus and Odoacer. As for Post Roman Britain the subject of the last quarter of the novel and search for the Legion of the Dragon the whole point of the journey to Britannia, it is obvious that whatever research was used is over forty years out of date if not more. Any reference to the recent wealth of archaeological discoveries or revised discussions of the Post Roman British culture and society is superficial where it is mentioned. Vortigen the Romano-British tyrant and his hired Saxons make an appearance and are the focus of the last threat along with the ever persistent Wulfila. However the British landscape is, like the Western Empire essentially empty apart from a few Celts and the gone native Legion of the Dragon.
New Legions... Old Legions
The Ermine Street Guard re enactment group
of early Imperial Roman Legionaires
As for the idea that not one, but two separate legions were re-trained and equipped in the manner of those of the time Augustus or Hadrian some hundreds of years before, oh dear, that was really effective. Wasn’t the Nova Invicta easily wiped out in Northern Italy during the introduction by the savage barbarians it was supposed to defeat? That concept is farcical beyond belief and even surpasses the usual extravagant whims of fantasy. The Late Roman field army was not degenerate or lacking in ability as is suggested. It had successfully evolved to deal with the ‘barbarian threat’; it was well trained, professional and flexible. The fact that the Western Roman Army did in the end succumbed, had more to do with the ‘ignorant barbarians’ upgrading with Roman equipment and organisation as fast as possible. The story concept is akin to creating army of Spanish Conquistadors as a sound move to face the threat of a Napoleonic army because that what our ancestors used to conquer the empire. After all didn’t they both have gunpowder and cannons? I am sure I don’t have to paint that picture. At least in the author’s note at the end he admits this mostly come from his imagination.
Colin Firth trying to look Late Romanish
Okay, its just a story- you can’t expect too much accuracy. After all wouldn’t that bog down the narrative? Well the author is the one who makes extensive claims as to historical accuracy. If he’d stated it was a fantasy then it wouldn’t be reviewed as Hysterical fiction. Good use of historically accurate information never hurt other authors like Lindsay Davis and her Falco novels set in Imperial Rome or Stephen Saylor’s Gordanus the Finder series. As for fantasy Guy Gavril Kay seamlessly integrates the Late Roman/Byzantine period into his richly evocative Sarantine novels, proving that use of appropriate detail gives a story depth that easily transports the reader’s imagination to those distant times.
This novel has so many gaping historical holes relating to the Late Roman period it would take too long in this article to recite. As it is, I find it extremely difficult to credit the author’s claims of historical professionalism. Especially since he refers to well known translated historical texts in the end note, occasionally a name or phrase will crop up in the story then it disappears providing little relevance of the times or society.
Odoacer's warriors according to
Even worse the correct information is readily available either on the internet or from libraries, hundreds of books and sources and not all of them academic tomes. Quite a few are even written with young students in mind. This one at Amazon is quite reasonable and easy to understand.
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by P. J. Heather (Jun 11, 2007)
So in short I was deeply unsatisfied by the premise, the quality and the accuracy of this story and I will not be reading any further works by this author.
For an amusing review of the film I suggest you check out this site;
As the good Doctor Says keep taking the pills!
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Good day my well regarded viewers, I hope this missive finds you all in excellent health, with all the four humours balanced and that you are not suffering from any excess of black bile? I have for now concluded the series on the First World War, we will return to it in due course but while I was composing that set of articles another thought crossed my mind in relation to our view of history.
What is History?
(the first historian)
That simple question could set us off on a thousand page splurge, and still not settle the discussion. In short I believe that history is the commonly or sometimes not so commonly agreed set of ‘stories’ about our collective and personal past. This collective recorded memory tends to be created by historians from their research, and the interpretation of evidence from individuals, records, material remains and scientific data. An American thinker on the influence of cities on our current culture, Lewis Mumford (who I think is pretty damned good!) suggested that it was the ability to accumulate and record life experiences and knowledge into an accessible reservoir that gave us the impetus to advance civilisation. While the famous astronomer Carl Sagan (who is also pretty damned good!) in his series stunning Cosmos refers constantly to the Library of Alexandria as our first impetus for science and famous discoveries. Those are just two outstanding men who talk about the impact of past stories, so for now let us accept their interpretation of what history is; certified or sanctified stories.
(reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria)
It is these stories that shape who we are, what we do and to a greater extent than you would think, how we act. In fact another word for stories could be education. For what is education but giving knowledge by way of stories and examples? When you think about it every action you take is relaying a story of your deeds or actions to another, be it a report or a phone conversation or even a bill. Each of those preserved memories carries their own burden of a perceived record of the past. Some are easily believable like a weather report or the sad and sorry state of your bank balance, others like the presentation of a Telco or Electricity supply salesman lack a stamp of credibility.
History is ...Stories?
(Excavation of Troy)
Thus by a simple process we come to stories and when those tales are further distant in the past or lack a certifiable basis we call them myths and legends. In the eyes of some, that label dismisses those ancient tales as no more credible than fables or, even dare I say it fiction. At this point I have to bring up one interesting fact of history, a supposed crackpot German who was obsessed by one ancient heroic tale from our past spent his entire life searching for clues. In the end he found it, his name was Heinrich Schliemann, as you have no doubt guessed the ancient heroic tale was the Iliad and the city he found was the lost Troy of Homer. Actually he found several levels of the city and is now considered to have labelled the wrong level, but that is nitpicking.
Old Stories...The Best Stories!
(A Victorian King Arthur)
In every age we have looked back to the past and frequently re-interpreted the actions of heroic ancestors. For example the Victorians fell for King Arthur even more than the Tudors. Thus we have volumes of fiction and speculation on Arthur and his knights, as well as the impetus for the gothic revival. Another example is way the eighteen and nineteenth century western societies tried to link themselves with ancient Greece and Republican Rome by building enormous classical facades on all important structures like museums and art galleries. These both are very physical representations of the effect of stories on our culture.
(Victorian style knight and lady)
Now if you’re concerned that this is going to be a technical and philosophical essay on history and literature don’t worry. We’ve finished the slightly heavy introduction and now on the meat of the matter Historical Fiction or as sometime you may have considered Hysterical Fiction. As you may have gathered from my previous posts I have a ‘thing about history’, I freely admit it. The way some history is ‘rewritten’ for ideological, racial or ‘commercial’ purposes really gets me riled. I find it extremely offensive and essentially no better than blatant lying and propaganda. Now to be honest, whether it’s due to growing crustiness or a weariness of seeing so much lazy stupidity my short fused intolerance has carried across to historical fiction.
(Viking ship ala Victorian romantics)
Now I quite enjoy reading that genre and if I recall aright my first seriously read novel was The Road to Miklagard by Henry Treece about a Viking raid gone awry that had survivors being enslaved and ending up in Byzantium (called Miklagard by the Norse). It was great, amazing fantastic, full of drama, a well paced story and interesting detail. After that I was hooked and as soon as possible went through all the Treece historical based novels, then followed Stephanie Plowman’s To Spare the Conquered about the Boadicea revolt and finally perhaps the greatest children’s historical fiction writer Rosemary Sutcliffe with her classic Eagle of the Ninth series. My wife Jocelyn has also reminded me of Cynthia Harnett and her Load of the Unicorn story about Caxton’s printing press in Tudor England. Apparently the author was so concerned about getting the details in her story right she actually paced out the distances between period buildings she used. Now I can understand that!
(Victorian style knighting)
At this point I have to mention Geoffrey Trease and his novels such as Popinjay Stair, apparently he was one of the first to drop the false Victorian style ye olde knight and ho varlet crap from his writing, while still retaining the common slang and terms of the time. I suppose I must have subsumed that at an early age, which is why the ‘my lord and lady’ stuff’ sets me off. I’m afraid the Hollywood Chivalry reeks of pretentious insincerity and plastic armour.
In my early teens I moved into more serous historical fiction and discovered Ronald Welch, Richard Farrington and RF Tapsell and of course CS Forester’s classic Hornblower series. These were and still are wonderful books well written, rich in detail and texture as well as a hefty dose of spice and adventure, lots of Buckle to Swash! The characters were human, engaging and believable. Best of all the authors hadn’t scrimped on the accurate historical detail to get the theme and modes as close as possible. They believed that their audience were intelligent people and didn’t like being condescended to with fanciful Victorianesque periodisms.
Now I come to write this the word classic keeps on cropping up and I find that both reassuring and disturbing. It appears that once a book earns the immortal catchphrase as a ‘classic’ it is usually then shuffled off to serve as a victim of ‘literary analysis’ by poor students, who there after are all too happy to bury it thanks to extreme aversion therapy.
I know that’s what it did to me perhaps ruining several years of possible writing. I can’t even hear the phrase Catch-22 without shuddering in remembered apprehension, as the rush of distant memories of HSC finals bursts the built up dams of mental scarring.
Anyway back to hysterical, opps I mean historical fiction, well no I think it’s about time to stop pussy footing around and plunge into an area I regard as loathsome and an abomination!
Modern Hysterical Fiction!!!
I belong to a medieval discussion list that includes a very diverse range of people from top range historical authors to university professors, serious researchers and re enactors, as well as those generally interested. So to use a usefully appropriate phrase it’s a broad church. However one aspect they act as one, the piss poor state of modern hysterical fiction. I will give you just one example, about a year or so ago one of the list members raised one intriguing recent novel. I am afraid I can’t remember the title just the howls of indignation and disbelief. The theme of the story ran something like this; Eleanor of Acquitaine the mother of Richard the Lionhearted of Third Crusade fame apparently had endowered a convent to produce a very special kind of nun. No expense was spared for their theologically rigorous training in Christian doctrine. In the end emerged ‘Benedictine Ninja Nun Assassins’ ready to slay any who stood in the way of their mistress’s plans. Move over Shaolin Masters, the Assassins of Almut and the Ninjas of feudal Japan!
Oh dear the internet ether did sizzle! One list member throwing out a lifeline queried whether it had been misidentified, wasn’t it actually fantasy? The reply almost shamefacedly sidled into view; Arrrh no, not as such, it’s labelled as historical fiction, sorry…
(Need I say anything?)
That is only one much abbreviated discussion on a minor book, when it came to Ken Follets Pillars of Earth the flood gates really opened for weeks. The point of this new theme is twofold. First since we absorb so much of our knowledge of the past from stories, and the vast majority of people read fiction rather than factual histories, it really is important for all of us to try and get it right, rather soak up the fiction as fact of the Benedictine Ninja Nun Assassins. Secondly I will be starting a weekly review of historical fiction and contrasting it with a piece of hysterical fiction in the same period check them out and see what you think I am I being fair or unfairly biased.
As the good doctor says keep taking the pills!
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Good day all, I hope this latest missive finds you in good health! Today is November 11, and I hope that all my readers will remember to pause for a minutes silence at 11 am this morning.
Considering that it is now Remembrance Day I have left off discussion of the nuts and bolts as it were of the Great War. Now I feel it is time to talk about just two aspects of that awful conflict. What it was about and was it worth it?
Those two are very difficult to bring up now almost a hundred years later. I do however still clearly remember the few conversations I had with my Grandfather Harry House, he was lying in a hospital bed by a window in what must have been a Veterans ward. He was almost blind from the shrapnel wound he’d received long decades before. Now I was just a young child and, I suppose I didn’t know any better, or maybe it was just the insatiable curiosity of the young. So of course I asked him about the War. To my father’s surprise ‘Pop’ spoke for about fifteen minutes on what he’d seen and what had happened. That in my father’s experience was the longest conversation he’d ever heard about the event that had so affected the House clan. Harry House in all the long years since had never spoken about the horror and suffering he must have seen daily, and the loss of friends and mates. It was something remembered ‘personally’ a long running grief.
Now this is in a way, my own personal section, I did not serve in any great conflict though I did serve in the Army reserves, and apparently until a few years ago was still liable to be called up if we had a national crisis. I have however over the years spoken to quite a few veterans of both World Wars and I have also studied letters, journals, memoirs, official reports and histories about those conflicts. I can try and be dispassionate and just explain dryly the impartial forces of history, that unseeing and unfeeling smashed over so many families. Other historians can do that, I however cannot. Those losses in the trenches are to me very real, the agony of being evacuated from Gallipoli in the last month as a dysentery case and months of convalescence for Harry House does effect how I examine the past.
As I said above I have read through a large number of books and first hand accounts of the Great War and I now find that my beliefs on this disaster have changed. No, not about the slaughter of millions, but rather the individual and collective responsibility for that tragedy. It has hardened my resolve that we must maintain the deep and a biding debt of memory that we owe to those who believed they were doing their duty and protecting their families and country.
Back to the first point of that revisionist the losses were not so great when put against the total size of manpower and population figures. Well I remember reading more than one eyewitness account on both sides of men who’d volunteered with all their fellow classmates or other lads in the town, factory or village. I must mention that these personal memoirs number in their hundreds and all of them have in common one fact. Due to injury or illness or chance these men avoided one or more of the battles that their unit was involved in. Later they record, with what must be a mix of horror and guilty relief that by the end of the campaign, they are the lone survivor of all their companions.
Another example is the loss of the British battle cruisers at the Battle of Jutland, the Princess Royal and the Queen Mary, (photo) they both exploded instantly on being hit by shells. The cause was most probably technical and operational defects, and thus two thousand men went to the bottom of the North Sea. There were no survivors, and the action happened within minutes of the opening of the battle. Unfortunately that was all too often the story of the Great War, the technological application of destruction far out weighted the brave fragility of men.
That was not the intention of the German elite. It is a fundamental truth borne out by historical records and archives, that the German General Staff and the highest echelons of government both before and during the First World War was actively trying for the complete subjugation of Europe. In an act of further insanity, by 1917 in the darkest and grimmest days of the war, they were already planning on a second and later stage of the conflict that would cripple Britain, secure Belgium and knock out any threat from America. All this was irrespective of the millions of men lost by then on both sides, as well as the employment of any justifiable weapon or tactic so long as it gave them victory. So to all those post modern revisionists I ask this question. Exactly where in this disaster, is the responsibility to a people, or a nation that is entrusted in the care of those who govern?
So to Harry House, it is to my profound sorrow that you had to experience that awful horror and I can only offer you two pieces of consolation. If the Great War had happened several years later, as was originally planned then it would have been worse. The second is your family does now understand what you went through, and we do appreciate your sacrifice.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
History, Remembrance Day and Myths Part 3
Good day all, I hope this latest missive finds you in good health! As I mentioned in my last post the whole First World War concept can’t be handled in just few hundred words. Its very title states quite plainly that it was a conflict that encompassed the world. How the tragedy and enormity of four years of grinding conflict can be reduced to a Twitter bitlet escapes belief and reason. As in the previous posts I have divided this up into smaller sections covering a few of the more persistent and blatant myths.
The Strategy in the West
Realistically the war has to be divided into several fronts. To many historians the Western front in France and Belgium is regarded as the most important. In a number of aspects this was true, despite the enormity of the Eastern front with Russia and the limitless numbers of the Russian Army. Numbers aside, the German High Command always considered that on the Western Front lay their greatest peril. In their mind the threat was the modern military and technological capacity of France and Britain. This simple fact was borne out by the urgent imperativeness of the Schlieffen Plan.
This single operational directive served as a blinker on any and all changing strategic or political events, as it was issued by the ‘Moses’ of the German army, Chief of Staff, General von Schlieffen. As a pronouncement from the supreme German strategic thinker it was as immutable as the ‘Ten Commandments’. Time and again theoretical strategic wargames hammered home the fact that without following its strictly laid out timetable Germany faced the dread certainty of a long two front war and a slow but inevitable defeat.
It seemed impossible for either the political or military leaders of the German Empire to understand that while the railway timetables of The Plan could be finessed to almost perfection. Once the troops de-trained they were reduced to the foot slogging reality of old fashion Napoleonic manoeuvre. This simple fact was not going to be erased whether they followed the original purity of The Plan or even the von Moltke modified form. Either way, its rigid path led them straight into a strategic and political dead end for three simple reasons.
The Plan vs Reality
Firstly, while communication had improved with the telegraph, the telephone and some early wireless transmitters, these modern devices were only available to relatively static corps or army group headquarters. From there getting a message to the cutting edge of the offensive wasn’t so simple. The order or request was written out and given to a messenger on horseback, thus slowing down communication to no better than that at Agincourt in 1415.
Rail or Foot
Secondly, as stated before once off the trains the infantry were reduced to the old marching pace of the Roman legions, and stamina or fitness aside there is only so long they could march and fight at their fastest pace. Any obstruction, confusion or delay threw the schedule off track and as for changes caused by unforeseen action or movement of the enemy, they wrought havoc with the inflexibility of The Plan.
Thirdly The Plan dismissed any action by the British army (British Expeditionary Force or BEF) since in German eyes it was so small and its inclusion in any defence preparations by the French would be irrelevant to the outcome.
In a strict numerical sense the extra five divisions of the BEF didn’t add significantly to the French defence, nor was the ‘Miracle of Mons’ the dominant triumph as declared by generations of British jingoistic writers. The stubborn defence of the Albert Canal at Mons hardly made a dent in the timetable of The Plan. However the unexpected presence of the BEF did upset the mental balance of von Moltke who now wavered, even more beset by doubt- the British shouldn’t have been there! In fact German intelligence didn’t even know they had crossed the Channel. Couple that surprise with the unanticipated retreat of the French Army of Lorraine from the grand trap, and von Moltke’s plans and certainties crumbled. Thus the German General Staff had to leap into the blind future and improvise.
The presence of the trench lines snaking from the Belgian coast by Ostend, all the way to the border of Switzerland, is the single most memorable detail of the Great War. However, despite the fact that it dominated every strategic, tactical, political and industrial facet of the war, it was never meant to happen. On both sides it was initially meant as a brief defensive feature, to last only until the war of offensive manoeuvre was resumed. It took eighteen months of blood drenched offensives for both sides to realise that they had created a monster- an insatiable beast that sucked them dry of men and materials with only yards of churned and chopped up landscape as a reward. Then, once that new reality of the modern battlefield had sunk into the military conscious, all thoughts turned to breaking the stalemate.
The Impasse of ability
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the military training of all the European powers was essentially the same, as was their equipment. A lot has been made of minor increases in the number of machine guns per battalion which in theory gave one unit more firepower than another. At the outset of the war, I believe that this made little difference in the general level of slaughter. Another debated factor is the qualities and quantities of artillery, its design and employment. At the start of the war the advantage clearly lay with the German army. Now weapons and men are only two sides in the triangle of military efficiency, the third is leadership.
In Europe it was freely acknowledged that the training of the German general staff was way above that of either the French or Russians. While aspiring nations always bought British warships, they also employed German military missions to whip their fledgling armies into shape. So it was accepted that the Germans had the edge in organisation and efficiency. In balance it was the smaller British and French senior military staff who had gained the most battle experience in their nation’s many larger and smaller colonial wars. This factor probably helped them muddle through their initial organisational confusion and disarray. It is also said that generals always plan the next war based on the last. In some respects this was true but there is clear evidence that senior officers on both sides tried to adapt to the new tactical and strategic circumstances.
It was an industrial war that employed the most up to date technology of destruction. In the end the carnage did produce men of ability able to understand and employ the modern technical advances. However it was a bloody and expensive training ground. The other problem is the whole ‘lions led by donkeys’ mythology that has since sprung up to ‘explain’ the dramatic losses and waste. Unfortunately for our national psyches this simplistic rational is inadequate. Idiots and fools did abound on both sides, no one having the monopoly on this ‘resource’ and they pervaded all levels in this war as in others. However we cannot condemn the generals for not being the modern equivalents of Wellington or Napoleon.
The New Technology
The First World War has the dubious distinction of being the first modern war to actively embody technological progress as its driving force. A number of historians have claimed this title for the American Civil War with some justification, since it introduced ironclad warships equipped with the revolutionary revolving turrets, railways for the fast transport of troops and supplies and telegraph for almost instant communication. They were the first heralds of the increasing input of steam age technology in warfare. Those were but a precursor
Artillery was the greatest cause of carnage and destruction. It could collapse trenches (as happened to my grandfather) and barrages could wipe out exposed infantry. As was soon discovered, but not always remembered, adequate artillery preparation of quality, quantity and accurate targeting produced success. In offensive actions it protected the advancing troops and pounded the enemy trenches and fortifications. While in defence it shredded assaults and halted the movement of reinforcements and supplies.
There is also another difficulty to absorb. While the artillery of the First World War was strides ahead of the old bronze smooth bore 12 pounders of Waterloo or Gettysburg in range, technology and targeting, its task was still beyond its capacity. The average target was usually a narrow trench a few yards wide or belts of barbed wire. Despite the best technical advances of modern science such as sound locators with flash targeting, or more accurate map grids and the use of aerial observation. Perfect accuracy was impossible. An area had to be saturated with days of bombardment to give the best chance possible for hitting the required targets. Unfortunately poor weather or error ruined any observations and the infantry only discovered the problem when they became caught up on the wire, or hammered by untouched machine gun nests.
The Machine Gun
The machine gun has gone down as the most famous killer of the First World War. While its capacity for slaughter was immense, its infamous part in the war was to hinder movement and greatly increase the ability of defence. As a technological and industrial innovation, it heralded the new aspects of modern warfare. The weapon could and did fire non stop for hours, so long as it had a crew and they could keep it cooled, clean and supplied with ammunition. It was not until the invention of the Lewis gun or Browning automatic rifle a mobile weapon and it was essentially used as a defensive weapon to halt the advance of infantry.
When used in conjunction with barbed wire it created ‘killing zones’ where survival was only possible, for, as one officer put it ‘bullet proof soldiers’. In short once a machine gun opened up on your advance you hit the ground if you wanted to live and stayed there until one of two eventualities. First and most hopefully another unit worked its way around the flank and silenced the machine gun. To give an idea of how suicidally dangerous this was, most Victoria Crosses and Military Crosses were awarded for destroying machine gun nests or the fortified bunkers which housed them. The other eventuality if you didn’t move was worse than the threat of the bullets. The enemy would target your unit with a barrage, and exposed and tangled up amongst barbed wire or trapped in the waste of No Mans Land you were as good as dead.
In too many books and articles the existence of large cavalry divisions on the Western front has been portrayed as the ultimate in backward thinking of the First World War generals- old walrus moustached men obviously trapped in the time warp of great Napoleonic charges with flashing sabres and lances and colourful gaudy uniforms, lost in the glories of the immortal Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava or running down the Sudanese at Omdurman. No doubt for many officers in all armies this was true, and I understand it is a frequent accusation levelled at General Haig. Once more the reality is not so simple.
Infantry and artillery were required to break the trenches stalemate to allow the cavalry to ‘exploit the gap’ and ‘rapidly’ flank the static enemy divisions in the trench lines. This was the theory behind most of the blood drenched assaults from the Somme to the Third Ypres. As unpalatable and repugnant as that slaughter is to us now it didn’t change the physical mechanics of movement in 1914-1918. Cavalry moved at twice the speed of infantry, if you wanted to outpace the enemy reinforcements heading for a break in the line only cavalry had the speed. However the great problem was that after the kind of bombardment required to breach the trench fortifications and the wasteland it created, cavalry could not move fast enough to gain the advantage.
The Problems of Attack
This created an almost insurmountable tactical and strategic conundrum for commanders on both sides of the Western front. A narrow targeted offensive of a thousand yards width and fifteen hundred yards depth could succeed with minimal cost in casualties and could be well covered by artillery. By late 1916 the British army had developed this offensive and titled it ‘Bite and Hold’. However it left too narrow a gap of pulverised terrain that could be easily targeted by barrage or counter attack and of course, slowed down the ‘break through’ movement by men and horses to a crawl. The other difficulty that many commanders found unpalatable about the concept of ‘Bite and Hold’, was exactly how many men was an acceptable cost for that much ground, and worst of all, where did it lead?
The other option was the wide based offensive, such as the Battle of the Somme where a twelve mile long stretch was targeted for a multi army sized assault. It would, if it succeeded provide the space for a break through, smashing open the enemies line with lots of room for manoeuvre and too wide a gap to be closed by counter attack or artillery barrage. That was the plan for the Somme. As plans went it looked good on paper. However no plan is ever perfect and the Battle of the Somme vomited into the harsh light of reality the limits of technology, leadership and communication.
At this point I think is a good place to pause and reflect on a few issues. First the Great War has been frequently described as a modern war. This simple statement is true, in a large number of respects. Such as the latest improvements in what we understand as modern technology, like communication and logistics. Its soldiers wore modern basic field uniforms that are easily recognisable today, and the principal weapons of machine gun, rifle, mortar, grenade and artillery are still in use. All this familiarity for what is now a conflict almost a hundred years old. However this familiarity is deceptive and is a mirage. The attitudes, strategy and tactics of the First World War are embedded in the ninetieth century. Celebrated commanders of that era like Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S Grant would have fitted in perfectly as First World War generals, while the soldiers of 1864 vintage would have found life in the trenches a familiar routine.
The technology of battle had now surpassed the capacity of the commanders to control and though communication was in theory instantaneous, in the battle zone it was frequently no faster than a man’s ability to safely crawl from shell hole to crater, maybe ten yards an hour. The battlefield was now, for the first time in history beyond the immediate influence of any higher commander, as they now found themselves reduced to impotent blinded spectators groping for information and direction.
These and other limiting factors we will explore in part 4
Monday, November 8, 2010
History Remembrance Day and Myths Part 2
Good day all, I hope this latest missive finds you in good health? Since November is now with us I thought we’d continue our examination of one of the most important days in that month’s calendar and now that the Melbourne Cup, has finished it time to go on to the second part of our series on the Great War. Once more we will be disposing of a number of misconceptions and myths regarding that terrible conflict.
First; The Plans
In the last part of the Industrial Steam Age the manner of warfare had as most historians agree changed dramatically, the first signs of this transformation had appeared in the American Civil War of 1861-1864. I have covered part of this surge of development in my prior article on WMD’s through the ages, in regard to the naval developments with the first modern ironclad warships; the USS Monitor and the CSS Merrimac/Virginia. While these threatened the naval balance of power the greatest leap forward was in communication. It was the first war where the respective commanders in chief could receive real time intelligence and reports via telegraph. So the reports of success or failure could be managed with reinforcements rushed close to the area by the other wonder of the age, the railway.
The steam train and railway had an extremely important impact on all facets of ninetieth century society, it provided an almost unlimited mobility to freight and people. By rail they could be transported to the ever increasing boundaries of the network, distance that previously took weeks by river or rutted dirt track could be covered in days. To the modern military observers of that conflict this new advance in logistics and movement set them theorising on the possibilities. An army need no longer be restricted by poor weather or slow down its campaign to forage for supplies. So long as a rail line was nearby an army was liberated from the previous limitations of manoeuvre that had dogged every commander from Caesar to Napoleon. We will explore the ramifications of this development in the next section, in the meantime there was one more crucial factor of the Civil War that had set the European military a thinking; conscription and mobilisation.
This idea of rapidly creating a national army by conscription was not new, the revolutionary armies of the France proved that they could stand off and defeat the professional armies of Austria, Prussia and Britain. That linked with the growing manufacturing capacity of the early Industrial Age kept up a ready supply of uniforms, weapons and gunpowder. However as stated before the harnessing of the latest technologies had given these instant armies a new speed and greater punch. Now in contrast to the usual image of generals always planning for the last war, the European high commands pondered the opportunities now available and how best to use them. Surprisingly none was more radical and innovative than the Prussian/German army, famous for its rigid traditions and adherence to hierarchy.
AJP Taylor and the German Railway Timetables
When I was in high school decades ago studying modern history, we had to deal with the path to World War One and the Weimar Republic in some detail. A major part of that was an analysis of AJP Taylor’s then recent book War by Timetable (1969). The prominent and in some cases notorious British historian maintained that the need for a speedy mobilisation and transport by all the competing European powers increased the chance of war. He viewed it as an early and failed form of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) that rather than serving as a brake to potential conflict closed diplomatic solutions as competing timetables locked into place. In some respects this was a reasonable view of events when seen from the distance of fifty years. However all historians are limited by two factors, first the social and political flavour of the period they are writing in. Second access to information, in 1961 German historian Fritz Fischer released his decade’s long study of the archives of Imperial Germany in his book Germany’s Aims in the First World War. It came up with the then controversial proof that the Imperial German government had been actively planning for a war to secure colonies and a ‘rightful’ dominance in Europe. Since then his conclusions have not been successfully refuted. It also throws doubt on Taylor’s Timetables argument as a thinly veiled criticism of the Nuclear confrontation of the US and Russia. Other historians maintained that it was the alliance treaties that separated Europe into two polar blocs, each a rival to the other and that created the tensions pushing each into the war. I do not think it was that simple, individual nations and their leaders in each alliance were frequently more influenced by their own distinct political and economic agendas. Those I believe were more crucial in the decision to join the war, than any amorphous external association.
Now having got that complex section of rival theories out of the way we will examine very briefly and simply the concepts of the various participants’ plans.
The French plans shifted and changed depending on which school of military thought had control the French general staff, the GQG. From the crushing defeats of 1870 to the early twentieth century they were purely defensive in nature, with only a few flutters of adventurism. All plans emphasised fortifications and blocking positions by the French army, Verdun as a gateway fortress was in held particular significance. By the early twentieth century this defensive attitude was treated with scorn by a number of French writers, claiming that it admitted to an inherent ‘cringing inferiority’ to the Germans.
With the resurgence of France as a colonial power this apparent subservience was pushed aside as the French military looked to a past before the disaster of 1870 and rediscovered the Furor Gallicae. The spirit of élan vital of the Revolution of 1789 and then translated that into the new military doctrine. According to this theory the French are by disposition a valorous race and always perform best in the attack. Therefore the best defence for France was attack!
This new strategic and tactical idea was given the title of Plan Seventeen and shifted focus to a much more aggressive stance, advocating a full on assault into the contested territory of Alsace–Lorraine. Thus for GQG this new plan married two key aims of French military aspiration and national policy. The first objective was to regain the lost provinces and the second to halt or break up the predicted German offensive that they knew was being planned.
The main aspect of this plan while proclaiming the essential need for offensive al a bayonet! was still in essence a defensive reaction, it would only swing into play if Germany threatened.
If the difficulty was with Britain, as during the brief flurry of the ‘Fashoda’ incident, the plans were vague. Targets such as Gibraltar and Malta were suggested, as was commerce raiding. However the traditional historical dominance of the Royal Navy and speed of British ship construction made any French advantages fleeting. As for military retaliation, that could only occur where colonial territories abutted since the channel was still a barrier. Realistically since the British could at will strangle French trade or severe the links to North Africa, any nationalistic anti-British rancour tended to be limited to blasts in the popular press or brief public protests. On another level the increasing ties of social interaction, culture and trade between London and Paris smoothed over these minor disputes.
It was a common belief in Britain that they could scorn the affairs of Europe since the barrier of the Channel was an effective shield, however that didn’t create a consciousness of isolationist as did the expanse of the Atlantic for the United States. The British government understood that like it or not geography and history made the island kingdom a long term player in the affairs of Europe. The barrier of the surrounding seas was not such a bulwark from foes, it could and had been a frequent highway for invasion. The French historian Braudel would say their foreign policies were shaped by environmental determinism. The key being the dominant weather patterns, first the Gulf Stream carried the Armada from Spain to the south coast of Cornwall then along to the Dover straits. While the currents of the North Sea provided a different peril as it washed from Norway along Denmark then past the Low countries of Nederland and Belgium. N.A.M. Rodger a distinguished naval historian in his amazing three volume history of the Royal Navy repeatedly pointed out the vulnerability of that cross channel stretch from Ostend to Dunkirk. It was the tender spot of British international politics and whom ever held it was a potential enemy.
This simple fact rather than any humanitarian or neighbourly concern is what prompted Britain after the Napoleonic Wars to unconditionally guarantee the independence of first the Nederlands than then Belgium. Every European nation was warned that if they threatened that ‘neutrality’ then the might of Britain would be used against them. That aside the other factor that caused immediate British concern was the development of a fleet that could threaten their naval dominance. Which is exactly the course that Kaiser Wilhelm and his naval advocate Admiral Tirpitz embarked upon.
As for active plans, in case of threat they didn’t actively call upon the army as did most of Europe. The largest part of the British forces where spread throughout the empire, especially in India. Anyway in time of peril it wasn’t the army that Britain traditionally tended to call upon, it was the senior service, the Royal Navy. Before 1910 Britain felt safe and secure behind the steel walls and massive guns of the Royal Navy’s Dreadnoughts and Battle cruisers. So a large standing army or mass mobilisation was not required, thus their home forces were but a fraction of those on the continent. Essentially up to the day war was declared British plans were nebulous, the only certainty was the Admiralty plan. The Royal Navy would immediately mobilise then head for the safe harbour of Scapa Flow which also blocked the northern exit of the North Sea. There was also an iron clad guarantee that the Royal Navy would defend the French section of the Channel. Though, that agreement was probably more motivated by self interest than any real concern for France.
Germany was obsessed with two strategic problems, the first was the resurgence of France and their rising nationalism that proclaimed the ‘regaining of Alsace-Lorraine’ as a ultimate French ideal. The second was the massive Russian empire on its eastern border, and the teaming hordes of savage Cossacks that populated the overly fertile paranoia of the German imagination. Despite the efforts of Bismarck to separate the two potential ‘enemies’ Kaiser Wilhelm’s rash posturing and threats drew them together in an unlikely alliance. Even worse was to come, Wilhelm’s desire to emulate the Royal Navy created the twentieth century’s first arms race as he commanded that Germany equal Britain in the construction of Dreadnought Battleships. Unwillingly and reluctantly Britain was pushed into an alliance with the centuries old enemy, France and as a consequence the despised Tsarist Russia. Germany’s answer to this two front threat was the Schlieffen plan, which commanded an invasion of France via Belgium. In fact in response to a possible threat from Russia the plan was the same, invade France. Britain’s inclusion as a possible foe, rather than cause a pause or rethink of diplomacy and strategy just consolidated the iron hard resolve of Invade France!
Tsarist Russia had undergone a troubled and tumultuous transition to the twentieth century. Its Baltic and Pacific fleets were destroyed by the new and more modern Japanese navy in 1905. While the Russian possessions in China, Port Arthur, had been seized by victorious Japan and the Tsar had avoided mass rebellion by the narrowest of margins. In spite of those military and political disasters the fabled might of Russia with its potential millions of solders was a spectre that haunted both the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Perhaps it was a folk nightmare from the Napoleonic Wars or even a distant memory of the Mongol onslaught. In sheer numbers it was a real fact to contemporary military planners of all nations. However the Great Russian Empire was struggling to modernise in both industry and armaments and endless hordes of warm bodies didn’t count if they marched without artillery and machine guns. The Russian plan wavered between two extremes the first was to use space like they did in 1812 and wait for the distance and vastness of Russia to wear down the enemy. While the second advocated a steamroller like offensive moving inexorably forward unstoppable until it reached either Berlin or Vienna. That of course was the plan whether the Russian army, its communications or logistics was capable of this feat was another matter.
Ostensibly the wronged party in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand their plans called for mobilisation in the eastern provinces’ to defend against Russia and an overwhelming assault on Serbia. As it turned out the offensive to smash the Serbs collapsed and was driven back across the border, while the responses to the Russians had mixed results alternating between modest victory and crushing defeat.
At the outbreak of hostilities between Germany, Austria-Hungary and France, Russia and Britain the Ottoman Empire did not immediately seek to honour it prior treaty as a Central Power. It had not recovered from the losses it suffered in the First and Second Balkan War or its war with Italy that lost Libya and the Dodecanese islands. The Turks were desperately trying to modernise and had commissioned two Dreadnought battleships from British shipyards, while their army endeavoured to upgrade training and equipment via the German military mission. The new government of the Young Turks was deeply divided by faction and interest. Half swaying towards the traditional protection of Britain from the peril of Russian ambitions, while the others waivered in the direction of Germany.
In the end it was an accident of lost opportunity, arrogance, imperatives of naval defence and the actions of two German cruisers that forced the Turks to join the Central Powers. To gain the full flavour of the bizarre story all I can suggest is read Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman or Castles of Steel by Massie both are superb in outline the paths to war.
Italy had signed the treaty with the Central Powers or as then called the Triple Alliance. Though, when push came to shove, they used the aggression of Germany in Belgium and the invasion of France to claim exception from the ‘defensive’ pact. According to their plan the combined fleets were to rendezvous at Messina and wrestle control of the Mediterranean from the French. At the outbreak of war the inclusion of the British Royal Navy in that equation brought a sobering dose of reality. A glance at any map shows that Italy, except for its northern border is all coastline and several of its largest cites are coastal ports such as Venice, Genoa Naples and Messina. This geographic fact along with the prospect of losing access to vital wheat imports from Russia and fuel imports from Romania outweighed the dubious attractions of the German Austro-Hungarian alliance.
The Results and the Treaties
As can be seen from a brief review of the various plans some were extremely aggressive others more defensive in intent. However they were in July to August 1914 only plans, concepts outlined on paper and though practiced in military exercises not chiselled in stone as holy writ, except in the guilty imaginations of some military commanders. As transpired in the furnace of battle they did warp and change to fit perceived threats and opportunities. In the decades since a number of historians have stressed the connection between the two treaty blocs (the Entente Cordiale and the Central Powers) and how these two opposing arrangements somehow pushed each group straight down the path to Total War. In this discussion I have not emphasised this stance since as far as I can see the evidence that has emerged since then tends to indicate that this wasn’t the case. The rigid hierarchy of treaties and plans did not march lock step into war.
There was no absolute certainty that France would act militarily against Germany in line with its treaty with Russia. While the Tsarist Empire due to distance and insufficient transport had to mobilise as early as possible. Though that action itself was no guarantee it would invade the Austro Hungarian to defend the Serbs. Across the channel affairs were even more nebulous. Britain had made naval protection agreements with the French as well as a secret agreement to send military forces to France in case of invasion. In the later case the British government waivered on whether they should stick to the secret treaty or hold off. This hesitancy lasted up to the news that Germany had invaded Belgium, then old instincts kicked in, the German High Seas Fleet could not be allowed to gain a foothold on the Dover straits.
As can be seen one single nation had the capacity to halt the course for the war, Germany. Unfortunately as we have seen in part one it had neither the intention nor the leadership. Now in part two it is plain that its aggressive war plan took little account of diplomatic shifts or included even the slightest grasp of political or strategic reality. It embraced the opportunity for war and according to the predictions of The Plan its victory over France was assured, its dominance of Europe guaranteed. Whether war with France, or invasion of Belgium and antagonising of Britain was justified was dismissed as irrelevant.
By all until part 3
As the good doctor says; ‘Take the damned pills!’