Wednesday, November 10, 2010
History, Rememberance Day and Myths Part 3
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