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November 11, 2013

Remembering the Great War, 2013
Posted by Teresa at 08:00 AM *

Today we remember the Great War, 1914-1918. It was an enormous event, and is still barely assimilable. We live in its vast shadow. It’s hard to say what it was about — what the underlying question was. I suspect one possible answer is: In an increasingly mechanized and industrialized world, what is the value of a common man? If we’re still reeling and writhing, perhaps it’s because the answer the war gave back was: To those in power? Very little indeed.

Previous 11/11 posts on Making Light:

Ghosts of the Great War (2002)
Ghosts of the Great War, 2003
Ghosts of the Great War, 2004
Ghosts of the Great War, 2005
11/11/11 (2006)
Remembering the Great War, 2007
The Great War, ninety years on (2008)

Langemar(c)k from several angles:

The battles fought in and around the Belgian town of Langemark (or Langemarck) were all part of the godawful neverending Ypres/Flanders offensives. The 1914 fight was notable for its high German casualties (±134,315), which were later mythologized, and for being the endpoint of the Race to the Sea. The 1915 fight was notable for being the occasion of the first German gas attacks. The 1917 fight was notable for being just as horrible as the previous ones, except the commanding officers had somewhat clearer notions about why they were doing it.

The reason German losses there were high in the autumn of 1914 was because three out of four German corps were inexperienced reservists or volunteers under the command of inexperienced officers, and because the German Commander-in-Chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, was still laboring under the post-Napoleonic delusion that sufficient enthusiasm can triumph over firing rates on flat, waterlogged ground strung with barbed wire. This proved such a costly error, with some of the highest German casualty rates of the war, that Falkenhayn found it prudent to lie like a rug to the German high command:

Westlich Langemarck brachen junge Regimenter unter dem Gesange ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ gegen die erste Linie der feindlichen Stellungen vor und nahmen sie. Etwa 2.000 Mann französischer Linieninfanterie wurden gefangengenommen und sechs Maschinengewehre erbeutet.

(We made good progress yesterday [November 9] in the Yser section. West of Langemarck young regiments broke forward with the song ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles’ against the front line of enemy positions and took them. Approximately 2,000 men of the French infantry line were captured and six machine guns were captured.)

This piece of blatant propaganda took on a life of its own, mutating into the postwar myth of an outburst of patriotic feeling early in the war (nope) among young students turned soldiers (they weren’t especially young) which prompted them to sing “Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles” (if they sang anything it was “Wacht am Rhein,” and they sang it to identify themselves to other German troops and so avoid drawing friendly fire) during a bayonet charge (troops didn’t sing during bayonet charges) that failed to achieve victory because they were “stabbed in the back” by their aristocratic officers (the postwar German conservative right big on the whole “stabbed in the back” thing).

Hitler enshrined the myth of Langemarck in Mein Kampf, and claimed to have served there. (Unlikely; his regiment was probably at Gheluvedt.) November ninth was made Germany Day in 1923, and Hitler used that date for his putsch in Munich. From 1933 to 1944, 11 November was made Langemark Day as a counter to Armistice Day.

Why all this manufactured veneration? Because after the terrible costs of the war, it was easier for Germans to believe in the tragic, idealistic self-sacrifice of 1914 than in the bitter fact that by 1918, their army didn’t have the will to go on fighting.

In spite of all this bad attention and politicization, Langemarck military cemetery is home to some of the most eloquent memorial sculptures in the world.*

Emil Krieger’s group of four Mourning Soldiers (1956) is about presence and remembrance. The human-size figures stand at ground level near the boundary of the cemetery, just under the edge of the shade of some trees, with an open field behind them. They’re extraordinarily responsive to changes in light and atmosphere. Unlike traditional memorials, they register as part of the scene. It’s as though they’re standing there to bear witness.

Käthe Kollwitz’s pair of grieving parents are pure sorrow.

Some other memorials:

The Douaumont Ossuary at Verdun

The Germans got wily at Verdun. Their plan was to (1.) pick a spot which the French would be strongly disinclined to give up, and which had good accessible high ground nearby for siting artillery; (2.) attack it, provoking the French into counter-attacks and counter-offensives; (3.) rain down artillery fire on their heads; and (4.) continue doing so until the French ran out of troops and had to surrender. Essentially, they acknowledged that they were fighting a war of attrition, and proposed to reduce it to an abstract exercise.

While the battle didn’t quite work out as planned, Verdun racked up some impressive statistics:

Duration: about 300 days, 21 February - 19 December, 1916.
Size of battlefield: less than 20 sq. kilometers (7.7 square miles).
Estimated artillery shells fired: 32,000,000.
Estimated French troops engaged: 315,000 - 542,000; c. 156,000 killed.
Estimated German troops engaged: 281,000 - 434,000; c. 143,000 killed.

What you have to understand is that artillery shells ran much bigger and heavier than they did in later wars. Successive waves of shelling churned the battlefield mud, burying some dead (and living), exhuming others, and smashing remains into unidentifiable pieces. The Ossuary at Douaumont (i.e., Verdun), which sits in the largest military cemetery in the world, contains the fragmented, mixed-up bones of about 130,000 French and German soldiers.

Another monument at Verdun, known as the Mort Homme, was erected in honor of the dead of France’s 69th Division. It’s said to be the only war memorial that literally depicts a decomposing corpse.*

For the same reason that there’s a huge ossuary at Verdun, memorials to the missing of other battles are a distinctive innovation of the Great War:

Thiepval Monument to the Missing of the Somme
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing
Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing of Ypres.

The Menin Gate at Midnight, painted by Will Longstaff.

As horrendous battles go, the other standout is the Somme,* which generated over a million casualties on both sides. The British alone lost 20,000 men on the morning of the first day. Commenters have criticized it ever since. However, as Wikipedia notes:

A rival conclusion by Terraine, Sheffield, Duffy, Chickering, Herwig and Philpott among others, is that there was no strategic alternative for the British in 1916 and that an understandable horror at British losses is insular, given the millions of casualties borne by the French and Russian armies since 1914. This school of thought sets the battle in a context of a general Allied offensive in 1916 and notes that German and French writing on the battle puts it in a continental perspective, which is inaccessible to anglophone monoglots because much of the writing has yet to be translated. The Battle of the Somme has been called the beginning of modern all-arms warfare, during which Kitchener’s Army learned to fight the mass-industrial war, which the continental armies had been engaged in for two years.
I think Terraine, Sheffield, Duffy, Chickering, Herwig, and Philpott are missing the point.
Comments on Remembering the Great War, 2013:
#1 ::: Paul Weimer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 08:49 AM:

Thanks, Teresa.

This weekend, I got to listen to the first part of a planned Hardcore History podcast series on The Great War. That episode only set up the beginning of the conflict, but the descriptions of the horrors in just the brief time the Germans went through Belgium were arresting. Indeed, the common individual man in the modern military machine was but a number.

#2 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 09:15 AM:

Thank you for this post, Teresa.

One quick erratum: The links to previous years' posts (as they stand now) go to the blog-editing URLs (and are thus inaccessible to most readers). Can you redo these? (For example, the first link, for the 2002 post, should go here.) Thanks!

#3 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom with gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 09:17 AM:

Possibly due to a link internal to this site.

[Actually for the phrase "Thank you for this post," (spammers are often very polite). The gnomes are, even now, fixing the links. -- Dulro Isismon, Duty Gnome]

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 09:21 AM:

Goodness, that was a dumb error. Thanks for pointing it out.

#5 ::: Barry ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 09:25 AM:

Your links to previous posts try to show them in edit mode, and so require a login.

#6 ::: heckblazer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 09:32 AM:

For perspective I always try to remember that France, Germany, Russia and Austria each had more soldiers killed in WWI than the US has in all our wars combined.

#8 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 10:17 AM:

(the postwar German conservative right big on the whole “stabbed in the back” thing)

Could substitute 'American' for 'German' for any number of ill-considered American wars (especially Vietnam).

#10 ::: Robert West ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 10:30 AM:

I always find myself running comparisons. I can't grasp them.

In four years, the United Kingdom itself (not the outlying areas) lost as many people as the entire city of San Jose, California has today. Germany lost a little bit less than the entire population of modern Chicago.

The mind boggles.

#11 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 10:44 AM:

It's hopelessly geeky, but I always watch this on the eleventh of the eleventh.

(I'm in a non-Remembrance country, since Dutch neutrality held. But we have Sint Maarten today, when all of the children go from door to door with lanterns and ask for candy. Looking out the window, watching the little lights bobbing along, always seems ghostly and sad to me. No one Dutch understands this.)

#13 ::: Snowrunner ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 11:21 AM:

That was a lovely post. Without intending to be dismissive, I thought it would be good to remember that World War One was not just a European war - hence its name.

Nearly 100,000 Chinese labourers served near the front lines in Flanders, together with a few hundred Chinese students recruited as interpreters (another 40,000 Chinese were scattered across France, working in factories and the like). They were volunteers, poor farmers from coastal provinces like Shandong and Hebei, attracted by high pay and contracts promising (falsely) that they would be kept safely away from the fighting. Paid four times more than a labourer back in China, they were neutrals until China declared war on Germany in 1917, then paid volunteers in a nominally civilian “Chinese Labour Corps”. In fact they endured military discipline and served under British officers: a motley assortment of invalids and ex-China hands, some of them missionaries on the look-out for converts.

China and the first world war.

Also:

Baroness Warsi, whose grandfathers fought in the Second World War, said:

“As I have said before, our boys weren’t just Tommies; they were Tariqs and Tajinders too.
Baroness Warsi kick-starts campaign to remember Commonwealth Servicemen of the First World War

#14 ::: Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 11:45 AM:

For the Somme, I prefer Robin Prior & Trevor Wilson's book to the revisionist "it was a learning experience!" tomes. I recall that Haig never quite gave up on the notion that there would be a breakthrough, exploited by cavalry. I.e., horse cavalry.

#15 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 12:07 PM:

This morning, I played Michael Flanders singing The War of '14-'18 one of the truly great anti-war songs. It's in heavy rotation on my phone. The First World War was, as has been remarked above by Snowrunner, truly a World War.

It had immense effects on the colonial empires of the major participants. Afterwards, they were neither as cohesive nor as subordinate as they had been before, nor were colonial subjects as ready to assume that their rulers' prestige and power would last indefinitely. Anti-colonial nationalism gained an immense impetus from the War, sometimes in ways that no one could have predicted, such as a returned colonial soldier from the West Indies founding the Rastafari Movement.

#16 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 12:21 PM:

And the Russians lost as many men every single day of World War II as the British lost on the Somme in that horrible first day.

The Children
Rudyard Kipling
1914-1918
"The Honours of War" - A Diversity of Creatures

These were our children who died for our land: they were dear in our sight.
We have only the memory left of their home-treasured saying and laughter.
The price of our loss shall be paid to our hands, not another’s hereafter.
Neither the Alien nor Priest shall decide on it. That is our right.
But who shall return us the children?

At the hour the Barbarian chose to disclose his pretences,
And raged against Man, they engaged, on the breasts that they bared for us,
The first felon-stroke of the sword he had long-time prepared for us –
Their bodies were all our defense while we wrought our defenses.

They bought us anew with their blood, forbearing to blame us,
Those hours which we had not made good when the Judgment o’ercame us.
They believed us and perished for it. Our statecraft, our learning
Delivered them bound to the Pit and alive to the burning
Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honour –
Nor since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her.

Nor was their agony brief, or once only imposed on them.
The wounded, the war-spent, the sick received no exemption:
Being cured they returned and endured and achieved our redemption,
Hopeless themselves of relief, till Death, marveling, closed on them.

That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven –
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled in the wires –
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes – to be cindered by fires –
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For that we shall take expiation.
But who shall return us our children?

#17 ::: Tony gnomed Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 12:22 PM:

It seems I have been gnomed.

#18 ::: Robert West ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 01:02 PM:

Snowrunner - one of the most interesting things I've ever read about the history of the decolonization movement was a comment, in a book whose name I have long since forgotten, about the effect of the Great War on the colonies. The war really gave birth to the colonial revolutionary movements - because the war was a vivid demonstration that it was *possible* to defeat the colonial masters.

#19 ::: between4walls ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 01:10 PM:

"Because after the terrible costs of the war, it was easier for Germans to believe in the tragic, idealistic self-sacrifice of 1914 than in the bitter fact that by 1918, their army didn’t have the will to go on fighting."

And that by 1918, their people were fed up enough to overthrow the incompetent warmongering government. Good for them. I always thought the 1918 November revolution is insufficiently remembered (well, the stab-in-the-back people certainly remembered it, but drew rather the wrong lesson).

#20 ::: between4walls ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 01:18 PM:

Re: the Great War (1914-1918), I wonder if the Turkish War of Independence/Asia Minor Disaster (1919-1923) should count as a continuation of it. Speaking of utter horror.

#21 ::: between4walls ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 01:20 PM:

Did finally give me an understanding of why Ataturk is so revered, though- his accomplishment in organizing a national movement and army was really astounding.

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 02:40 PM:

Snowrunner @13, I know it wasn't just a European war. In some previous years I've delved into those aspects of it. This year I did memorials as synecdoche.

If I revisited every area touched by the Great War, I wouldn't have room to do more than list places and events, and post links to general information sites.

Anderson @14: It would be so much easier to hypothetically credit Haig with a more nuanced view of the war if it weren't for the horses.

between4walls@21, Kemal Ataturk also made one of the great speeches about the war, delivered in 1934 to the first ANZACs and Brits who came back to visit Gallipoli. It's inscribed on the monument to the dead of both sides at Kabatepe Ariburun Beach. I've quoted it in the main entry in past years:

Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land
They have become our sons as well

#23 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 02:55 PM:

Xopher Halftongue @ 8

I've frequently noticed the same thing. The whole "stabbed in the back by Hippies" narrative comes straight out of the German Conservative's (don't want to violate Godwin's law) playbook.

#24 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 03:04 PM:

I'm always struck by the awesome colossal stupidity of this war. Needless to say the war itself shouldn't have been fought in the first place. For that we can blame the political leaders, as well as for the outrageous aftermath, but here I want to rant about the generals, in the usual superior way of someone who wasn't there.

Though probably they don't even deserve that much, I'm willing to concede the benefit of the doubt to the generals for 1914. They apparently didn't know what their weapons would do, and they had trained for years using a false doctrine, though you might think they would have figured out not to charge artillery during the Crimean War. But then you have 1915-1917 to blame on them. Millions of casualties, hundreds of thousands of deaths just on the western front, all for the sake of an utterly imbecilic and already disproven notion of how a war is supposed to be fought.

And then when you read that the allied generals absolutely refused to go to the front to experience what the war was like, and continued to obstinately order infantry charges into zeroed-in artillery ranges and machine gun bunkers for years to come, blaming the cowardice of the infantry for failures....

Anyway seems to me the most appropriate use of time travel is not to go and find out what happened in Palestine in the first century, it's not even to assassinate Hitler, it's to go back to this period and slap generals like Douglas Haig and Luigi Cadorna over and over repeating "Don't attack you idiot" until they listen.

Of course this is all convenient hundred-years-later hindsight, written by a noncombatant, but it's still hard to imagine what these generals were thinking.

#25 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 03:32 PM:

I read a book about the division my mother's father was in. They were basically National Guard, called to active duty, and at nearly the last minute, their NG officers were replaced by Regular Army, because the Guard officers, in the RA's opinion, weren't capable of doing the job.
They were trained (not well) for trench warfare, and then sent to the Meuse-Argonne.
My grandfather, a sergeant, caught a couple of machine-gun bullets in his leg and was left in between the lines; a German soldier came out looting bodies and took his razor as he played dead (he was lying on his pistol).

#27 ::: H.E. Wolf ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 04:07 PM:

I'm working on a WWI project related to the women who served (in military or civilian capacities). The research is slow because about every 15 minutes, I come across something that breaks my heart and I stop reading.

There's the occasional less-harrowing story, like the letter from one young woman, a civilian volunteer, who was hit by shrapnel. It bounced off her bustle.

She wrote that a soldier, seeing her in tears after the incident, asked where she was hit and she replied "On Verdun Hill" and only later realized he meant "which body part?", whereupon her answer struck her as amusing.

But most of the stories are reminders that war is hell.

#28 ::: between4walls ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 04:11 PM:

Oh, it was compromised as hell and not particularly intentional, but it wouldn't have happened at all without mass demonstrations. Schiedemann never would have proclaimed a republic if there wasn't a real chance of people listening to Liebknecht do it othrrwise. But point taken that it was a result of losing the war rather than, as the stab-in-the-back types thought, a cause.

Always respected Liebknecht for calling it in 1914. Voting alone against the war credits took guts.

#29 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 04:23 PM:

The link 'light' in the paragraph beginning "Emil Krieger’s group of four Mourning Soldiers" has an extraneous 'l' before http.

I had no idea about the Kollewitz works. And I thought I knew her.

#30 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 04:32 PM:

I am not going to watch this clip again this year,

We'll Never Tell Them

#31 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 04:35 PM:

My Brother was at the Menin Gate one sunset.

He reminds me that most Belgian cemeteries have grave markers for hostages shot by the Germans in both World Wars.

#32 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 04:48 PM:

the post-Napoleonic delusion that sufficient enthusiasm can triumph over firing rates on flat, waterlogged ground strung with barbed wire

Known today as the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics.

#33 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 06:16 PM:

Some time in the last few years, the wearing of a poppy at this time of year in Britain went through a depressing point of inflection and ceased (to me at least) to be the commemoration that it once was and started to be a shibboleth for something weird undoubtedly connected with the current war on multiple fronts that's twelve years old and looks like never ending. As the WWII generation that actually knew military life and combat dies off, the dignity of the occasion has been pushed aside by sentimental marketing of the poppy; if you appear on BBC TV not wearing one in early November, every halfwit in the country writes a letter to the newspapers. I don't like it much.

#34 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 06:41 PM:

I reread The Napoleon of Notting Hill a few weeks ago. The 1984 of that book is pretty much the same as 1904—Chestertonian whimsy, sure, but also a tribute to how solid Europe looked before 1914, as though the Long Nineteenth Century that the inhabitants didn't know they were still in could continue indefinitely. Halfpenny trams, halfpenny boy's papers, gas lights and a cheap shop valued at £100...

(I've seen persuasive arguments that the real Jonbar Hinge is the Franco-Prussian War: once you have that, something like WWI follows inevitably.)

#35 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 06:44 PM:

I recently read a short story, written in the 30s and set in the WWI years, called "The Soul of a Turk." It was about a poor shlub of a farmer called to service to defend Islam against the Russians.

Before he deserts -- after offing the arrogant German officer assigned to oversee his unit -- he fights on many fronts, but doesn't once see a Russian.

#36 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 07:21 PM:

Miramon @24:

I'm willing to concede the benefit of the doubt to the generals for 1914. They apparently didn't know what their weapons would do, and they had trained for years using a false doctrine, though you might think they would have figured out not to charge artillery during the Crimean War.
This question bothers me, because I know the British military had observers running around loose during the American Civil War. By the end of that war, every private and most officers knew that no matter how much elan vital you had on tap, an offensive á outrance against rifles in a prepared defensive position would most likely prove a costly failure. (See also: Pickett's Charge.) As for trying to charge artillery on foot, there's the famous description of the morning after the Battle of Malvern Hill, when the ground fog lifted:
Our ears had been filled with agonizing cries from thousands before the fog was lifted, but now our eyes saw five thousand dead or wounded men were on the ground. A third of them were dead or dying, but enough of them were alive and moving to give the field a singular crawling effect.
Since then, firing rates and accuracy had only improved, and barbed wire had made its appearance on the battlefield. How could so many top commanders have thought a brisk advance across no-man's-land would succeed?

#37 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 07:48 PM:

John Quiggin linked to a very good Remembrance Day speech given twenty years ago at the Australian War Memorial:

Because the Great War was a mad, brutal, awful struggle, distinguished more often than not by military and political incompetence; because the waste of human life was so terrible that some said victory was scarcely discernible from defeat; and because the war which was supposed to end all wars in fact sowed the seeds of a second, even more terrible, war - we might think this Unknown Soldier died in vain.

But, in honouring our war dead, as we always have and as we do today, we declare that this is not true.

#38 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 08:04 PM:

Stefan Jones @35: Thanks for the recommendation. I found it online. It starts here. The racial essentialism got tiresome, but the story carried me along, and the old guy's experience sounded believable.

I think it's Orwell who tells the story of a bewildered guy from Mongolia who gets drafted by one side or another, then passed back and forth between armies, and finally winds up on the streets of London at the end of the war, with no idea where he's been or why.

#39 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 11:01 PM:

Tony Zbaraschuk @ 16: Kipling was an early supporter of WW I whose opinion changed, spurred partly by the death of his first son. AFAICT, Benjamin Britten didn't lose anyone close to him in WW II but he multiplied WW I soldier/poet Wilfred Owen's condemnation by setting The Parable of the Old Man and the Young in the middle of the War Requiem; the effect of the combination in performance is indescribable.

#40 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 04:24 AM:

The Generals had been trying to find solutions to the firepower problem since 1815 at least. And, back then, the morale effects of a column attacking, compared to the shock effect of the close range volley, were the keys. Train to move across the killing ground with more speed, increasing the intimidation and reducing the exposure to fire.

And the American Civil War, while it might be dismissed by some as mere colonials, was far from the only war to provide examples. The Austrians fought the French and the Prussians. The Turks fought the Russians. The Prussians fought the French. And the weapons technology kept improving.

It ended with the Japanese defeating the Russians, attacking troops in prepared positions behind barbed wire. Aha! the Generals exclaimed, these attacks can succeed.

But it was the Japanese attacking Imperial Russia.

Essentially, there had been a steady development in firepower, and in the tactics of attack. But the previous wars in Europe had been different in other ways. Now, there were suddenly no flanks, and no alternative to the frontal attack on a prepared position. It wasn't a battle fought in a small area, lasting a few days at most.

In 1915 the British Army showed the tactics worked, but were unable to sustain the advance. Keeping the guns in range, and maintaining the communications to use the guns, and move up supplies, and to fight a battle, were all hard to do. There was always enough success to promise victory the next time. And the next time threw up a new problem.

There are always bad generals at the start of a war. But lions led by donkeys don't win a war.

#41 ::: Phil Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 08:43 AM:

Graphic novelist Joe Sacco has just released The Great War: July 1, 1916, a single 24 foot long illustration of the first day of fighting at the Battle of the Somme. I have yet to see a copy in person, but based on the photographs and videos online it looks to be impressively overwhelming.

#43 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 01:01 PM:

My father was posted to the Canadian forces base in Metz France in the mid sixties, and I remember a weekend trip to the monuments and cemeteries of Verdun as a 12 year old. I remember walking along the side of the ossuary, peering in through small windows at piles of bones. I had no experience to make me feel anything but a grim fascination.

On a path through the battlefield, we walked past places where rows of bayonets were poking through the dirt, still affixed to rifles that were presumably still in the hands of the soldiers who had been buried alive in an instant. Near each bayonet was a small plaque: Solat Francaise Inconnu (Unknown French Soldier)

Thank you for this. Context makes these memories deeper.

#44 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 04:01 PM:

Steve with a book, @33, here's an oddity: my other half wore a paper poppy to work yesterday and as far as he can tell no-one knew what it meant. (West Coast of the US, huge corporation.)

Someone seems to have thought he was dressed up for a date. The idea makes me shiver.

#45 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 04:10 PM:

Dave Bell @ #40: It ended with the Japanese defeating the Russians, attacking troops in prepared positions behind barbed wire. Aha! the Generals exclaimed, these attacks can succeed.

I become more and more convinced that much of the history of the 20th century sprang from the Russian-Japanese War, even though you hardly ever hear about it.

#46 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 04:13 PM:

H.E. Wolf @ #27:
It bounced off her bustle....She wrote that a soldier, seeing her in tears after the incident, asked where she was hit and she replied "On Verdun Hill" and only later realized he meant "which body part?"

Shades of Uncle Toby. But was anyone still wearing bustles in the 'teens?

#47 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 05:08 PM:

An elderly vet gave me a paper poppy in return for a dollar donation to some charity this May, and I didn't recognize it myself, so I had to look it up.

It seems an offical US government agency (VA? I forget) says the poppy is for Memorial day here (May), not Veteran's day (November).

#48 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 06:31 PM:

TNH @36
Since then, firing rates and accuracy had only improved, and barbed wire had made its appearance on the battlefield. How could so many top commanders have thought a brisk advance across no-man's-land would succeed?

A more specific response to this than Dave Bell's very good contribution is that the effectiveness of indirect-fire artillery had much improved, and was expected to have rendered the defenders ineffective. The armies learnt, and (more slowly, retraining takes time) adapted (e.g. the ANZACs transferred from Gallipoli were trained in new tactics before being assigned to operational areas in France). Sometimes they let their hopes overcome good sense and what they had learned. And mistakes had huge costs.

#49 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 06:36 PM:

clew @43 my other half wore a paper poppy to work yesterday and as far as he can tell no-one knew what it meant.

I don't think I knew until I ran across it in reading as an adult. In one of the early Lord Peter Wimsey books it's a major plot point - some character or another would never have been seen on the 11th without a poppy in his lapel.

#50 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 07:08 PM:

I happened to be at Disneyland a week and a half ago, and they had planted a flower bed in Town Square (near the flagpole) with poppies. I was somewhat disappointed that they were yellow poppies and not red. Though yellow poppies are more California, these were not the California poppies that bloom there in the spring. Anyway, I'm not sure what percentage of the Disneyland audience would recognize poppies for Veterans Day, but it's nice that they made some effort.

#51 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 07:21 PM:

I must say I don't see how unit training and experience is the problem after the first time one of these generals ordered infantry to charge enemy trenches. When the assault units sustain 90% casualties and gain no ground at all after three days of all-out bombardment, with local air superiority the whole time, you'd think there might be some indication that theory is at fault here, not praxis.

Except perhaps for the kaiserschlacht, which not only had some strategic reasoning behind it (well, strategic desperation, anyway) but also showed some actual results, it seems to me that none of these huge offensives had any reasonable basis.

So you have the English and French assaulting these three-tiered trench systems time and time again and losing all their men on the way to the third trench. The Germans just gave ground and let the artillery and machine guns eat up the advance, and moved back up to reclaim their forward positions once the corpses were removed.

But at least the Germans were running stupid offensives of their own so the English and French felt a threat. In the south you have the Italians losing entire armies at a go trying to charge *up the slopes of the alps* at massively built-up Austrian defensive positions, with no threat coming from Austria at all, and their whole motivation for losing a generation of young men being an appetite for real estate.

I think that every offensive failure after the first grotesque catastrophes had very little to do with field-level operations and training, and everything to do with strategic stupidity from the high command combined with what seems in hindsight to have been an almost malicious disregard for human life.

#52 ::: H.E. Wolf ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 09:08 PM:

H.E. Wolf @ #27: [shrapnel] bounced off her bustle....

Sarah @ 45: Shades of Uncle Toby. But was anyone still wearing bustles in the 'teens?


I think you're right. Bustles were so 1880s. Could it have been something like corset stays? At any rate, metal strips of some kind, in the general vicinity of her Verdun Hill. The source (Women and the Great War, by Virago Press in the UK), has gone back to the library. It was one of the mostly-heartbreaking books.

#53 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 09:53 PM:

Miramon @50
I'm afraid that your understanding of the tactics and results of WW1 Western Front battles is seriously flawed.
As Dave Bell said upthread "But lions led by donkeys don't win a war". Offensive and defensive tactics evolved greatly. German losses while defending were often comparable to those of the attackers, with many casualties occuring during counterattacks.

#54 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 10:04 PM:

I also did not know the meaning of the poppy until I was in the UK in a November. I'm surprised to hear that any US agency would declare the poppy to be connected to Memorial Day, which precedes the UK-etc. observance by 50 years and was not associated with poppies. (Possibly because the Civil War produced relatively little of the massively churned-up ground that I've read poppies favor? Or was the poppy not found in North America then?)

#55 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 10:12 PM:

Moina Michael, who was from my neck of the woods, is credited hereabouts with the US version of the poppy-wearing (and selling) custom.

No idea how accurate this is.

#56 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 11:16 PM:

Haig and his immediate subordinates are still deeply controversial. There's been a lot of revisionism in the last generation of historians. Opinion seems to be drifting towards the idea that what they did was the only thing they could have done, and then argue that they did it the best way they could. I think this is deeply wrong, on both counts.

I also think the controversy has to do with the fact that Haig was partly right, but the things he was right about were the very things that made his failings worse.

He was, for example, absolutely right in terms of grand strategy. The only place where the armies of Great Britain and the (then) Empire could defeat the Central Powers was northern France and Flanders. Diversions were a waste of power and time. That was the only place where they could be supplied from the home country in sufficient strength to be a real threat. Professionals talk logistics, etcetera.

He was right to promote and use new technology. He was right to bring civilian technologists on to his staff. In most matters, he was an enthusiast for new techniques and new technologies, from the creeping barrage to tanks and aircraft, to poison gas. (A standout exception was machine guns. He never could understand that they were not necessarily a fixed defensive weapon, and he twice attempted to reduce the number of them in British infantry battalions, on the grounds that they led to a defensive mentality. He showed little interest in developing light machine guns and mortars, because he didn't see a use for them.)

He was far less Francophobe than is often alleged. On the other hand, he had little use for the Royal Navy, did not promote liaison with it, resented its occasional intrusions (as with the first attempts at tank development, for instance) and never seems to have given serious consideration to co-ordinating operations such as an advance along the coast within support range of the Navy's big guns, or outflanking operations involving a sea lift.

He was not opposed to non-linear infiltration tactics, although he doubted their effectiveness on any scale above the purely local, on the grounds that they were difficult to co-ordinate. This was, of course, completely wrong. It does not ever seem to have occurred to Haig or any of his immediate subordinates, except perhaps Plumer, that generalship requires the reinforcement and exploitation of success, and is done as it happens. The success of the German field tactics of 1918 shocked him to the core.

And he was completely, desperately wrong in his central conviction that the only way to defeat the Central Powers was to "break through" their lines by assault, no matter what the cost, and then defeat them in a battle of manoeuvre. That's if indeed he actually believed that, by 1917. By then, he may actually have come to the conclusion that there would be no breakout, but that he was doing his duty if he killed as many Germans as possible, even if that involved killing at least as many of his own men.

He didn't understand - nobody ever seems to have told him - that he didn't have to defeat the armies of the Central Powers by assault. All he had to do was to conduct a successful defence. The blockade would defeat them. The blockade eventually did.

In planning those assaults, he never tried to mislead the enemy or to achieve even local surprise. He did not attempt to develop rail links running parallel to the front, to move troops and supplies rapidly to attack at an unexpected point. He never did attempt false concentrations, ruse or misdirection. Even his artillery fire plans were completely devoid of cunning. He never tried "lifting" the barrage, waiting five minutes while the Germans, expecting the infantry assault, came out of their deep bunkers into the broken trenches, and then dropping it back on them.

But it was in his actual behaviour in the hour that he was most deficient. Those deficiencies were repeatedly disastrous, but he was never able to recognise or repair them. For instance, he was always remote and hard to reach, and mostly out of touch. His headquarters, thirty-five miles behind the lines, relied on motorcycle couriers. There were only two telephone lines. It's difficult to avoid thinking that he was consciously insulating himself.

He had a curiously split vision. It can be shown that he knew in the early months of 1916 that the Germans had dug bunkers so deep that there was no prospect of the barrage reaching them - he had actually inspected one for himself. He knew that his guns couldn't cut the wire. He still behaved as if the infantry would merely have to walk across no-man's-land, and worse, that's what he told them would happen.

On the whole, Haig was one of the greatest British military disasters, all on his own. He should have been quietly retired, after Loos. After the Somme, he should have been relieved for incompetence. And a few days into Third Ypres, I'd have considered shooting him.

#57 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 11:45 PM:

Dave @ 55:

Nicely put. I agree with this post in every respect.

#58 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2013, 04:25 AM:

This is one part of an examination of the history of the history of WW1. It covered some of the images of the war put forward in the early 1960s.

Politics seems to have been involved.

#59 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2013, 08:17 AM:

There were always poppies for Memorial Day (in May), available for donations, in rural Wisconsin where I grew up.

This year, in Nottingham and on the train ride to London, I wore a poppy for Remembrance day.

#60 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2013, 02:50 PM:

Dave Bell@58: I'd forgotten how influential Clark's The Donkeys was: I only ever think of him in his later, libidinous-Mr-Toad incarnation as recorded in his Diaries.

I remember reading Barrington J. Bayley's short story Tommy Atkins in the 4th Interzone anthology, in which WWI has gone on for decades, with soldiers' lost limbs being replaced good-as-new by donated limbs from non-combatants (pioneering medical work by Alexander Fleming IIRC). I thought of this when I read something pointing out the new-to-me notion that Russia never had a mourning period after WWI, as the war turned into the Revolution, then the Polish and Civil Wars, then collectivization and Terror, then WWII.

#62 ::: Steve with a book just got gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2013, 03:41 PM:

Possibly for excessive terseness when posting an interesting link.

#63 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2013, 03:50 PM:

Thanks to Jim Macdonald @ 26 for educating me about the German Revolution, and between4walls @ 20 for bringing the "Turkish War of Independence/Asia Minor Disaster" to my attention.

How on earth did these zip by unnoticed in my history classes? Harrumph.

#64 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2013, 03:52 PM:

It occurs to me that Fragano Ledgister may have an answer for my question in @ 62 that does not put my school years in a very good light...

#65 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2013, 05:15 PM:

I have a little felt box with a few WWI medals in it, for Verdun, the Somme and something else. There was also a silver seal with Grandpa's initials on it. I know they weren't his medals, since he never went overseas - enlisted when he was 20 in May 1918, spent 6 months at OCS, and the war was over. His brother was too young to fight. I have no idea whose they were, or if he just bought/collected them after the War.

His mechitten, my aunt's father, a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech who was born and lived in Sanford, FL, flew a Camel for the RAF during WWI.

(Mechitten/macheteinisteh are Yiddish words meaning, IIRC, your child's spouse's father/mother)

#66 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2013, 07:25 PM:

Jon Baker @64

Wikipedia isn't a bad starting point for documenting the different medals awarded to soldiers. For WW1 the Victory Medal was deliberately a rather uniform design for the Allied Powers.

A good start is The US Victory Medal. Since Verdun was exclusively a French battle... But the Verdun medal was unofficial and the French don't seem to have used battle/campaign clasps in the British or American style.

Your Grandfather would have qualified for the US Victory Medal.

It does sound like a collection acquired later.

#67 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 03:30 AM:

Found: This illustration. I can't figure out the context, but their surroundings look like the Museum of the Great War.

Dave Bell @40: You're a little terse.

The Generals had been trying to find solutions to the firepower problem since 1815 at least. And, back then, the morale effects of a column attacking, compared to the shock effect of the close range volley, were the keys. Train to move across the killing ground with more speed, increasing the intimidation and reducing the exposure to fire.
I've seen analyses of column vs. line vs. square in terms of firing rate, but not in terms of maintaining enough coherence while crossing the killing ground to be able to deliver a real attack on the other side.

I can see that speed would be crucial. That's a problem in a region that primarily consists of two substances: potential mud, and actual mud. Did they even try to do that kind of advance? I don't recall reading about any great emphasis being put on moving fast while crossing no-man's-land.

And the American Civil War, while it might be dismissed by some as mere colonials, was far from the only war to provide examples. The Austrians fought the French and the Prussians. The Turks fought the Russians. The Prussians fought the French. And the weapons technology kept improving.

It ended with the Japanese defeating the Russians, attacking troops in prepared positions behind barbed wire. Aha! the Generals exclaimed, these attacks can succeed.

But it was the Japanese attacking Imperial Russia.

So they wanted to keep their old tactics, and the intervening wars had sufficient idiosyncrasies to muddy the issues?
Essentially, there had been a steady development in firepower, and in the tactics of attack. But the previous wars in Europe had been different in other ways. Now, there were suddenly no flanks, and no alternative to the frontal attack on a prepared position. It wasn't a battle fought in a small area, lasting a few days at most.
So when the chickens come home to roost, they're really big chickens.
In 1915 the British Army showed the tactics worked, but were unable to sustain the advance. Keeping the guns in range, and maintaining the communications to use the guns, and move up supplies, and to fight a battle, were all hard to do. There was always enough success to promise victory the next time. And the next time threw up a new problem.
That's an organization that's outgrown the tensile strength of its materials.
There are always bad generals at the start of a war.
The rule of thumb I've heard is that the great secret of generalship is to not be in command for the first six months.
But lions led by donkeys don't win a war.
Donkeys, yes.

Given all the scientific advances and social changes taking place, the size of the conflict, and its unprecedented challenges, there should have been far more innovation, flexibility, and results-driven assessment. Instead, the only military improvisers and innovators that got any real support from their organizations tended to be working at the edges of things. Meanwhile, the guys responsible for monstrosities like 3rd Ypres and 11th Isonzo sat comfortably at the center.

There's a weird absence of high-level coordinating intelligence. For instance, someone should have read Falkenhayn's "Deutschland Uber Alles" glurge from Langemar(c)k, smelled a rat, and checked his reports against his casualty rates. I can't find any mention of him being pulled up short on that account.

It's a strange, strange war.

#68 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 05:13 AM:

Teresa #67 - I feel I should comment, although the problem is I'm not an expert, I've only read a handful of books on the topic.
So
Given all the scientific advances and social changes taking place, the size of the conflict, and its unprecedented challenges, there should have been far more innovation, flexibility, and results-driven assessment. Instead, the only military improvisers and innovators that got any real support from their organizations tended to be working at the edges of things. Meanwhile, the guys responsible for monstrosities like 3rd Ypres and 11th Isonzo sat comfortably at the center.
Simply isn't an honest or reliable assessment of the total situation. Sure, I'm going by the more revisionist historians of the last 40 years, but they do have something of a point.
For instance, not just tanks, which were up to 5 marks of and 2 or 3 different kinds, but the use of aircraft, the development of air reconaissance and importance of air superiority; different ways of doing artillery, and of locating and attacking your enemies; different tactics and so on and on. Sheffield convinvingly shows that there was learning all the way through the war by the British army, and the French and Germans and Americans, although obviously he concentrates on the British. There are major tactical differences between the battles of 1916 and 1918; by the end the BRitish army had evolved a form of shallow attack, bite and hold, then move onto the next area of the front line to repeat the same, preventing the Germans from getting a rest to rebuild everything. It relied on somewhat complicated plans and the improved logistics, such as the use of light railways which increased in number all through the war.

Yes, there was, as is usually the case in big organisations, institutional resistance to innovators, e,g, it took a while for tanks to get anywhere, but it seems Haig did see the promise in them, and after Cambrai so did almost everyone else. On the other hand Haig was stupid when it came to machine guns, not seeing why they were needed in such large numbers.
Besides, your words such as "results drive assessment" imply a modern frame of mind which is totally alien to Europe of the period. The scientific management stuff was fairly young even in America at that time; I think it had reached Europe, but was not exactly widely known or affecting things. Besides, there were simply so many variables that people, certainly earlier in the war, just weren't cognisant of them. Even by 1918, the Germans were making infiltration attacks and not properly judging the weather, so that one which went ahead through morning mist worked, one which didn't have the mist, failed, but also because they attacked well prepared bunkers. So it isn't clear that they'd even worked out how useful mist could be.

You were right about the intervening wars muddying things up and then chickens coming home to roost. And even trying to be nice to them, the people in charge got it wrong too often in the first 2 or 3 years. But, by 1918, the British army had changed and was capable of making the guns keep up with its advance, and thus throw the Germans back through the Hindenburg line; this doesn't exactly show an organisation incapable of learning.

#70 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 10:24 AM:

Teresa @67

Most of the firepower arithmetic on column v. line traces back to Oman's account of the Battle of Maida (1806) where he gets events badly wrong. The French didn't even attack in column.

Clausewitz, who was in a few battles himself, wrote against the use of firepower. Both sides would just stand there, shrouded in smoke, shooting off ammunition and suffering casualties.

The contemporary accounts of the British battles in the Peninsula frequently show a British line on a reverse slope, not watching the dramatic approach of the French, and the French experiencing a single volley, followed by a screaming bayonet charge coming out of the smoke.

Incidentally, the French attack columns were not the columns seen on the march. You can get a better idea from the march past at the British ceremony of Trooping the Colour, which is a column of companies, with a certain amount of space between each company. A column of divisions had a two-company frontage. It was still a linear formation, maybe 100 files wide, which took a bit of effort to keep going in the right direction. A wider formation couldn't move as fast.

Here is some video from the 2012 Trooping The Colour. It shows the Escort to the Colour marching (around half-way through), and the rest of the parade, also drawn up in line on Horse Guards, numbers roughly a half battalion. The guns, and the medals, are different.

And this is a clip from Waterloo which maybe gets close. Between 3 and 4 minutes in you do get an idea of what those French columns looked like.

Remember this. A unit fires a volley. It meeds time to reload. What's the effective range? The enemy are advancing at 120 paces per minute. The effective range of that volley is maybe 50 paces, 25 seconds. That's barely enough time. If the French keep coming, if those drums don't stop, you're going to be lucky to get a second shot off. Maybe you should run.

Firepower is never all the story.

#71 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 11:58 AM:

Dave@70:

Firepower is never all the story.

Undoubtedly true. But run one of those Napoleonic regiments up a nice long slope at a machinegun company with a few dozen WWI-era guns and plenty of ammo and spare barrels and I think firepower might well factor in to the result....

So after the first horrible experiences of 1914, why did the generals keep sending riflemen at fortified positions in an era when defensive weaponry was so clearly superior?

#72 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 12:49 PM:

Miramon #71 - partly because they were the victims of the idea of Elan and such; that the attack was stronger, that you just needed to be bigger and braver and faster than the enemy and could train yourself to be so, along with the proper ideological work. (tangentially, something I see echoed today in all too many Japanese Manga)
I'm sure someone could do an entire thesis on the dangers of ideology and how it stops people thinking and being aware of reality. (see also politics and politicians)

Secondly, they kept trying all sorts of ways of making it work, such as the rolling barrage which kept the defenders heads down, and worked well enough as long as the soldiers and artillery were co-ordinated, which required practise, training, and improved artillery methods. And also didn't work quite so well if your enemy had really good bunkers, but they took time to be built.

Plus they had at times gotten local success because early on the trench lines were very thin, only 2 or 3 trenches; later in the war they became larger and bigger and miles wide, so the enemy could retreat to trenches further back and so on.

Another reason to keep attacking was the political- economic. The Germans had occupied some of the best industrial land in France, with coal and iron, and if they had enough time to make proper use of it, or negotiated a peace in which they got to keep it, good for them, bad for France.

And remember, in the good old days, society was different; they were in charge, you weren't, and the fact was it did take them in charge time to find out what was wrong and what worked and what didn't work.
And because reality is annoyingly complex, there was a French general who came up with a good idea of how to attack well, it worked once or twice, then he tried it a third time and the germans had worked out how to beat it, so it failed and people went "Oh dear what a failure, get rid of him".

Plus, I don't like to defend 'them', but the fact is that WW1 was a war in which the sons of the rich and connected and titled were actually fighting and dying in the front line. You'd think that would force some concentration of thought on the matter, but such is the way society and the large organisations involved were at the time, that it wasn't as simple as you suggest.

I think this is one of the really good uses of history - if it makes you ask why and how because you just can't understand why people did that back then, within our great grandparents or grandparents generation, then perhaps something has worked out well in the last 50 years.

#73 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 03:55 PM:

Jon Baker @65: I've seen machetunim in Rosten's "Joy of Yiddish"; that one is the spouse's extended family. Machuten, which derives from hatan (father-in-law), is the spouse or child's father-in-law. Machetayneste or machetuneste are the spouse or child's mother-in-law. It's wonderful to have words for relationships that don't seem to have English equivalents, even as we have families with such relatives.

#74 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 06:12 PM:

Miramon @71

One early view of the Maxim gun was that it was distilled infantry.

One oft-quoted example has a company of the Machine Gun Corps (10 guns) firing a million rounds in 12 hours without failures.

That is 100,000 rounds per gun in 720 minutes.

It is near enough 140 rounds per minute, which a company of Wellington's infantry could easily fire. So that WW1 company of machine gunners was about the same firepower as the infantry battalion of a century before.

Differences: greater range, very little smoke to obscure the view, and it was easier to control the fire of the unit.

Now, that long open slope would have been bad news for an attacker in Wellington's day. The artillery was more like a machine gun, firing roundshot, grape, and canister, and sharing some of the same tactical ideals, such as enfilade fire.

#75 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 06:38 PM:

Miramon @71 asks ... why did the generals keep sending riflemen at fortified positions in an era when defensive weaponry was so clearly superior?

I can't answer that question. I'm not sure anyone can. I can say that there was a terrible conviction that it was necessary to WIN the war and that victory came from decisive battles, action and the offensive.

This is related to the causes of the war. The German General Staff realised that being surrounded by potential enemies in the event of war would be a bad thing. Therefore they created plans to win such a war. However their influence over the government and their grand startegy was such that the option of not fighting a war was dismissed.

Similarily, when confronted with war, the other powers were unable to offer other options than fighting. Once they started calling up troops, it was victory or nothing. (I have seen histories that suggest that Wilson's administration in the US, recognising that the war would transform the international balance of power, initially attempted to intervene diplomatically, which would get them a seat at the table when the world was reordered at the end. It didn't work out.)

#76 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 06:44 PM:

I need to watch A Very Long Engagement again soon.

#77 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2013, 11:21 AM:

The history of WW1 seems tailor-made to disabuse everyone of the comfortable illusion that the people in charge are wiser and know more than you, and so should be trusted to make good decisions.

#78 ::: bd Ctg ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2013, 11:32 AM:

Ws ds d wr t lmbnt d ngrs?

[Posted from 97.76.142.114]

#79 ::: Cally Soukup spots umm spam maybe? ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2013, 11:41 AM:

First post, commercial link, weird (and offensive, but that's not probative) content.

#80 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2013, 11:43 AM:

Aaaand, the gnomes were too fast for me. (Offers gnomes grilled cheese sandwich made with the really nice aged cheddar in thanks)

#81 ::: Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2013, 03:13 PM:

"why did the generals keep sending riflemen at fortified positions in an era when defensive weaponry was so clearly superior?"

The Allies by 1916 had the right idea - heavy artillery barrage followed by infantry attack - but kept underestimating how much barrage was needed, because what looked like a godawful barrage that nothing could survive, often didn't dent deep fortifications. And even then, you could only bite off a small gain on the ground, because the enemy would have another line past that one, etc.

Haig at the Somme realized the need for an exploitation attack; he just kept thinking he would get the chance to do it with cavalry. Srsly.

#82 ::: Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2013, 03:16 PM:

"He didn't understand - nobody ever seems to have told him - that he didn't have to defeat the armies of the Central Powers by assault. All he had to do was to conduct a successful defence. The blockade would defeat them. The blockade eventually did."

Largely concur with #55, but I can accept that for political reasons, the Germans' occupation of NE France made sit-and-wait a non-starter, at least until April 1917. "Don't worry, France, the blockade will work in a few years" was not going to play well.

#83 ::: Ryan V ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2013, 02:26 AM:

Holy wow, the four Mourning Soldiers are spooky. That Mort Homme is mindbogglingly odd. I'd call it gothic but even memento mori imagery pales compared to the Great War.

I hope I can visit some of these memorials eventually. If an understanding of the Great War is soul shattering I imagine the memorials are just as powerful.

#84 ::: Michael Walsh ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2013, 09:49 AM:

FWIW, the 2014 World Fantasy Convention is using 1914 as a theme. Details at the link.

#85 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2013, 06:26 PM:

The observation that tactics did in fact change over the course of four years has been made here before (going back a ways, because I remember somebody making that response to Mike's comment). ISTM that the issue is that only tactics changed, and only incrementally -- possibly in the absence of recognition that this war represented a quantum leap from anything previous even if few of the elements were absolutely new. Does that seem plausible?

#86 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2013, 07:52 PM:

Dave Luckett #56/Anderson #82: Also, as my BiL recently informed me, the blockade was originally meant to cut off their supplies for munitions, so they'd fold quickly. Unfortunately, their development of the Haber process screwed that idea, and drastically prolonged the war.

#87 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2013, 08:26 AM:

Anderson @ 81: The Allies by 1916 had the right idea - heavy artillery barrage followed by infantry attack - but kept underestimating how much barrage was needed, because what looked like a godawful barrage that nothing could survive, often didn't dent deep fortifications.

I know this is coming late to the party, but I've been re-reading John Keegan's "World War I," and he makes a different point (though not ignoring the increasing use of deep shelters and dugouts as the front stiffened).

The problem was communications. Orders and status, in spite of telephones and radio existing, were still being sent by runners. (Why? Because the bombardment destroyed the phone wires, the radios were huge and broadcast in clear.)

What this meant is that your "coordinated" artillery barrage wasn't. You were ahead of your troops, or behind, or even right on them. When your troops broke through the barbed wire too slowly the barrage was way ahead of them, when they were fast they had to stop avoid being shelled by their own artillery. Sometimes they built in a stop which meant exploiting breakthroughs was impossible.

So, they had a tactical theory that was unworkable in practice without better communications.

#88 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2013, 11:38 AM:

DaveL: I wonder how many generals even today fail to realize how important communication is. Do officer-candidate colleges teach this as a fundamental, along with actual tactics? I've seen a number of science columns about getting data where it's needed (most recently an item about a device that would send GPS data instead of requiring forces in tight spots to speak it into a radio), but most don't talk about how well it's accepted; there have also been discussions of whether the line soldier is being asked to carry too much tech, either to operate under stress (although some UIs are changing to improve that) or just to lift.

And communication may help in the short term, but knowing how to make sense of data received is also important. I don't know what effect that had in WWI, but I'm reminded that The Ritchie Boys suggests there would have been no (or a much smaller) Battle of the Bulge if the general in charge had listened to the German-speaking ~refugee group who had spent years learning to use their point of view to build the data they retrieved into a larger picture.

#89 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2013, 02:10 PM:

CHip: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C4ISTAR

By 1918, by the way, observers had wireless sets in their cockpits through which they communicated directly to artillery units, so the communications problem wasn't quite as bad as earlier in the war. But of course that was primitive tech, so it wasn't ideal.

#90 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2013, 07:46 PM:

Regarding communications and rolling barrages, I recall my father (a US infantry private who fought in Germany in the later days of WW II) expressed some rather bitter sentiments about how rolling barrages tended to work out in practice. I don't know how much of that was direct experience, and how much was learned by reading about or talking to veterans of WW I. He didn't make it sound like it was a solved problem, at any rate.

#91 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2013, 03:50 AM:

Going by the accounts I've read, a creeping barrage was not quite what we tend to think. The guns fired, for a specified time, at a particular block of ground. Then they adjusted range and started firing at the next block. At the point the infantry would dash forwards. These lifts would be small, maybe a hundred yards.

And sometimes the guns would fire a few rounds at the new setting, the attacking infantry would stay put, and then the guns would drop the range, trying to catch the defenders.

The attacking infantry would take the risk of being as close to the barrage as they could be. to reduce the time it took them to get to the enemy trench when the barrage lifted. They would be waiting well within the safety distance specified in modern manuals.

Incidentally, the size of the shell is a factor in this. In WW1, shells weighed 12-18 pounds. Post-war, the US Army planned, as money allowed, to move to the 105mm with a 33 pound shell. The British Army adopted the 25-pounder, using a gun carriage designed to allow relatively easy large traverses.

The 105mm is a bit more likely to collapse a trench or dug-out. The 25-pounder, developed in light of experience of the same war, was intended to "neutralise" the defenders, leaving the final destruction to the attacking infantry. And attacking infantry could get a little bit closer to what the guns were firing at.


#92 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2013, 11:27 AM:

Miramon @ 89: That's a cute term, but long enough that I wonder how many eyes glaze over by the time they get to it. However, interesting about in-cockpit wireless; I wouldn't have assumed it was possible, given the size of rig-plus-battery against the capacity of airplanes then, but I can see how a pure observer (no machinegun+ammo) could carry one. Having any real-time info, however primitive, would do \some/ good. (This thread is reminding me of one of Mack Reynolds's Joe Mauser stories, in which he wins a deliberately restricted-tech battle without firing a shot by using a glider -- which is \just/ inside the limit and so effective that the opposing commander knows he's lost. There's no discussion of tethered hot-air balloons; I know they were used in the Civil War, but not to what effect.)

#93 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2013, 12:49 PM:

DaveL #87 - it was kind of worse than that - the bombardment inevitably chewed up the ground, so no matter how they tried, they couldn't get a proper breakthrough at all because they couldn't bring up the supporting troops fast enough to break through.

IN the end in 1918, partly by accident, they worked out that you could just shove the enemy back at one point, move along hte line, shove him back, move, repeat. The cumulative effect threw the entire German army into disarray, so the started retreating faster than the allies could advance on them.

#94 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2013, 01:22 PM:

I wonder if anyone's done any studies on how war of that nature changes the landscape and the local ecosystem.

#95 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2013, 01:31 PM:

I'm no cadet, but my point is that C3I and all the similar acronyms coined by eager consulting firms and military science professors are indeed universally acknowledged in military academies to be essential in modern warfare. I doubt a modern platoon could function effectively without its tactical network.

Aeroplane observers were gunners and observers both. They had to operate guns, wireless sets and cameras (well, sometimes the pilots had the cameras). The slow clunky two-seaters like B.E.2s, F.E.2s and R.E.8s were horrible enough targets without giving them Lewis guns for at least the ghost of a chance against an attacking scout.

As for observation balloons, they were lines of them all up and down the western front in World War One, heavily defended by archie, and they didn't even need wireless for their communications since they were tethered.

As an aside, for most of the war, balloon observers were the only aerial officers allowed to have parachutes, because the imbeciles in charge of air operations -- Trenchard for one, but also his counterparts in the other services -- thought they would encourage cowardice among combat pilots.

#96 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2013, 04:05 PM:

Jacque @94: y'know what, that's a really interesting question to which I would also like to know the answer. A bit of hunting did find this piece, which is mostly about the effects on people but does mention, for instance, the constant shelling destroying topsoil "beyond hope of restoration". (Is that really true? I thought the farmland of Flanders and northern France had recovered pretty quickly). The endnotes might give some pointers for further reading?

#97 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2013, 05:16 PM:

Miramon @ #89

Somewhere in the "to do" pile, I have "Cooperation Of Aircraft With Artillery", Revised Edition, Provisional, 1920, which will doubtless have examples of what was found to be possible in the Great War.

#98 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2013, 07:02 PM:

(I asked my-brother-the-historian if he knew anything about studies of the war and ecosystems. He said no, except that WWI was indirectly responsible for saving the Scottish wildcat from the brink of extinction because the gamekeepers who were close to eradicating it were all called up and sent off to die themselves. Which if true just emphasises how strange and unpredictable the global consequences of the war were).

#99 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2013, 02:54 PM:

James E., I've read that the soil does recover, especially if the dead are left in it. The images that conjures are not pleasant ones...

#100 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2013, 11:47 AM:

miramon @ 95: I've read that last point as being long-standing: admirals objecting to improved gunnery because it would give "cowardly" sailors an "excuse" for not closing with the enemy. I sometimes wonder whether everyone behind the lines should be removed from the line of command to staff/advisor (such that leaders were required to lead, as they once were) -- but I expect that would return some part of leadership to maniacs who can't \take/ advice.

#101 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2013, 12:20 PM:

#99 ::: Lori Coulson

I suppose you could think of zombies or giant revengeful soil monsters, but my first thought was something peaceful along the lines of "the world wants to regenerate".

Which could be taken to a grim cycle of regeneration and more war, but I'd rather stop at the regeneration phase and hope that the world can stop there, too.

#102 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2013, 01:53 AM:

Lori Coulson@99, my first thought about that was, well, poppies.

But nature does a better job of recovering from old-fashioned mass warfare than from the current versions. Lead bullets will be a problem for a long time. Deplete uranium likewise, much worse but there was a lot less of it. Toxic solvents and propellants, though most of those break down. Large-scale nuclear war and nuclear winter have fortunately not happened, but Hiroshima's damage and that of the decades of nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War nuclear terrorist aren't healed. Nature may be just fine with the US bombing of Iraq's water systems and electric power plants, but the local population were affected for years after the war.

But this is getting depressing enough to play some Dylan or Eric Bogle to cheer things up.

#103 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2013, 02:34 AM:

Forgot to mention Agent Orange in there as well, defoliant used extensively in Vietnam.

#104 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2013, 12:28 PM:

Yeah, that's basically why I don't research it with any much deliberation; the whole idea is just too depressing to bear.

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