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July 1, 2016

“The nation must be taught to bear losses.”
Posted by Teresa at 05:29 PM * 55 comments

The Battle of the Somme began 100 years ago today: July 1st, 1916. The British took 57,470 casualties the first day, and lost roughly 420K men by the time the battle ended 141 days later. Total French losses were lower, 200K - 250K, but that’s because so much of the French army was busy manning the meatgrinder at Verdun. German losses were roughly half a million.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fighting in 1916. The major European offensives were conceived of as wars of attrition, meant to force the other side to bring in troops from other battlefields where they were fighting other wars of attrition. All of them went on as long as the weather permitted. Verdun was the longest, at 303 days. The Brusilov Offensive was the largest — the Russian army attacked German and Austro-Hungarian forces along a 150-mile front — and killed the most people.

But it’s the Somme that haunts our memories, at least in the English-speaking world. July 01 was the single worst day the British military ever had. Inexperienced troops scrambled out of their trenches, advanced across no-man’s-land, and got mowed down by machine-gun fire.

Some quotes from their commander, General Sir Douglas Haig:

“Success in battle depends mainly on morale and determination.”

“The way to capture machine guns is by grit and determination.”

“The machine gun is a much over rated weapon.”

“The nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of the officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists.”

I dislike Haig. It strikes me as unkind and unnecessary to tell troops their attack will succeed if only they try hard enough. Grit and determination haven’t reliably beaten superior firing rates since the Napoleonic Wars.

=====

An extraordinary observance of the Battle of the Somme took place today in the UK.

Small groups of reenactors — really excellent reenactors — quietly appeared in public places, looking just like they’d have looked in 1916. They didn’t speak, but if approached they’d give you a small card with the name, rank, unit, and age at death of the man they were recalling to memory, 100 years after his death.

Photographs of them have accumulated at Pinterest, and probably elsewhere as well. Go look.

Comments on "The nation must be taught to bear losses.":
#1 ::: Laurence Brothers ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2016, 06:02 PM:

There are many appealing time-travel fantasies that indulge hindsight and the desire to slap around famous and famously stupid people.

One hardly knows where to begin with WWI. There are so many candidates in every country involved. But on the British side, even with their superfluity of pompous, stupid, and indeed evil generals, there's no question in my mind that Haig takes the prize.

#2 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2016, 06:22 PM:

WWI is unique in its ability to leave me confounded. It is fractally strange, every detail, the large picture, the geopolitical context and implications, the decisions large and small. It is a story of horror and heroism, valor and veniality, a story which says everything and nothing. And a story to which we have not yet written the ending.

Haig makes me want to believe in hell.

#3 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2016, 06:47 PM:

I recently discovered the work of an artist named Marina Amaral who uses Photoshop to color old, often historic photographs. (I first encountered her through a portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.)

This week she posted a number of colorizations of WWI battle photos to commemorate the Somme. Go here for a look.

BTW, reading what I have about WWI - I'm more interested for Reasons in Austria-Hungary and the Eastern Front, but I've read quite a bit about the July Crisis - the crowned heads and aristocracy of Europe had really exhausted their usefulness by 1914. (Ask me someday about how poorly-qualified for power all of the major monarchs were - Franz Joseph, Wilhelm, Nicholas, George V, none of 'em came to the throne with the right temperament and the right training.) I suppose events of the current day show that power corrupts, in more ways than one (not just crookedness but brain-rot), regardless of the nature of the political system. Ruling classes gotta ruling class, I guess.

(PS Please note new email address; the one I used before is obsolete.)

#4 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2016, 06:55 PM:

The #WeAreHere ghost soldiers did not speak. But sometimes they sang; the "We are here" words sung in the trenches and used as the project name.

It was more than a little disconcerting to hear as I walked to my bus stop after work, even though by the time I encountered them it was late in the day and I already knew of their existence.

#5 ::: Seth ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2016, 10:29 PM:

War is a hideous thing. The more histories I read, the worse it gets. One book suggested that the war which began in 1914 was not truly over until the fall of the Soviet Union.

#6 ::: Dave Crisp ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 04:24 AM:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

-- Wilfred Owen

#7 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 05:56 AM:

Seth@5: this is particularly true for the Russian Empire, where the war segued straight into one revolution and then another and then a Civil War, then 30 years of very nasty totalitarianism with an even more horrible foreign war in the middle. Civil society only started on its path to recovery once Krushchev was secure in his job, forty years on.

#8 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 07:44 AM:

Copy editing question: first sentence of the OP: The Battle of the Somme began 100 years ago today: June 1st, 1916—?

#9 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 08:24 AM:

WWI changed Britain in one particular way that's rather difficult to spot, now that the change is so embedded: it ended the old national taboo against prayers for the dead (previously widely seen by the Protestant culture as a theologically doubtful Catholic thing).

The Lochnagar crater.

Yesterday's commemoration was inspired in part by the stories of ghost soldiers, dead relatives glanced across a street. My dad told me one of those stories, from WWII. A relative of his caught distant sight of her son, uniformed, in a swirling crowd outside a cinema in June 1940, exchanged a few shouted words with him ("I didn't know you were back!") and later discovered he'd just been killed on one of the ships destroyed during the evacuation of the Norwegian royal family.

#10 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 09:04 AM:

"I dislike Haig."

What a delightfully British instance of meiosis! One might almost thing you were in character, too, Teresa.

(Strange--at first I classed it as litotes, but on checking I find that's a slightly different thing. Didn't used to be.)

#11 ::: Brad Hicks ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 09:25 AM:

I've been listening to the Somme commemorations on BBC Newshour, and one thing jumped out at me: that so many of the monarchs, on both sides, were close family relatives. They pointed out that Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas were both grandchildren of Queen Victoria, and quoted Wilhelm as having said, "if my grandmother were still alive, she would never have permitted this war."

All of them knew each other. All of them had stakes in the status quo. All of them were family. And yet, in a matter of days after the first shot was fired in Sarajevo, they had sorted them out into two murderously opposed sides of almost mathematically precisely equal size -- and I have yet to hear any simple, coherent explanation of what each side stood for. It still looks basically random to me, sorted out by random acts of history.

World War I feels, to me, like an act of a malevolent god, determined to murder all of Europe by dividing it into two equally powerful and equally hateful and equally suicidal armies, both sides willing to die as long as they can kill the other, down to the last man.

"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood \ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, \ Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud \ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest \ To children ardent for some desperate glory, \ The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est \ Pro patria mori."

-- also Wilfred Owen, emphasis added

#12 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 12:03 PM:

Brad Hicks @11

I'd point out that none of them thought the status quo was at issue in the sense that you mean. They thought the stakes were, you know, the "balance of power," Serbia's future as a member of either the Slavic or Teutonic sphere of influence, and Germany's place in the sun.

You're also, when you call "the armies" hateful and suicidal, ignoring the actual humans in those armies, who were sometimes hateful but often had to be coerced into killing* and who, in almost every major combatant nation, were driven by mounting casualties into either wholesale mutiny or (more commonly) to a sort of strike by refusal to attack. It seems cruel to call a man suicidal for obeying orders when the alternative is execution for "cowardice" at the hands of Haig and his ilk.

Sorry if I seem angry about this. I am, bitterly so, but not at you.

*We talk sometimes about the Christmas Truce of 1914. We don't talk so much about the Christmas Barrages of 1915-17, laid down to prevent a repeat.

#13 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 12:15 PM:

Brad Hicks @11: World War I feels, to me, like an act of a malevolent god, determined to murder all of Europe by dividing it into two equally powerful and equally hateful and equally suicidal armies, both sides willing to die as long as they can kill the other, down to the last man.

It was ever thus:

"Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."

#14 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 04:25 PM:

Steve with a book @9: The Lochnagar crater.

That's a hole of which any meteorite could be proud. Reminds me of the Vietnamese/Laotian technique for digging fishponds from back in the day: build a hut where you wanted your pond; the Americans would accomodatingly come along and bomb it for you. Voilà: instant fishpond.

12 & 13: Which ever prompts the question: "Why do they want us to be afraid? Who benefits?" For damn sure not the "common folk."

#15 ::: mjfgates ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 05:24 PM:

Devin@12: I hope that everyone here can distinguish between an army and the poor sods who get dragged into it. That said, an army in motion is the single most horrible thing that can exist. Find something you think is worse, and you will also find an office in the Pentagon devoted to putting that something in a box marked "THIS SIDE TOWARD ENEMY."

#16 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 06:30 PM:

There's a line that Orwell used a few times.

Paraphrasing: "I look forward to the next war, in which the jingoists will have a chance to know what it's like to be bombed."

Topical:

"How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front"

* * *
Movie I haven't seen in a while, but maybe not long enough to watch again:

A Very Long Engagement

#17 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 07:50 PM:

Seconding the rec for A Very Long Engagement

Interesting thoughts from writer M Harold Page:

...
So, no, it wasn’t the actual casualty rate that made the Somme so horrifically novel. I think, instead, it was several other things combined:
...
Casualties affected respectable folk. The army of Waterloo was made up of a handful of aristocratic officers — expendable younger sons and men on the make, all from an upper class culture that accepted their winnowing — leading what Wellington described as “the scum of the earth” who had joined as an alternative to the noose or a slower death by starvation. Few had connections to back home. Most came from outside respectable society. Many were Irish. Nobody who mattered cared about them. In contrast, the army of the Somme was a citizens’ army, drawn from all walks of life, including poets and diarists and journalists.
...

#18 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2016, 08:52 PM:

On the anniversary of the Somme, I get this as a sidebar ad: "Experience authentic war-torn Europe in this historical MMO strategy game today!"

No, thank you.

#19 ::: Ian C. Racey ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2016, 09:25 AM:

Tsar Nicholas wasn't a grandson of Queen Victoria, but he was married to one: Alexandra was a daughter of Victoria's daughter Alice, who had married the Grand Duke of Hesse. He was a grandson of Christian IX of Denmark (as Victoria is the Grandmother of the Crowned Heads of Europe, Christian IX is their Grandfather), which made him the first cousin of George V of England. (Nicholas's mother Marie Fedorovna and George's mother Queen Alexandra were sisters.) George, William and Alexandra were all first cousins through Victoria, and William and Nicholas were third cousins because Nicholas's great-grandmother Charlotte (consort of Tsar Nicholas I) was the daughter of King Frederick William III of Prussia.

#20 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2016, 09:26 AM:

First line of post has date of battle as June 1, which is unfortunately poking me in the eye.

A reread of Barbara Tuchman's WWI books is in order when I get back home.

#21 ::: Arwel Parry ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2016, 10:11 AM:

I had Friday off work and ways watching the Somme commemoration on TV in the morning. I found it very moving, but must admit that my first reaction at the beginning was "OMG, Tywin Lannister is doing the narration!" - I suppose I'll have that reaction whenever Charles Dance does something in future.

Later in the afternoon I was in Birmingham having a meal in the Bella Italia on New Street and was surprised to see a company of WW1 soldiers marching past down the street, as I hadn't heard about #werehere. Quite a surprise.

Back to the main subject, back when I was a kid we had a photo of my grandfather in WW1 army uniform (he died at the end of 1965, when I was 7). I don't know what he did in the war, but I do know that he insisted that all his sons register as Consciencious Objectors in round 2. Fortunately COs were treated better in the second war than the first, when they were liable to jailed, sent to the Front in noncombatant roles, or even court martialled and shot, and as they all worked on the land I suppose they were seen as doing their bit anyway.

#22 ::: Idumea Arbacoochee, Gardener of Threads ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2016, 10:12 AM:

Date fixed. Thanks for pointing it out.

#23 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2016, 12:20 PM:

Arwell Perry @21--

I wonder if CO's were better treated in the UK during WWII because there was a greater degree of popular consensus about the necessity of fighting, esp. after the Battle of Britain.

In WWI, the authorities may have worried that easy treatment for a few COs could start a rush for the exits, and a more general popular questioning of why the UK was fighting in France. Cf. the title of this post.

In WWII, the danger of mass opt-out was far smaller, because there was a clearer sense that the UK was fighting for its very existence.

That's all speculation, of course.

#24 ::: Brett Dunbar ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2016, 03:03 PM:

Despite the popular consensus military historians mostly agree that Douglas Haig was actually pretty competent and improved a lot over time. He was significantly better than John French his predecessor had been. Given the situation he performed fairly well.

#25 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2016, 04:35 PM:

I recently read "Europe's Last Summer" by David Fromkin, which does its best to explain just what got Europe into WWI in the first place. At least from Germany's point of view, it basically came down to Wilhelm's irrational fear of imminent invasion from whichever direction he was looking in at the time, which led to the need to justify bankrupting the nation by pouring all of its resources into building up the military. It all had to do with fear. The parallels to post-9/11 America are, to say the least, troubling.

#26 ::: Sarah E ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2016, 08:36 PM:

Brett@ #24: I can't recall where I saw this, but in the last few years I've seen somebody on the internet complaining about the portrayal of WWI generals as viciously incompetent, because it leads to the idea that better generals could have directed a war on that scale without mass casualties.

I'm not sure where I stand on this -- the 19th-century tactics appear to have been used long after their faults should have been obvious, and yet people who understand military history better than I do say that "élan" won *just enough* WWI battles that the generals kept telling themselves that they'd solved the problems and got it working again.

#27 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 12:13 AM:

When asked something about the worst war, I answered WW2 because of the narrative. WW1 is a tragedy on a... on a WW1 scale. There is little else that hits me in the same way. WW2 was Aragorn and Mordor and darkest evil and clearest, purest good, and it created a story that all wars are like that. Or, rather, we created the story.

I am glad to be taught, and to remember, that there's also this pointless, stupid kind of war.

#28 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 12:19 AM:

When you compare the casualty rates the Somme was bad, but so were some of the British Army's attacks in WW2.

There were 13 British infantry divisions on the first day, with no tank support. There were 5 French divisions. 57000 British casualties look very bad compared to the 1500 French casualties, still with no tanks.

In WW2, Omaha Beach was 3000 casualties (with a higher death rate) from just 2 divisions.

Operation Epsom was about 4 divisions-equivalent with 5000 casualties.

It isn't really possible to say that WW2 was better for the infantry, but the Somme was far worse than the WW1 average.

Part of the difference was that far more manpower was devoted to other parts of the armed forces. The RAF peaked at about one million in WW2, about three times as big as the RFC peak in WW1.

By WW2, disease was less of a killer. That was part of the reduction for the UK. from over 2% of the poulation to less than 1%

One thing that added to the horror of the Somme was the way in which units were recruited, such as the "Pals" battalions, volunteers recruited from the same town. The Accrington Pals, perhaps most famous because of a play. sent 720 men into action and suffered 585 casualties in about half and hour. The town had a total population of about 45.000. In the whole war the town lost 885 men. There were only 173 killed in WW2.

#29 ::: duckbunny ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 05:51 AM:

I heard about the reenactors at train stations from a workmate on Friday, whose position was that it was extraordinarily brave of them to do it. Not the original soldiers - the modern folks memorialising them. In today's world, she said, with the attitudes that are going around, they could have got into real trouble.

It's such a vast disconnect from my perception that the dead of the World Wars are revered that I didn't know how to bridge the gap. Dressing up as WW1 soldiers on the anniversary of the Somme does not seem to me a particularly risky activity, not one that would single you out as a target for violence. But she clearly thought it was, thought it was obvious that it took courage to commemorate the Somme, in the face of nebulous unspecified persons who were certain to object.

I didn't know where to start with seeking mutual understanding.

#30 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 11:06 AM:

I am reminded that the tank was essentially invented by a bunch of agricultural engineers.

And the factory site where the first one was built is now a supermarket.

William Tritton, from Fosters of Lincoln, and Walter Wilson, from the Royal Naval Air Service, were the engineers, and Wilson's basic gearbox design is still used for the British Army's current tank.

Wilson was eventually transferred to the Army, but you can't really say that the tank was invented by the British Army.

#31 ::: Quill ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 12:29 PM:

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Head of the House of Coombe and Robin (both published in 1922) give an interesting perspective on the buildup to WWI and its effect on those on the home front. The sense of increasingly rapid change and eventual bewilderment at the monstrosity of it all are very apparent.

I believe they're still available on Project Gutenberg.

#32 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 02:08 PM:

Sarah E @ 26

I have the same issues with all this as you. On one hand, we're talking about generals confronted with enormous amounts of new technology; poison gas, tanks, telecommunications, machine guns, etc. Who understands and exploits this stuff the best should probably win the war, but the generals were raised in the days of cavalry charges, which was not a recipe for success on either side. The level of military conservatism was incredibly dangerous to the common fighting man, so I'm inclined to excuse some of the problems with fighting the war.

On the other hand, I find myself wondering what the really great generals, people like Patton or Robert E. Lee (Lee was a consummate cavalryman) would have done, for example, with the first 300 tanks ever built... I can tell you one thing - neither of these men would have been clueless enough to commit only 52 tanks out of 300+ available to their first battle. You only get surprise plus no countermeasures once!

And once the U.S. joined the war, the failure on the part of the Allies to go after the German Navy seems... peculiar, to say the least. (Maybe someone who knows more than I do about this can speak to the issue.)

I do have to give Haig very positive points on one important issue; after he retired he dedicated his life to the welfare of the British ex-servicemen. He was also the first general to hire dentists for the men under his command, which resulted in the creation of the Royal Army Dental Corps.

But ultimately I'm left wondering "what was with these guys?"

#33 ::: Sarah E ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 03:29 PM:

Alex R: I've probably said this before, but I'm becoming more and more convinced that the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-05 was the first domino of the 20th century, because it didn't go the way the rest of the world expected it to, and arguably was one of the causes of the Russian revolution, the rise of anti-semitism in Europe, and also apparently some of the WWI generals basing their strategies on "well, the Japanese infantry once took out an entrenched Russian position, so can we."

#34 ::: Norvin ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 04:24 PM:

Sarah E:: and because the Russo-Japanese War started with a surprise attack by the Japanese on a Russian naval base that was far away from most of Russia. Which the Japanese presumably thought about again, forty years or so later...

#35 ::: Brett Dunbar ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 04:36 PM:

There wasn't any real point going after the High Seas Fleet. As long as it stayed in port it was impotent, while a battle in the southern part of the North Sea would give it some chance of crippling the Grand Fleet. No battle was a strategic win for the Entante as the blockade could continue. While a battle could give the Central powers a chance.

Haig like French was cavalry. The big problem with the first tanks is they were horribly unreliable and it took some time and experience to learn how to use them and coordinate with infantry and artillery. The French were critical of the decision to sacrifice surprise on the other hand using prototype tanks in the field yielded useful information for future development.

#36 ::: Sarah E ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 05:01 PM:

Dave Bell @ #28: the Royal Newfoundlanders weren't a Pals battalion as such, but had similar numbers and similar casualties, due to the small population they'd come from. July 1 is still a somber day there.

#37 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2016, 06:49 PM:

duckbunny, #29: I think that in your position I might start by asking your workmate who she thinks would attack the reenactors and why would they do so? Until you have a baseline understanding of the statement, there's no good way to respond to it, and I have to say it doesn't parse to me either.

#39 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2016, 01:00 AM:

5: "One book suggested that the war which began in 1914 was not truly over until the fall of the Soviet Union."

There have been Russian troops fighting in eastern Ukraine within the last two years. Though the fighting has largely petered out, peace and a settlement there are nowhere in sight. The fall is not yet finished.

#40 ::: Rodrigo Juri ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2016, 03:38 PM:

General Haig should be in the hall of fame of military incompetence, in my opinion, of course. Only in military terms, saying nothing about the scential stupidity of war, Haig failed to understand what a new type of war was WWI. He used classic tactics, good to fight Napoleon, a century before. Somme should had been a movement battle, hitting deep and fast in the german lines. He made exactly the opposite, and even more, removing officials that tried the right way.

#41 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2016, 05:18 PM:

#40 ::: Rodrigo Juri

"General Haig should be in the hall of fame of military incompetence...."

I bet that if that were an actual monument, it would get a lot of visitors.


#42 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2016, 02:53 AM:

One of the big things that was different about WW1, after a century of increasing infantry firepower, was that the Western Front wasn't a battle of manouver in 1916 and 1917. It was a siege, and even in Napoleon's time they were bloody things.

All the solutions to firepower had been developed for the open battlefield. and they worked pretty well. Yes, the Generals had the siege of Port Arthur as an example, but that was the Japanese Army attacking the Imperial Russian Army, hardly a typical combination.

Sieges were fought with artillery, but nobody was all that good at using it. The Artillery Lessons of WW1 fed into later history, though different armies learned different lessons (There are reasons why the British Army favoured smaller calibres than everyone else). The guns were not dramatically different in WW2, but the supporting technology was.

#43 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2016, 08:58 AM:

The quote at the head could be applied to so many other things in the modern world. Just think of how it applies to black Americans today. to the ordinary workers at the bottom of the heap in any modern country, and to anybody with a bit of money saved and looking forward to retirement.

It suggests that Douglas Haig isn't all that unusual, he was part of a governing class that is still there. They, and not some arcane electoral process, give us our leaders.

They also arrange to take all our money, and keep all of their own.

I just checked. He was one of the whisky family, that Haig, went to Oxford, and was a member of Bullingdon.

Oh dear...

#44 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2016, 01:14 PM:

Diatryma 27:

It's interesting how many people think of WW2 as the good, clean war fought between the unambiguous good guys vs unambiguous bad guys. We allied with Joeseph Stalin, firebombed and eventually nuked cities full of people, and eventually accepted putting half of Europe under occupation and police states for half a century. We handed people over to the Soviets, to almost certain nasty deaths, for political reasons.

Hollywood was at the height of its persuasive powers, and was massively set to pro-war propaganda. And I suspect that still defines a lot of the public image of the war.

#45 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2016, 01:51 PM:

albatross @ #44

I think we measure how "good" a war is by how big a bastard we perceive the enemy to be.

#46 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2016, 02:41 PM:

In WW2, the good guys were hardly impeccable, but the bad guys were conspicuously worse.

#47 ::: GAY! Xopher Halftongue QUEER! ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2016, 05:42 PM:

Much like this election.

#48 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2016, 07:26 PM:

albatross, #44: And if someone brings up any of the things you mention here, the howls of "REVISIONIST HISTORY!" start up immediately. People want their shiny Hollywood narratives, and perceive anything that contradicts them as a threat.

Slacktivist has a good post on this topic here, and down in the comments someone else links to this discussion of the narrative vs. reality. Both well worth reading.

#49 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2016, 07:28 PM:

Phoo, my Slacktivist link didn't take and I missed it in preview. The link is here.

#50 ::: Brett Dunbar ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2016, 03:48 PM:

A battle of manoeuvre required breaking the German lines as there was no possibility of outflanking, the German line stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. So you had no alternative to a frontal assault on prepared position. The offensive never got past the German lines so the anticipated battle of manoeuvre never came about.

Haig was an enthusiastic supporter of tanks, which along with artillery, eventually allowed the development of the tactics he used in the hundred days offensive in late 1918.

#51 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2016, 10:23 PM:

re 44 et seq.: There was one huge difference for the Brits between the two wars: in WW II they were very quickly fighting for survival, whereas in WW I they were essentially fighting France's war, not their own. The American situation was different across the board, starting from the Civil War, our domestic tryout of total war principles (and trenches, and so forth). If you look at the US generals in WW I, they (with some exceptions) were born from around 1855 to the late 1860s, so they were close to that Civil War experience. Our casualties were much lower in ever respect, not to mention the far lower degree of mobilization.

The picture of WW II as "clean": well, in comparison to what the Axis did, it was. Alliance with Stalin? Well, the alternatives don't work out very well. I've come across a loony right theory that we could have stayed out of the whole thing and let the Nazis and Soviets destroy each other, but personally, I think that's nonsense; it seems to me that you had to choose between one or the other ending up holding Europe from the Pyrenees to the Urals for decades. Realistically the only way we could have ended up with a better result was to have invaded sooner and met the Red Army at the Vistula instead of the Elbe. Well, and somehow steered Mao away from Communism.

The third thing here is that the vast majority of deaths occurred either in eastern Europe or in Japanese-occupied Asia. Poland alone accounts for a twelfth of all deaths; one out six Poles was killed, mostly civilians. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrible as they were, pale against Japanese military deaths. We didn't round up the Polish officer corps and massacre them; we didn't gas people by the millions; we didn't string up random civilians in reprisals. We weren't saints, and surely our leadership at the time had no such delusions. But the others: they were monsters.

#52 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2016, 11:34 PM:

A cousin gave me Margaret MacMillan's(*) book The War That Ended Peace. It was a long, very detailed read. And like several posters above, I got the impression many of those running countries before 1914 were totally unsuited to the job. The military, in general, weren't really controlled by the civil governments. And direct monarchy was a fatal anachronism. My grandfathers and at least one great-grandfather fought in that war.

* She also wrote Paris, 1919 on the aftermath. Another long read, but fascinating.

#53 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2016, 08:32 AM:

I'm currently working for the dole[1], doing unpaid data entry for a historical society. One of the various tasks I'm doing at present is recording data about Australian servicemen from the Western Australian mid-west who fought in World War 1. One of the things I have to record about these servicemen is the countries they served in.

The most useful place to get this information turns out to be their casualty record - the document which details where they were wounded or taken ill, where they were hospitalised, and for how long. Very few of them have a record which is less than two A5 size pages (landscape orientation). Some poor beggars have records which run to multiple pages (this is particularly the case for the ones who were serving in the Middle East - Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and so on). The shortest records are usually of the ones who were killed in action, died of their wounds, or died of disease.

Oddly enough, there's a surprisingly few of these - most of the troopers I've been looking at have returned to Australia. (Admittedly, at least one of the places we were taking data for was, I suspect, an area of land opened up for farming by returned servicemen and their families - so that spot was a self-selecting sample). Then again, by the time the Australian troops were heading over to France, even General Haig had figured out that sending troops straight into the maws of the German guns didn't accomplish anything except massive casualties.

It's worth noting, however: one of the conditions the Australian Prime Minister at the start of World War 2 (John Curtin) placed on Australia's entry into the war is that Australian troops would be commanded by Australian generals rather than British ones.

For me, the thing which really ground in my distaste for wars was a school production of "Oh What A Lovely War" I was involved in. It was the first time I'd been confronted with the sorts of death counts that war produced - millions slain in each of the major battles... and then another nineteen million killed by influenza at the end of the whole conflict. It carries on even today - farmers in the old battle areas still dig up unexploded shells, or bullets by the thousands (heck, farmers in Belgium probably dig up munitions from their fields dating right the way back to the Napoleonic wars - Belgium has the misfortune of being at a very useful crossroads).

Learning the horrific circumstances of World War 1 erased the vague shame I'd always felt every ANZAC day about my maternal grandfather being a conscientious objector during World War 2 (he got sentenced to a "conshie camp" here in Western Australia) and my paternal grandfather being both in a protected profession (gold miner in Kalgoorlie) and unfit to serve (one eye short). Instead it made me fiercely proud of both of those men I'm descended from. It also fuelled an unimaginable contempt for the jingoistic fools who use ANZAC day every year to try and talk up the glories of military service and how "wonderful" the war was as an "opportunity" for Australia to "become a nation".


[1] Work for the dole, for those who haven't run across the concept, is the up-to-date Australian version of Victorian-era workhouses. The undeserving poor (aka those people who have been formally unemployed for longer than a minimum amount of time) are set to work performing various tasks in order to justify their continued receipt of welfare payments. Like the workhouses, the jobs performed are often pointless make-work. Unlike the workhouses, the various members of the undeserving poor are expected to clothe, feed and house themselves, thus creating a tremendous saving on barracks, sackcloth and gruel.

#55 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2016, 04:34 PM:

Another good book on WWI is Max Hastings's Catastrophe, which concentrates on 1914 only. Since 1916 was famously a year of horrors, I'd vaguely thought—perhaps by analogy with the 'phony war' in the West from September 1939 to May 1940—that the first six months of WWI were negligible in comparison with what came afterwards; but the losses had been terrible even by the first Christmas.

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