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The road to the Somme. Some thoughts on strategy.

Amidst everything else that’s been going on over the last few days, Britain managed to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Somme. For those who are unaware of the details 60,000 soldiers of a volunteer army became casualties, 20,000 died while the gains in terms of territory and dead Germans were minimal. While I found most of the commemorations cloying I thought the decision to dress up a bunch of young men in First World War uniforms and strategically position them in our larger cities was an act of genius.

But sadness and horror does not excuse the abandonment of cognitive functions. Many are happy to blame bad generalship and from the sounds of it there was plenty present that day but there were other, deeper, strategic reasons for the disaster.

First of all, Britain was fighting a war in Western Europe against a large, well-equipped and tactically skillful enemy. That is a recipe for a bloodbath. Britain repeated the exercise twice in the Second World War (May 1940 and June 1944 onwards). They were bloodbaths too. We tend to forget that fact because overall the numbers killed in the Second World War were much lower than than the First and because they achieved a succession of clear victories.

Secondly, Britain began the war with a small army. To make a worthwhile contribution Britain was going to have to raise and train a large army. Soldiering, like any other job, is one where experience counts. Anyone who is familiar with the rapid expansion of an organisation will know that this is a recipe for confusion and chaos. In the case of the British army the inexperience existed at all levels. Corporals were doing the jobs of Sergeant Majors, Captains doing the jobs of Colonels and Colonels doing the jobs of Generals. Haig himself (according to Gary Sheffield) was doing jobs that would be carried out by three men in the Second World War. Talking of the Second World War, it is worth pointing out that it took three years for the British to achieve an offensive victory (Alamein) over the Germans which is much the same as the First (Vimy).

Thirdly, Britain began the war with a small arms industry. Expanding that involved all the problems mentioned above plus the difficulty in building and equipping the factories. It comes as no surprise that many of the shells fired at the Somme were duds and even if they were working they were often of the wrong type: too much shrapnel, not enough high explosive.

Fourthly, the Allies needed to co-ordinate. Co-ordinating your efforts means that the enemy cannot concentrate his efforts on one of you and defeat you in detail. This was the thinking behind the Chantilly agreement of December 1915. The idea was that the allies – France, Russia, Britain and Italy – would all go on the offensive at the same time. Russia had done her bit in the Brusilov offensive. Now it was Britain and France’s turn.

Fifthly, the battle of Verdun. It is almost impossible to put into words the desperation of the French army by June 1916. It was fighting against a skillful and determined enemy for what had become sacred ground. It had reached the end of its tether and Britain had no choice but to come to its aid by fighting and thus drawing off the German effort. The original intention was for the more experienced French to have a much larger role at the Somme. Verdun put paid to that which meant that the British had to take the lead. As it happened, the Germans ended offensive operations at Verdun shortly after the battle began.

British troops attacking German trenches near Mametz, on first day of the Somme. From here: https://twitter.com/prchovanec_hist/status/749031026039586816

British troops attacking German trenches near Mametz, on first day of the Somme. From here: https://twitter.com/prchovanec_hist/status/749031026039586816

Mount Sorrel

There’s been an awful lot of this Brexit thing recently so – in the way of light relief – I’m going to talk about the First World War.

I think just about everyone has heard of Passchendaele which was fought in 1917. The better informed will know that its official title was the Third Battle of Ypres. Which makes this headline (from 12 June 1916) somewhat premature:

The Times 12 June 1916 p5

The Times 12 June 1916 p5

What they are referring to is what we now know – or more accurately: don’t know – as the Battle of Mount Sorrel. There are eerie parallels with the Somme. The attacker unleashed a huge artillery bombardment:

Artillery fire is not now used merely to demoralize the enemy or break up formations. It is used to annihilate, to obliterate every form of defensive work, and make life itself impossible on every yard of the ground attacked. I will not labour the point for the benefit of the makers of munitions at home.

He exploded mines. He came on in waves. He was mown down in his thousands:

When the infantry advanced they came, not charging, but with full kit and in regular formation, as if to occupy untenanted ground. They paid for it.

Only one difference: the attacker was German.

And how did the defender (mainly Canadian) respond to this? By organising immediate counter-attacks just as the Germans would on the Somme. At first they didn’t work. However, when they decided to sit down and do some planning – Arthur Currie take a bow – they succeeded.

Did I say one difference? Actually there were two. The Germans achieved surprise, to the extent that at the very moment they attacked there were two Canadian generals in the front line, there because “Oh it’s a quiet sector and we’re not expecting anything to happen.” One was killed, the other captured.

There’s also this:

Long after the issues of minor engagements in this war are forgotten, and when everybody has ceased to care whether at any moment we gained or lost a hundred yards or ground or a mile of trench, the memory of how the Canadians fought against hopeless odds near Hooge will be remembered, and Canada and the Empire will be proud, for generations to come, of the men whose deeds I have mentioned and of their no less gallant comrades.

Alas no. The war was too big for that.

Kitchener dies

On 5 June 1916, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, while on a mission to Russia, went down with the HMS Hampshire when it hit a mine. In so doing he became the highest ranking British soldier killed by enemy action.

His greatest achievement was in recognising that the war would be a long one and that Britain would have to raise, train and equip a large army. His estimate was that it would take at least three years for the British army to be effective which – if you take Vimy Ridge in April 1917 as Britain’s first unequivocal victory – was more or less correct.

His greatest failing was – assuming such a thing was ever possible – in not expanding Britain’s munitions industry fast enough which led to the Shell Scandal of 1915 and the creation of the Ministry of Munitions.

While it would take Britain three years to create an effective army the war still had to be fought. For two years France and Russia bore the brunt of the fighting and naturally wanted Britain, ready or not, to shoulder more of the burden. As Kitchener himself said: “We make war as we must not as we would like to.” This was never more true than in the battle that would start in less than a month’s time.

It is often said that he was extremely reluctant to tell the politicians anything and that by the time of his death his influence was on the wane. This is so often said that I begin to doubt it.

The Times 7 June 1916 p14. Click for the full obituary. Although The Times had started printing photographs before the war they were a rarity and became more so as the war went on. The fact that Kitchener gets a photo at all let alone such a big one says something about the esteem in which he was held. Notice the squint removed from the famous recruiting poster.

The Times 7 June 1916 p14. Click for the full obituary. Although The Times had started printing photographs before the war they were a rarity and became more so as the war went on. The fact that Kitchener gets a photo at all let alone such a big one says something about the esteem in which he was held. Notice the squint removed from the famous recruiting poster.


On 3 June 1916, the British public finally got to find out about the Battle of Jutland. Sort of. At this stage things look bad. The British have lost more ships and more men than the Germans. And they have lost the opportunity to annihilate the German High Seas Fleet. But worse is to come. The Admiralty is claiming to have sunk 2 German dreadnoughts when they have done no such thing. Over the years it will emerge that explosive handling practices were appalling and communications were poor.

The Times 3 June 1916 p9

The Times 3 June 1916 p9

Fortunately, there is a crumb of comfort, a rather large one. The Times nails it:

It will not impair the efficiency of our blockade, or our ability to uphold our freedom of the seas for ourselves and our Allies, nor do we think that it will dispose the Germans to encounter that “main part of the English fighting fleet” in the avoidance of which they have hitherto shown such vigilance and alertness.

Jutland may not have been as decisive as Trafalgar but it was decisive enough.


A hundred years ago the British Army may not have been fighting a major battle on the Western Front but it was still taking casualties.

The Times 4 May 1916 p4

The Times 4 May 1916 p4

I make that 187 deaths. It represents the typical daily rate for the Western Front. How did these men die? Most would have been killed by shelling, or in trench raids or in machine-gun strafes while erecting barbed wire entanglements in no-man’s land. Others would have been killed by snipers. An unlucky few would have been killed in motor accidents or when shells exploded prematurely causing guns to explode or when grenades went off prematurely or in gas attacks or underground fights between tunnelers. Most of the Canadians would probably have been killed in German counter-attacks at St Eloi.

By the way, you will notice that some of the casualties are listed as suffering from shell shock. Obviously, this had become a recognised condition by this stage of the war and presumably didn’t incur the death penalty.

What are we going to do about Gary Lineker’s underpants?

Barring an extremely unlikely set of results Leicester City Football Club will win this season’s English Premier League. This is extraordinary. Leicester have never won the Premier League even in the days when it was called the League Championship. Last season they only just avoided relegation and at the beginning of this one they were given odds of 5000 to 1 to win the title.

The club is not under the ownership of some Middle East potentate with an air force and in the figure of Claudio Ranieri – likeable as he may be – does not possess a genius manager.

A couple of seasons ago I had the unprivilege of watching Leicester play Watford when both teams were in the Championship ie the next league down. It gives me no pleasure to say that they gave us a right shellacking and I was surprised when initially they struggled in the Premiership. At Christmas 2014 they were bottom of the league.

Football fans use the expression “Championship player” implying that while a player might do well in the Championship he is not good enough for the next league up. It is cruel and it is true. The gulf between the two leagues is enormous.

So, I was surprised when I dug out the programme from that day to find that 6 or 7 of that Leicester team regularly start for them now. The equivalent number for Watford is 2. Yes, Leicester have won with a bunch of Championship players.

If Leicester’s success cannot be explained by either the owners, managers or players what can it be explained by? Sherlock Holmes said that: “…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…” This leads us to the inevitable conclusion that Leicester’s triumph is all down to finding that dead king in one of their car parks.

But to weightier matters. For those who’ve never heard of him, Gary Lineker is a legend. As a player, he scored a huge number of goals for club and country. If you want to see a middle-aged Englishman lose his composure just ask him what is meant by the expression “When Lineker scored.” Many of his goals came while he was playing for Leicester City, his home town. Since then he has made successful careers for himself both as a TV presenter, currently fronting the BBC’s main football highlights programme Match of the Day, and as a crisp salesman.

Earlier on in the season at a time when Leicester were doing well but no one expected them to actually win anything, Lineker promised that should they do so he would present Match of the Day in his underpants. Most people in similar circumstances would promise to streak down a public thoroughfare or clean the steps of St Paul’s with a toothbrush. But Lineker had to come up with something that was not only a bit naff but involved his employer as well.

Leicester’s march to the title has been not unlike the end of The Wicker Man. You think: “It can’t happen, it can’t happen, it can’t happen. Oh. It has.” And now that the structure is engulfed in flame, Lineker and the BBC – unless the latter decide to be ultra-pedantic – are going to have to make good on his promise. While I yield to no one in wishing Mr Lineker – or, the anti-Watford as I think of him – ill, I find the idea of the man sitting in a presenter’s chair wearing nothing but a pair of Marks and Spencer’s Y-fronts stomach-churning enough without anyone making it real. So, oh commentariat, can you come up with a way that Mr Lineker can stand by his word without outraging all that is decent, moral or civilised? If you can you will have the thanks of a grateful nation.

Conscription comes to Britain

A few months ago I posted a graph of UK longevity and invited readers to guess when the NHS was created. This was difficult for the simple reason that the NHS had no effect on UK longevity.

In similar vein I now produce a graph of First World War recruitment. Now I could ask the same sort of question: when was conscription introduced? However, I won’t, because lots of people will know it was in early 1916. But the same point applies: you can’t tell.

By Wkloot - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38219353

By Wkloot – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38219353

This is extraordinary even to a state-o-sceptic like me. You would have thought it was a fairly simple matter to round up all the males between 18 and 40 and put them in uniform. But no.

One of the reasons for this was that a large number of men were in starred (or reserved) occupations. These were industries such as agriculture and munitions manufacture that were deemed to be vital to the war effort. Indeed, in 1915 the government had to issue posters asking munitions workers to stay where they were and not join up.

The truth is that voluntary means – posters, white feathers, belief in the cause – were extraordinarily successful in getting men to sign up. Family legend has it that my great-grandfather was in a starred profession (farmer) but still joined up – mainly due to being badgered to do so by the locals.

There is another aspect to this. Conscript armies aren’t supposed to be very good. And yet, the almost entirely conscript British army of 1918 performed very well.


Trump v Putin

The wonderful Gary Kasparov finds that Donald Trump reminds him of someone:

Trump doesn’t talk much about policy and is incoherent when he does. This makes it difficult for the pundits to make useful policy contrasts with the other candidates. This is by design. When Trump’s lies and flip-flops are pointed out, he presses on twice as loudly as before. What Trump does talk about relentlessly, instead of policy, are simple words with positive connotations. “Strength”, “power,” “greatness”, “energy”, “winning”, “huge”, “amazing.” Trump delivers these words, over and over, with the bravura of a carnival barker and the righteous anger of the oppressed, the trademark combination of the populist demagogue.

Trump also refers regularly to how he will demolish any and all critics and obstacles, from entire nations like Mexico to elected officials like Speaker Paul Ryan. He doesn’t talk about boring things like legality or procedure or how any of these threats and promises will be carried out. Before anyone can even ask, he’s on to the next audacious claim. “It will be taken care of!” “He’d better watch out!” “We’ll take the oil!” “They’ll pay for it all!” “It will be amazing!” Bold, decisive, fact-free, impossible, who cares? His followers love it.

All of these rhetorical habits are quite familiar to me and to anyone who has listened to Russian media—all state controlled—in the past decade. The repetition of the same themes of fear and hatred and racism, of victimhood, of a country beset by internal and external enemies, of how those enemies will be destroyed, of a return to national glory. How the Dear Leader apologizing or admitting error shows weakness and must never be done. Inspiring anger and hatred and then disavowing responsibility when violence occurs. It’s a match. As is the fixation with a leader’s personal strength and weakness, intentionally conflated with national strength and weakness.

This is by far the best anti-Trump article I have read. This is probably because, rather than be simply repelled by the man, it attempts to understand what is going on.

I appreciate that Mr Kasparov is a genius but even so I wonder how well he understands terms like “trademark” (in this context), “bravura” and “carnival barker”. And what’s wrong with “taking the oil” – especially if it’s Gulf oil?

Repington delivers a corker

Charles à Court Repington was a former army officer who became The Times’s military correspondent. I have mentioned him before and so far I have been pretty impressed with his analyses. But in this article (here and here), in which he considers strategy and high-level tactics, he outdoes himself.

Here are his main points:

1. The Western Front is the key theatre. It’s also the nearest. Britain’s main effort must be concentrated here.
2. The allies must co-ordinate their efforts. Going on the offensive at the same time stretches the enemy’s resources.
3. The search for a breakthrough is futile. The allies need to wear out the enemy through bite-and-hold techniques – in other words, take a chunk out of the enemy’s line and hold it.
4. Cavalry is useless.
5. There are too many cavalry generals in senior positions.
6. Artillery is the dominant arm in this war, or as the French were later to put it: “artillery conquers, infantry occupies.”
7. The artillery needs more shells.

So, what happened?

After the catastrophe at Gallipoli, the “Easterners”, as they were known – or “cranks” as I tend to think of them – were largely ignored. The main effort was indeed put on the Western Front and that is where the war was eventually won.

Co-ordination. As it happens, at Chantilly in December 1915, the Allies had already agreed to co-ordinate their efforts. Unfortunately, the Germans took the initiative at Verdun, more or less completely taking the French out of the picture. Still, the Somme, the Brusilov offensive and an Italian offensive did take place at more or less the same time.

Haig continued to look for breakthroughs until about August 1917. He did so despite just about everyone around him – including Robertson, his nominal superior – thinking he was wrong. He did so in the belief – partly fed by an intelligence chief who told him what he wanted to hear – that the German army was about to crack.

Cavalry. Some claim that cavalry was useful in the Hundred Days Offensive of 1918. Personally, I am doubtful. It certainly wasn’t any use beforehand with the exception of 1914.

Cavalry generals. If we look at the really useless Western-Front commanders (army commanders and above) we find Allenby, Gough and French – all cavalry. The successful ones were Plumer, Horne, Byng and (belatedly) Rawlinson, of whom only Byng had any background in cavalry.

That artillery was the dominant arm is beyond question. In battle after battle, if the artillery was right, victory followed. If it wasn’t, it didn’t. That’s not to say there weren’t great changes in infantry tactics and equipment, just that these were a lot less important. It took until 1917 for the artillery to acquire the shells it needed.

About the only thing he gets wrong is his 150,000 figure for German casualties at Loos. The real figure was about a fifth of that. Otherwise he is bang on the money.


Stop The War, 1916-style

In 1916, the Reverend Swan of the Brotherhood Church in Hackney held (I kid you not) a “Stop the War” meeting. It did not go well.

Trouble was forseen by the police

Now, why would that be?

…the first hymn was sung. Then the trouble began.

…soldiers and civilians rose in a body and denounced the cha’rman [sic] and his companions as traitors.

[The vicar’s supporters] tried to drown the opposition by singing “The Red Flag”…

Oh yeah?

…but the public voice was stronger and carried the day with “Keep the home fires burning.”

Those were the days.

…some one began throwing down Chinese crackers. Hand-to-hand struggles became common all over the floor of the church. A man, who said he was wounded at Neuve Chapelle and had been invalided out of the Service, stood up on a seat in the centre of the building and pointing at the little crowd of young men, asked why they were not in khaki.

The vicar abandoned the proceedings but the crowd did not.

…a resolution demanding that the war should be carried on with all vigour until Germany had been beaten was carried with cheers.

When I first read this article, I assumed this meeting was the doing of some wooly-headed cleric. Not so. The Brotherhood Church’s other great claim to fame was that in 1907 it hosted the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (General Secretary, one V. I. Lenin). And, in case you were wondering, no, they were not duped.

You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.

The Times 17 January 1916 p5

The Times 17 January 1916 p5

The gift of India

At the beginning of the Great War people wrote and the The Times published a lot of poetry. The main themes were glory and sacrifice. By 1915 The Times was publishing a lot less poetry and what it did publish was a lot less upbeat. Even so, I was a bit taken aback when they published this:

The Times 16 December 1915 p11

The Times 16 December 1915 p11. Click for full page.

There is nothing about glory. There is a lot about death. There is a bit of empire bashing. And there’s a bit of: “You owe us.” Frankly, I was a bit surprised that the pro-war, pro-empire Times had anything to do with it. And, oh yeah, there’s the author:

Not a lot of Indians wrote to The Times in 1915. Or, if they did, they didn’t get published.

I thought I’d google the name just in case. Interesting. The writer, it turns out was a woman, a graduate, an Indian nationalist thick with the Indian nationalist bigwigs and, after independence, a state governor. My guess is that that last bit means she did a lot of bad.

The White Swan Four

In 1915 regulations on drinking were introduced on a town by town basis up and down the country. These regulations included restricted opening hours and the banning – I kid you not – of buying a round. The ostensible reason was to get munitions workers to show up for work on time.

One of the very first – if not the first – hostelry to fall foul of the new regulations was The Swan in New Lane. Annie Hives, the landlady and three customers were all charged and found guilty of various breaches of the regulations. She had committed the heinous crime of serving alcohol after 9.30pm – without demanding payment, I might add – and they, the heinous crime of drinking it. Mrs Hives was fined 35 guineas in total which by my reckoning was about half a year’s pay for a working man on a good wage.

New Lane is now known as New Row and The Swan appears to have been renamed The White Swan. That’s good enough for me and it’s good enough for Michael Jennings. We’ll be revisiting the scene of the crime to toast the memory of the White Swan Four – as they weren’t known – at 9.31 (or thereabouts) on Monday. Please feel free to join us.

The Times 8 January 1916 p3

The Times 8 January 1916 p3