On 15 September 1916 tanks made their debut at Flers-Courcelette, one of the many engagements which took place during the Battle of the Somme.
The battle marked the beginning of a sorry chapter in British military history because the truth – a truth that to this day few seem prepared to acknowledge – is that the First World War tank was useless.
The list of its failings is lengthy. It was slow, it was unreliable, it had no suspension and it was horrible to operate. The temperature inside was typically over 100°F and as exhaust gases built up so crew effectiveness collapsed. It was also highly vulnerable. Field artillery could take it out easily. Even rifle ammunition could be effective against it. While normal bullets might not be able to penetrate the armour they could knock off small pieces of metal from the inside – known as spall – which then whizzed round the interior wounding all and sundry.
That the tank was the brainchild of Winston Churchill from his days as head of the Admiralty should have alerted senior commanders to the possibility that it was yet another of his crackpot schemes. But they persisted. For his part, Haig being a technophile put a huge amount of faith in the new invention. His diary is littered with references to the tank and he seems to have made great efforts to secure ever more of them. In consequence, huge amounts of effort went into a technological dead end when it would have been far better spent on guns, shells and fuzes.
Not that such efforts were ever likely to satisfy the snake-oil salesmen who made up the ranks of the tank enthusiasts. In the face of tank failure after tank failure they simply claimed that their beloved weapon just wasn’t being used properly.
Of course, like all good conmen they liked to take credit for other people’s successes. So, when a huge number of tanks were used at Cambrai in 1917 and the initial phases went reasonably well they were happy to put it all down to the tank. The fact that within 3 days an initial tank force in the hundreds had been whittled down to single figures by mechanical failures and withering German artillery fire was glossed over.
The credit should really have gone to the “predicted barrage”. As with so much to do with artillery this needs a little explaining. If your artillery barrage is to be effective you need to know where your shells are going to land. Although manufacturers attempt to build guns with uniform characteristics this is an extremely difficult thing to do. Worse still every time a gun is fired the barrel experiences wear and its characteristics change. Before Cambrai the answer had been “registration”. Guns would fire shells at the enemy and observers would spot where they landed. The drawback was that the enemy could tell that an attack was on its way. In a predicted barrage the gunners worked out in advance where the shells would land so the first the enemy would know about an attack was when he was hit by a full-scale barrage. This meant that for the first time since the beginning of the war surprise could be re-introduced to the battlefield.
Cheaper than a Great War tank and about as useful.
In central London there is an clapped-out old building. One option would be to demolish it and replace it with something nice in steel and glass. Another option, as Michael Jennings likes to point out, would be to demolish it and replace it with tarmac. The building in question stands bang in the middle of two major thoroughfares causing a huge bottleneck.
So, what do our politicians think should be done? Well, they’re not thinking in terms of steel, glass or tarmac. They’re not even thinking of demolition. They think that £5bn of taxpayers’ money should be shelled out on its restoration. Which means it will be at least £10bn by the time they’re finished. If we’re lucky. You could build a lot of hospitals for that kind of money.
You may be familiar with the building in question:
Now I accept that for the time being we have a state and that representative democracies are usually better than the alternatives. I also accept that it is probably difficult to do politics online so Parliament needs some kind of physical location. But where?
Luckily there is a place that seems to cover all the bases. It is easy to get to. There is plenty of land for development. It would take politicians out of the metropolitan bubble. And it would gently remind them of the consequences of over-regulation. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the location of the new Mother of Parliaments:
In 1916 Geoffrey Malins, a cinematographer, toured the Western Front filming what he saw. The footage was edited into an hour-long film that was shown in British cinemas. The Battle of the Somme was an extraordinary success with some estimating that it was the most watched movie in British history. Clips from it still regularly turn up when TV people want to refer to the war.
But it didn’t please everyone. The Dean of Durham has this to say:
I beg leave respectfully to enter a protest against an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctities of bereavement.
The bereaved – or at least some of them – had different ideas:
Well, I have lost a son in battle, and I have seen the Somme films twice. I am going to see them again. I want to know what was the life, and the life-in-death, that our dear ones endured, and to be with them again in their great adventure.
My guess is that the Dean of Durham is referring above all to one particular scene; that scene, the famous scene, the one we are all familiar with, the one that above all others has come to represent the First World War. This one:
Sadly, I wasn’t able to track down the actual clip which has more evidence of fakery but even in this frame the puniness of the barbed wire and the lack of large packs suggest this was shot some distance from the front.
Which is a pity. Because it is a fake.
In a previous blog posting I may have given the impression that the rediscovery of the missing episodes of the Power of the Daleks Doctor Who serial would be about as welcome to the BBC as a new series of Jim’ll Fix It.
Of course, the impression that I meant to convey was that the BBC would in fact be delighted to be once again be in possession of the telerecordings and failing that would be quite prepared to go to the effort of animating the entire thing and making it available online from 5 November onwards.
There is a certain sort of Republican who hates Donald Trump so much that he regularly appends the #NeverTrump hashtag to his tweets and would much rather that Hillary Clinton won the election.
Which is fine as far as it goes. It is not as if I, personally, think Trump would make a good president. I have always found him obnoxious and he seems to have little idea of the depth of the economic crisis affecting not just the United States but the western world in general. But, hey, he would at least be amusing. And I have twenty quid on him to win.
But I am seriously turned off by a lot of the Trump hatred that goes on. Particularly because it comes from people I had hitherto regarded as ideological soulmates.
I think this is because they display so little humility. When Trump announced his bid for the Republican nomination no one gave him a prayer. He had no experience, he had no grounding beliefs, he had no connections. He didn’t even have that much money. All he had – seemingly – was his name. And yet he still won.
It was an astonishing achievement.
You really would have thought that some people might be asking themselves how he did it. How was it that in the midst of the greatest depression in history the supposedly fiscally conservative party voted for someone who went around promising to raise spending? How come even candidates like Rand Paul didn’t seem to have anything sensible to say on getting the federal budget into balance? How come that when faced with the Trump threat supposedly sensible Republicans were incapable of uniting around a single candidate?
I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had encompassing, economics, identity, the electorate’s fears and Trump’s media-savvy. But all his detractors seem able to do is to produce a stream of bile.
And this is where it all gets rather troubling. They said of the Bourbons that they had forgotten nothing and learnt nothing. The sense of entitlement prevented them from engaging in anything resembling introspection. #NeverTrumpers sound just the same. “How dare you take my unsuccessful political party away from me!” seems to be the attitude.
It’s not so much #NeverTrump as #NeverLearn.
About to be re-named?
One of the fun parts of growing up is the realisation that Doctor Who serials that you watched as a child are in fact analogies of contemporary political situations. Frontier in Space is about the Cold War. The Sea Devils is about Northern Ireland. The Planet of the Daleks is about Vietnam. The Mutants is about Rhodesia. Curse of Peladon is about joining the EU and Monster of Peladon is about what happens when you do.
But what of Power of the Daleks? I am sure it’s about something but I just can’t figure it out. Here’s a synopsis:
The colonists come across a small group of migrants who appear to have fled from some great disaster. The colonists shelter them and provide nourishment. The migrants start doing small jobs around the colony.
Sadly far from being grateful to the colonists for getting them back on the their feet – or skirts as it is in this case – the migrants turn out to be wedded to an ideology that regards themselves as superior and all other forms of life as candidates for either slavery or extermination.
The colonists for their part are divided between the revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries. The revolutionaries reckon that they can use the migrants to gain power. While the two factions are busy fighting amongst themselves, the migrants are busy multiplying and becoming ever stronger. Eventually, they are in a position to embark on a campaign of conquest and extermination.
All six episodes of Power of the Daleks are “missing” from the BBC archives (see here for some of the details). Somehow, I suspect the BBC is not too bothered about that.
An enterprising migrant
When it comes to actually doing Brexit – as opposed to merely voting for it – there appear to be a myriad of options. I do not know precisely how many there are but when three years ago the Institute of Economic Affairs held a competition to find the best way they were not short of entries. Worse still there are many people in positions of power who would very much prefer it if the UK did not leave the EU. If they fail to achieve their aim I am sure that some will try to create a situation where the UK has the appearance of independence but none of the reality.
So, how will we know when we have truly left as opposed to merely having left on paper? Here are a few tests:
- Is it possible to buy good in pounds and ounces, feet and yards?
- Can train operators also manage track?
- Have those annoying cookie notices disappeared?
- Are Google search results once again uncensored?
- Are some residents of the European Union denied the right to live and work in the UK?
I should point out that I am not particularly keen on the last one but it is a good test. Free movement within the EU is, after all, one of its fundamental principles.
I am sure the commentariat can think of a few more.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.