I have posted very little recently from a century ago. This is because my main source, The Times, has become rather dull. You would have thought with hundreds of people being killed every day on three continents it would have lots to say but it doesn’t. Part of this is due to censorship. For understandable reasons, there is very little that the military authorities are prepared to make public. Another part of it is due to self-censorship. In wartime newspapers are extremely reluctant to criticise. Criticism is close to defeatism and defeatism is close to treason. Criticism can also carry a high price. A couple of months ago The Times criticised Lord Kitchener’s handling of munition supplies with the result that copies of the paper were burnt on the floor of the Stock Exchange.
Britain has to recruit, train and equip an army and until such time as she does there is very little she can do that’s going to make much of a difference. Even after she does these things it won’t make much of a difference because the army won’t have the experience to make itself truly effective.
So, actual front line reports tend to be all very similar. It’s all talk of our brave men, victories and heavy losses inflicted upon the enemy. Sure, the men are brave but it is difficult to cover up the fact that the frontline is hardly moving.
I was on the verge of giving up. My plan was to find a particularly egregious example of this sort of vapid war report and hang up my typing fingers until next year when things will get a bit more interesting. But occasionally you get an article that pricks your interest. In this case it’s a sentence: “Gradually, but inevitably, the voluntary is yielding to the compulsory”. It appears in a leader prompted by a bunch of City types asking the government – I kid you not – to increase taxes.
The sad thing is that it is true. Conscription will be introduced. Restrictions on the sale of alcohol are already starting to come in. Indeed, in some places it is already a criminal offence to buy a round of drinks. There will be rationing. Before long the Liberal Party will split and then wither away. Many liberals are giving up on liberalism altogether and becoming out and out socialists.
Before we condemn the war for this it is important to bear in mind that the voluntary principle was in big trouble well before its outbreak. The telephones had (effectively) been nationalised. State pensions and sick pay had been introduced. Many doctors found themselves working for the state. There were also the beginnings of unemployment benefit.
It’s all very sad – although not for The Times. The Times is all in favour of compulsion. Long before the war it was in favour of trade barriers or “imperial preference” (as it was then known) and national service. Ever since it has been campaigning for conscription and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. The paper is enjoying itself:
The truth is that all these so-called principles are nothing but expediency generalized and embodied in a formula. When the circumstances are sufficiently changed to make them no longer expedient, then they cease to be valuable and become mischievous.
The voluntary principle is a case in point. People are still clinging to it when it has already half gone and must go altogether. They cannot readjust their ideas, and the more they resist the more painful it becomes. They are kicking against the pricks – the pricks of war.
Nice, although it does beg the question if principles are bosh then what exactly does The Times think we are fighting for?
However, that is not to deny that this does rather put me in a bind. I think Britain was – perhaps I should say “Britons were” – right to fight the First World War. Willhelmine Germany posed a direct threat to Britain’s peace and prosperity. But do I really think the war could have been fought without compulsion? There are two questions here. After all, the British government existed long before 1914 and a government is nothing if not a mechanism of compulsion. So, could the war have been fought without any compulsion? and it could it have been fought without any extra compulsion?
I’ll deal with the second question and leave the first to the idealists. Could the men have been recruited? Large numbers of men signed up shortly after the outbreak of war and I have heard it said that conscription which was introduced in 1916 was not particularly successful. So maybe they could.
But could they have been equipped without a massive increase in either taxes or deferred taxes in the form of borrowing? That I very much doubt.
In the days before the welfare state there were all sorts of ways that funds were raised for “good” causes: friendly societies, public subscription and flag days were among them. There were all sorts of social pressures applied to get people to cough up. Not nice but a lot nicer than outright extortion via the tax system. Even so the amounts raised by the best-known funds were not spectacular. There was a fund created after the sinking of the Titanic and it raised a lot of money but nothing on the scale needed to fight a war.
It’s all very well sticking up for your principles but if a society that follows those principles can’t defend itself those principles are worthless. And if you abandon your principles in order to win what was the point of fighting in the first place? It seems to me that wars are often – if not always – battles of ideas. Oh, those ideas might be well hidden but more often than not they are there. War is often the ultimate test of political ideas. So, it seems a bit of cheat to go into war proclaiming a set of principles that you then abandon.
The Times 23 July 1915 p9
The US Navy, who job it is to, well you know, kill people when directed to, it proudly celebrating Earth Day.
No doubt this is a strategy to cause the ships of the Chinese Navy to collide, their captains unable to issue orders due to tears of mirth and uncontrollable fits of laughter.
If anyone doubted the western world’s political class and their retainers have been utterly debased … well, here we have proof positive… I can only hope we snap out of it collectively, before it is too late and the congruent cultural decline leaves us with the future prospects of Carthage. And no, I do not accept that it is already too late, and will ignore the usual wailing suicide note comments that suggest otherwise
I have recently been suffering from one of those annoying state-of-the-art flu bugs that made me properly ill for only a few days, but which then hasn’t allowed me to get truly better for another month. I still await full functionality.
When in such a state, I find serious writing difficult. (I can still manage unserious writing.) But what I really like to do when thus semi-incapacitated, is to read. And there is nothing, I find, like reading well-written history about long-ago times to make me count my modern blessings and cheer me up.
I recently began what looks like being a very good book about King Edward I. (A short excerpt from this book, on the subject of medieval historical evidence, can be read here.) Edward I was the English monarch who won the Battle of Crécy, and who soon after that presided – if that’s the right word – over the Black Death. You want a bug? That was a bug.
But I haven’t got to the Black Death bits yet. …
(LATER: And I won’t ever. I’m muddling Edward I up with Edward III, see commenter number one below, to whom thanks, and with apologies to everyone else. Edward III was the victor of Crécy, and I will wait in vain for anything about the Black Death in this book. I will be learning about such persons as Simon de Montfort. But the Black Death was, as I have read elsewhere, very nasty.)
… In the bits I have read so far, Edward is still a teenager, and his dad, Henry III, is fretting about how to crush a rebellion in his French possessions, and in particular (p. 16), how to persuade his English subjects to foot the bill for that enterprise:
The obvious solution was to impose a general levy on everyone – a tax – and Henry’s immediate predecessors had on occasion done just that. King Richard and King John had found that they could raise huge sums in this way – England, it bears repeating, was a rich and prosperous country – but such taxes proved highly unpopular, …
It is always worth keeping an eye out for a use of the word “but” when it would make more sense to have encountered the word “and”, or “therefore”. The unpopularity of taxes in England on the one hand, and on the other, the fact that England was a rich and prosperous country sound to me a lot like a cause and an effect. But the way that modern-day author Marc Morris phrases it, if your country is rich, it can accordingly afford to pay higher taxes without its richness being in any way disturbed.
It was this next bit that made me laugh out loud:
… but such taxes proved highly unpopular, and were regarded as tantamount to robbery.
Ah those medieval fools, so lacking in our modern grasp of the obvious and fundamental differences between taxes and robbery!
Here is a way in which things – things that in general are so much better now than then – have actually got worse.
I do not want to single out Marc Morris for criticism here. He is only describing matters in a way that most of his readers will immediately understand. Taxation? Of course. What he personally thinks about the idea of there now being higher taxes, to pay for such things as foreign wars, now, I do not know. As for me, although I will not live to see it, I look forward to a time when both taxation and death (at the sort of age that I will in due course be encountering it) are thought of in the same kind of way that we now think only of such things as the Black Death.
How on earth could those blundering and miserable twenty-first centurions not understand such obvious ideas?
A Russian minister has paid an unannounced visit to Norwegian owned Svalbard, much to the Norwegian government’s annoyance.
But said Russian minister also seemed to be suggesting Norway does not really have sovereignty over Svalbard. However that is not really what the Svalbard Treaty says, not that the Kremlin is known for worrying over much about such niceties.
First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Kalashnikov contested the full sovereignty of Norway to Svalbard. Norway previously demanded an explanation after a visit to the archipelago Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is part of the EU sanctions list
Under the Svalbard Treaty the peninsula is not supposed to host bases but is not actually ‘demilitarised’ as such, so now might be a nice time for the Norwegian army to send a company on an extended posting up north.
[This is the text of a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago to the 6/20 Club in London. As you will see this introductory part is mainly about 1915. Part II is here]
By March 1915 the people of the United Kingdom were beginning to realise that the war was going to be much longer, involve many more men and be more expensive than they had previously imagined.
The military correspondent of the Times was a man called Charles à Court Repington. He was normally pretty astute. In a recent article he had argued that the war on the Western Front had become an attritional struggle. As there was a line of trenches stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel, there were no flanks to turn and no prospect of a war of manoeuvre. The two sides were of roughly equal quality. It had become a war where progress could only be made by material means: by being able to put more guns, shells, bullets and men on the battlefield than the enemy.
This massively favoured the Allies: France, Britain, Russia and Belgium. Combined they had more people and more industry than the Central Powers. They were also less good at “cleverness” in warfare – so a material struggle also played into their hands. Their victory was inevitable. But that didn’t mean it was going to come soon.
But at the time, the British in particular, were short of everything. This would come to a head soon afterwards when Repington, again, claimed that the Battle of Neuve Chapelle could have gone much better had the British had enough shells. This would lead almost immediately to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions under Lloyd George.
By this time food prices were beginning to rise. Some foods were already up by 50%. Given that a large proportion of the average person’s income went on food this was inevitably causing hardship. Worse still, this rise took place before the Germans declared the waters around the UK a warzone. I must confess I don’t entirely understand the ins and outs of this but essentially this means that submarines could sink shipping without warning. The upshot was that rationing would be introduced later in the war.
Government control also came to pubs with restricted opening hours. It would even become illegal to buy a round.
So far the Royal Navy had not had a good war. It had let the German battle cruiser Goeben slip through its fingers in the Mediterranean and into Constantinople where it became part of the Ottoman navy which attacked Russia. An entire squadron was destroyed off the coast of Chile and even the victories were hollow. At the Battle of Dogger Bank the chance to destroy a squadron of German battle cruisers was lost due to a signalling error.
But the man at the top, one Winston Churchill, was undeterred. He thought the Navy could take the Dardanelles, take Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war alone. Repington thought – or at least, I think he thought – that this was nonsense.
The Navy had, at least, for the time being deterred the German Navy from shelling any more coastal towns. Now the threat came from the Zeppelins high above.
The Army, traditionally the junior service, was having a much better war. But The Times still records about a hundred deaths a day and this at a quiet time when the Army in the field was still small. This was not going to last long. About 2 million men had volunteered and the job of turning them into useful soldiers had started.
Mind you, every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps, given events earlier, that should be every eclipse has a corona. In July 1914 Ireland was on the verge of civil war. The First World War came along in the nick of time and for the duration of the war the main participants had agreed to bury the hatchet. Similarly, the suffragettes called off their campaign of destruction and there are far fewer strikes – Britain having been plagued by them in the years leading up to the war.
But as we know things were only going to get worse. In all the war lasted four years, killed 10 million people and saw the birth of a totalitarian communist regime. Something like 5 million Britons served on the Western Front. There they experienced trenches, mud, barbed wire and shelling at a minimum. Others would have experienced gas, machine-gun fire and going “over the top”. A million never came back. And for what? Twenty years of political instability followed by the experience of having to do it all over again in the Second World War.
In Britain we tend to think of the First World War as being worse than the Second. This is because, almost uniquely amongst the participants, British losses in the First World War were worse. It is also worth bearing in mind that Britain’s losses in the First World War were much lower than everyone else’s. France lost a million and a half, Germany 2 million. Russia’s losses are anyone’s guess. For all the talk of tragedy and futility, the truth is that Britain got off lightly.
For many libertarians the First World War is particularly tragic. They tend to think (not entirely correctly) of the period before it as a libertarian golden age. While there was plenty of state violence to go around, there were much lower taxes, far fewer planning regulations, few nationalised industries, truly private railways and individuals were allowed to own firearms. If you were in the mood for smoking some opium you needed only to wander down to the nearest chemist.
The Times 8 March 1915 p8
When the Kremlin says something like this…
In an interview in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, said he did not think Danes fully understood the consequences of joining the programme.
“If that happens, Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles,” Vanin told the newspaper.
What exactly are people supposed to hear? What I am hearing is…
“Yes I know you would rather spend your taxpayer’s money on outreach programmes for gay radical muslim single parent transgendered climate change threatened whales, but we really really want you to get those defence budgets up to the NATO required 2% figure!”
What reaction are they expecting to overt threats pretty much explicitly saying “if you, as a NATO nation, assist NATO with the deployment of a defensive weapon system within NATO borders, we will point nukes at you!”
Might this not be a tad counter-productive when the Russian Troll Army are tirelessly trying to convince assorted useful idiots to push the line that “Russia is no threat to anyone, honest guv!”…?
I guess the the Russian ambassador to Denmark did not get the memo
What is a military correspondent to do when in the course of wartime his government is doing something sensible? Why, support it of course. But what if that government is doing something very, very stupid like launching the Gallipoli campaign? The answer, of course, is to support that too – in wartime loyalty trumps honesty – but point out the difficulties.
Which is precisely what Charles à Court Repington, Military Correspondent of The Times, does. In some detail.
The reasons in favour of this operation are overwhelming, provided that the risks and necessary preparations have been coolly calculated in advance, and such naval and military force as may be allotted to the object in view can be spared from the decisive theatre of war.
Note the use of the word “decisive”. The meaning is clear: the Western Front is decisive, this isn’t.
The defences of the Dardanelles are formidable, and nothing is gained by denying the fact. The Straits are narrow, the channels are winding and they are mined. A considerable current runs down the Straits, and the ground on both sides offers excellent sites for batteries both high and low, and for guns giving high-angle fire for the attack on ships’ decks.
The best way to attack the Dardanelles is by means of a conjoint naval and military expedition,…
Which they’re not doing… yet. By the way, I was once told that strictly speaking the word “military” refers exclusively to land-based warfare. I think this is how the word is being used here.
… and a purely naval attack can only be justified if the necessary and very large military force cannot be spared,…
Which it can’t, not least because it doesn’t exist.
… or if our information is so good,
Which it isn’t.
…and the chances have been so carefully weighed, that the success of a naval attack is reasonably probable.
…if they can master these formidable Straits, and appear before the walls of Constantinople they will have accomplished a feat of arms which will live in the history of the world.
He’s not kidding.
And whose bright idea is this campaign? Why, Winston Churchill, of course. If you want a way of thinking about Churchill prior to “We’ll fight them on the beaches” and all that, think Tigger from the Winnie-the-Pooh books – loud, abrasive, energetic, enthusiastic, convinced of his genius and indispensability, hare-brained. Such an attitude has already caused problems but now it will cause the sort of problems that cannot be ignored. Ultimately, it will lead to Churchill’s removal from government and a stint in the trenches. It is not something that will ever be entirely forgotten. Indeed one wonders if Churchill timed his death in January 1965 to avoid the 50th anniversary of Gallipoli in the February.
About the best that can be said for Gallipoli is what would they have said had it never been tried? There would doubtless have been people claiming that here was a scheme that would have won the war much more quickly at far less cost and it was only a lack of imagination and institutional stubbornness that prevented it being pursued.
The Times 22 February 1915 p6
Nice work by Bellingcat showing what anyone not wilfully blind or on the Kremlin’s payroll already figured out, that Russian forces have been firing across the border into Ukraine.
Oh good, a peace deal has been hammered out for the Ukraine.
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France announced that a ceasefire would begin on 15 February. The deal also includes weapon withdrawals and prisoner exchanges, but key issues remain to be settled.
… and in other news that is no doubt unrelated…
Around 50 tanks, 40 missile systems and 40 armoured vehicles crossed overnight into east Ukraine from Russia via Izvaryne border crossing into the separatist Luhansk region, a Kiev military spokesman said on Thursday.
Thank goodness we have Putin’s word for it that Russia is not sending troops and large quantities of equipment into the Ukraine as part of a barely disguised invasion, for a moment then I thought there might be vastly less to this ‘deal’ than met the eye.
Earlier this week, Brian Micklethwait of this parish gave an excellent talk about sport and how it sometimes has taken the place of military activity as far as -mostly- men are concerned. Brian will want to perhaps go into this issue in a lot more detail on his own but one question that came up is how such an issue relates to women. Well, a recent trend has been the rising involvement of women in front-line combat operations. They are not yet doing so in the UK infantry, although that could change soon, but in the Royal Air Force of the UK, that is now the case:
A woman who has become the first to command an RAF fast jet squadron is expected to lead bombing missions over Iraq this summer.
Wing Commander Nikki Thomas, who took charge of the newly reformed No 12 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk yesterday (Fri), flew a daring low mission to help foil a deadly rocket attack on a UK base in Afghanistan.
The 36-year-old is a weapons system operator with extensive experience of combat operations, clocking up more than 35 missions in Afghanistan within three months alone.
This is a woman with a lot of guts. Consider the fact that she knows that, in the event of her aircraft being hit, she might have to eject over land run by Islamists who are not going to be amused at being bombed by Western, feisty women. But then women in the Kurdish regions have already been showing that when it comes to dealing with these thugs, there are no real differences between the sexes when it comes to courage and skill.
There is also a broader point. With professional, volunteer forces, there is a premium on young, fit, smart people who have the ability to do a challenging role. Flying a fighter plane is not the sort of thing anyone can do. Given the ruthless process of selecting for flight training, it is pretty clear that a person who can reach the rank of this RAF officer and do what she is doing must be top-class. The pool of talent is finite. So if a woman is good enough to do this, well fine by me.
And this has nothing to do with PC nonsense, by the way. There is no room for Political Correctness in flying a supersonic jet.
Ever since I have been aware of something called military history I have also been aware of someone called Basil Liddell Hart. He is usually described with great reverence as the man who invented the Blitzkrieg.
This is not really true. Yes, he was an advocate of an independent tank arm. Yes, he saw that it could achieve a tactical breakthrough. And, yes, he saw that it needed close support from the air. But that is not the full story. Firstly, he wasn’t original – that accolade goes to Major-General J F C Fuller. Secondly, while he saw the need for penetration the Blitzkrieg took it much further. Thirdly, there is no direct link between what he wrote and what the German armies did.
It gets worse. As Jonathan Mearsheimer points out in Liddell Hart and the weight of history there’s more to him than that. Or perhaps, depending on your point of view, less. For while Liddell Hart had indeed come up with some far-sighted ideas on tactics, by the 1930s he had more-or-less abandoned them.
In their place he argued that Britain’s generals were irredeemably incompetent and Britain should never again get involved in a continental war. He even found himself arguing that the tank was in fact far more useful in defence than attack.
These were dangerous ideas. Should the advocate of such ideas be in an influential position it would be likely that the British army would be starved of resources. This would mean that it would be in no state to fight a continental war and certainly be in no position to go on the offensive. That would mean that Britain would have no ability to deter an aggressor. As I said, if the advocate was in an influential position. Unfortunately, Liddell Hart, as Times military correspondent and confidante of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Minister of War, was in just such a position – to the extent he was sometimes known as the unofficial Chief of the Imperial General Staff – and the British army in 1940 was indeed in no state to fight a continental war. Surveying its parlous state Field Marshal Montgomery Massingberd was in no mood to be generous:
He accuses Earl Haig and the British generals of losing lives in the last war, but I wonder how many lives are going to be lost in this war because of the teaching of that man and of people like him.
It took Liddell Hart a long time to realise he was wrong. He continued to argue that defence was stronger than attack. After the German annexation of the rump of Czechoslovakia he continued to argue against a continental commitment. And when the Germans broke through at Sedan he argued that it was only a matter of time before they were stopped.
The Times 18 July 1939 page 9
After the Fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk Liddell Hart found himself (rightly) ignored. But you can never keep a bad man down and in the 1950s with the help of skint German ex-generals he managed to rebuild his reputation. He did such a good job of it that by the 1960s he was being lauded as the “Captain who teaches generals.” Such was his influence that it was almost impossible to make a career as a military historian without his help. The only exception to this was John Terraine: chief script writer of the Great War series part of which was recently repeated on BBC4 (amongst other things). When Terraine published a generally positive biography of Haig, Liddell Hart secretly organised a campaign against it.