May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature of the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavors for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.
– The prayer of Horatio Nelson, commander of the British fleet, written on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar, the following day. For those interested in this period of naval warfare, I strongly recommend this excellent book by Sam Willis.
Roger Knight’s excellent biography of Nelson, which I read about three years’ ago after it was published, is also a brilliant study of the man. (Being an East Anglian, as Nelson also was, I am somewhat biased.)
I leave it to Samizdata readers to elaborate on the potential parallels between Nelson’s destruction of the French/Spanish fleets on that day and the recent far less violent assertion of UK independence on 23 June, 2016.
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.
World order be damned for a corollary to world government, and I expect the waters of the world are not a problem to police if one returns to the policy of hanging pirates instead of playing catch-and-release.
– Commenter ‘Erik‘
… Croatia’s Operation Storm was in day two of a rapid offensive to recapture the bulk of its territory from Belgrade backed separatists. It was the largest European land battle since the Second World War, ending on 7 August 1995 with the reoccupation of 4,000 square miles of territory. This was a dramatic demonstration of how effective the Croatian Army (HV) had become compared to just a few years earlier, and Operation Storm also represented a strategic victory for the Bosnian government as it broke the long siege of the Bihać enclave.
Like all wars, it was not pretty, but it ended as it started, as an ethnic struggle with winners and losers and there is no point in thinking otherwise, and the less bad guys won in my opinion.
Although Op. Storm did not end on August 5th, many Croatians see the HV recapture of Knin on this date as the most symbolic. It feels strange to me to tag this as ‘historical views’ as saw a great deal of that war first hand. I am getting old 😀
One of the arguments I occasionally hear is that the European Union has been an important force for peace in Europe following the Second World War and that further, the weakening of the EU as a result of UK departure will embolden enemies of Western Europe, such as Putin. However, here’s a thing: it was arguably the decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the determination of the NATO powers, led by the US, to contain the Soviet Union and combat forms of anti-West subversion, that was more important in keeping the peace. The EU was in my view part of the overall architecture of what the Western powers put together, but whether it was decisive is unproven at best.
And the the various missteps of the EU after the Berlin Wall came down have seriously reduced rather than increased the EU’s status as a stabilising, pro-peace, force. The greatest misstep of all was launching a single, fiat currency without full, democratically accountable political union. (I would not have objected to a common, hard-money system for those who wanted it, but that was never the aim of the European Union’s most ardent federalists.)
I can understand why leaders such as Margaret Thatcher (until the late 80s) regarded membership of the EU as one of those dues that had to be paid to keep the West together and why she fretted that it was becoming more of a problem towards the end of her time in office.
It should not be forgotten that during the 60s, under the Presidency of Charles De Gaulle, France withdrew itself from the command structure and active operations of NATO. Leave aside the reasoning behind it: you have a large, relatively strong Western European country leaving one of the main transnational groupings of the post-war era, a couple of decades before the Berlin Wall came down and before the end of Communism. But I hardly ever hear France getting heat for this. Maybe I read the wrong journals and websites.
It is worth remembering this episode if one ever hears a French commentator or politician bashing the UK for somehow “weakening the West” for getting out of an organisation that it did not like. Because France did leave an important group, but the sky did not in the end fall in.
After writing his three great novels — The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Perfect Spy — it is easy to agree with the conclusion ofPrivate Eye’s critic, who said le Carré had become “his own tribute band”. You know now how his books will go. There is a decent Englishman. He comes across skulduggery. He is persuaded to fight it by an honest spy, who teaches him tradecraft, but instead finds he must fight Western corporations and governments whose cynicism knows no limits. In the case of The Night Manager, the reason, of course, why the British government is unconcerned by illegal weapons sales is that MI6 is in the pay of the villainous arms dealer.
– Nick Cohen, reviewing the recent TV adaptation of The Night Manager.
For what it is worth, although I like the George Smiley books and also enjoyed A Small Town in Germany, a lot of Le Carré’s other material is as Cohen describes it.
Here is a nice appreciation of the George Smiley books, which in my view are still riveting reading, all these years’ later.
Ah yes, Britain’s socialists, working tirelessly towards a world in which Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping & Kim Jong-un are the only people with nuclear weapons. What could possibly go wrong with that?
On 2nd February 1921, John Alan Quinton was born in Brockley, south London. He would have been 95 today, had he not died, he was killed in a ‘plane crash aged 30, in the following circumstances, as recorded in his George Cross citation.
On August the 13th, 1951, Flight-Lieutenant Quinton as a Navigator under instruction in a Vickers Wellington aircraft which was involved in a mid-air collision. The sole survivor from the crash was an Air Training Corps Cadet who was a passenger in the aircraft, and he has established the fact that his life was saved by a supreme act of gallantry displayed by Flight-Lieutenant Quinton, who in consequence sacrificed his own life. Both Flight-Lieutenant Quinton and the Cadet were in the rear compartment of the aircraft when the collision occurred. The force of the impact caused the aircraft to break up and, as it was plunging towards the earth out of control, Flight-Lieutenant Quinton picked up the only parachute within reach and clipped it on to the Cadet’s harness. He pointed to the rip-cord and a gaping hole in the aircraft, thereby indicating that the Cadet should jump. At that moment a further portion of the aircraft was torn away and the Cadet was flung through the side of the aircraft clutching his rip-cord, which he subsequently pulled and landed safely. Flight-Lieutenant Quinton acted with superhuman speed displaying the most commendable courage and self-sacrifice, as he well knew that in giving up the only parachute within reach he was forfeiting any chance of saving his own life. Such an act of heroism and humanity ranks with the very highest traditions of the Royal Air Force, besides establishing him as a very gallant and courageous officer, who, by his action, displayed the most conspicuous heroism.
With our recent discussion of genes and selfishness, here was a man, a whole, thinking being, with an infant son of his own, and having survived WW2 as a Navigator in Mosquitos in the RAF, who was, when the ultimate challenge presented itself, prepared to give up his own life for that of a stranger. His example is a reminder that an acting human being is capable of doing things for other than ‘selfish’ reasons. Flight-Lieutenant Quinton’s final act was the ultimate demonstration that a principle – that one should do what is right when in a position of responsibility – can triumph over base instincts, a counter-point to many lesser people who have failed to do what is right in difficult situations, even when not in mortal peril.
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.
Recent events in Germany may have led some to ask if Germany still controls its borders. Well of course the German Federation does, it had an entire Border Police Force, the Bundesgrenzschutz to do that, and it has quietly been building a Federal Police Force by merging the Railway Police with the Border Police. However, the German Federal State does not seem to regard border control as that much of a priority.
It wasn’t always thus for German governments, we all know about the Berlin Wall, or the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart‘, an example of German bureaucracy showing some resolve as to who crosses its borders. The Wall was of course, the weak point in the East German border, although technically it did not divide the Germanies, but the Allied Occupation Zones from the Soviet Zone and from the DDR, and for most of the time, there was no point fleeing to comradely Poland or brotherly Czechoslovakia, but that changed in the late 1980s. At the Berlin Wall, some 138 deaths have been recorded, there may have been many more.
But there was a more deadly border defence put in place by a German state, Imperial Germany, it was called the Dodendraad, a lethal electric fence, the implementation of which left, by one estimate, around 850 people killed, other reports say around 2,000 – 3,000 people were killed, including shootings etc. at the fence. You may well say ‘It doesn’t quite sound German‘, and you would be right. It wasn’t even ‘protecting’ Germany’s border, but someone else’s. The Dodendraad (Wire of Death) was put along the frontier between occupied Belgium and the Netherlands in the First World War, as a means of controlling movement over the frontier. A frontier that had two peoples with effectively one language joined by trade and family, and separated by murderous force. The Wire did not cover all of the Belgian/Dutch border, as the Kaiser did not violate Dutch neutrality by seeking to place it around Baarle-Hertog’s many borders with Baarle-Nassau.
The task facing the Imperial Army was demanding, there were no Belgian power stations to power the 2,000 Volt wires along the over 200 miles of the fence, as Belgium (we are told) had no power grid at that time.
Around the clock there was a guard every fifty up to one hundred and fifty metres. At nighttime the number of border guards was doubled, there were also more patrols. German soldiers were ordered to fire immediately after every unanswered warming. Yet they were not allowed to fire in the direction of The Netherlands. The soldiers walked from one switching cottage to the next one, returning when they met with a colleague halfways.
For the poor border Belgians, life was grim:
Placing the wire of death made it impossible to enter The Netherlands. Border traffic was reduced. For inhabitants of the border region this was a painful ordeal as their friends and relatives very often lived in both countries. All traffic to The Netherlands was forbidden or required a strict German control. Whether one could visit a relative or a friend on the other side of the border, depended on the arbitrary decision of the local commander who might – or might not – grant a written (and paid for) permit to leave the country for just a few hours or days. Belgians had to leave the country through a specific gate and had to enter again through the same gate, subject to scrutinous control and registration. If one failed to return in time from a visit to e.g. a sick relative, one simply risked having family members imprisoned or you were forced to pay a heavy fine.
So even before the Germans sent Lenin to Russia to found and then electrify the Soviet Union, they had built a model death strip that many a socialist thinking about the good old days of East Germany could have been proud of.