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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.

18 comments to Wastage

  • Rich Rostrom

    Is there supposed to be a link to the full list? I can’t find it. So the notes about Canadians and shell shock have no context.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Oops! Now corrected.

  • NickM

    St Eloi? So killed by Morlocks presumably? Seriously though what has fascinated me about recent wars is the re-emergence of something like “shell-shock” in that it is not just a euphemism for PTSD but actually physical from having your brain rattled around. We have come full circle. Only now we have the MRI etc to prove it.

  • Snide

    Still not seeing a link Patrick

  • simonjester2076

    @Snide – Patrick put the link in the image. Alternatively: http://www.samizdata.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/160504p4_Wastage.jpg

  • As you say, shell shock was recognised early and did not carry the death penalty unless thought to be dishonestly simulated. There was extreme reluctance to impose the death penalty, which is why there were so few. As always, politically correct myth history and the reality of the past have little in common.

    The famous case of the ‘village without a war memorial’ is the only plausible example that I know when it may have been unjust and does appear too harsh. The man had been diagnosed with shell shock and given several months medical rest. At this point he had already served through the first two years of war and had a good ;prior record. By the time he returned to his unit, casualties had removed many who knew him from before. When he again disintegrated, he was judged guilty and the rapid-second-offence circumstances meant the sentence was not commuted.

    Given the numbers who served and the numbers who were dying because they _did_ fight on, to have a single such well-verified case should be judged an astonishing example of restraint. (It is certainly _far_ more restrained than the German army in WWI or WWII.) But to the PC, anything short of perfection is a crime if they don’t like the goal, just as the most shoddy performance is a great achievement if they do like the goal.

  • Snide

    Ah! Thanks! All makes perfect sense now!

  • staghounds

    Quite a few of them would have died of disease, too.

    Those old Victorian- educated practitioners and non-medical soldiers figured out TBI when medicine was much more observational an art than it is now.

    And also interesting that the popularity of psychology swept their understanding away.

  • Mr Ed

    I note also that the article refers to gifts to the nation from the Empire, the Gold Coast and Jamaica, to purchase biplanes for the Royal Flying Corps.

  • Rich Rostrom

    PTSD or shell-shock is not the same as Traumatic Brain Injury (the consequence of severe or repeated concussions).

    Many people develop PTSD without any physical injury, e.g. a soldier who comes under heavy fire (especially noisy explosions), sees comrades killed or seriously wounded, is exposed to danger for an extended period (with concurrent adrenaline levels). During the siege of Verdun, French soldiers who were in very solid bunkers went mad from days of continual bombardment.

    OTOH, many people develop TBI without being psychologically stressed, e.g. athletes who bang their heads, such as American football players, or association footballers who play a lot of headers. TBI gets them in part because they don’t feel any fear of the contact that hurts them.

    However, concussion can contribute to both syndromes.

  • thefrollickingmole

    Found the records of an old great uncle of mine, he was in the tunneling group (beneath hill 60 mob) poor sod lasted 2 weeks, they have a cause of death which is “Killed by rifle grenade”.
    My mother side of the family is something like “captain Dan” from Forrest Gump, in one case the father followed his 2 sons off to war to keep the boys ‘safe’ he was the only one to return.

    Horrible, horrible stuff.
    For those who are Australian or have Aussie relatives who served the Australian war meuseum had digitised and made searchable the records of nearly every person who served, well worth a look.

  • Mr Ed

    In the tiny Suffolk hamlet of Thorington, near Blythburgh, there is a round tower church with family memorials to 6 dead from WW1, two were the Bence-Thrower brothers killed on consecutive days, 29th and 30th May 1918, the younger a Major and MC, the elder a Second Lieutenant, in different regiments. Not all seem to have been from the village, but presumably were connected in some way.

    Only from 53 parishes in England and Wales, the Thankful Villages, was someone not killed in WW1.

  • Paul Marks

    A sharp distinction must be made between the justice of the Allied Cause in the First World War and the tactics used in the war.

    The Allied Cause was just – the German academic-political elite was not “just” interested in the conquest of Belguim or even “just” interested in the destruction of France (the German Declaration of War upon France in 1914 is a tissue of lies – as the President of France calmly, and correctly, described it at the time it is a Declaration of War upon the “universal principles of reason and justice” themselves – which the German “historicists” denied even existed).

    The German elite wished for conquest without limit and had rejected the very existence of universal principles of reason and justice (yes I know some academics in Britain and America had committed the same terrible crime – but their influence was, as yet, more limited than the academic elite in Germany).

    Allowing Imperial Germany to destroy France would not have been the end of the matter – it would not have “avoided war” – it would simply have delayed an inevitable war and allowed Germany to enslave (literally enslave – oh yes this was German policy in the First World War – not just the Second World War) the resources and population of Continental Europe for fresh conquests.

    Conquests aimed at the crushing. of, for example, this country.

    All that being said………

    It must be pointed out that British tactics (and Allied tactics generally) were often very poor – increasing casualties vastly.

    Douglas Haig was NOT the worst British General of the First World War.

    The group of clowns who were sent to command at Sulva Bay in 1915 have that dubious distinction. “I can not come ashore my leg hurts” was the position of one general, “I am too senior to be in this situation” was that of another general who refused to give the order to attack at once after the landing, whilst a third general just stayed in his tent crying and screaming – behaviour that would have got an ordinary soldier shot by firing squad. The worst missed opportunity in British military history – for the strategic plan to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and link up with the Russians, by taking Constantinople, was sound.

    The fact that none of the British Generals at Sulva Bay was shot for their incompetence and cowardice speaks volumes about the decay of British society (even back in 1915).

    However, whilst not in the Sulva Bay club, Douglas Haig was still not a good general.

    He was an Inspector of Cavalry in India – with limited combat experience even with cavalry. Haig claimed to have commanded a cavalry action in the Sudan – but others have claimed that General Broadwood really steadied the men and that Haig stole the credit.

    Be that as it may, Haig’s knowledge of artillery and infantry war was limited.

    He was also far from the “Educated Soldier” that is claimed.

    It was not just that Haig came down from Oxford without taking a degree – it was his specific military education that is at fault.

    General Plumer famously gave Haig low marks in a military exam that Haig was forced to take personally (more on that later) – something that Haig never forgave Plumer for (although Plumer survived the war – unlike General Broadwood, who was put in a position of extreme danger).

    Haig also failed his mathematics examination (strings were pulled to allow him to continue as an officer) – but passed other military examinations.

    This was because James Edmonds was asked by Professor Henderson at Camberley to “help” Haig – sometimes even sitting his exams for him.

    James Edmonds was also asked to write the official history of the Western Front after the First World War – when the first choice (Fortescue) proved to be not pro Haig enough.

    It is a pity that as Edmunds did Haig’s work for him at Camberley and wrote the Whitewash official history of the Western Front (on which most later works are based – which means that people who did not spend their boyhood talking to World War veterans every summer, as I did, can often get very seriously mislead) Edmunds did not also command on the Western front as well.

    Why not? After all if Edmunds was good enough to do Haig’s work for him at Staff College and good enough to write the official Whitewash afterwards – why not actually be in command as well?

    Be that as it may, technological changes made the Western Front a nightmare.

    Even a very good General (perhaps the best on the Allied side was the Canadian Currie) would have had terrible casualties. I totally accept that.

    But they did not have to be quite as terrible as they were.

    A General who did not understand artillery and infantry warfare (and Haig did not understand these things) should not have been in command on the Western Front – although he might have done well elsewhere.

  • Paul Marks

    I meant that about Haig doing well elsewhere.

    At Suvla Bay ten thousand British soldiers faced 900 hundred Turkish defenders – without much prepared defences.

    In a position where he outnumbered the enemy more than ten-to-one even Haig could not have failed to pull off a victory.

    With Allied control of one of the banks of the Dardanelles the Allied fleets (led by the Royal Navy) could have sailed to Constantinople and knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the war – and linked up with the Russians.

    The position of Germany would have been hopeless.

    Haig (had in been in command at Suvla Bay) would have gone down as the man who won the war.

    No Russian Revolution.

    No rise of the Nazis.

    No great victory of Islam over the “infidels” in 1915 – which is still talked about today.

    Colonel Barker (the great specialist on British operations against the Ottomans) was obsessed with the failure at Suvla Bay – – and I can well understand why.

    Generals Stopford, Hammersley, Mahon (and so on) did nothing whilst the Turks rushed in reinforcements.

    Soon there were not hundreds of Turks facing the British troops – there were thousands of Turks (busy creating defences).

    All of the British Generals (including Ian Hamilton – who knew what was going on at Suvla but did not wish to be “rude” by getting rid of the group of clowns in command) should have been dismissed in disgrace.

    If not executed.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I would prefer it if posts that have nothing to do with Haig did not acquire comments about him. But if false claims are going to be made a response is justified.

    Haig took charge of the British Expeditionary Force in December 1915. By 1918 it was a vastly different force. It was equipped with Mills bombs, rifle grenades, Lewis guns, Stokes mortars, Livens projectors, gas shells, smoke shells, the 106 fuze, the Simplex locomotive, flash-buzz equipment and sound-ranging equipment. It had undergone a tactical revolution with new infantry tactics ie SS143, the creeping barrage, the predicted barrage, airborne resupply and airborne artillery spotting. I have even heard that it used wireless sets in the front line. Haig’s army not only survived the onslaught of the Ludendorff Offensive but in successive blows starting in August 1918 pushed the German army so far back that it was prepared to accept a humiliating armistice.

    While it is sometimes difficult to connect Haig with these achievements it seems absurd to claim that they occurred in spite of him rather than because of him.

    In addition, while buiding up his war-winning army Haig also had to deal with his allies and bleating British politicians.

    On the claim that Haig had an animosity towards Plumer and that it was due to Plumer giving Haig low marks in the Staff Entrance exam I can find no reference to the claim in either Plumer’s biography or Sheffield’s biography of Haig. Haig did fail the exam but on the maths paper only – so it was unlikely it was marked by Plumer. Anyway, he was not alone in feeling aggrieved and questions were even asked in Parliament about the army’s behviour.

    But here’s a question: if Haig’s record is so bad why do his detractors feel the need to lie about him?

  • I endorse Patrick’s defence of Haig (and his objection to Haig getting into irrelevant comment threads but others started, he is continuing, so…). The idea that Haig (along with every other WWI general) was incredibly stupid, with its implication that the intellectuals who say so would have been far better at WWI if they had deigned to interest themselves in it, is the sort of PC rubbish that has been exaggerated in the culture wars for the usual reasons and that readers of this blog should see through.

    Just under a million died in the British armed forces during the war. Loss on that scale led many to look for whom to blame. At the time, the most common (in all senses) view was that those nasty Germans started a war (with a large army, so we were always going to lose many while resisting it). All those who liked to think they were not common therefore sought other views: “The jews” was one, “elders of Vickers” was another, and “the commanders were idiots” was a third. The real commanders varied through the whole range. Haig did better than many of his critics would in the same situation.

    The simplest mathematical model is to assume that Germany needed to lose millions before she would quit, that each of the major powers (Britain, France and Russia) therefore needed to kill a million for themselves, and that an average general would lose a million while killing a million. In that model, Haig is average or a little above, without being a genius. It is of course, so simple as to be just a start point. Wittgenstein once asked, “What would it have looked like if it had ‘looked like’ the earth went round the sun?” Similarly, anyone discussing Haig (or a great many other issues) should start by asking, “What would it have looked like if it had looked like Haig was an average general?”

  • Mr Ed

    Do we need a Haig Convention for this blog?