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The Battle of Kherson: Somme or Amiens?

It would appear that the Ukrainians have begun a major offensive in the Kherson region. So, using my knowledge of the First World War, how do I think it’s going to go?

“Using your knowledge of a war that ended a century ago! What is this nonsense, Crozier?” Let me explain. I like history in and of itself but I also believe that it can teach us things. Or, to put it another way, part of an historian’s job is to stick his neck out and use his knowledge of the past to make predictions about the future.

So, what predictions am I going to make? I’ll try but first of all I’ll lay down my reasoning (you get marks for that in exams, don’t you?) beginning with the similarities between 1916 and today:

  • the aggressor is everywhere on enemy soil. The strategic imperative is to remove him.
  • the frontline doesn’t move much.
  • the main tool of exploitation is highly vulnerable.
  • the Ukrainian army is large, determined, unskilled and inexperienced.
  • the Ukrainian army is yet to have an offensive success. The battle of Amiens could not have happened without the successes (yes, there were successes mixed with the failures) of the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele.
  • the Ukrainian army lacks material. It is coming but (to the best of my knowledge) isn’t there yet.

And now the differences:

  • Military communications are good. The great problem commanders had in the First World War is the moment troops left their trenches they had no idea where they were or what they were doing.
  • German army morale (certainly in 1916) was much higher than Russian morale today (or then for that matter).
  • German army skill was much greater than Russian army skill.
  • In the First World War, the equipment on both sides was of roughly similar quality. Western-supplied Ukrainian equipment is way better than anything the Russians have to play with. The big difference was that by 1918, the Allies had more of it.
  • The battle space is much bigger. I haven’t got out my tape measure but I am pretty sure that in both breadth and depth (think Saky) Kherson is much bigger than the Somme. Whether this makes much of a difference is another matter.

There is another element to this which is regime existence. This is not about the survival of Putin who seems to be a dead man walking. This is about what sort of Russia is going to emerge from the wreckage. In the First World War, Germany was a monarchy. Now, I’ve never heard anyone say this, but my guess is that just about everyone in the Kaiser’s regime knew that if they didn’t win it was all over. It wasn’t just Willhelm who would get the push but all of them. And, so it proved. Pretty much. That’s a pretty good incentive to keep fighting. Do the Russians have anything similar? They don’t seem to. The reluctance to call up and use troops from Moscow suggests that Putin is very worried about public opinion. Why this might be, I really don’t know. It does, however, suggest that he is fighting this war with one arm tied behind his back.

So, prediction time. The big factors to me are the lack of experience and equipment of the Ukrainian army and the fragile morale and incompetence of the Russian army. At some point it really will be a case of “Kick in the door and the whole building will collapse” as someone once said. I just don’t think it is going to happen in August 2022.

38 comments to The Battle of Kherson: Somme or Amiens?

  • Paul Marks

    One difference is obvious – Kheirson is a real objective. The Somme Offensive, and July 1st 1916, was the biggest disaster in British army history with around 20 thousand men being killed in one day, had no real objective – what real objective were the men trying to take?

    First have an objective worth taking, then work out a plan to effectively do that at minimum cost to yourself – General Haig’s offensive in 1916 failed both of these tests.

    To be fair to General Haig, his next really large offensive (the Passchendaele offensive of 1917) had an objective – to take the ports from which the Germans were operating U.Boat warfare (the submarines which threated to cripple the allies by cutting off food and munitions from the United States, Canada and so on) – the offensive failed to achieve its objective, but at least it had one.

    Mr Putin has proved to himself, like Haig, to be an incompetent military commander – but, again like Haig, natural resources are on his side. Russia has the food and energy, and other things such a material for repairing the roads, that the West (due to the insane policies of Western governments) is running short of.

    Mr Putin may comfort himself that, like Haig, he can make all sorts of absurd blunders – and still win the war. But that remains to be seen – it is still possible that, in spite of having so many advantages, Russia will still lose the war – due to the great heroism of Ukranian soldiers and (yes) a lot of Western support for Ukraine.

  • Paul Marks

    Sometimes a military commander will overlook the importance of a target which, with hindsight, seems obvious. Is Kherson such as target? I do not know.

    In the First World War Constantinople was such a target – it was the only capital of an enemy power to be on the coast, but that was not its true importance. It’s true importance was that capturing it would cut off the Central Powers from the Middle East (which would then collapse into Allied hands) and capturing Constantinople would allow Britain and France to coordinate with Russia, this making the position of Germany and the Central Powers hopeless. Sadly, the operation to take Constantinople was handed to totally incompetent people (indeed some of the commanders may, perhaps, have been deliberately chosen because they were incompetent – by an establishment who wanted the operation to FAIL) and the chance to win the war in 1915 was thrown away.

    The late Colonel Barker called the incompetence shown at the Suvla Bay landings the worst in British history – with one General doing nothing (because he thought they were too senior to even be there) – other than ORDER BACK some soldiers who taken high ground overlooking the landing site, and one General even retiring to his tent in a distressed state (some suggest he was screaming) – having been let out of a home for the mentally ill to help “command” the operation. The overall commander of the operation stayed on the ship (i.e., did not land) – because he said his leg hurt him. Some ten thousand British soldiers facing a few hundred Turks, essentially did nothing (for days) whilst the Turks rushed reinforcements and built defences.

    Brigadier Mallison (the most recent writer on the offensive) agrees that the incompetence, if it was not deliberate, was still extreme.

    Gibraltar in the 2nd World War was also such a prize – had Germany taken in it in 1940 the straights could have been closed to the Royal Navy, this would have led to the collapse of the British position in the Middle East (as all supplies and men would have had to sail all the way round Africa) and Britain might well have been forced to come to terms with Germany – both British intelligence and German military intelligence were very well aware of this, which is why BOTH intelligence services set up campaigns to convince the Franco government in Spain not to allow Germany to take Gibraltar.

    Yes, German military intelligence, Admiral Canaris, was already working for the defeat (rather than the victory) of Germany in the 2nd World War.

    However, if Mr Hitler had really grasped the importance of Gibraltar, he would have pushed Franco far harder than it did – but Hitler was not a person who thought in terms of sea power.

    Even large lakes baffled the boy from Linz – when told that Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) had a lake to its rear, Mr Hitler ordered a close siege – he did not grasp that Lake Ladoga is over one-hundred-miles long, there was no way for the German army to surround it, and military supplies continued to go over the lake to Red Army – all through the “siege”.

    Of course, civilians starved in heaps – but “Stalin” did care about that, his priority was that military supplies get through, which they did.

  • Bill

    I find it hard to see these similarities. The Somme was driven by a wide range of forces – political, strategic etc. Haig seems to get the historical blame but I don’t think it is justified. Also – I don’t see any similarities with the armies deployed. The big problem in WWI was the relative parity between the armies. They could pound away at each other, chewing up lives in the process, but make little overall headway.

    Kherson may or may not be a win for Ukraine, but that fact that they are on the offensive is something in itself. Even if they only make a few kilometers, they can announce that as a victory (liberate Village X etc.). For the Russians, it is hard to see where this goes. Maybe they are content to hold the line more or less in that area, and continue to rain down missiles and shells on other selected targets.

  • Paul Marks

    As for a success on the Somme – well I can think of a possible one.

    The Commander of the North Midlands Division (seeing the pointless slaughter of British soldiers) called off demanded attacks – for this General Haig had him sent home in disgrace (in spite of the fact that the man’s personal combat record was rather more distinguished than that of Douglas Haig).

    The men whose lives were saved by the decision of their commander did play an important role in 1918 – had Haig had his way, they would have been dead in 1916.

    Keep your men alive for when you will need them – if they are dead, they cannot do anything for you.

    “Why did not Imperial Guard save the Czar?” that used to be a common schoolboy question, to which the brutal answer is “most of the Imperial Guard died, or were crippled, in the attack on Kovel in 1916”.

    The Guards were ordered to attack up a narrow causeway – with Germans on three sides of them. The Germans cut them to pieces.

    Even Douglas Haig never ordered an attack like that.

  • Patrick Crozier

    The objective of the Battle of the Somme was to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun. It may not have had a territorial objective as such but then again neither did the Hundred Days offensive.

    I am unaware of a single serious (or unserious) historian who thinks that Gallipoli could have succeeded on its own terms let alone led to a quick victory.

  • How is goes really come down to how effective the Ukrainian supply strikes have been at the southern theatre level, and how effective the transport interdiction (bridges, pontoons and barges) has been tactically (they keep making holes in bridges but can’t actually drop a span… might be enough but is it?).

  • decnine

    1. Kherson is at the far end of a very long resupply route. That route will be easily hampered, especially in winter when movement other than by rail or main road will become difficult.

    2. The fighting value of the Russian garrison in Kherson will be degraded if supply of food and ammunition falls short of need.

    3. Ukraine has a much better supply of military intelligence than any WWI or WWII commander.

    4. Russia will find it difficult to decide whether to reinforce Kherson given the risk that those forces could be cut off and defeated. Remember Stalingrad.

    5. A long logistics route is a target-rich environment. And holds a very large inventory of military supplies.

    6. Kherson oblast is the source of Crimea’s water supply. That is why Russia needs to hold it.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I would not say the Ukrainian army is lacking in experience, given how it has managed to contain and in many cases severely degrade Russia’s military. That army and the Ukrainian citizenry now fighting have had to learn a lot, very fast.(OK, they are not like the US Marine Corps, etc, but they have far exceeded expectations.) I also would argue that when talking about “experience”, the question is compared to what? A lot of the Russian forces are inexperienced, young, badly trained and led. When you are defending your homeland, as the Finns did in 1939 and so on, that changes the equation. Now the Ukrainians are in counter-attack mode, some new elements come in, of course.

    The Institute for the Study of War is a good resource.

  • Paul Marks

    Thank you, Patrick – you have pointed out that Somme offensive had no real objective of its own. As for Verdun – the French held the position at great cost and inflicting casualties on the French (by being able to shell them from three sides) was what the Verdun offensive was really about. Remember the Germans could have cut the supply road to the Verdun area (the so called “Sacred Way”) and did not do that – as the Germans wanted the French to send more and more men to Verdun – to be killed.

    “I am unaware of a single serious (or unserious) historian who thinks that Gallipoli [you mean the Dardanelles offensive] could have succeeded…”

    I named two on my own comment, and there are (of course) others – so, Patrick, I can only assume you are being deliberately offensive. You are writing things you know not to be true (“not a single historian”), simply to be irritating – well you have succeeded Sir.

    By the way, I was unfair to the commander of the North Midlands Division (later renamed before its success in 1918) – I implied he disobeyed orders to continue the suicide attacks of July 1st, 1916 – technically he did not disobey orders.

    He sent the smallest unit “over the top” he could – some 20 men, of which only 2 men survived. Having seen what happened to previous attacks (when the men of the North Midlands Division had been shot down in heaps) he must have known what would happen to those 20 men, but he had to order some sort of continued attack or be openly disobeying orders.

    The previous year (1915) he had been ordered, against his protests, to send his men on a suicide attack as part of the Battle of Loos – more than three thousand of them had been killed – in an attack he knew (in advance) had no chance what-so-ever.

    In the 20th century a British officer could not challenge his commander to a duel (no matter how much he might have wanted to), and one either obeyed orders or resigned one’s commission. And if one did the latter – some other officer would carry out the suicide attack order.

    I wonder what it would have been like to be one of those 20 men – you know you have to die, otherwise what is left of the Division may be ordered to their deaths.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I must thank Decnine for his comment. The point about the Russians having a long supply route is crucial. Also that Crimea’s water comes from the mainland. I am not sure about intelligence though. The British army did a very good job of photo-mapping the Western Front.

    I would point out that there is a world of difference between defending and attacking. The BEF was very good in defence in 1914. It was another 3 years before it was any good at attacking.

  • Paul Marks

    With the failure to take Kiev in the early stages of the war – a bold move by Mr Putin, but a failed move (failed thanks to the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians. The Russian strategy seems to be to take areas of eastern Ukraine in order to have a secure land route to the Crimea. Areas that are also rich in coal and heavy industry – Mr Putin values such things (unlike Western governments who put their faith in windmills and financial Credit Bubbles).

    But what is the border between the Ukraine and Russia to be? Now his plan to replace the Ukrainian government with a puppet regime loyal to Moscow has failed, Mr Putin needs to have thought about what a defendable border between the Ukraine and Russia would be – but there seems to be no sign that he has done that.

    Mr Putin still seems to be pining to control all of the Ukraine – to wipe out the Ukraine as an independent nation.

    He has not grasped that his invasion has united the Ukrainians against him.

    It should be remembered that Mr Putin was 39 when the Ukraine achieved its formal independence and for the first few years (indeed up to the 21st century) the “independent” Ukraine was really under the control of people who were puppets of Moscow.

    Mr Putin appears to be unable to adjust to the reality of Ukrainian Nationalism – and as Mr Putin is now 70 years of age, and not in the best of health, it is unlikely that he will ever adjust to it.

    Mr Putin needs to go – and all his cronies need to go as well. For the good of Russia – not just the Ukraine.

    Such things as Trial by Jury (firs introduced by Alexander II the Liberator) and a free press, need to return to Russia. The long nightmare from 1917 onwards needs to come to an end.

    When there are television stations in Russia with radically different ways of seeing the world – then we will know that Russia has returned to the right road.

    Just as when school textbooks no longer praise “Stalin”.

    Some conservatives and libertarians still fail to see the difference between Putin’s Russia and the Ukraine – look at the history textbooks, then you will see it. The Ukranian history textbooks do not praise “Stalin”.

  • rhoda klapp

    World War I was an artillery war. Only at the end did it break up into a battle of combined arms. The war in Ukraine seems to have become an artillery war too. When artillery is dominant, you can defend by digging in just as the WW1 armies did. But it is difficult to attack because you need to expose your forces to shellfire. Even the old-style unguided shellfire the Russians bring to bear will freeze movement. To attack you will need combined arms again. Ukraine probably hasn’t got enough tanks and APCs to do anything more than local attacks. Russian doesn’t have the kind or numbers of skilled infantry to support their tanks in the face of long range anit-tank missiles. In the old day you had to clear about a hundred meter radius to protect against bazookas and rpgs. Accompanying infantry could do that. Nowadays the radius is in km and the infantry can’t do it. If they are in their own vehicles they are as vulnerable as the tanks. If they walk you need a lot more of them and they are vulnerable to everything else on the battlefield.

    This war is critical for Ukraine, they can’t afford to lose and they will commit everything. Russia doesn’t have to win except for pride and position. Further they must keep a major part of their forces intact, for the next special operation Vlad has in mind.

    I see only stalemate unless, of course, something happens to tip the balance.

  • Paul Marks

    Decine – as you know, from the Russian point of view, Kherson is on the wrong side of the Dnieper River – there is the problem.

    On the water supply to the Crimea – there were technical (engineering) solutions proposed before the war. But Mr Putin seems to have rejected them as too expensive – he has found that war is much more expensive.

  • Patrick

    Look at the map. Crimea is only connected (to Ukraine) via two very narrow causeways to the north and (to Russia) via the Kerch bridge to the east. Russia is utterly determined to hold a land corridor to the Crimea (on the north shore of the Black Sea / Azov Sea). The obvious strategic goal for Ukraine is to pummel the causeways and the bridge, and strangle resupply via Crimea. That would leave the whole land corridor looking like a pencil thin salient to nowhere with an enormously long northern flank asking to be attacked. If the corridor was taken or made impassable at any point this would cut off all Russian forces west of that.
    Ukraine faces a bit of a Catch22 though – to strangle Crimea they need to take Kherson and push south into MLRS range, but to strangle Kherson they need to hit the Crimean choke points and the land corridor. Either way the thing that Ukraine desperately needs is longer range, heavier PGMs. Imagine the fun and games Ukraine could have with a stock of cruise missiles. Crimea could be isolated, the corridor roads turned into big craters, and The Black Sea Fleet itself in Sevastopol sent to the bottom. They’d have a very realistic prospect of pushing the Russians all the way back to the Donbas and out of Crimea.

  • Steven R

    One difference is obvious – Kheirson is a real objective. The Somme Offensive, and July 1st 1916, was the biggest disaster in British army history with around 20 thousand men being killed in one day, had no real objective – what real objective were the men trying to take?

    The Somme was part of an overall push from the Straits of Dover to Switzerland to push the Germans and see where the Germans gave in. The objective wasn’t a place but rather to push and everywhere all at once and see what breaks and then exploit it, not to mention attrite the Germans, who my 1916 were feeling the losses in manpower and machinery that they could not as easily replace as the British and French could. Unfortunately nothing gave and another half million Allied troops ended up as casualties.

  • Paul Marks

    Steven R – that is not real objective, “an overall push from the Straits of Dover to Switzerland to push the Germans and see where the Germans gave in” is not a military plan, it is a piece of political rhetoric – I am in the trade of politics myself and I recognise political rhetoric, if that is how Haig and the others were thinking then they were in the wrong trade.

    But there was a problem, a very serious problem, with taking Constantinople in 1915 (as could have been done) – a political problem. As Greece was not in the war, Imperial Russia would have demanded Constantinople even if British forces had taken it, and diplomatically it would have been almost impossible to refuse them. Partly because of the terrible casualties Russia took in 1914 when, to distract the Germans from their Western offensive (and some German Divisions were sent east – although they did not get all the way in time, they were not available in the West at the key point of the Western offensive) the 1st and 2nd Russian Armies were flung at the Germans with almost no preparation it was almost mass suicide (or rather homicide – as the ordinary Russian soldiers had no say in the matter). When General Samsonov (2nd Army) reported that his scouts were telling him that the army was marching into a German trap, General Jilinsky replied “General Samsonov will not be allowed to play the coward – the advance will continue”.

    General Samsonov obeyed his orders – and then shot himself (what else could he do). Meanwhile General Rennenkampf (1st Army) was blundering around in the lakes – till the Germans (having dispatched the 2nd Army) turned on him.

    After all this and the other sacrifices (remember the shelling of Russian towns on the Black Sea by Turkish ships manned by Germans) – the Russians would have demanded Constantinople “Greece is not in the war – it cannot go to them, it must go to us”, and it had been British policy for more than a century to deny Constantinople to the Russians – it was the one thing such different Prime Ministers as Lord Liverpool and Disraeli were agreed on, Russia must not have Constantinople (which the Orthodox had wanted to retake since 1453). And if Constantinople been taken by the Royal Navy and the British Army in 1915 it would have gone to Imperial Russia – which is exactly what the British establishment had opposed for a century.

    So, in the end, it does not matter what Colonel Barker (the leading writer on British operations against the Ottomans in the First World War) or Brigadier Mallinson, or Gilbert (the great biographer of Churchill), or any other historian says was militarily practical – it was not POLITICALLY possible, the establishment was never going to allow that operation to succeed (how could they?).

    As for establishment historians coming on after the event and saying, “it could not have worked anyway – so it does not matter that we sent clowns to command it”, that is the old saying in action.

    The old saying being “first they smash your face in, then they say you were always ugly”.

    But then, perhaps it was all an accident, perhaps all the blunders were entirely unintended. Just the bad luck of history and the “fog or war”.

    And with the vast increase in the Islamic population since that time, and the removal (or extermination) of the Christian population of Asia Minor (Anatolia) – the Greeks, Armenians and others, the Christians will never (never) regain Constantinople – the dream since 1453 is now dead as a Dodo bird.

    As dead as Czar Nicholas II (that incompetent man who sent his own Imperial Guards Army to their deaths) and his family – betrayed by their Western allies, and then murdered by the Marxists.

  • Paul Marks

    If I could have said one word to Nicholas II before his death (not to his family – obviously) that word would have been “Kovel”.

    He did not want them, the Imperial Rifle Regiment, the Preobrazhensky Guards, all the others, to die – after all they would have protected him and his family to the death. But there is a point where incompetence becomes criminal negligence – and Nicholas was there in 1916 and claimed to be in personal command of the army. And he did not do the traditional thing of killing himself (to avoid problems with Christian theology the thing is to say the mind of the person was disturbed) – if he had I would not have typed these words.

    The same is true for Mr Putin now, only more so – he ordered this war, unlike Nicholas who had war forced upon him by Germany, all the deaths are on the head of Vladimir Putin. The humiliation and disgrace of Russia is on the head of Vladimir Putin.

    He knows the penalty for what he has done.

  • Paul Marks

    Would there have been a Revolution (the Marxist Coup of October-November 1917, backed by Imperial Germany) had Nicholas sacrificed himself – say died leading his men, or “had an accident cleaning his revolver” afterwards? Leaving an innocent child as Czar.

    I think not – there might have been something like the takeover of Price Lvov and the others in February/March 1917 (perhaps disguised as a Regency), but no Marxist coup with the tens of millions of murders over the years and the dishonour and endless lies.

    Perhaps it needed a blood self-sacrifice to prevent it – a taking of responsibility in the most basic way.

    If Russia is to survive the evil plans of its “friends” such as the Communist Party Dictatorship of the People’s Republic of China, an act of self-sacrifice is needed now. Someone must take responsibility for what has been done – and that someone can only be Vladimir Putin.

    Either death or the traditional alternative – the harsh monastic life, or the life of a hermit. For that brief period before natural death comes, comes to us all.

  • Paul Marks

    Once there was a grand conspiracy to destroy the English – to make this island “as if they had never been”.

    A grand alliance of the Britons, the Vikings and the Scots – the King of Alba, King Constantine.

    Athelstan of the English won that battle, the Battle of Brunanburh, but he did not celebrate his victory, on the contrary he had himself whipped on each anniversary of the battle, because of the brutal and pitiless way he had behaved on that day.

    And King Constantine? He went to live the life of a hermit – no one raised their hand against him, for they knew he was waiting for the judgement of a higher power and praying each day for the soul of the son he had lost at the battle.

    Centuries later Robert the Bruce lay dying (having suffered in agony with a terrible disease for a long time), and he wept – but not for himself. For the faces of the men he had killed were before his mind. Such as the unarmed man he had killed in Church – for fear the man would be a rival and would divide the forces of Scotland in the face of the English.

    “God forgive me” he said “for all the innocent blood I have shed”.

    When you see the “Scottish Play” (Macbeth) know this is true to how warriors often are – not just in Scotland, everywhere.

    Men do terrible deeds – but they do them for reasons that seem vitally important. And the faces of the innocent death often return to their mind – when they least expect it.

  • Steven R

    Steven R – that is not real objective, “an overall push from the Straits of Dover to Switzerland to push the Germans and see where the Germans gave in” is not a military plan, it is a piece of political rhetoric – I am in the trade of politics myself and I recognise political rhetoric, if that is how Haig and the others were thinking then they were in the wrong trade.

    Paul Marks,

    You’re mistaking strategic goals and operational goals. The strategic goal the generals determined at the Second Chantilly Conference was to hit the entire German line more or less at the same time (or close enough that German reserves couldn’t be employed) and see where the Allies made progress and where they could exploit openings.

    The operational goals at the beginning on the Battle of the Somme was to push the Germans out of their positions from Gommencourt to Montauban.

    It was the German offensive at the Marne that threw a wrench into the works because the French had to pull some of their troops from their part of the Somme to deal with that and once the Marne was done those troops were in no condition to fight another major battle.

  • TomJ

    On int: the Ukrainians surely have access to a wealth of ELINT from RAF et al platforms patrolling just outside Russian airspace, more or less real time satellite imagery and a wealth of “OS Int” from people in occupied areas taking photos of invading units and/or (possibly more importantly) their logs support and posting it either openly on the ‘net or sending it straight to friends or family in Kiev. There will be a lot coming from poorly disciplined Russian troops posting online too, though that will take a lot of filtering to avoid plants, as well as all the codebooks in Russian tanks towed back to friendly lines by farmers. It’s leaps and bounds beyond maps, however well photographed, providing reasonably good indications of what kit and pax the Russians are deploying where.

    JP’s right on the experience point; while the Russians had a notional core of personnel weith experience from Syria and Chechnya, the bulk of their forces appear to be not terribly well trained conscripts from the various hinterlands of the Federation. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have had UK and other NATO training teams helping them develop for almost a decade; their former national servicemen, motivated by threat to their homes, needed refresher training but weren’t starting from scratch and their professional standing forces seem to have played a blinder in working to their strengths and the invaders’ weaknesses in the early stages of this year’s invasion.

  • On int: the Ukrainians surely have access to a wealth of ELINT from RAF et al platforms patrolling just outside Russian airspace

    Indeed, the RAF Rivet Joint flights are damn near constant.

  • Steven R

    while the Russians had a notional core of personnel weith experience from Syria and Chechnya, the bulk of their forces appear to be not terribly well trained conscripts from the various hinterlands of the Federation. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have had UK and other NATO training teams helping them develop for almost a decade; their former national servicemen, motivated by threat to their homes, needed refresher training but weren’t starting from scratch and their professional standing forces seem to have played a blinder in working to their strengths and the invaders’ weaknesses in the early stages of this year’s invasion.

    TomJ’s right but there is also the fact that the Ukrainians have the WILL to fight. The Afghans should have been able to kill the Taliban with ease. They had the numbers, all the equipment, training, intelligence, and the rest from 20 years of US training and at the end of the day they simply did not have the will to shoot the Taliban in the face. Now they whine to reporters about how they have lost all the liberties and rights and protections the Americans gave them. That’s the lesson the Ukrainians got from Afghanistan: sooner or later you’re going to have to shoot some folks to stay free. No one is going to do it for you.

  • Patrick Crozier

    In the First World War the British broke the German naval codes. Meanwhile, the Germans figured out a way of listening in on British frontline telephone conversations.

  • Kevin Jaeger

    If we’re going on record with predictions I’ll stick with my post from March 15: https://www.samizdata.net/2022/03/is-nothing-worth-a-war/#comment-822283

    “a realistic assessment of what is militarily possible yields better decision making. Ukraine is not capable of militarily expelling the Russian forces from their territory. The settlement will need to be negotiated. Those who predicted an imminent collapse of the Russian forces have been doing no one any favours.”

    After six months I keep reading about Russia’s imminent collapse. Meanwhile, even Ukraine sympathizers who actually spent time in Donbas observing the war (like Neil Hauer, for example) report how badly outgunned the Ukrainian forces are.

    After about six months of combat I see no reason to change my earlier assessment. The war will eventually end, but it won’t be because Ukraine militarily drove the Russian forces out of their territory. The strength imbalance is too great for that to happen.

  • Steven R

    The war will end and it will end with Russia seizing property. But NATO membership expanded, every burning Russian tank is one fewer being pointed westward, and western Europe is forced to realize it’s NIMBY energy policy doesn’t work, so it’s win/win for the Western Europe.

  • Kevin Jaeger

    Having the west actually producing its own energy again would indeed be a good result. Let’s hope that happens, at least.

  • John r

    Amiens was a meticulously organised integrated offensive, combining the Royal armoured corps, the AIF, Canadian army corps plus a lot of artillery and aircraft. This force was assembled without the Germans noticing- the surprise was near total.
    The force was concentrated on a quite small section of the front. All but a handful of German artillery positions had been mapped and at 6am nearly all German artillery was either destroyed or neutralised. As the force advanced aircraft dropped fresh supplies of amo in front of them.

    It wasn’t about numbers the Germans had about the same number of frontline troops,rather it was about a totally integrated force vs a traditional army.

    What the Ukrainians are doing is quite different to Amiens feel that they have a good chance, but both Amiens and the Somme are not good analogies

  • Chester Draws

    As I said in an earlier thread, it will be all about morale.

    WWI was won when armies refused to go on, not because they were being badly beaten in the field. Revolts and starvation on the home front were far more important than which way the front lines were going.

    If Russians decide, collectively, that the war is not worth fighting, then Ukraine will win quite quickly. That Russia *could* keep going won’t matter a damn.

    Putin’s inability to actually declare war is not a good sign. It would indicate that even he thinks this war is not popular.

    If Ukraine can roll up the Russians on the right bank of the Dnepr, then why would Russian grunts want to keep fighting? To achieve what, other than their deaths?

  • TomJ

    I agree people suggesting the Russians would quickly collapse were naïve, but that does not mean a Ukrainian victory is impossible. They’ve exposed the flaky Russian logs system at the supply end; sanctions are beginning to mean the manufacturers at the other end of the chain can no longer supply reliable parts, lacking the high quality metals or electronic components. Meanwhile, this is a good point on the level of acheivement.

  • John

    Bit more
    the Russian army is not German, Monash had to crack an impressive deep reinforced concrete defence system,before the AIF could get in close ,get in and do their work.

    To my eye the Ukrainians look like my kind….

  • Paul Marks

    Steven R. – the words you have used (let alone the words that Patrick sometimes tends to use) are not a strategic goal – any more than they are a tactical goal, they are not a military objective at all.

    On codes – French military intelligence managed to break German army codes (at least some of them) which gave Foch a big advantage in 1918 (although the arrival of lots of American troops was also rather helpful).

    Essentially the overall credit for the success of the offensive of late 1918 goes to Marshall Foch, and the tactical credit goes to such Generals as Plumer and Rawlinson (Rawlinson had greatly improved since 1916 – although even during the Somme offensive both Rawlinson and the Earl of Cavan tried to call off the attack on certain places, Haig overruled them without bothering to look for himself). And much credit must go to the ordinary soldiers themselves.

    Haig wrote various “dairy” accounts of 1918 (taken as gospel by certain university types) – but they are, in part, intended to give himself the credit for the work of other men. This was a habit he had got into in the 1890s – for example giving himself the credit for the orders of General Broadwood in the Sudan.

    Harry Flashman is an amusing character on the pages of a book, just as Terry Thomas was an amusing character-actor in a film – but it is not nice to have such a play actor as your commanding officer. Even if it is a quiet Scottish, rather than English, version of the type.

    It is hard to be more establishment than Max Hastings (it is hard to think of much I agree with Max Hastings about) – but even he cannot resist telling a revealing story about Douglas Haig in 1914.

    Haig drew his pistol, shook it, and (in a powerful and commanding voice – as good as Harry Flashman at his most inspiring) cried out “we well sell our lives dearly”.

    Little problem – as Hastings notes, the Germans were miles away. Unlike General Smith-Dorrian, who was leading desperately to hold the Germans back, Douglas Haig had no intention of personally fighting the Germans. “We will sell OUR lives dearly” indeed.

    Someone like General Broadwood (remember him from the Sudan) might “sell his life” (Broadwood was killed at Passchendaele – many British Generals and senior officers were killed in the First World War) Douglas would serve four years on the Western front without even being wounded – ditto (I believe) his entire life in the army.

    In the old days someone who acted as if they were from a higher social station than they actually were, was known as a “bounder” (someone pushing the boundaries – we might say that is actually no bad thing, but it depends how you do it) – say acting as if you were the Earl of Cavan (the Commander of the Guards Division) or, rather, as someone who was not aristocrat would imagine the Earl of Cavan would behave – in reality the Earl of Cavan did not behave in such a distant way.

    And someone who was untrustworthy, wire pulling to take the job of their Commanding Officer, taking the credit for the work of other men, and-so-on, was known as a “cad”.

    Again in a book or a film, a bounder and a cad may be highly amusing – but it is not funny when such a man is in command.

    As is often the case with such a man it was clear from an early age – with James Edmunds being put in to do some of the work of Douglas for him (a man of character would have angerly rejected that – and demanded to all their own college work) – James Edmunds later wrote the official history of the First World War (so you can guess how that is subtly biased).

    Then there were such incidents as being made to sit a mathematics exam himself – failing it, but wire pulling to become an officer anyway. And, rather later, General Plummer making Douglas do an exam himself – and failing him (Plummer was never forgiven for that).

    It is just too depressing to go on. So, I will end on a positive note.

    When Haig issued his order in response to the German victories in early 1918 it was moving – “with our backs to the wall, but believing in the justice of our cause, I place my trust in you” – at least that was the version that got to the soldiers, the men I knew (as a young boy) at the Lancing British Legion, when there were still veterans about – including my grandfather James Power.

    They knew what it really meant – “I do not have a clue what I am doing – YOU do something to stop the Germans, please stop them” (of course he would never use those words – but that was what was meant), but they were moved anyway, and inspired, somehow it was more inspiring that the liar was finally telling the truth (or as close to the truth as he could get). And it was a just cause (Haig was telling the truth about that) and they could stop the Germans – by their own efforts, they just managed to do so (at great cost), so Haig was telling the truth about that as well.

    Why was it moving and inspiring? “Well, you have to have been there to fully understand that”. They did not pretend he had virtues he never had, but he was (if only for a little while) telling the truth in his desperation – and that was moving and inspiring. The cause was just, he was telling the truth about that (the really important thing), and he was giving the cause into their hands – to save justice (and the memory of all their friends who had died for it over the last four years). In spite of the supposed brutalising effects of war, most British soldiers of that time were highly moral men (as anyone who met them knows) – and an appeal to the justice of the cause, would move them the way that nothing else would.

    On the other side was General Ludendorff – of course a much better General, but someone whose cause (and the philosophy behind if – for he was a philosopher) was totally unjust. And, deep in their hearts, the German soldiers seemed to know that (hence how they treated the civilians even in 1914 – let alone in Operation Michael in 1918). Douglas Haig might not have been a man you would elect as Master of Foxhounds (Allenby, a much inferior rider, was elected instead – because he was trustworthy) or even play golf with, but THE CAUSE WAS JUST. This the men fighting to hold back the Germans in 1918, both British and French, knew well (even if later people have forgotten).

    The justice or injustice of a cause does, sometimes, matter – as we can see in the Ukraine today. The Russian soldiers, in their hearts, know their cause is unjust – and the Ukrainians (in spite of all the horrible corruption and so on) know that their cause is just.

    In the end it is the justice of the cause that matters – in death one forgives the flaws of a man, if he was on the side of a just cause. And one will stand in respect for him in his coffin, even if one did not rate him as a commander. It is the justice of the cause that matters – and the commander (whatever his personal faults) becomes the embodiment of the just cause. For one is not standing for one man – one is really standing for all the men (including one’s own personal friends) who fought and died for a just cause, that rises above the excrement and the blood, the wounded attacked by rats, and all the rest of it.

    We all die, whatever we do – so we might as well die for an honourable, for a just, cause.

  • Milwaukee

    The problem is not the problem. The problem is your thinking about the problem. This war is a result of forces in Washington D.C. who want the USA to be the ruling force in the world. The United States interfered with France and Germany from enforcing the Minsk II agreement. Boris Johnson squelched peace efforts back in the spring. Unfortunately, the stated goal of bleeding Russia for years is wrecking havoc on governments and militaries in Europe.

  • FWIW:

    – I agree with Patrick that the most urgent aim of the Somme was to relieve the pressure on Verdun (which it did).

    – I agree with Paul that the Gallipoli campaign was winnable. The Turks were lucky to have the talented Kemal Ataturk in charge, and some very incompetent British commanders facing him at Sulva Bay.

    As regards Kherson, I agree with Patrick that Russian military morale appears worse than that of the Germans at the Somme, or even at Amiens. I also think that the commitment of Russian society to the war is much flakier.

  • decnine

    To me, Kherson looks more like a Verdun opportunity than a Somme or Amiens. That is, Verdun as intended by the Germans. Not Verdun as bungled by the Germans.

  • Paul Marks

    On the second day of the Battle of Loos in 1915 General Haig (not in overall command – but, contrary to what he later claimed, this was his decision) sent in two reserve divisions to their deaths. It is true that not all of those ten thousand men were killed or wounded – but more than eight thousand of them were. More than eight thousand killed and wounded out of ten thousand.

    German casualties in that particular part of the battle appear to have been two men who had mental breakdowns and had to be sent to a hospital for the mentally ill – the British soldiers (in their thousands) had walked up to barbwire defences (not a “fence” as we might think of it – but defences many feet high and thick) and walked up and down looking for a way through it – as they Germans shot them down, for two German soldiers that was just too much.

    But this was not the worst.

    In 1916 we have the Somme – for example 20 thousand British soldiers dead (dead – not dead and wounded, 20 thousand dead men) in one day – July 1st.

    Douglas Haig had been in the army all his adult life – and in July 1916 he had been in France for two years – he could not be still “learning”. Even after this there were lots of later attacks (on other days) – even when told that a particular position should not be attacked, Douglas Haig ordered it attacked anyway. Senior Generals might risk their lives to personally observe a position (as both Rawlinson and the Earl of Cavan did) – but they might as well not have bothered, as Douglas Haig (without going to look) overruled them. The offensive went on for months – even though no one knew what the men were trying take, what the valuable military objective actually was.

    Then we have the Passchendaele offensive – which just went on and on, month after month. Men drowning in the mud – because the drainage system had been smashed up by shelling (of course Douglas had been warned about that – but he did not care, after all he was not going to be drowning to death), and then freezing to death in the winter – in the end the village was finally captured (I admit that), it was a brown smudge in the mud – it had no military value what-so-ever.

    “But the Somme relieved pressure on Verdun”.

    There was one major road to the Verdun area – the French called it “the Sacred Way” as the best blood of France went to their deaths along it.

    The Germans could have cut that road – and choose not to do so.

    The point of Verdun was not to take it (although German public opinion started to demand that – which was a blunder), the point of the operation was to suck as many Frenchmen into the area as possible, so they could be shelled from three sides (it was a bulge).

    In some ways it is similar to the Battle of Kovel in 1916 – in which the best blood of Russia was shed – marching down three causeways with the Germans shooting them from three sides.

    The best men of Russia – including so many of the volunteers, the men most loyal. The men who could have prevented the Marxist coup and all the tens of millions of murders that followed it.

    And Nicholas II must take his share of the blame – he was personally there and claimed to be in command.

    And yes, I admit, not even Douglas Haig ever ordered an attack like that.

    Kovel, Nicholas, Kovel.

  • Paul Marks

    The post itself is almost inverted.

    The question is not what the Ukrainian Army has learned – they were well trained before the war started, often by British trainers.

    The question is what, if anything, has the RUSSIAN army (essentially an untrained rabble at the start of the war) learned?

    The Russians have had their Somme and so on – thanks to that bloody handed fool Vladimir Putin, but will they have their Battle of Amiens? Their late 1918? With General Plummer (see even Geoffrey Powell’s establishment biography of Plumer) and others, “reinterpreting” orders from Haig, will we see Russian Generals “reinterpreting” the orders of Mr Putin, and actually start to win battles?

    And the answer to that question is “I do not know”.

    Yes I am guilty of a “cop out” – I just do not know.

    The Russian army at the start of the war even lacked functioning NCOs so senior officers (including Generals) had to do such things as direct traffic (and got shot by snipers doing it).

    Has this changed? Again – I just do not know.

  • Ed Snack

    Ignorance is bliss ! The Russians have way superior artillery, and are far more skilled at using it. The Kherson “offensive” has already failed, and the Ukrainians have suffered huge casualties. Wishful thinking is NOT enough.