We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Victory at Amiens

On 8 August 1918 in Northern France, a mainly British force attacked on a 15 mile front and advanced to a depth of 7 miles. In so doing it inflicted 70,000 casualties on the Germans capturing 500 guns while suffering 44,000 casualties of its own. The Battle of Amiens as it became known, was the first clearly-successful, large-scale, Allied offensive operation on the Western Front. Ludendorff, the German commander, famously called it the “Black day of the German army”. But then again he was always a bit of a flibbertygibbet.

Although no one knew it at the time the Battle of Amiens heralded the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive in which Allied success followed Allied success. By November the Germans realised that the game was up and sued for peace.

Amiens did not take place in a vacuum. At the Second Battle of the Marne which took place a few weeks earlier the Germans had attacked and the French and Americans had successfully counter-attacked. This brought to an end German hopes of a quick victory.

By this stage the Germans had been on the offensive since March. While they had taken plenty of territory they had failed to deliver a knockout blow. To achieve even this they had had to put everything on the line: men, material and, crucially, morale. Meanwhile, back in Germany the population was starving and Spanish influenza was killing thousands.

So was Amiens the consequence of German weakness? It certainly played a part and the propensity of German soldiers to surrender – that morale thing – was unprecedented. However, all the casualty figures I have seen from the Ludendorff Offensive indicate that the numbers were pretty even with any advantage there was going to the Germans.

One thing it wasn’t was the Americans. They weren’t at Amiens. Indeed it is debatable as to whether they were ever very effective offensively. That is not to denigrate American efforts, it is merely to point out that success on the Western Front required skill and experience which the Americans never had the time to acquire.

The missing piece in the jigsaw is British tactics. At Amiens they used tanks, gas, smoke, creeping barrages, predicted barrages, new infantry tactics and airborne resupply. The predicted barrage was particularly important because it managed to introduce an element of surprise to the battlefield. Some claim that a lot of British success in 1918 was down to its embracing wireless radios. Others to the 106 fuze. Others to investing heavily in motor lorries. That last one might sound mundane but in war logistics matter.

Even Haig had learnt. Normally he would have ordered his men to press on but when Foch – by this time his nominal commander – urged Haig to do precisely that, Haig said “no”. He had learnt that Western Front battles were a case of diminishing returns. Better to close down this battle and start another one somewhere else – something that his lorries would now allow him to do.

So why have so few heard of Amiens? Why doesn’t it occupy a similar position to Agincourt, Waterloo and El Alamein? Quite simply because it doesn’t fit the narrative. The lazy story we’ve all heard a million times tells us that the Western Front was all about incompetent generals and stalemate. Amiens and the Hundred Days Offensive show this to be nonsense.

A more accurate narrative might be that winning on the Western Front was never going to be easy but they got there in the end.

THE HUNDRED DAYS OFFENSIVE, AUGUST-NOVEMBER 1918 (Q 9273) Dump of German heavy artillery guns and howitzers (15 cm guns and a 21 cm Mörser 16 heavy howitzer) captured in the Battle of Amiens by the British Fourth Army, 27 August 1918. Those in foreground were captured by the 2nd Canadian Division and the B Company, 3rd Battalion, Tank Corps. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205245048

How the Corn Laws and all that may not be all that

The story that I and most people here are familiar with is that in the 1840s Britain abolished the Corn Laws, became the pioneer in free trade and that this was a good thing.

John Nye begs to differ. In this Econtalk podcast (from, ahem, 10 years ago) he makes two points. Firstly, British tariffs were falling throughout the 19th Century and that the abolition of the Corn Laws was not particularly significant in that process. Secondly, French tariffs were by-and-large lower than those in Britain.

But surely Britain was much richer than France at this time? Yes it was, and according to Nye that was mainly due to it having fewer taxes and regulations. France even had internal tariffs as Samizdata’s own Antoine Clarke once pointed out.

So much as I don’t think Trump’s trade war is a good idea it is possible that it may not be as bad as all that.

So, what do we think about Syria?

Some questions:

Was there a chemical attack?

If so, who was the perpetrator?

More to the point, do we care? Yes, I know there is a treaty and all that but is chemicalling someone so much worse than shooting them? And is it worth fighting a war over?

1918: Everyone’s a statist

Much as I accept that the First World War was ghastly I believe it had to be fought. However, as I have followed events in “real time” as it were, I have had to reluctantly accept that to fight the war required a substantial increase in the size of the state. Conscription, rationing and a Ministry of Munitions, for instance, were essential. Even so, some extensions of state power are simply baffling:

The Times 30 March 1918 p2


Huh?

It gets worse. While most people were busying themselves fighting the war, statists were making plans…

The Times 15 March 1918 p12


I love that phrase in the linked article about not liking coercion. I also note that no attempt is made to explain why state provision would be better than the private-sector alternative. It is simply assumed.

There was a lot of this sort of thing going on. While the cat is away the mice shall play, so to speak. One of the committees that sprang up around this time had a rather surprising member:

The Times 4 April 1918 p3


Many will know that Ernest Benn was Tony Benn’s uncle. Many will also know that he was one of the founders of the Society of Individual Freedom. The Society of Individual Freedom spawned a youth wing which came to be known as the Libertarian Alliance and the Libertarian Alliance to a large extent was responsible for Samizdata. As it happens Benn was, at this time, in his statist phase. He would soon learn.

Austrians on barbarians

Mises sees ideologies – sets of ideas – as guiding people’s actions such that they extend or curtail the growth of the division of labour. But people can participate in an extended division of labour while still holding to an ideology of violence which must run counter to, and undermine, peaceful cooperation. Many who joined this extended order by moving into urban areas remained strangers to the ideas which made wider specialisation and exchange possible:

“One cannot make a social philosophy one’s own as easily as a new costume. It must be earned – earned with the effort of thought.”

Hence in history there appear periods in which the division of labour is extended and others in which it regresses: “More menacing than the barbarians storming the walls from without are the seeming citizens within – those who are citizens in gesture, but not in thought.” – Hayek too excoriates those “non-domesticated barbarians in our midst” who “refuse to accept” the “acquired discipline” of a world-wide division of labour while “they still claim all its benefits”.

Sudha Shenoy, Towards a Theoretical Framework for British and International Economic History: Early modern England, a case study, p283. Don’t be confused by the title – not a dicky bird so far about post-Black Death cesspit management – this is an overview of Austrian economics. And a rather good one at that.

Samizdata quote of the day

…as I have complained about in the past, there has been a major shift in modern companies from delivering something useful – such as a bridge which doesn’t collapse – to managing processes. A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are.

Tim Newman speculating on the causes of the Florida footbridge collapse.

The miracle of 1918

Early in 1918 the Earl of Derby, War Minister, bet David Lloyd George, Prime Minister, 100 cigars to 100 cigarettes that the war would be over within the year. Lloyd George eagerly accepted.

He had good reason to. The Allies’ prospects did not look good. Russia was in chaos. Italy had suffered defeat at Caporetto. France had only just recovered from the Nivelle Offensive and the subsequent mutinies. America appeared to be doing little. Only Britain had an effective army in the field and while it had prevented the Germans from launching an all-out attack on the weakened French there was no decisive or significant victory it could point to.

Initially, with the combination of a predicted barrage and tanks Cambrai had looked like a stunning success. But when the Germans counter-attacked the Allies ended up with less territory than they had started with. It looked like a stalemate.

At home, although the U-boat campaign had failed to bring Britain to her knees its impact was being felt. While only sugar was rationed, there was a whole panoply of other restrictions such as price controls, bans on hoarding, standard loaves and standard meals. There were sporadic shortages of such essentials as potatoes and matches.

About the only bright spot was the Middle East where both Jerusalem and Baghdad were in British hands.

As if things weren’t bad enough already, Lloyd George made his own, unique contribution. Convinced that the Western Front was a stalemate he kept troops back at home. He then agreed that the British army should take over more of the line from the French. So, the British army was being asked to do more with less at a time when the enemy was being re-inforced with divisions from the East.

And yet, Lloyd George would still lose his bet. Spanish influenza might have had something to do with it.

The Times 17 January 1918 p6. Notice that bearers had to register with a retailer. Why? one wonders.

The Netherlands and the oil crisis

I have a dim memory of a TV news report on how the 1973 oil crisis was affecting Holland. I can’t remember the specifics but it was something along the lines that the crisis was much worse in Holland than elsewhere. At some later date I got the idea that the Dutch had been selling arms to the Israelis and the Arab oil embargo introduced after the Yom Kippur War was much more strictly enforced on Holland than elsewhere.

As I got older (I was very young in 1973) this made less and less sense. How, I thought, do you control what happens to oil you’ve sold once it has been put on a ship?

For some reason this week I was reminded of this dim and distant memory and decided to do some duckduckgoing. I discovered that someone has written a book on the subject. This is what the rubric says:

The Netherlands played a remarkable role during the October War and the oil crisis of 1973. In secret, the Dutch government sent a substantial amount of ammunition and spare parts to Israel. The Dutch supported Israel also politically. Within the EC they vetoed a more pro-Arab policy. The Arab oil producing countries punished The Netherlands by imposing an oil embargo. The embargo against the Netherlands was intimidating. The Netherlands was dependent on Arab oil. The embargo seemed to threaten the Dutch position in the international oil sector. The government introduced several measures to reduce oil consumption. However, within two months it became clear that oil continued to arrive in Rotterdam. There was in fact no oil shortage in the Netherlands.

Oh.

Some hippies on a road on a “car-free” Sunday in Holland, made “car-free” because the government was worried about oil supplies.

Would you have convicted?

I present a couple of cases from a century ago where there is little doubt about the guilt of the accused.

In the first a soldier finds out that his wife is having an affair while he is away. He shoots her dead.

In the second a soldier suffers shell shock and it sent home. He acts in an erratic and frequently violent manner. His wife kills their son and attempts to kill their daughter and herself.

In both cases the jury returns a verdict of “not guilty”.

Better late than never

The Times 26 November 1917

Reminder: The US declared war on 6 April 1917.

The If Only School of history

A commenter writes and I sub-edit to twist his meaning:

…history would have been rather different if the Black Prince had lived. Just as history would have been very different if Henry V had lived. History is decided by small events – individual choices (a choice is neither determined or chance – a choice is a choice, it cannot be reduced to something else) and luck (chance – such as getting ill, or dying in a shipwreck as Henry the First’s son Arthur did), not grand “historical forces”.

This brings up one of my bugbears, namely the If Only School of History. The If Only School states that “if only” event X had or hadn’t happened then disaster Y would have been avoided. For example:

  • if only the chauffeur had known the way, Franz Ferdinand would have survived and the First World War would not have happened;
  • if only the British hadn’t shot the rebels then the Irish wouldn’t have sympathised with them and Ireland would still be part of the UK;
  • if only Hitler had stayed a little longer then Elser’s bomb would have killed him and the Second World War would have ended much sooner;
  • if only the French hadn’t been so perfidious at Chesapeake Bay then America would still be British;
  • if only Harold hadn’t been in such a rush to get to Hastings then the Norman Conquest could have been prevented etc, etc.

Straight away there is an obvious problem with the If Only School. It assumes that if event X had not happened then things would have been better. It ignores the possibility that things might have been worse.

The truth is that you never know. You only get one history. You cannot know what would have happened had the world gone down another path. But I tend to assume that it would have been much the same. Why? Because there are millions of people in this world and they all have beliefs and something happening, or not happening, is unlikely to change those beliefs. Also, we have a certain level of technology. That too only changes slowly. When it does, of course, it has profound implications.

Of course, this is something of a numbers game. If there aren’t so many people about then the impact of one person’s decisions or one person’s luck can be much greater.

Getting back to my main point, take for instance, Sarajevo. Obviously, had the chauffeur taken a different turn that day the Archduke and his wife would probably have survived. But the great forces of history would still have been in play. Serbian nationalism would still have existed and posed an existential threat to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The German military would still have felt threatened by the build up of the Russian military. The German monarchy would still have been under threat from German republicanism.

Indeed, it may not have made any difference at all. The Austrians still had plenty to play with that day, assassination or not. The bomb throwing orchestrated – as it was – by Serbian intelligence still constituted an act of war and – as was subsequently shown – they needed little excuse to commence hostilities.

We can also take a look at similar situations down the years and see if different actions lead to significantly different results. Take, for instance, the ways in which monarchs have re-acted to the threat from republicanism:

  • Charles I was inflexible and there was a bloodbath
  • Louis XVI was very accommodating. And there was a bloodbath
  • Wilhelm II tried to focus his population’s attention on foreign adventures. And there was a bloodbath.
  • Nicholas II was inflexible. And there was a bloodbath.

And only one of them survived to not tell the tale. And he was lucky.

Did I say “lucky”? Am I admitting that luck plays a part? Not really. Actually, this example rather makes my point because Willhelm’s survival – lucky or otherwise – wasn’t of any great importance. For sure luck exists but it is more in the nature of waves on the sea rather than the great tides. The big changes may have happened in a different way at at different time but they would still have happened.

But there are other examples. Ask yourself why it was that all Medieval monarchs were such bastards? With one exception they were violent, dishonest, disloyal and untrustworthy. Indeed, the exception, Henry VI, rather proves the rule.

Yes, maybe, had Harold taken his time to assemble at Hastings he might have won the day but do we seriously believe that the invention of the stirrup or, if you prefer, the rise of mounted warfare, would not have had profound consequences for the structure of medieval society?

Of course accepting that we are subject to the great forces of history does leave us with the problem of where we as individuals come in? Why not sit back and relax as there is not much that any of us can do about it?

The Russian Revolution as it appeared in The Times

I suppose – given that it is the centenary of that catastrophe known as the Russian Revolution – I ought to drag out something from The Times. I have to confess that this is no easy task; not because there is too little but because there is too much. Anyway for your intellectual delectation we have the following selection: the initial report (8/11/17), a background report (9/11/17) and The Times leader (same date) which gets it pretty much spot on:

The latest developments in Russia will hardly surprise those who have watched recent events in Petrograd. When constituted authority is palpably incapable of backing words by deeds, when anarchy is allowed to increase daily, when arms are recklessly given to the mob, then the end cannot be far off.

Update One more (9/11/17 again) but this one comes with a free Balfour Declaration