Military history


One survivor of Langemarck — an odd man out among his university comrades, since a chaotic temperament had disqualified him from higher education — was Adolf Hitler. He had shown himself a good soldier and continued to serve, despite several wounds, until the end of the war. His long survival made him an odd man out also. His regiment, the 16th Bavarian Reserve, emerged from battle after a month in the line of Ypres with only 611 of its original 3600 soldiers unwounded. Within a year it contained scarcely a single original member. Such casualty lists had by then become commonplace in all the fighting-units of the combatant armies. They recorded an unprecedented shedding of blood in two respects: the total of losses, for any given period of hostility, was absolutely higher than any known before; the rate of loss, calculated as a percentage of combatant manpower, was also without parallel, because never before had such a high proportion of any population been engaged in combat. It is difficult to be categorical about casualty figures; they are, as any military historian knows, a quagmire into which the scholar sinks ever deeper the more effort he makes to wade his way out. For pre-census times, which means for all periods before the nineteenth century, accurate civilian population figures are lacking, so that even if estimates of army strengths can be relied upon, which is rarely the case, it is difficult to translate reported battle losses, again usually unreliable, into a figure that represents a verifiable proportion of a combatant nation’s military manpower. Thus, for example, while it is generally accepted that the Roman republic lost 50,000 out of 75,000 soldiers committed at Cannae, we do not know how large was Rome’s pool of military manpower in the third century BC and so cannot compare the scale of that disaster with, say, that of the Teutoburg forest in the first century AD.

It is a safe presumption, however, that armies in all organised states before the introduction of universal conscription formed but the smallest fraction of populations — in France in 1789, 156,000 out of 29,100,000 (though by 1793 universal conscription had raised this to 983,000); we also know that the cost of battle only exceptionally exceeded ten per cent fatalities among those engaged; and finally we know that battles were infrequent incidents in wars (the French republic fought only fifty, by both land and sea, between 1792 and 1800, or six a year, a very high number by earlier standards).48 Thus we may conclude that news of a death in battle was a comparatively rare family tragedy at any time before the nineteenth century. Napoleon’s battles, fought with field forces as large as those of the whole French army of the ancien régime, pushed the incidence higher. At Borodino (1812), his Pyrrhic victory outside Moscow, he lost 28,000 out of 120,000, while at Waterloo, a battle to which accurate statistical methods can be applied almost for the first time, his losses were 27,000 out of 72,000, Wellington’s 15,000 out of 68,000.

Figures from the American Civil War (for which dependable figures are supplied from the pension returns of the widows of those killed) show the upward trend: some 94,000 Confederates, out of about 1,300,000 enlisted, died in the forty-eight major battles of the four-year war, and some 110,000 out of 2,900,000 Union soldiers. The higher Confederate casualty rate, about seven as opposed to three per cent, is explained by such factors as lower rates of desertion and more frequent commitment of units in a smaller army to action.49 The deaths of some 200,000 young men in battle in four years, from a population that numbered 32,000,000 in 1860, left an emotional wound that gave war a lasting bad name in the United States; the agony was compounded by the death from disease or hardship of 400,000 more.50

By 1914 the age-old scourge of disease, always hitherto war’s chief agent of death, had been lifted from armies; the Boer War (1899–1902) was the last in which the British army suffered more fatalities from sickness than from missiles. That, however, made the casualty lists of 1914–18 all the harder to bear. Soldiering had become a healthy life; recruits, nurtured in an environment of improved public health at home, well fed on the produce of mechanised agriculture, were kept fit and strong; indeed, in some sense, the length of the casualty lists of the First World War directly reflected the decline in infant mortality and the rise in civilian life expectancy during the previous century. Those factors combined to provide the numbers that came forward to the slaughter, which rose steeply each year. By September 1915 the French army had suffered 1,000,000 casualties, of which about a third were fatal, in the battles of the frontiers — the Marne, Aisne, Picardy and Champagne. In the battle of Verdun (1916) it lost 500,000 dead or wounded (conventionally the proportion is reckoned at one to three) and the Germans more than 400,000; on the first day of the battle of the Somme that year, 1 July, the British army lost 20,000 killed, almost as many deaths as it had suffered in the entire Boer War from wounds and disease combined.

By 1917 the French army had lost 1,000,000 dead, and, after another disastrous offensive in Champagne in April, one half its fighting divisions refused to obey further orders to attack. The episode, loosely described as mutiny, is better represented as a large-scale military strike against the operation of an unbearable probability; four out of nine Frenchmen enlisted in fighting-units suffered wounds or death by the war’s close. At the end of that year, the Italian army, which its government had committed to war against Austria in May 1915, went the same way; after suffering 1,000,000 casualties in eleven profitless Alpine offensives, it collapsed in the face of an Austro-German counter-offensive and was effectively immobilised until the armistice. The Russian army, its casualties uncounted, had by then begun to ‘vote for peace with its feet’, in Lenin’s phrase. Lenin’s political victory in the Petrograd revolution of October 1917 could not have occurred but for the military catastrophes the army had undergone in East Prussia, Poland and the Ukraine, which dissolved the units on which the constitutional government counted for support.

Mechanistic explanations for this quantum leap in casualty rates are easy to supply in retrospect. Firepower, both that of the individual soldier’s weapon and of the machine-guns and artillery pieces that supported him, had been multiplied several hundred times since the days of gunpowder ‘indecision’ in the eighteenth century. Then it had been calculated that the ratio of deaths inflicted to rounds fired (discounting artillery) had fallen to between 1 to 200 and 1 to 460.51 However, the musketeer fired at most three times a minute, while opposed forces rarely exceeded 50,000 in strength; even so, the casualties inflicted in a few minutes’ exchange of fire were usually sufficient to induce a panic flight to the rear by one party or the other, and it was indeed precisely through the infliction of such a panic that commanders sought to take possession of the field.52 By 1914 the infantryman fired fifteen rounds a minute, a machine-gun 600, and an artillery piece, discharging shrapnel shell filled with steel ball, twenty rounds. While the infantry remained under cover, the effect of much of this fire was wasted; but when they rose to advance in attack, it might destroy a battalion of a thousand men in a few minutes. Such indeed was the experience of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment on 1 July 1916, when many others suffered almost equal loss. Moreover, flight from such a torrent of fire offered no escape, since the fugitive had a killing-zone hundreds of yards deep to cover before he could return to the protection of the trenches. Fire thus pinned him to the ground where, if he had been wounded, he might all too often lie untended until he succumbed.

All efforts by the high commands of the First World War to overcome the stalemate that firepower imposed on the fighting-fronts by the application of indirect methods elsewhere proved unavailing. The action of fleets, in particular, returned poor rewards for the enormous sums that had been expended to build them, in the sixty years which had elapsed since the supersession of the wooden by the iron ship. Wooden fleets had, as we have seen, proved extraordinarily successful instruments of European gunpowder technology in both home and distant waters. With them the European maritime states had brought their power to bear against remote peoples who, even if they had acquired access to gunpowder weapons, were culturally quite unfitted to confront their warriors on face-to-face terms.

On the European seas the successful naval nations, above all Britain, not only had managed to establish long-term dominance over trade routes and critical operational zones but had also mastered the techniques of supplying effective support to their armies on land, notably through blockade and logistic supply. It was with such objects in view that Germany had challenged Britain to the great Dreadnought building race in the first decade of the twentieth century, a competition which equipped their fleets with dozens of battleships (Britain 28 Dreadnoughts in 1914, Germany 18) capable of destroying each other at ranges of twenty miles. The German naval staff’s hope was to catch the British fleet at a disadvantage in the North Sea, inflict crippling losses and so win the freedom to break out to the Atlantic trade routes and raid British commerce to destruction. Its efforts to do so, notably at the Battle of Jutland (May 1916), failed and it was thereafter narrowly confined to its own bases. It had a greater success with its own counter-blockade of Britain by its rapidly expanded U-boat fleet, which adopted a policy of sinking without warning in 1917, but that was eventually curtailed when the Admiralty reverted to the eighteenth-century practice of sailing merchant ships in convoy under warship escort.

Britain’s attempt to revive its traditional amphibious strategy, by which expeditionary forces were lodged and supplied by the navy at vulnerable points on its adversary’s maritime periphery, encountered a severe reverse at the only place it was attempted, Gallipoli, in Turkey (April 1915). The Turkish defenders, recent allies to Germany, displayed all the bravery that had made them so feared by Christian Europe 300 years earlier and also demonstrated that they had made themselves masters of the new firepower technology. At Gallipoli local firepower ashore defeated strategic power at sea.

Eventually strategic sea power helped to affect the great firepower struggle between the Allies and Germany on the Western Front in France, chiefly by assuring the safe passage across the Atlantic of a fresh American army, which in 1918 began to arrive in sufficient numbers to lend new heart to the demoralised French and gravely shaken British. Its arrival consonantly disheartened the Germans, whose five ‘war-winning’ offensives of the spring and summer had each broken on defensive lines hastily improvised to contain their advance. In October 1918 they at last began to reveal the signs of war-weariness that had overtaken the French, Russians, Italians and even the British in the previous year. All their infantry formations had, like those of their enemies, replaced their original manpower twice, sometimes three times over, and despite victory over Russia on the Eastern Front, a string of successes on other fronts, and the nearness with which they had threatened the western powers with defeat, they flinched from further and what appeared increasingly pointless sacrifice. In November the German high command, confronted by incontrovertible evidence that they had tried their soldiers too hard, treated for an armistice.

The truth was that all the combatant states had tried their soldiers too hard. The ordeal had been as much self-inflicted as imposed. The populations that had embraced the outbreak of 1914 with such enthusiasm had despatched their young men to the battlefronts in the belief that they would win not only victories but glory, and that their return with laurels would justify all the trust they had invested in the culture of universal service and commitment to warriordom. The war exploded that illusion. ‘Every man a soldier’, the philosophy which underlay conscription politics, rested on a fundamental misunderstanding of the potentiality of human nature.

Warrior peoples might have made every man a soldier, but they had taken care to fight only on terms that avoided direct or sustained conflict with the enemy, admitted disengagement and retreat as permissible and reasonable responses to determined resistance, made no fetish of hopeless courage, and took careful material measure of the utility of violence. The Greeks had shown a bolder front; but, while inventing the institution of face-to-face battle, they had not pushed their ethic of warmaking to the point of demanding Clausewitzian overthrow as its necessary outcome. Their European descendants had limited the objects of their warmaking also, the Romans to that of consolidating but then chiefly assuring a defensible frontier for their civilisation — quintessentially the Chinese military philosophy also — while the Romans’ successors had fought, incessantly though they did, chiefly for enjoyment of rights within quite closely circumscribed territories. In a different form, battles for rights had also characterised the wars of states in the gunpowder age. Though their struggles had been exacerbated by the religious differences expressed in the Reformation, the Protestants had acted rather to challenge pre-existing rights than to throw down new ones. In none of these contests, moreover, had the combatants yielded to the delusion that the whole male population must be mobilised to prosecute the quarrel. Even had that been materially possible, which the labour-intensiveness of agriculture, to say nothing of fiscal incapacity, disallowed, no pre-1789 society considered soldiering a calling for any but the few. War was rightly seen as too brutal a business for any except those bred to it by social position or driven to enlist by lack of any social position whatsoever; mercenaries and regulars alike, poor, jobless, often criminally outcast, were judged fitted for war because peaceful life offered them nothing but equivalent hardship.

The exclusion of the industrious, the skilled, the learned and the modestly propertied from military service reflected a sensible appreciation of how war’s nature bore on human nature. Its harshnesses were not to be sustained by men of comfortable, regular and productive habits. In its frenzy to equalise, the French Revolution roughly set that perception aside, by seeking to confer on the majority what hitherto had been the privilege of a minority — the title to full legal freedom represented by the aristocrat’s warrior status. The Revolution was not wholly wrong to do so. Many respectable men whose fathers would have shrunk from military service proved to make excellent soldiers, in both the lower and higher ranks: Murat, most dashing of Napoleon’s marshals, had studied for the priesthood, Bessières had been a medical student, Brune a newspaper editor.53 It is true that seminarian and newspaper editor were also the respective backgrounds of Stalin and Mussolini, but they were men of savage temperament in a later age. In their time, Murat, Bessières and Brune passed for respectable bourgeois, and it merely chanced that their temperaments fitted them for the discipline and danger of military life. Even in Napoleon’s army they stood as exceptions. A hundred years later they would not have done so. The armies of the First World War were composed from bottom to very near the top by representatives of every station and calling in society, and many of those who were spared death or wounds served for two or three or even four years with uncomplaining fortitude. But 200 or 300 per cent casualties among the infantry, the passing of the level of 1,000,000 deaths, will suffice to shatter the spirit of a nation. By November 1918 France had lost 1,700,000 young men from a population of 40,000,000, Italy 600,000 from a population of 36,000,000, the British empire 1,000,000, of whom 700,000 were from the 50,000,000 people of the British Isles.

Germany’s persistence to the very end, despite the loss of more than 2,000,000 from a pre-war population of 70,000,000, is all the more remarkable. It paid the emotional price, though in a different coin from that which circulated in the victorious nations. There the cost was reckoned too high ever to be borne again. ‘I am beginning to rub my eyes at the prospect of peace,’ wrote Cynthia Asquith, wife of a former British prime minister in October 1918. ‘I think it will require more courage than anything that has gone before … one will at last fully recognise that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war.’54 Of course, November 1918 brought an end for millions of families to four years of apprehension that a post-office boy at the door might be carrying the death telegram, but her sentiment was correct. The casualty lists had left gaps in almost every family circle and the agony of loss persisted for as long as those who felt it themselves survived. Even today the ‘In Memoriam’ columns of British newspapers carry remembrances of fathers or brothers who died in the trenches or no man’s land nearly eighty years ago. Psychic wounds of such depth are not healed with the first dulling of memory. They fester in the collective consciousness, and the national consciousness of the British and French, in the aftermath of 1918, rebelled at the thought of a repetition of suffering.

France sought literally to wall itself off from a renewal of the trench agony by building a simulation of the trench system in concrete along its frontier with Germany, the Maginot Line, which was as costly in its first phase (3,000,000,000 francs) as that of Britain’s Dreadnought building programme of 1906–13; like an enormous landlocked fleet of battleships, it was intended to prevent an offensive by any future German army — for Germany had effectively been deprived of an army under the terms of the peace — from ever setting foot again on French territory.55 The British reacted from the prospect of another great war with the same revulsion as the French, though without their realism. In 1919, at the prompting of Winston Churchill, a former First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State both for War and Air, it adopted the ruling that, ‘for the purpose of framing the [defence] estimates, [it should be assumed] that at any given date there will be no major war for ten years’ and this ‘ten-year rule’ was renewed year-on-year until 1932; even thereafter, despite the accession to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler in 1933, resolved to reverse the outcome of the First World War, Britain undertook no substantive measures of rearmament until 1937.56 Hitler had meanwhile reintroduced universal conscription and set about recreating once more a warrior culture among a new generation of German youth.

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