Military history

Chapter 5

The Future of Battle

The Moving Battlefield

THE SOMME BRINGS the story of the development of battle as a human experience and human ordeal into our own times – those of industrial economies, mass electorates and conscript armies. This is true even though the Somme may seem, to a late twentieth-century way of thinking, an old fashioned battle – more of a part with, say, Gettysburg than with Kursk or Alamein or the Ardennes or Sinai – and this chiefly because of the absence from the field of any ‘fighting vehicle’ and from the skies above it of ground attack aircraft But to dwell on the significance of these missing ingredients is to adopt a narrowly western point of view. For though it is certainly true that the great battles of the Second World War in France and the Desert were characterized by the employment of tanks and aircraft in abundance, and in high proportion to the number of accompanying infantrymen – those ‘naked soldiers’ of the Somme and Waterloo whom we have seen standing and dying on the open battlefield – the fighting elsewhere was, for the great majority of combatants and for much of the time, as earthbound, snailpaced and softskinned a business as it had been for the two hundred preceding years. The battles in the Pacific Islands and Burma were fought almost wholly without benefit of armour – beneath the jungle canopy almost without intervention by aircraft; the long campaign of Italy was fought by the Germans without aircover and with few tanks; the great opening battles in Russia were conducted, except in the centre of the front, by vast infantry armies; and, despite interruptions like Kursk, the campaign remained until the last year, when the Russians had assembled their great tank armies, a war of shoe leather and horseflesh – to be eaten when times were hard (men boiled their belts at Stalingrad), otherwise to be flogged across the endless acres of the steppe, now eastward, now westward as the fortune of war directed. Stalingrad, in a sense the battle of the war, wryly nicknamed ‘Verdun on the Volga’, was almost exclusively a battle between infantrymen (pinned beneath the ruins of the city by their competing artilleries), for the tanks which had carried the German advance thither proved useless within Stalingrad itself, while the tank columns with which the Russians eventually encircled their German attackers were unleashed far beyond the city’s outskirts.

It is startling, moreover, when one dissects any of the great tank battles themselves, to discover how little of the fighting took the form of the tank versus tank combat commonly thought typical of that particular sort of event. The critical phase of the battle of Kursk, July 11th-13th, did see enormous armadas of tanks locked in close-range combat within a comparatively confined arena, which was almost devoid of supporting infantry. In the final stage of the Goodwood offensive east of Caen, the British tanks which arrived at the foot of Borguebus Ridge, there to be destroyed by the heavier guns of the I SS Panzer Corps, had far outstripped their accompanying infantry by the speed of their advance; and time and again in the Desert the Germans forced the British to throw their fragile Crusaders and Stuarts, unsupported by infantry escorts, on to the muzzles of their 88mm anti-tank guns (using their own not very superior Panzer Mark IIIs to bait the trap). Indeed, examples of heavy, important, even decisive tank versus tank engagements can be multiplied: the Avranches counter-attack, the Moscow winter offensive of 1942, the fighting in the Kiev salient in the winter of 1943, and so on down a very long list. But because of the composition of the forces engaged, most of the fighting between armoured divisions was, in practice, fighting not between tanks and tanks but between infantry and infantry; and the longer the war endured, the more was this the case.

This sounds paradoxical; but the paradox is simply resolved by a glance at the types of sub-units going to make up an armoured division. Some of these sub-units were, of course, tank regiments; but others were artillery and engineer regiments, and some were always infantry battalions. It was a wartime fashion to call these battalions ‘armoured infantry’ (Panzergrenadiere in the German army), appropriately enough when they were provided, as were the first Panzergrenadiere, with lightly-armoured half-tracks in which to move around the battlefield. But few armies – the Russian never, the British rarely – found themselves able to fit out the infantry battalions of their armoured divisions with such expensive and specialized equipment; all, moreover, as the war progressed, and the vulnerability of tanks to infantry anti-tank weapons emphasized itself, felt obliged to increase the proportion of infantry to tanks within their tank formations. Thus the Germans, whose early panzer divisions contained four tank regiments – and over five hundred tanks – as against three infantry battalions, had by the end of the war reversed the proportions, so that four infantry battalions supported two tank regiments (with less than a hundred and fifty tanks). This reversal was in part forced on them by their inability to produce tanks at the same rate as their enemies – the same failure which prevented them from providing more than one in four of theirPanzergrenadier battalions with armoured transport – but, though exaggerated in their case, the same trend was detectable in the organizations of the more affluent armies over the same period. The British, who had begun the war with an armoured division containing six tank regiments to a single infantry battalion, ended it with the same division having five infantry battalions to four tank regiments; the Americans, though they kept the number of infantry battalions in their armoured divisions at three throughout the war, progressively reduced the number of tank regiments in it from eight to six and finally to three also.

A Second World War armoured division in action, therefore, little resembled the fast-moving fleet of land ironclads, wheeling and shooting in unison, of which the visionaries of blitzkrieg had dreamed. Occasionally, of course, as during Rommel’s dash from the Meuse to Arras in 1940 or in the British XXX Corps’ advance from the Seine to Brussels in 1944, a tank offensive could take on the character of a sea-chase. But whenever tanks encountered tanks in large numbers, their speed slowed inevitably to a walking pace, punctuated by long spells of immobility, and their operations, losing the simplicity of ship-to-ship actions, became heavily intermingled with confused infantry combats of a kind little different from those which soldiers of the First World War had experienced in many of the great offensives. For ‘armoured infantry’, Panzergrenadiere, motor riflemen, as the Americans, Germans and British respectively entitled the infantry of their tank formations, though they might drive in their vehicles to wherever it was that their commanders wished them to fight, always – if only out of simple prudence, for their carriers made prime targets – dismounted at a safe distance from the enemy before moving to close with him. Once on the ground, they became as vulnerable to fire of every sort as any other infantrymen at any other time or place. General von Mellenthin’s description of a Russian tank formation’s attack on the positions of the 19th Panzer Division on the Dnieper in October 1943 very clearly brings this out:

[During] the artillery bombardment … no movement was possible, for 290 guns of all calibres were pounding a thousand yards of front … [They] reached as far back as divisional battle headquarters, and the two divisions holding the corps front were shelled with such intensity that it was impossible to gauge the Schwerpunkt …. After two hours’ bombardment our trench system looked like a freshly ploughed field, and, in spite of being carefully dug in, many of our heavy weapons and anti-tank guns had been knocked out.

Suddenly Russian infantry in solid serried ranks attacked behind a barrage on a narrow front, with tanks in support, and one wave following the other. Numerous low-flying planes attacked those strong-points which were still firing. A Russian infantry attack is an awe-inspiring spectacle; the long grey waves come pounding on, uttering fierce cries, and the defending troops require nerves of steel.1 In dealing with such attacks fire-discipline is of vital importance.

The Russian onslaught made some headway but during the afternoon the armoured assault troops, whom we were keeping in reserve, were able to wipe out those Russians who had penetrated the defence system. We only lost a mile or so of ground.

The interest of this passage lies at several levels. Like the work of many professional soldiers, it is written, whether deliberately or unconsciously is difficult to judge, in a sort of secret language: ‘fire discipline is of vital importance,’ the key sentence, means, though the meaning might be lost on the average civilian reader, that the German infantry had to hold the fire of their weapons until the Russians were very – terrifyingly – close to the holes in which they were lying, and then fire in sustained, simultaneous and well-aimed bursts, to kill as many of the enemy as was possible before, they, too, found the shelter of earth and caught their breath and their courage. To fire too late – not in any case the natural reaction, indeed its very opposite – would have been to be killed themselves; to fire too soon would have been to drive the Russians too quickly to cover, sparing many and leaving them with their will to advance unshaken, while calling down on the German positions a further helping of the terrible preparatory bombardment which they had undergone in the two preceding hours.

But at another level the interest is historical and literary: it lies in the similarity between the action portrayed and that so familiar to soldiers of the trench-garrisons of the First World War. Indeed, in almost every respect, this is a First World War battle that von Mellenthin is describing, the presence of the tanks and planes being almost irrelevant and the titles of the units – panzer regiments, motor rifle divisions – completely so. The predicament of the soldiers, whether attacking or defending, is exactly that of their predecessors of 1914 – 18 in similar circumstances, and their fate identical. ‘We lost only a mile or so of ground’, a great deal of territory to have surrended, admittedly, on the Western Front in 1916, say, but quite within the bounds of concurrent normal experience on the Eastern, is a sentence which buries a lot of soldiers in a narrative of either war.

But if many battles of the Second World War resemble, at the level of human experience, those of the First, what then was the function and achievement of all those thousands of tanks – about a quarter of a million were built in the Second World War as against less than ten thousand in the First – which ranged the battlefields of 1939-45: Shermans, T-34S, Churchills, Tigers, Panthers, Mark IV Panzers, Cromwells, Matildas, Valentines, Stuarts, Grants, J.S.IIIs, growling and clanking and rumbling across desert, steppe, pasture, tarmac, snowfield, floodplain? This is a complex question. It is best tackled by recognizing that ‘function’ and ‘achievement’ can, in this context, be quite different things, and indeed in practice were so. Most of the tanks catalogued above had a narrowly specialized function. The Churchill, for example, like the Matilda and the Valentine, was an ‘infantry’ tank, descending directly from the trench-crossing, wire-crushing Mother of the First World War, and designed like it to destroy by fire or intimidation the resistance of enemy infantry in strong points. The Tiger on the other hand, was, in the last resort, an anti-tank tank, the Super-Dreadnought of the armoured battlefield, able to outgun any opponent and to absorb or deflect its riposte. But in either case, the achievements of tanks of such specialized function could be only limited and local. The Churchill could ‘fight infantry through’ a thick belt of wire and pillboxes, thus forcing forward an advance which without its assistance would have been stopped or repulsed. The Tiger, if at hand when the Churchill appeared, could destroy it and ‘restore the front’. But neither could do either of these things at much faster than at walking pace or over any distance, their enormous weight robbing them of speed and causing them so rapidly to wear out their tracks that, like modern pieces of earth-moving machinery, they had to be carried from place to place on specially-constructed and quite unwarlike transporters.

The Sherman, however, or the T-34 or the Panzer Mark III, though none of them a match in gunpower or armour for the specialized heavies, could, at rare moments of opportunity, transform the character of a whole campaign. They could not do it often, nor could they do it to order, for it required the concurrence of conditions and circumstances beyond the mere concentration of a superiority of armour. But when this transformation occurred, the focus of fighting could be shifted a hundred miles in a week – as it was in France in May 1940, or in Poland in June 1944 – and the routines of the contending armies turned topsy-turvy. How this transformation was achieved was not a function of the tanks’ speed, nor of their capacity to overcome the resistance of the enemy lying in their path. For tanks which merely break through the enemy lines and motor off into the distance have a short life-expectancy. Mechanical breakdowns, to which tanks are preternaturally prone, will quickly thin their numbers, and exhaustion of fuel, of which they carry enough for only a few hours’ driving, will shortly thereafter bring the remainder to a halt. The ‘armoured breakthrough’, about which all commanders have, since September 1939, dreamt – or had nightmares – requires therefore considerable preparation.

A great deal will be purely administrative: the concentration of troops, weapons and supplies at the point chosen for the attempt at breakthrough. Such administrative preparation is essential; some strategic commentators regard it indeed as the be-all and end-all of generalship. But preparation has, in the military context, another and more important sense, as in ‘preparatory bombardment’. Here it means something different: to inflict such damage on the enemy as will prepare him – ‘set him up’ – for the blow, designed to do him the real injury, which is to follow. This is the sort of preparation which is crucial to an armoured breakthrough. Very occasionally it can be avoided or dispensed with, either because the antecedents of the attack are so cloaked in surprise – as they were before the Ardennes offensive of December 1944 – or because the army which is to receive it is so unfamiliar with the potentiality of armoured forces – as was the French on the Meuse in May 1940 – that the victim’s powers of resistance are numbed by the shock of the main attack itself. But circumstances like these occur very rarely, normally only at the beginning of a war or else on a front long ‘quiet’. Very much more often, the defender’s powers of resistance must be worn down by a protracted process of combat – ‘attrition’ is the word we would use today – before a general will judge it safe to release his armour for the breakthrough.

Attrition, however, is too painful a process for an enemy to submit to it willingly. Sometimes, like the Wehrmacht in Normandy in 1944, he must submit willy-nilly; and then the battle he fights will follow the prescribed stages of ‘fixing’, ‘attrition’ and ‘breakthrough’. But if he is given warning or has space at his disposal, he will behave differently: given warning, he will dig, wire and mine himself in – as did the Russians at Kursk – so securely that the attacker’s effort at attrition will exhaust only the attacker’s strength; given space, he will – like Manstein in his Kharkov counterstroke of February 1943 – break contact at the first sign of an attack and withdraw, so ‘opening up’ the battle and making it ‘fluid’, forcing the enemy to fight on ground unfamiliar to him – but well-known to the defender – and on terms and to a timetable which the defender, not he, dictates. If the attacker is to achieve his breakthrough, therefore, the enemy must be made to ‘stand’: to fight resolutely, that is, on the ground on which he is attacked, replacing the troops progressively consumed in its defence with others from his reserve until he has no more to feed forward. If then the attacker, by better husbandry, still retains a surplus, and if that surplus contains a sizeable armoured element, he is in a position to achieve armoured breakthrough.

Yet breakthrough will not follow of its own accord, nor even by the tanks making ground on the far side of any gap they open in the enemy’s lines. More is necessary than that: the tanks must get the army to follow them. But an army’s readiness to advance when the opportunity offers is by no means automatic and spontaneous. There is, indeed, a very powerful resistance to movement in all modern armies, which is partly material and partly psychological in character, and so strong that it may even be compared in its effect to that offered by the enemy. The psychological resistance is perhaps the easier to understand. For though shelter, warmth, recreation, variety of diet are things taken for granted at one’s fireside, we know that they are hard to come by on campaign, and may guess that, when found, will be valued all the more highly for that reason and surrendered reluctantly. A good billet, a quiet area, a better hole are, indeed, for all but the most exceptional spirit, what every veteran soldier seeks and his readiness to make of them a temporary substitute for home is something against which a thrusting commander must struggle hard if he is to keep his campaign alive. Even a half-good billet, a downright awful hole, will tempt the soldier to bide. How strong the temptation is was brought home to me when, while studying a large-scale trench map of the Western Front, I asked my father if his battery of 6-inch guns had not been positioned in the area it covered. He agreed that it was and at once began to point out on it, with that faculty of total topographical recall – undimmed by fifty years’ absence – apparently possessed by all survivors of the First World War, its salient features. Here was the orchard where the battery had had its fighting post and there ran the gun lines; but, and clearly more important to him, here was the lock on the canal in which they had swum on fine afternoons, here the field in which they had played football, that was the farmhouse where the family Courvisier had cooked them omelettes (they had a son away at the war and a soft spot for soldiers, particularly if they spoke a little French), there was the Calvary under which he had waited in the evenings for his elder brother to walk over from a neighbouring battery with scraps of news from home, listening in the dangerous darkness for the ring of his spurs along the pavé. It was obvious that this square mile of Picardy, for all its devastation and terror, had come to have for him in the few months he spent there something of the familiarity, even the security, of the rural Staffordshire in which he had grown up. And it was not only he who found his Staffordshire in France; all over the Zone des Armées – this indeed is the point of Mottram’s Spanish Farm – there were individuals, groups of friends, whole units shutting out what they could of the war, making their little temporary worlds, resisting change, putting down roots.

Yet the strongest roots which the British or any modern army puts down were and are material. Its face was towards the enemy which stood in its path. But holding it down on to, even dragging it back along that path, was a densely-woven net of what staff officers call rear links – to divisional dumps, water-points, telephone exchanges, railheads, ammunition parks, ordnance depots – whose function was to extend the reach of the army but whose effect, centripetal rather than centrifugal, was to attract it backwards towards its own base. These links were in theory elastic, but they were to prove notably rigid whenever the strain of an advance was thrown upon them, while the points to which they were anchored – corps and army bases, field parks, headquarters, forage and shell dumps, hospitals – were virtually immoveable; it would take months of peace, in 1918 – 19, to prise them loose from the subsoil. The armies of the Second World War, which were organized for movement, proved less immobile in an emergency; but, despite the fleetfooted appearance which their flotillas of trucks lent them, they were effectively equipped only for short-range journeying. Asked to advance any distance at speed, they would demand the use of railways, which the enemy – or friendly partisans or their own air forces would assuredly have just finished destroying.

The free use of railways guarantees, in any case, no certain rapidity of movement, as the snail-like pace of the French army’s advance from its railheads into Lorraine in August 1914, demonstrates. Something much more than mere means of transport – though transport is even more vital than a burning belief in the power of the offensive (and that was very strong in the French army of 1914) – is necessary if an army is to be impelled into rapid forward motion. The army needs a vision, a dream, a nightmare, or some mixture of the three if it is to be electrified into a headlong advance. In 1914 the German army, footing itself twenty miles southward day after day, was possessed by a vision – total victory in six weeks, the overthrow of the French army, entry into la ville lumière, the triumphal defile down the Champs Elysées. But visions like these present themselves rarely and, however hard a general may try to conjure them into being, usually defy his artifices. Or, to put it more accurately in the past tense, usually defied; for it is possible to argue that while the mechanization of armies has produced a revolution in warfare, the real consequence, its effective potential for change, is not material but psychological; that tanks, in short, should be thought of not so much as weapons but as theatrical devices, dei ex machina, by the manoeuvring of which a general is enabled so to manipulate the emotions, so to stimulate the responses of his army that its resistance to movement is overcome, its tendency to self-protection transcended and its normal rhythm of campaigning shattered by the imposition of a higher object than that of holding one’s ground, driving the enemy off one’s front or even registering an incontestable victory. That higher object is the rescue of comrades in danger.

It is an object which the use of parachute troops allows a general to impose in an even more imperative form. In the Arnhem operation, for example, Montgomery was able to use the predicament of the 6th Airborne Division, which had been air-landed deep within enemy-held territory, as a spur to the advance of the Guards Armoured Division, and the exposure of the Guards’ tanks on the via dolorosa northward from the Allies’ lines as a prod to the rest of XXX Corps’ infantry trailing behind. The French, in operations like Lorraine in northern Indo-China, where they parachuted battalions into the heart of the Vietminh fastness and challenged their road-bound columns to reach them, elevated this technique to the level of a strategic principle. But it is too risky a technique, as the outcome of Arnhem established, to be employed often. The armoured thrust, on the other hand, offers a general the chance both to titillate his soldiers’ sense of solidarity with comrades at risk and to control the degree of risk to which they are exposed. It is possible to miscalculate, of course, as did Rommel in the Crusader battle in November 1941, and then the armoured thrust must withdraw if it is not to wither where it comes to rest. But if its reach is calculated right, as it was by Hitler in May 1940, or by Hoth and Guderian in the Russian summer of 1941, the infantry, haunted by the nightmare of leaving the tank crews to die alone, will struggle forward somehow across the chasm that yawns between their line of departure and the tanks’ foremost point of advance, a chasm which in other circumstances they would rightly think unbridgeable, and by a week or a fortnight of unreasonable effort, as much moral as physical in the demands it makes on them, transform by their advance the course of a whole campaign.

The Nature of Battle

There is, then, as much psychological trickery to the consummation of a breakthrough as there is material preparation and rational control. Certainly without the working of this moral confidence trick, which plays on the soldiers’ sense of unity with isolated comrades and feeds on the exhilaration cumulatively generated by the dash to their rescue, no breakthrough could be engineered. But there is an anterior and yet more important psychological trick to be played before a breakthrough can occur – one which, as we have seen, has to be pulled off in both armies, the attacking and defending: that of getting their soldiers to stand. For unless soldiers have stood, squared up to each other, exchanged blow for blow and felt the heavier tell, a breakthrough will indeed have no more lasting effect than any other stroke of trickery. Easy victories, between equals, almost never stick. The defeated lick their wounds, nurse their grievances and wait for the odds to even out again. The easiness of Germany’s victories in 1870 goes far to explain the bitterness which the French harboured against her for forty years and the magnitude of the price they exacted in revenge on the battlefields of 1914 – 18. Hitler’s easy victories of June – August 1941 bought him the agonies of Stalingrad, in the same way and for the same reason that Pearl Harbor cost Japan the defeat of Leyte Gulf. And in our own decade we have seen the Arab armies, adamant in their refusal to accept Israel’s lightning victories of 1967 as a fair test of their relative worths, return to the struggle and insist on repeating the trial. It is for this reason that it is possible to say that the tank, though it has transformed the pace and appearance of modern campaigning, has not changed the nature of battle. The focus of fighting may be shifted twenty miles in a single day by an armoured thrust but wherever it comes to rest there must take place exactly the same sort of struggle between man and man which battle-fields have seen since armies came into being

Battle, therefore – and this is not an idea which must be pushed to extremes, as it was by Foch and the ‘offensive school’ of French strategists before the First World War – is essentially a moral conflict. It requires, if it is to take place, a mutual and sustained act of will by two contending parties and, if it is to result in a decision, the moral collapse of one of them. How protracted that act of will must be, and how complete that moral collapse, is not something about which one can be specific. In an ‘ideal’ battle the act would be sustained long enough for the collapse to be total; and, in practice, that ideal situation was almost perfectly realized at Waterloo. But although one would like to say that ‘a battle is something which happens between two armies leading to the moral and then physical disintegration of one or the other of them’ – and this is as near to a working definition of what a battle is that one is likely to get – few battles see both armies making so sustained and complete a moral commitment or either coming to so final an end. Armies may indeed commit themselves fervently to the cause of bringing about the other’s disintegration and utterly fail to achieve it, despite appalling human loss – as happened on the Somme. Armies again may step quite lightheartedly on to the battlefield and suffer there a shattering moral catastrophe – as overtook the French at Agincourt. But the result – negative or ‘wrong’ in such less than ‘ideal’ cases – does not mean that these encounters escape from the definition of what a battle is or, contrarily, vitiate it. Some of the moral effects which a stalemate or a misfired battle have on some of its survivors will be identical to those felt by victors or vanquished in a battle which meets the definition exactly. They, having found, from whatever source (and that is a very complicated matter), the moral resolution to stand, will inwardly have enjoyed their reward or paid the penalty.

When Sir Herbert Butterfield proposes in Man on his Past, therefore, that ‘every battle in world history may be different from every other battle, but they must have something in common if we can group them under the term “battle” at all,’ without mooting what that thing in common may be, we are now in a position to submit a suggestion. It is not something ‘strategic’, nor ‘tactical’, nor material, nor technical. It is not something any quantity of coloured maps will reveal, or any collection of comparative statistics of strengths and casualties, or even any set of parallel readings from the military classics, though the classics brilliantly illuminate our understanding of battle once we have arrived at it. What battles have in common is human: the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them. The study of battle is therefore always a study of fear and usually of courage; always of leadership, usually of obedience; always of compulsion, sometimes of insubordination; always of anxiety, sometimes of elation or catharsis; always of uncertainty and doubt, misinformation and misapprehension, usually also of faith and sometimes of vision; always of violence, sometimes also of cruelty, self-sacrifice, compassion; above all, it is always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration – for it is towards the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed. It is necessarily a social and psychological study. But it is not a study only for the sociologist or the psychologist, and indeed ought not perhaps to be properly a study for either. For the human group in battle, and the quality and source of the stress it undergoes, are drained of life and meaning by the laboratory approach which social scientists practise. Battles belong to finite moments in history, to the societies which raise the armies which fight them, to the economies and technologies which those societies sustain. Battle is a historical subject, whose nature and trend of development can only be understood down a long historical perspective.

The Trend of Battle

What is the trend of battle’s development? This is too large a question to be tackled without some refinement and, even though I began with the idea of looking only at battles fought inside the same climatic and geographical zone – North-West Europe – between ethnic in-groups – white Europeans2 – and within a framework of the same value-system – Western Christianity – I am not sure that such limitations refine it as much as it needs to be. So many other factors besides climate, terrain and ethos intrude, most obvious among which are those of technology and economics. Luckily, however, if we are looking at battle as a situation which encompasses the individual and his group, within a given timespan and a circumscribed locality, most may be excluded. For though the rise of industry has enormously enhanced the power which states can deploy against each other in war, and the improvement in weapons has almost infinitely extended the range of a general’s reach, the predicament of the individual on the battlefield has, at whatever moment we choose to examine, still to be measured on one quite short scale: that of the physical and mental endurance of himself and his group. Men can stand only so much of anything (and dead men are dead whether killed by arrow or high-explosive), so that what needs to be established for our purposes is not the factor by which the mechanization of battle has multiplied the cost of waging war to the states involved but the degree to which it has increased the strain thrown on the human participants.

How do we mark off the degrees on the scale we want to draw? The world of mountaineering offers us a useful analogy. Mountains, like battlefields, are places inherently dangerous for the individual to inhabit. It is less easy to get killed, of course, on a mountain, if one takes sensible precautions, than on a battlefield, yet the risk of death always stalks the climber, just as it attracts him to the mountain in the first place, and numbers of climbers are killed on every major range every year. But the degree of danger to which the climber is exposed varies between quite wide limits, determined by the height of the summit to which he aspires, the steepness and inaccessibility of the face (‘exposure’ is the technical term) up which he chooses to make his ascent, the severity and predictability of weather conditions the face attracts, and the stability of the material of which it is composed. The higher the summit, at least in Alpine climbing, the colder the ascent, and the longer too, which adds fatigue to the dangers; the more unpredictable the weather, the higher the risk of being trapped on the face; the sharper its gradient and the more unstable its composition, the greater the ‘objective dangers’ – avalanche, ice-splinters, falling stones. Falling stones, sometimes – significantly – called ‘mountain artillery’ by German climbers, are perhaps the most lethal of all mountaineering’s hazards, because they materialize with the least warning and are caused by factors least subject to the climber’s control.

At the beginning of this century, when climbers began to travel widely in search of new climbs, an attempt was made to collate the difficulties each offered so that a stranger would know whether or not it was within his capabilities. And though the British, the French, the Swiss and the Italians each produced a different system of classification for their own mountains, the systems roughly agreed in recognizing six grades of severity from ‘easy’ to ‘extremely difficult’. Warning that a face was at the upper end of the scale was usually enough to deter beginners from tackling it while most climbers were content to confine themselves to those in the middle band.

The systems thus achieved their purpose. But just before the outbreak of the Second World War, a new spirit took hold of top-class European climbers which made the classification of the most spectacular climbs thenceforth attempted and achieved more and more difficult. The spirit was that of ‘extreme’ climbing – climbing to ‘the limits of what is physically and psychologically possible’ – by ‘artificial’ methods: the use of metal pegs, hammered into the rock, on faces where no ‘natural’ hand- or foot-holds can be found. These methods stimulated a violent hostility among the traditional Alpinists who had developed a Romanticist philosophy of mountaineering which laid stress on its spiritual value to man through the harmony it engendered between him and nature, leading them to describe the extremists’ feats as ‘perversions’, ‘degradations’ and ‘evil demonstrations’. And the outcome of the best-publicized of the early essays in extreme technique, the 1935 and 1936 attempts on the ‘unclimbable’ North Face of the Eiger which killed all six of those who set foot on it, lent force to their disapproval by suggesting that there were indeed affronts which the spirit of the mountains was not prepared to tolerate.

In 1938, however, the North Face was conquered by extreme technique and since the war has been climbed again and again. By the nineteen-sixties the mere ascent was commonplace. Additional hazards were sought to add spice and sensation to that climb and to others: climbing in the depth of winter, or climbing ‘direct’ (‘superdirettisima’) up the line which ‘a drop of water would follow if it fell directly from the summit’, finally climbing both ‘direct’ and in winter, at first on lesser peaks like the Cima Grande in the Dolomites, ultimately on the Eiger itself. But by the time this stage had been reached the classical grading systems had lost most of their meaning. Much of the climbing was of standard five or six; but the technical difficulties paled beside the objective dangers – the volleys of stones travelling at killing speeds down the face, the showers of ice-splinters, the avalanches, the lightning strikes, to which the ‘extreme’ climber, hung about with the ironware of his fad, actually acted as a point of attraction – while the ‘objective dangers’ were themselves overshadowed by what we may call – though it is not a term mountaineers use – the ‘subjective dangers’. For several days on the big faces, and several days was what superdirettisima demanded, drove men to the end of their physical resources, and with their strength went their will and their courage, upon which everything else in extreme climbing depends. Climbing, always a test of nerve and of physical skill, had been transformed by the mania of the extremists, who were now using electric drills, expanding bolts and what looks to the ignorant suspiciously like pieces of scaffolding in their search for more and more ‘direct’ lines, into a battle of attrition in which will-power and endurance were paramount. And the casualties which they suffered bore comparison with those inflicted in attritional warfare: of the first seventy climbers who attempted the Eigerwand between 1935 and 1958, seventeen were killed on it, either by falling or from exposure. These figures provide material for an arresting comparison. Two of these, Hinterstoisser, after whom one of the most difficult traverses on the face is called, and Kurz, whose heroism in death has become one of the legends of Alpine climbing, were, as it happens, both taking leave from the German army to tackle the climb. Their regiment, the 100th Gebirgsjäger, was that subsequently chosen, during the airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941, to crashland on to the runway at Maleme airport under the guns of the defending New Zealanders – perhaps the single most reckless operation of the war, though the one which turned the battle from a disaster to a victory for the Germans – and in doing so suffered about 150 casualties out of a strength of 800 – an 18 per cent ratio, contrasted with 24 per cent for the first thirteen Eiger attempts. Thus an operation of war of the most ‘extreme’ kind was actually proved slightlyless dangerous to the unit involved than the chosen diversion of its bravest spirits.

If, then, we are asking the question, ‘Has mountaineering got more dangerous over the past century?’ the answer is, ‘As practised at the top of the league, yes.’ What had begun as a one-day event, a scramble up the easiest route to the top of any mountain which took the fancy of a group of friends, either because of its prominence or its promise of a prospect, a day to be enjoyed for the pleasure it brought in exercising one’s agility, testing one’s nerve, practising team spirit and enjoying God’s great outdoors, has become in our own time a sort of military operation, in which sport imitates war, and war of the dreariest, deadliest, most long drawn-out sort. Indeed the hard men of the ‘Winter Eiger Direct’, crouched shivering day after day in their tiny, filthy, smelly snow holes, hacked with infinite labour out of the face, depressed by the death of comrades, short of food, and expecting from moment to moment to be swept out of existence by the explosion of an avalanche, recall none so vividly as the soldiers of Paulus’s Sixth Army, freezing to death in identical snow-holes among the ruins of Stalingrad.

But the question we want to ask, of course, is whether we can put Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme on a comparable scale of severity and say with confidence ‘two’, ‘four’ and ‘six’? Can we grade them for ‘technical difficulty’, ‘exposure’, ‘length’, and ‘objective dangers’? Even if we decide we can, will that lead us to the conclusion that the risk to the individual front-line soldier on the battlefield has been rising throughout the period under review?


One statement can be safely made – is, indeed, a commonplace: battles have been getting longer. Agincourt could have been timed in hours and minutes. And Waterloo, though part of a three-day ordeal, as we have seen, for several regiments, was for others a one-day affair; for that reason it was rated less severe by Wellington than Talavera, which had lasted two days and a night. But fifty years later, Gettysburg, bloodiest of the battles of the American Civil War, endured three days, from mid-morning on the first to late afternoon on the third. And by the beginning of the twentieth century battles between large armies, like that of Liao-yang between the Russians and Japanese in Manchuria, could occupy a fortnight. By the middle of the First World War their span had reached several months: the Somme had an official duration of four and a half months (July 1st – November 18th), Paschendaele of just over three (July 31st – November 10th, 1917), Verdun of ten (February 21st – December 20th, 1916). Indeed were it not for the instance of Stalingrad (August 23rd, 1942 – January 31st, 1943) and Normandy (June 6th – August 25th, 1944) it might even be argued that battles have been getting shorter since 1918. But that argument would probably straggle off into a discussion of what the word ‘battle’ means, it being a perfectly tenable view that much of the fighting of the First and Second World Wars was not ‘battle’ as that concept has generally been understood, but ‘siege’, something much more limited and concrete in its aim and almost always much more protracted in its conduct. If indeed we compare the battles of the First World War with the sieges of Petersburg in the American Civil War, which lasted ten months, or of Sebastopol in the Crimea, which lasted a year, their comparative prolongation looks more apparent than real.

But just as no soldier fought through the entire period of the Somme, neither did his counterpart at Petersburg or Sebastopol spend every day under fire in the trenches; sieges, as Roger Fenton’s or Mathew Brady’s photographs remind us, have their quiet moments. Even the Somme had its quiet moments; and, more important than that, it was run as a battle on a strict system of turn and turn about. The regiments which had made the great attack were almost all withdrawn the following day; most of the German regiments which repelled it were relieved within the week. And so to demonstrate the lengthening of battles is not necessarily to prove a heightening of risk to the individual. Nevertheless, big, protracted battles make insatiable demands on a general’s stock of regiments, often requiring him to use them time and again on the same piece of ground. Sometimes the very intensity of the conflict precludes relief. And some armies are organized in a way that commits the individual to long spells in the line, either without interruption or at best with only the shortest intervals of relief.

The Red Army – and this must be counted one of the most insidious cruelties which the Second World War inflicted on the Russian people – granted no home leave to its soldiers from beginning to end; men remained with their units until killed or disabled, and while they lived many, having mentally abandoned their families, took ‘field wives’ from among their women comrades. Curiously the American army also so ran itself during that war that a man, once assigned to a fighting unit – which it was American policy to keep continuously in the line for long periods, making up losses by individual replacement – could look forward to a release from danger only through death or wounds. A sensation of ‘endlessness’ and ‘hopelessness’ resulted, so depressing and widespread in its effects that it eventually prompted the high command to institute fixed terms of combat duty, of which the controversial ‘Vietnam year’ is the best known consequence.

Even during the most reluctant soldier’s year in Vietnam, however, he could find himself in combat, as at the siege of Khe San, for day after day. The character of the battle itself precluded his relief. Even more so was this the case, say, during the battle of Normandy, whose intensity required that British regiments, which would normally have expected regular breaks in their spells in the line, be left wherever they had been put after landing for week upon week; 3 Commando, a raiding force intended and equipped for the briefest exposure to the enemy, spent two months in the Bois de Bavent on the extreme left flank of the Normandy bridgehead, losing meanwhile most of its officers and over half its men. And in the First World War regiments not uncommonly underwent the worst possible combination of ordeals: that of being relieved from a battle after intense engagement and then sent back until losses had exceeded 100 per cent of the original strength. In this way, at Verdun, the German 3rd Jäger and 87th Infantry each lost, in a few weeks, more than the original number of soldiers with which they had entered the battle.

Objective Dangers

Thus the prolongation of battles, while it may not mean that the modern soldier has to submit to any single spell of combat longer than that which one of Grant’s or Wellington’s men underwent (though in practice it generally does), has certainly heightened the risk to the individual by multiplying the occasions on which battle – the same battle – may summon him to its service. What of the risks he runs on the battlefield when he reaches it, whether for the first, second or third time? This is a complex matter to unravel, because it is entangled with the dimensions of the battlefield, and with the sort of weapons deployed and the degree of protection which the soldier can find on it. Clearly it has always been very dangerous to be in the ‘killing zone’, whether that be two hundred yards wide, as it was at Agincourt, half a mile as at Waterloo, or upwards of five miles as on the Somme. But the widening of the zone, besides enlarging the number of people in hazard, has probably also intensified the danger to its occupants, particularly at the front of the zone (Forward Edge of the Battle Area, FEBA, as Staff College students are taught to call it). We can be fairly certain about this because, though the percentage of casualties suffered in battles as far apart in time as Waterloo and the Somme are of the same order of comparison, the rate at which they were inflicted in time sharply diverged. In the two battles the 1st Battalion, Inniskilling Fusiliers suffered 427 and 568 casualties, out of 698 and 801 soldiers engaged: casualty rates of 61 and 70 per cent respectively. But at Waterloo, as we have seen, the infliction of casualties was spread out over three hours; on the Somme, the losses were probably suffered in the first thirty minutes. The battalions on both occasions were ruined; but the process of ruination occupied only one sixth of the time on the Somme as it had at Waterloo.

Moreover, despite improvements in medical care of the wounded, and even allowing that arrangements for the collection of the wounded broke down on the Somme, it is significant that the proportion of fatal to non-fatal casualties suffered by the battalion in the two battles differed sharply; at Waterloo, 117 soldiers were killed or succumbed to their wounds, on the Somme 245, a fatal casualty rate of 27 and 43 per cent respectively. This, of course, is far too tiny a sample on which to erect any sort of an argument; but it is offered not as evidence in a dubious case but as illustration of something that does not really need demonstration: that the killing power of weapons and the volume of munitions available to feed them has been rising throughout the last two centuries, with predictable results. The longbows of the Agincourt archers, the muskets of the Waterloo infantrymen were very effective agents for the temporary transformation of an airspace of modest dimensions into an atmosphere of high lethality. But ‘modest’ and ‘temporary’ are the important qualifications. By the beginning of the First World War, soldiers possessed the means to maintain a lethal environment over wide areas for sutained periods. Hence the titles of some of the war’s most deeply felt novels, Le Feu (Under Fire) by Henri Barbusse, A Man Could Stand Up by Ford Madox Ford and In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel) by Ernst Jünger, through which each of these soldier-authors sought to convey in a phrase to their readers what it was about the new warfare which made it different from all other warfare men had hitherto experienced: that it marooned them, as it were, on an undiscovered continent, where one layer of the air on which they depended for life was charged with lethal metallic particles, where man in consequence was forced to adopt a subterranean dwelling and an abject posture, where the use of day and night were reversed and where, by a bizarre modification of Erewhonian logic, good health was regarded as a burden, but wounds as a benefaction to be sought and enjoyed. It was as if the arms-manufacturers had succeeded in introducing a new element into the atmosphere, compounded of fire and steel, whose presence rendered battlefields uninhabitable (giving them that eerily empty look which, to an experienced twentieth-century soldier, is a prime indicator that danger lies all about). The introduction of poison gas into warfare (first employed by the Germans at Ypres in 1915) did of course actually bring about a chemical change in the atmosphere of the battlefield; and for a time, which persisted into the nineteen-forties, its deadliness was thought unsurpassable. But subsequent advances in metallurgy and projectile design, accompanied by reductions in the cost and availability of high-explosive, have allowed mechanical killing-agents to overhaul it in lethality once more. Today, a ready abundance of anti-personnel mines (first widely used in the Second World War), claymore mines (giant static shotgun charges), high-fragmentation grenades and shells3 and sub-calibre ammunition for the automatic weaponsnow universally carried by infantrymen, provide even quite small units with the means to so deluge their fronts with airborne metal as to make them virtually unapproachable by anyone lacking armoured protection. So abundant have these killing agents become (to say nothing of those fired from larger, more distant weapons or launched from the air) that the underlying aim of weapon-training has now in many armies been changed: for the traditional object, that of teaching the soldier to hit a selected target, has been substituted that of teaching a group to create an impenetrable zone – akin in character to one of those meteorite belts which it is supposed will offer such hazards to travellers when and if men venture into deep space. The soldiers of French infantry platoons are taught to ‘fire out’ only to two hundred metres, marksmanship, where necessary, being left to a pair of tireurs d’élite; the Italian infantry platoon is equipped almost exclusively with submachine guns, effective only for spraying the immediate neighbourhood with bullets, and requiring no greater skill to use than a housewife needs to spray her kitchen with insecticide from an aerosol can; and, lest these instances be thought a bit by-the-by, the Russian, German and American infantry companies are each armed with automatic weapons only, firing the modern lightened ammunition, of which the infantrymen can carry twice or three times the supply provided to his counterpart of the Second World War. ‘Wasting ammunition’, for decades the cardinal military sin, has in consequence become a military virtue; ‘hitting the target’, for centuries the principal military skill, is henceforth to be left to the law of averages. Perhaps only in the British army, traditionally a guild of sharp-shooters, and in Northern Ireland in the nineteen-seventies embroiled in a campaign which requires its soldiers to fire back at terrorist gunmen without touching the bystanders whom the gunmen use as cover, is marksmanship still lauded and taught.


Danger buried beneath the soil of the battlefield, wafted by its breezes, suffusing in solid form its air space – mines, gas, projectiles – these ‘objective dangers’, some new, some as old as warfare, have, through a superabundance of supply, made the killing zone, even at its foremost edge, a yet more dangerous place for the soldier to inhabit in the twentieth century than it has ever been before. Indeed the new superfluity of killing agents has brought about a situation of which none of the classical strategists glimpsed even a prefiguration: the transformation of the very environment of the battlefield into one almost wholly – and indiscriminately – hostile to man. Moreover, and this is a development, at least from the standpoint of the individual, of perhaps even greater significance, the size of the area which this hostile environment encompasses grows constantly bigger, yet within boundaries of progressively greater rigidity. Of what this portends for the individual, mountaineering again offers a view. For the modern fashion of combining ‘extreme’ technique with very long ascents has increased the degree of ‘exposure’ (danger of falling, risk of stone-falls) to almost intolerable limits, while making retreat from exposed situations more and more difficult. The fate of Sedlmayer and Mehringer, the first Alpinists to attempt the Eigerwand, illustrates the hazards of the trend. At the end of five days and four nights on the face, for most of which they had been lost from sight of the watchers below, they reappeared, still moving upwards. Tourists expressed optimism. The mountain guides and experienced climbers kept silent. They realized that the pair’s line of retreat had been cut off by avalanches and stone-falls on the lower slopes and that their ‘only hope now was to fight a way to the top’.

Before they could fight their way out, the cold of the North Face killed them both, at a point on its centre too far for any rescue party to reach from the summit or the flanks of the peak. Thus it was the very size of the North Face and its unrelentingly hostile character which, as much as anything, did for them. And in the same way it is the very size of modern battlefields which, given the ‘objective dangers’ present, invests them with such peril for the individual soldier. For it is now almost impossible to run away from a battle. ‘A rational army would run away,’ thought Montesquieu, implying that in his time soldiers had the choice. In practice it was a choice which their leaders devoted a great deal of effort to prevent them from exercising (‘the common soldier must fear his officer more than the enemy’: Frederick the Great) but, when the lesser fear overcame the greater, run men could and did. The first moments of flight, as du Picq convincingly demonstrates, were probably the most dangerous of any a soldier could spend on the battlefield, because it was then that he was most exposed to the enemy’s blows, but if he could clear the killing zone without being shot in the back or sabred by a pursuing cavalryman he had a good chance of getting off unscathed. At Agincourt, as we saw, a large number of the French cavalry force, savaged by the arrow cloud, veered off into the neighbouring wood which, within a few seconds’ riding, offered them perfect safety; and at Waterloo, a considerable body of Belgian troops, having taken refuge in equally convenient woods, waited there around their cooking fires until the decrescendo of the evening persuaded them danger had passed. This ‘right to flight’ is naturally not one which generals are willing to concede. But its availability is one of the things which in the past have made battle bearable, by allowing the soldier to believe that his presence on the battlefield was ultimately voluntary, and it has been frequently exercised by armies of all nations, not always with results fatal either to individuals or the greater cause: First Bull Run, the Second Battle of the Somme, and Kasserine provide the most obvious modern verifications of the half-truth that he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.

Indeed for an army to run away can be to inflict a very serious frustration on its enemy’s plans. Schlieffen’s fear that the Russians would refuse to stand their ground was the principal factor in persuading him to frame his notorious design for a lightning victory against France which the French retreat to the Marne brought to naught in 1914. And the rapidity with which an intact French army recoiled towards the Marne before the blitzkrieg in 1940 prompted Hitler, his mind awash with memories of 1914, to spare the British at Dunkirk, lest he lose in battle with them the tanks he would need to rewrite that page of history. It is not, however, the frustration of the enemy’s plans but the preservation of his own person which a soldier wishes when he turns tail on the battlefield. And the evidence very strongly suggests that flight will less and less well serve his purpose. For, to the soldier on foot, the dimensions of modern battlefields, perhaps a hundred miles wide by twenty deep, perhaps even more, and certainly thirty to fifty times as large as those of the eighteenth century, put their boundaries almost beyond his reach. Even if reached, they are likely to prove impenetrable, moreover, for the modern battlefield, unlike that of the past, is more crowded at its rear than at its forward edge. Fighting soldiers are now in a minority in armies (a fact over which staff officers chronically agonize), and the fighting soldier who has decided to fight no more will find his passage rearward impeded by a thickening host of administrative soldiers, not to say by military policemen whose duty it precisely is to prevent fugitives from making good their escape. All the more will this congestion make things difficult for the soldier who tries to leave the battlefield by vehicle, for control of roads and bridges is a principal task of rear-area troops; while enemy aircraft, though they may ignore, and perhaps not even see, the foot soldier on the ground are magnetized by vehicles in motion.

The chances are, however, that the errant foot soldier will be as visible from the air as he is from ground-level. For modern battlefields, if fought over at all long, quickly wear threadbare. Trees and bushes disappear, buildings are levelled, even the contours of the ground disturbed. Movement on the surface becomes impossible by day, and because of artificial illumination and, now, infra-red surveillance, hazardous by night. The nocturnal and subterranean pattern of living which these phenomena impose is commonly thought characteristic only of the First World War, in which the art – and strategic advantages – of defoliation were discovered by accident. But it was a pattern also dominant on many Second World War battlefields, very generally in the Korean war and at a variety of places in Vietnam and Israel. The would-be fugitive, trapped on the naked face of the modern battlefield may therefore find, like Sedlmayer and Mehringer, no alternative but to fight on, hoping to gain through the defeat of the enemy the release he knows he cannot win by retreat.

Yet there is one alternative, familiar to students of siege warfare and christened by them ‘internal desertion’. Impracticable in a well-organized fortress, it flourished, particularly among civilians, whenever a commandant failed to concentrate all food in his own stores. Modern battlefields, because so difficult to escape from, encourage among soldiers a siege mentality; but, because of the prodigality of modern military supply, are often littered with preserved food. A soldier who has decided to soldier no more, who prefers not to desert to the enemy and who can find somewhere to hide may, therefore, sometimes manage to sit out the fighting, if it remains static, for considerable periods. The wastes of the ‘old Somme battlefield’, pitted with dugouts and trenches over many square miles, were, during 1917, colonized by a freebooting gang of Australians, who lived by raiding military dumps and eluded the search of the military police for many months, some say until the end of the war. More significant was the desertion of a large number of the non-French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, who burrowed themselves holes in the banks of the little river which traversed the enceinte of the fortress and pilfered what they needed to live from the loads parachuted inside the perimeter each night, sometimes fighting the combatants for shares. At the end of the siege they are believed to have outnumbered the active garrison.


An addition to the other benefits of internal desertion (largely theoretical, of course, for the activity remains very unusual, perhaps because the necessary conditions arise so infrequently) is its elimination of the accidental dangers attendant on soldiering. Accident has always caused a proportion of battle’s death and wounds, though exactly what that proportion is, for earlier battles, is difficult to estimate. The men-at-arms suffocated beneath the press of bodies at Agincourt and the Frenchmen who were certainly injured in the ‘return cavalry charge’ must have been numerous; but it was lethal intent which, to an overwhelming degree, killed in the age of edged weapons. With the appearance of firearms, accidents became much more common; I have described several which occurred at Waterloo, mostly as a result of what the army calls ‘accidental discharges’ – guns going off unexpectedly. And it was not only small arms which were dangerous to users or their friends; great guns could also kill. Mercer describes how one of his gunners stumbledbeside the mouth of the cannon he was serving at the moment of firing: ‘As a man naturally does when falling, he threw out both his arms before him, and they were blown off at the elbows’ (probably by the stream of explosive gas rather than by the ball itself); Mercer later heard that he had bled to death on the way to the surgeon. As armies have accumulated more and heavier machinery, and more volatile and more powerful explosives, the toll of accidents has risen still further. Tanks are notoriously dangerous to the infantry who accompany them into action, their drivers’ visibility being very limited, and armoured cars are dangerous to their own crews, being easily overturned when driven fast over rough-going: the 2nd Household Cavalry Regiment actually suffered more casualties in training accidents during the Second World War than at the hands of the enemy. Modern artillery is also a double-edged weapon of support, the practice of firing ‘indirect’, or from map references rather than at visible targets, resulting in its shells falling sometimes (British infantrymen affect to believe always) among friendly instead of enemy soldiers. And the guns themselves, even more than was the case in Mercer’s day, are a peril to their servants: ‘prematures’ – the explosion of the shell in the barrel instead of beyond it – are, though rare, certain to kill the crew. Mine-laying and, even more so, mine-lifting are procedures which kill sappers, who are also very much at risk when arranging demolitions, and there are a variety of other ways in which military engineering can harm its practitioners: the officer who detonated the great mine under Spanbroekmoelen in June 1917 was electrocuted by a shock from the triggering mechanism.

But it is probably the mechanization of armies which has done most to increase the accident figures: young men are regarded by insurance companies as the worst class of risk, and wars put thousands of young men in charge of powerful vehicles on unsupervised roads fraught with hazards. Collisions, skids, petrol fires, ditchings, overturnings are a commonplace on manœuvres. In real warfare they are yet more frequent, so much so that, during quiet weeks in the Vietnam campaign, traffic accidents often killed more American soldiers than did the Vietcong.

Some attempts have been made to calculate the proportion of accidental deaths to all death in battle. Attempts they remain, but the evidence is unarguably demonstrative of a very high level of accidental death in warfare (running in the British army at about one-fifth of battle deaths in the Crimean War, one-seventh in the Boer War) and of a considerable and rising proportion of such accidents being suffered in and as a result of battle itself.

Technical Difficulty

The mechanization of war which underlies the rising accident rate might be thought to have had, as another indirect result, a marked complication of the soldier’s role. If we are pursuing our mountaineering analogy, developments in that field would also lead us to the same conclusion, for the extreme climber must be master, not only of traditional ropework and balance and grip holds, but of cramponing, piton and bolt placement and recovery, ice-screwing, prusiking, and the hanging of étriers. At that point the analogy must fail, however, for while the mountaineer necessarily remains an all-rounder, the modern soldier is increasingly a specialist. Indeed, to flatter its humblest members, the American army has largely replaced the title ‘Private’ by that of ‘Specialist’. Yet it is a name with little substance for, though it imputes to its holder a delicate expertise, he very often possesses no more than is necessary to perform the very simple function which the continuing division of labour within armies has left him; feeding a belt of ammunition into a machine-gun, turning the dials of a wireless set, pulling the trigger of an automatic weapon. It would be perverse to suggest that the modern front-line soldier is less skilled than the musketeer or cannoneer at Waterloo, for it was the purpose of the drill each of them was taught to make him an automaton, and that the modern soldier is not. And it is certainly the case that the man behind the ‘Specialist’ – the armourer, radio mechanic, gunnery computer operator, helicopter pilot – practises skills of an order of difficulty beyond the comprehension of most soldiers outside this century. Nevertheless, it can be argued, and argued forcibly that the archer at Agincourt exercised a greater range and depth of skills than the modern rifleman, and the mounted man-at-arms even more so. Archery,épée and horsemanship are athletic feats, demanding poise, timing, and judgment which few modern military functions require and which correspondingly few soldiers, stronger and healthier though the majority certainly are than the soldiers of the age of edged weapons, can emulate.

The Inhuman Face of War

Warfare in the age of edged weapons required yet another vanished military quality, perhaps even more crucial to skill-at-arms than agility or good reflexes: a sort of empathy with one’s adversary, lending the ability to anticipate his actions and forestall his blows, combined with a physical brazenness which would allow a man to look a stranger in the face and strike to fell him without provocation or compunction. Prizefighters, of course, possess this quality, whether learned or inherited, and by reason of that fact alone have for the common man an intense, almost zoological fascination. For direct, face-to-face, knock-down and drag-out violence is something which modern, middle-class Western man encounters rarely if at all in his everyday life. Yet, despite popular enthusiasm for prizefighting, and fashionable encomiums of the ‘social value of violence’ to the contrary, it may be doubted whether its disappearance has left an aching void in Western man’s pattern of desires. Killing people, qua killing and qua people, is not an activity which seems to carry widespread approval. It is not only in India that public executioners form a despised and outcast tribe. Even in pre-Revolutionary France the profession has become narrowly hereditary – the family Sanson practised it for seven generations – and executioners who lacked a family refuge ‘were lodged in abominable hovels, did not dare to enter the towns except to do their work and even then had to be given an escort for safety’s sake’; in twentieth-century England, the appointment was, until its abolition, also monopolized by a single family, the Pierrepoints – by the account of one of them against strong competition, though, by his own admission, competition from the lowest sort of person.

Killing on the scaffold and killing on the battlefield are, of course, markedly dissimilar activities. Yet, for all the elaborate explanations used by civilized societies to exculpate the soldier who kills in battle from taint of personal guilt or social disapproval – that he undergoes the same risk of death as his opponent, that he kills in order to overcome a greater evil than killing – it is worthy of note that the one sort of front-line soldier who has some choice over whether he will kill or not – the officer – has, throughout the period at which we have been looking, consistently and steadily withdrawn himself from the act itself. This withdrawal is symbolized, in a way we have already seen, by the increasingly emblematic weapons which officers have carried; at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the pike was losing its battlefield utility, a sort of miniature pike; at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the sword was going out of use, an ornamental sword; at the end of the nineteenth century, when the machine-gun had asserted its dominance, a pistol, usually kept holstered; during the First World War, often no lethal weapon at all, just a walking-stick. And this impression of a distancing of the officer from the infliction of death is reinforced by reading the citations which are written to explain and endorse the award of high decorations for bravery: those written for soldiers lay stress on their success at killing –‘Lance-corporal —— courageously worked his way round the flank of the machine-gun which was holding up the advance and then charged it, firing his carbine from the hip, so accounting for six of the enemy’ (citation writers, flinching from ‘kill’, deal largely in ‘account for’, ‘dispatch’, ‘dispose of’); on the other hand, those written for officers minimize their direct responsibility for killing and emphasize their powers of inspiration and organization when all about are losing their heads (in the metaphorical sense; nothing so nasty as decapitation ever creeps into a citation) – ‘Captain ——, taking command at a difficult moment of the battle, quickly rallied his men and, without regard for his own safety, led them back over the open to the position they had earlier been forced to leave …’ To be fair to the citation writers, however, their subject matter is to a certain extent determined for them, since soldiers on the whole are given medals for killing and officers for doing other things. But that merely shifts responsibility for recognizing approved conduct back one step, from the writer of the citation to the one who awards the medal. We could, no doubt, push this regression some way farther back again. It would ultimately come to rest against the immoveable obstacle of the military value system, of which one major tenet would seem to be ‘Officers do not kill’ or ‘killing is not gentlemanly’.

Killing, none the less, was once a highly officerlike activity, when practised between equals and with a strict regard for the rules. Gronow, the Guardsman with such illuminating memories of Waterloo, was a notable duellist; Wellington himself duelled and one party to the last major duel fought on British soil, in 1852, was a Colonel Romilly. Indeed professional extinction could follow a refusal to duel when honour required it, quite far into the nineteenth century. To return, moreover, to a much earlier moment in military time, that of Agincourt, is to encounter a world in which killing, or if not killing then certainly fighting, was the only gentlemanly activity. How and why has come about this progressive deprecation of the central act of warfare by its directing class, thoughout a period when, as we have seen, the amount of killing attempted and achieved on the battlefield has increased from century to century?

The answer is almost certainly comprehended in the question. For killing to be gentlemanly, it must take place between gentlemen: the rules of duelling were, indeed, specific on that point, and the laws of chivalry, though less exigent and exclusive, were equally inistent that the only feats of arms worth the name were those conducted between men of gentle birth, either one to one or in nearly (ideally in exactly) matched numbers. But every trend in warfare since the end of the middle ages has been to make personal encounters on the battlefield between men of equal social status more and more difficult to arrange – drill, the most important military innovation of the sixteenth century, requiring that a man stay where put instead of wandering about looking for a worthy adversary, and smoke, the most obtrusive side-effect of musketry, making such a search improbably successful – and such encounters, even if possible of arrangement, less and less representable as ‘fair fight’. For ‘fair fight’ requires equality of skill. But firearms reduced skill-at-arms to an irrelevance – it was for this that the knight principally condemned them. The sword stroke, practised a thousand times, polished and refined and measured to pass unerringly beneath an opponent’s parry, was beaten flat by a musket-shot. The musketeer, militarily speaking, was as good or better than the man-at-arms and, when drilled and mustered and properly led, the superior of any number of horsemen. Given that that was so, the gently born began during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, reluctantly and with many a backward glance (though less reluctantly in Southern than in Northern Europe) to abandon the excitements of single combat for the routines of drill and the duties of leadership, realizing that, if they did not, they risked surrendering their social along with their military station to the mercenary chieftains whose mastery of the new warfare was so irritatingly complete.

Yet in doing so, they accelerated, of course, the trend of which they were so resentful. Knightly warfare was probably already nearly a century out of date by the time of Agincourt, Crécy prefiguring its course and results in almost every respect. The passion for single combat had kept it alive, none the less, and in so doing had held in check many of those military innovations and inventions which were, when unleashed, to make Renaissance and post-Renaissance battles yet more costly than those of chivalry had been. Morally, therefore, the late-medieval resistance of the gently born to military change had exerted a beneficial restraint. The echoes of the rearguard action they fought can be heard sounding through the din of the battles of the gunpowder age. And they reverberate still.

But the distaste for mere killing which those echoes have communicated to the officer-class of Western Europe – and a class officers remain in several real senses – is of course a great deal less important for the rest of us than the facts before which the well-bred professional recoils. Battle, always unpleasant for a minority of the participants, has increasingly become an intolerable experience for the majority. What has been happening is perhaps best described as an exaggerated social and cultural divergence from normality. Battle is always an abnormality. But in violent and technically primitive societies, the facts of battle come as less of a shock to those who first face them, and leave presumably less of a scar, than they do in ordered, technically developed states. This is not to say that a medieval soldier would adapt better to life on a modern battlefield than would a contemporary. To say that would be nonsense, if only because the noise level, for which nothing in his experience would have prepared him, would of itself probably suffice to disorientate and disarm him. But it is to say that, reared in a rural world where disputes between neighbours, humble and great, were common and commonly settled by violence; practised, if not in the use of weapons themselves, then certainly in that of everyday tools which closely resembled them; accustomed to the company of horses and knowing their virtues and vices intimately, he would not have found in a battle of his own day, not at least until the killing began, and unless in the remarkable display of colour and dress in which the chroniclers took such pleasure, anything greatly to shock or surprise him. There was, in short, considerable congruence between the civil and military facts of medieval life and a minimum – admittedly a very substantial minimum – of divergence between them on the battlefield.

Today, in the late twentieth century, there exists also a considerable congruence between the technology of civilian and military life. Armoured vehicles have their counterparts in agricultural and earth-moving machinery, trucks are trucks, whether bringing detergent to the supermarket or taking troops to the front, wireless keeps one au courant from minute to minute whether in the bath or a slit trench, civil aircraft are as noisy as military, the quality, though not the volume of battlefield noise is made familiar by the showing of war films – and this is to mention only artefacts, or their side-effects, with which the general population has an everyday acquaintance. Men and women employed in continuous process industries are made indirectly familiar with many more modern battlefield phenomena: they are to a considerable degree inured to very high constant noise levels and to emissions of intense light, they work in proximity to dangerous machinery and chemicals, including poison gases, and they are involved in high-speed automatic processes – stamping, turning, reaming, cutting, moulding, the pouring of molten metals and plastics – which require perfectly timed human co-operation and imitate in many respects the actions of modern weapons systems, such as automated artillery pieces, self-loading tank guns, machine-guns, flame throwers, rocket dischargers and the like.

Modern industry, moreover, teaches its work people – though the same lessons are learnt by almost all citizens, first in school and later as the administrés of the state’s bureaucracy – habits of order, obedience and uniform behaviour which the embryo armies of the sixteenth century could not expect to find in any of their doltish recruits, though they rightly recognized their possession to be essential to the new warfare and devoted a lengthy and brutal effort to their inculcation. If to this pre-conditioning for battle we add the undoubted power which nationalist and ideological feeling exerts in opposition to the human instincts for self-preservation, we ought to conclude that twentieth-century man is potentially a better soldier than he of any other age.

Yet that seems to me an improbable conclusion. In the first place, the climate of family, school and cultural life, for all the respect we accord to the military virtues (without so naming them), has in the aftermath of two world wars become suffused with a deep antipathy to violence and to conflict. The abolition of capital punishment in almost all Western countries is but the most striking example of this distaste; with it belongs the gradual elimination of corporal punishment from education, the right to conscientious objection now conceded even by those states, like France, which have always castigated it as unsocial, the pursuit of economic and political co-operation between nations at the expense even of a partial surrender of sovereignty and a spreading belief in the attainability of a social millennium without passage through the fires of class warfare. It is important, of course, not to make too much of this climate. Moods are contrapuntal, so that the quietism of the drop-out is matched by the insurrectionary beliefs of the parlour revolutionary. Moods are also fickle, and the very absurdity of much of the propaganda of social pacifism is calculated to hurry forward a turn of the tide. We ought, therefore, to be prepared for a dialectical swing away from fraternalism back towards the doctrines of self-reliance and self-defence coute que coute (of which the Israelis and the Palestinians are each purveying a highly exportable version). Yet, were such a swing to complete its travel, I very much doubt whether the thereby changed outlook of western youth would fit them for service on the battlefield of the future. For, despite the congruence of civilian and military technology which is such an arresting feature of the modern world, where motor cars mimic missiles and machine tools machine-guns in a realization of a Futurist fantasy, the divergence between the facts of everyday and of battlefield existence is not only greater than ever before but is widening year by year.

What are the indices of this divergence? First among them is what one must call – it is not an agreeable word – the impersonalization of battle. Its progress is something we can chart without too much difficulty. Medieval soldiers not only saw their opponents at very close hand (the high-born among them indeed were very often acquainted with one another) but fought them face to face. The rhythm of the fighting and its duration were in consequence dictated by human limitations: a man gained ground on his opponent, scored a hit, felt his sword arm tire, knew that he must win in the next five minutes or be done for; and pari passu, the same rhythms imposed themselves on his opponent. Because medieval armies were small, and battles were often fought without either side holding men in reserve, these rhythms determined the length of combat. And because the power of weapons was not very much greater than the muscle power of those who wielded them, the wounds inflicted were little different from the wounds of everyday life, those suffered in the field or workshop, to be judged at a glance trifling, disabling or fatal. In brief, the terror and brutality of battles could yet be comprehended on a human timescale and in a human way. This close relationship to everyday life was emphasized, as at Agincourt, by the opportunity offered for local civilians to take part; there it was an ad hoc raid on the baggage park by the peasantry of the district, under the leadership of their lord, which provoked Henry’s order to massacre the prisoners. And his soldiers’ reluctance to carry out those orders, whatever their mixture of motives, is further evidence of the mediated inhumanity of medieval battle: the preservation of the lives of prisoners, even if of wealthy knights rather than poor archers, was an important diminution of the frightfulness of war, and one tending to set a rule for the general good.

The lot of the prisoner on the battlefield of the gunpowder age benefited from the generalization of the principle of ransom. Once armies had become properly regularized, and the care and exchange of prisoners legally regulated, soldiers of any rank, as we saw at Waterloo, could safely offer their surrender in the expectation that it would be accepted without their suffering hurt or indignity; though it was probably safer, as we also saw, to offer surrender to soldiers of one’s own sort – infantry to infantry, for example, ‘inter-specific’ surrender – infantry to cavalry – seeming occasionally to provoke inter-specific acts of cruelty. The face-to-faceness of combat, still one of its marked characteristics despite the increasing range of weapons, could also work to mediate its violence; and it is interesting that, harden their hearts though they might at the spectacle of suffering among their fellow men, soldiers were much touched by the sufferings of the horses, which they were reluctant to kill even to put out of their misery.

Yet gunpowder battles were already to a marked degree more impersonal than those of the age of edged weapons. The wearing of uniforms, however variegated, however splendid, diminished the individual identity of the combatants, which it has been one of the principal functions of medieval panoply to emphasize. So too did the imposition of a rigid chain of command, which robbed subordinates of that independence by which the headstrong nobleman had always set such store, while the new insistence on drill reduced the individual soldier’s status to that of a mechanical unit in the order of battle. Battle itself, because of these inbuilt mechanisms, steadily acquired throughout the passage of the gunpowder age a mechanical dynamic of its own, the action of the artillery, firing systematically over several hundred yards at blocs of human beings whom the gunners perceived only as differently coloured masses, being sufficient of itself to keep a battle in progress whether or not the armies were in intimate confrontation.

For all that, gunpowder battles, fought during the daylight hours of a single series of twenty-four, at short ranges, over the span of a few fields, whose farmers might watch the carnage from the safety of a neighbouring hilltop or wood (the Forest of Soignes was crammed with peasants from the Waterloo district during the battle), calculating the cost of the damage to their crops against the income which the windfalls of war would leave them, were events which belonged demonstrably to the world of men. Of the battles of the twentieth century that is something of which it was increasingly difficult to say, if, that is, the sensations of the combatants are accorded the weight they deserve. For what almost all the soldiers of the First World War and many of the Second, even from the victor armies, testify to is their sense of littleness, almost of nothingness, of their abandonment in a physical wilderness, dominated by vast impersonal forces, from which even such normalities as the passage of time had been eliminated. The dimensions of the battlefield, completely depopulated of civilians4 and extending far beyond the boundaries of the individual’s perception, the events supervening upon it – endless artillery bombardments, sudden and shatteringly powerful aerial bombings, mass irruptions of armoured vehicles – reduced his subjective role, objectively vital though it was, to that of a mere victim. And a victim too was what he risked becoming even if he took or had forced upon him the decision to stop fighting and give himself up as a prisoner. For men, rarely coming face to face, seen by each other, if at all, only as indistinguishable figures in shapeless and monotone uniforms, generally lacked the means to communicate such intentions to each other. A shout of surrender from the darkness of a dugout was too often an invitation to receive a grenade, the wave of an arm from the hatch of a disabled vehicle the signal to unleash a burst of automatic fire; killing the crews of stopped or burning tanks as they bailed out was normal practice among Second World War infantrymen. It must be counted one of the particular cruelties of modern warfare that, by inducing even in the fit and willing soldier a sense of his unimportance, it encouraged his treating the lives of disarmed or demoralized opponents as equally unimportant.

At another level, the fostering and infliction of deliberate cruelty marks a second major divergence between the facts of everyday and battlefield existence in the twentieth century. Weapons have never been kind to human flesh, but the directing principle behind their design has usually not been that of maximizing the pain and damage they can cause. Before the invention of explosives, the limits of muscle power in itself constrained their hurtfulness; but even for some time thereafter moral inhibitions, fuelled by a sense of the unfairness of adding mechanical and chemical increments to man’s power to hurt his brother, served to restrain deliberate barbarities of design. Some of these inhibitions – against the use of poison gas and explosive bullets – were codified and given international force by the Hague Convention of 1899; but the rise of ‘thing-killing’ as opposed to man-killing weapons – heavy artillery is an example – which by their side-effects inflicted gross suffering and disfigurement, invalidated these restraints. As a result restraints were cast to the winds, and it is now a desired effect of many man-killing weapons that they inflict wounds as terrible and terrifying as possible. The claymore mine, for instance, is filled with metal cubes (how far have we come from Thomas Puckle’s famous gun, firing round bullets against Christians and square against infidels!), the cluster bomb with jagged metal fragments, in both cases because that shape of projectile tears and fractures more extensively than a smooth-bodied one. The HEAT and HESH rounds fired by anti-tank guns are designed to fill the interior of armoured vehicles with showers of metal splinters or streams of molten metal, so disabling the tank by killing its crew. And napalm, disliked for ethical reasons even by many tough-minded professional soldiers, contains an ingredient which increases the adhesion of the burning petrol to human skin surfaces. Military surgeons, so successful over the past century in resuscitating wounded soldiers and repairing wounds of growing severity, have thus now to meet the challenge of wounding-agents deliberately conceived to defeat their skills.

These intentional inhumanities seem worthy of notice because the societies which sanction them are dedicated, in their treatment of human beings away from the battlefield, to standards of consideration, compassion even, higher than those adopted by any others of which we have knowledge. The modern Western state accepts the responsibility not merely to protect the individual’s life and property, traditionally the legal minima, but to educate and heal him, support him in old age and when unemployed, and increasingly to guarantee his prosperity. Might the modern conscript not well think, at first acquaintance with the weapons the state foists on him, that its humanitarian code is evidence either of a nauseating hypocrisy or of a psychotic inability to connect actions with their results?

The third and in its fashion perhaps most disturbing divergence between life on and off the battlefield is seen in the role coercion plays in keeping men in the killing zone. Coercion is a word to which the vocabulary of democracy gives grudging house room. The liberal state likes to believe that it works by consent and persuasion, that compulsion is a method of dealing with citizens to which only the lower forms of polity have resort. The truth is, of course, that all armies, whether of democracies or dictatorships, depend on the coercive principle (most armies have a code of law and punishment separate from that administered by the civil courts), that it is a vital element in making battles work, and that it is one which the character of modern warfare invests with more not less force. Remembering the extent of the direct coercion applied at Waterloo – the positioning of cavalry behind the rear rank of unwilling infantry battalions so that they should not be able to break and run, the flogging forward of soldiers by their officers, the firing at ‘friendly’ cavalry by infantry disgusted at their cowardice – that latter point might seem a difficult one to sustain. But the fact that coercion was indeed direct and personal on the gunpowder battlefield, that the officer who flogged too hard risked a bullet should he turn his back (and sometimes got it, as did Colonel Breyman from one of his grenadiers whom he had hit with his cane during the battle of Saratoga), that bullying cavalry who crowded infantry too close might feel their bayonets, set limits to its scope. It is a function of the impersonality of modern war that the soldier is coerced, certainly at times by people whom he can identify, but more frequently, more continuously and more harshly by vast, unlocalized forces against which he may rail, but at which he cannot strike back and to which he must ultimately submit: the fire which nails him to the ground or drives him beneath it, the great distance which yawns between him and safety, the onward progression of a vehicular advance or retreat which carries him with it willy-nilly. The dynamic of modern battle impels more effectively than any system of discipline of which Frederick the Great could have dreamt.

The Abolition of Battle

Impersonality, coercion, deliberate cruelty, all deployed on a rising scale, make the fitness of modern man to sustain the stress of battle increasingly doubtful. And this seems to me true even though ‘modern man’ is too vague a figure around whom to frame so general a statement. We must take account of the undoubted willingness of some men at all times to risk, even apparently to enjoy, extreme danger and arbitrary cruelty. Though the life required an oath of submission to be ‘burnt with fire, shackled with chains, whipped with rods and killed with steel (uri, uinciri, uerberari, ferroque necari)’ there were volunteers as well as slaves in the ranks of the gladiators. And not all of them social refugees: Mark Antony’s brother Lucius fought as a gladiator in Asia Minor. In our own times, almost all professional soldiers can recall acquaintance with men for whom the terrors of battle seemed to have little meaning. ‘Corporal Lofty King’, Brigadier Durnford-Slater wrote of one of his commandos, ‘was very tall and very tough. He was a hard fellow in many ways and very hard with his men; he didn’t give a damn if he knocked a man down. Sometimes I told him he was being too rough. Lofty would say, “It’s good for them, Colonel, it won’t do them any harm.” He would mean it and believe it. He genuinely enjoyed fighting and looked happiest, indeed inspired, in battle. In the field he was kinder to his men, as if the fighting were a kind of release for him.’ Lofty King is a significant figure whose outlines can be discerned in the thick of the fighting on many battlefields (Legros, l’enfonceur of the great gate at Hougoumont, belongs to the type) and whose power to impose his superior will on his comrades lends support to one’s suspicion that, after all, battle is to the strong; that without the presence of the Lofty Kings and the Legros most battlefields would empty of soldiers at the firing of the first salvoes; and that one of the subtlest forms of coercion practised in armies is the patronage by the grandees in the upper-ranks of their bully-boy opposites in the lower. Battle is also to the young. Its physical ordeals – discomfort, loss of sleep, hunger, thirst, burdens – are not only better borne by men under thirty; so too are its terrors, its anxieties, its separations, its bereavements. And young men are also moved more deeply than older men by the moral consolations with which battle compensates the soldier – it would be foolish to deny that there are compensations – for its cruelties: the thrill of comradeship, the excitements of the chase, the exhilarations of surprise, deception and the ruse de guerre, the exaltations of success, the sheer fun of prankish irresponsibility. Lord Robbins, the eminent economist, describes in his autobiography how, during the few days of mobile warfare he experienced as a young gunner officer on the Western Front, he was brought wholly unexpectedly to realize by his release from the grim routines of the trenches what an absorbing and enjoyable activity battle could be, and why in times past it had fulfilled the energies and imagination of the European upper class to the exclusion of almost all else.

Yet the prospect of battle, excepting perhaps the first battle of a war or a green unit’s first blooding, seems always to alarm men’s anxieties, however young and vigorous they be, rather than excite their anticipation. Hence the drinking which seems an inseparable part both of preparation for battle and of combat itself. Alcohol, as we know, depresses the self-protective reflexes, and so induces the appearance and feeling of courage. Other drugs reproduce this effect, notably marijuana; the American army’s widespread addiction to it in Vietnam, deeply troubling though it was to the conscience of the nation, may therefore be seen if not as a natural, certainly as a time-honoured response to the uncertainties with which battle racks the soldiers. The choice of that particular army, moreover, had local precedents: the pirates of the South China Sea traditionally dosed themselves with marijuana before attacking European ships.

Hence too, it would seem, the stirring or rekindling of a desire for spiritual fortification before battle. In primitive warfare, the enactment of tribal rites is often an absolutely vital preliminary to any planned encounter with the enemy; and in the Christian armies of the high Middle Ages, like Henry’s at Agincourt, the saying of mass and the hearings of confessions (Henry heard mass three times in succession) seems to have been regarded in much the same light, though these sacraments were of course offered by the priests strictly as means to a personal renewal of grace, not of corporate inspiration. Indeed, wherever the light of religion has not died out from armies, men seem to hunger for its consolations on the eve of action; in the Kitchener armies waiting for July 1st to dawn, it was not enough to have written home, made one’s will and shaken hands with friends; to have been to church was for many a necessary cap-stone of the preliminaries. Rum was welcomed to stifle the flutters of panic as the seconds ticked down to zero, but was not accepted, as it seems to have been by Wellington’s impious majority, as provision enough against the imminence of combat. Whether or not, however, it is with religious observance that the men preface their entry to battle, or with some solemn military ritual, like Napoleon’s grand review of his troops on the morning of Waterloo, or the proclamation of an order of the day or some other ceremony, it does seem that something – a pause, a moment of recollection, a summoning of force, a dedicatory act, a prayer of intercession – must be added to the purely material and administrative dispositions made by an army if its men are to commit themselves to battle with the stoutest hearts they can find. That is perhaps why a battle which begins with one army surprising another does not always yield the success it theoretically ought; for unless an army has inwardly hardened itself for the shock, it will not stand to be beaten.

Whatever the process of inward hardening, the shock nevertheless will shake some men’s resolution to breaking. It is unfortunately impossible to represent this pattern of breakdown in any comparative style, for it is only since the beginning of this century that armies have been taught to accept that ‘courage and cowardice are [not] alternative free choices that come to every man, overriding all emotional stress, that a man [cannot] simply choose which he prefers and … be courageous if he is told he must.’5 Running away, refusing to fight, getting the shakes or going inert were all stigmatized, less than seventy years ago, as displays of cowardice; and it was only with the greatest difficulty that even an army so comparatively humane in spirit as the British was led to think differently. Men whose symptoms we can now recognize as those of true psychiatric breakdown were shot for desertion during the first two years of the First World War, and the fear of the death penalty yielded a multitude of ‘hysterical conversion symptoms’ (by which men lose the use of limbs, speech or sight rather than demonstrate straightforward displays of anxiety). The army eventually reconciled itself to the inescapable fact of the breakdown of so many of its soldiers by inventing the notion of ‘shellshock’ which suggested for it a single physical cause; and treated the soldiers so affected in what were called N.Y.D.N. (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) hospitals. But any statistics of the proportion of psychiatric casualties to all battle casualties for 1914 – 18 remain hidden. In the Second World War, however, the psychiatrists of the British and, to an even greater extent the American, medical corps were able to insist on a proper recognition and treatment of psychiatric cases, their hand being much strengthened by their success in teaching the armies how to identify among recruits those particularly suited for the specialist military functions it was increasingly necessary to fill and those most likely to make no sort of soldier at all. As a result, we now have some reliable statistical material: and it reveals that, despite the system of rejection the psychiatrists instituted, psychiatric casualties at every stage of the war formed a significant percentage of all battle casualties, diagnosed as ‘exhaustion’ cases in their simplest form and as ‘neuro-psychiatric’ in their more aggravated. ‘Depending on the type of battle,’ wrote one of the British army’s senior psychiatrists, ‘2 % to 30 % of all casualties may be psychiatric.’ His evidence revealed that, of all battle casualties, ten to fifteen per cent were psychiatric during the ‘active’ phase of the Battle of France in 1940, ten to twenty per cent during the first ten days of the Normandy battle and twenty per cent during the two latter months, seven to ten per cent in the Middle East in the middle of 1942 and eleven per cent in the first two months of the Italian campaign. Many of these, perhaps as many as ninety per cent, were eventually returned to some form of duty, more or less demanding, but even among those judged fit to be returned quickly to their fighting unit ‘(figures varied from 70% to 56%)… some 5 % of these broke down again in the same battle.’ Moreover, as time dragged on, almost all soldiers exposed to continuous or semi-continuous combat broke down. As the authors of the American official report Combat Exhaustion explain:

There is no such thing as ‘getting used to combat’ … Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure … psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare … Most men were ineffective after 180 or even 140 days. The general consensus was that a man reached his peak of effectiveness in the first 90 days of combat, that after that his efficiency began to fall off, and that he became steadily less valuable thereafter until he was completely useless … The number of men on duty after 200 to 240 days of combat was small and their value to their units negligible.

The fighting of the Second World War, in short, led to an infantryman’s breakdown in a little under a year. The indirect effects of this consequence of battle were many; but some of the most interesting were those felt and betrayed by the leaders of armies. Generals, since the end of the First World War, had become markedly sensitive to the disparity between the risks suffered by the men who framed the plans and those who carried them out. On earlier battlefields, that disparity had been small, if at all apparent. Wellington, indeed, was arguably at greater risk on the field of Waterloo than many of his subordinates, and at Agincourt Henry (though ‘generalship’ and ‘planning’ are concepts one can doubtfully apply to medieval warfare, where the setting of an example was all) deliberately courted risk throughout the battle. Hindenburg, Haig, Joffre, on the other hand, never smelt powder; Haig, for motives which he was adept at rationalizing, would not even visit his wounded. Their chateau-generalship (a style which, to be fair, they inherited rather than created) caused deep if unexpressed offence to the generation of officers who, subalterns in 1914, were senior commanders by 1940, and stimulated in them a new risk-sharing style of leadership, publicly justified for the closer control of the battle it permitted (at a moment when the proliferation of wireless sets made command from a chateau sensible), privately desired, one suspects, because it quelled a vicarious, anticipatory sense of guilt.

Rommel’s variant of the style was to command from the leading tank, Guderian’s to roam his battlefields in an armoured wireless truck, Montgomery’s to inhabit a ‘tactical headquarters’ within earshot of the fighting. Generals began also, in a reversal of that long-established trend for officers to distance themselves from killing, to carry weapons: Patton habitually sported a pair of pearl-handled revolvers, Ridgway a pair of grenades, Bock a revolver, Wingate a rifle; and more and more of them, as Grant, eccentric as it was thought, had done, began to dress as private soldiers. Montgomery, Bradley, Stilwell are scarcely distinguishable in their uniforms from the humblest soldiers under their command. Perhaps because of these efforts to identify with their men, however, many generals seemed unable to reproduce that necessary resistance to stress which so noticeably stamped the characters of an older generation of chiefs. Sorrow and anxiety spare only the rarest even among leaders; Wellington wept copiously after Waterloo, Frederick the Great had his surgeons bleed him during his battles to lower the tension he felt, and poor Henry VI keened an endless discordant song throughout all the battles which his courtiers obliged him to attend. But the military code traditionally required composure even at moments of personal agony; and it evoked it: Castelnau and Foch each continued to direct operations after receiving news of the deaths of their sons in the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914, Ludendorff to command despite the loss of both his cherished stepsons at the height of the First World War. During the Second World War the code seemed unable to sustain its votaries. Incompetent generals always become casualties: that war broke competent generals also. Rommel, for all his derring-do, experienced agonies from a nervous stomach, which twice took him away from the front at moments of crisis, Guderian was invalided from Russia with heart-failure, Reichenau suffered a stroke during the campaign, Ridgway had a severe blackout in September 1945 and was advised to retire. Mere hardness of character of the sort demonstrated by Zhukov or Model, rather than any particular strategic or tactical flair, increasingly became the principal military virtue as the Second World War dragged on. Other commanders who appeared to stand the strain did so only by cultivating a curious detachment from the conduct of the battles themselves. The three most admired generals of the British, American and German armies – Alexander, Eisenhower and Rundstedt – were each, in their different ways, not really generals at all, non-generals, almost anti-generals. Alexander, hell-raiser though he had been as a young officer, insisted on leaving control to his subordinates and confined himself to fostering good relations within his multi-national army. So to an even more marked degree did Eisenhower, whose aura became eventually papal rather than military. Rundstedt, revered throughout the German regular officer corps as its last archetypal Prussian, refused to deal with detail or to look at small-scale maps, as if the fighting itself were distasteful to him, but spent his days reading detective stories and thrice resigned his command.

But perhaps the most interesting, even if the best-known and most overworked example of a general’s reaction to stress of modern battle is Patton’s chastisement of the ‘psychoneurotic’ soldier in a Sicilian hospital. The publicized incident was in fact the second of two; in each case he had expressed his anger that a ‘coward’ should be treated in the same way and same place as honourably – physically – wounded soldiers. May we not understand this bepistolled, risk-taking general’s outburst as a transmuted expression of his disgust that he, who shared his soldiers’ lot, sought them out in the front-line to praise their courage, stood ready to sacrifice his life as readily as any, should have been repaid for identifying himself with them by behaviour which questioned his sincerity – which silently accused him of not knowing the ultimate reality of the ordeal he asked his soldiers to undergo and so made a mockery of his impersonation of the hero? Something of a concern not to be caught out in such a falsity, a refusal to frame orders whose detailed consequences he would not directly suffer, appears to have underlain Alexander’s curious aloofness from the mechanics of command.

The chance to intervene directly at the very forward edge of the battlefield, at the height of the fighting, in almost instant response to summons, explains the contemporary general’s enthusiasm for the helicopter. In a fashion Patton would genuinely have envied, the helicopter does carry the general back to the stance from which Wellington commanded, and returns to him the power to observe, to manage, to exhort, to manœuvre, to look battle in the face. In the helicopter, the general has the impression of controlling the battle and shaping it to his ends, of remaking battle as a useful and decisive exercise of power. But is this a valid impression or only an illusion? For the helicopter does not only bring the general to battle. It brings also the ‘air-mobile’ soldier, whose experience is one of an extraordinary divergence between the normality of comfortable barrack life and the terrors of the battlefield to which, in under half an hour, he can be smoothly transported; the experience resembles, though in a heightened form, that of combat aircrew, in which it produces strains so uniform and intense that the number of operational missions they may fly has to be limited if they are not inevitably to crack. The ‘air-mobile’ soldier, in his turn, is an element in a new sort of army, one mechanized and tracked and armoured to a degree unmatched in any of the armoured formations of the Second World War. Everything in all fighting units on both sides of the border on the Central Front in Germany is mechanized, including supply, maintenance and bridging equipment, and most of it, including the artillery, is armoured and tracked. Armoured and tracked infantry; the infantry section of ten men cocooned inside its armoured personnel carrier; there lies the revolutionary difference between the armies of the 1970s and the 1940s. Armies on the move, whether in attack or defence, are trained to manœuvre and expected to operate at thirty miles an hour, moving in dense waves across country, stopping only if so ordered or opposed, and seeking to overwhelm opposition by the weight of fire from their guns and their infantrymen’s weapons.

We lack a detailed picture of what an encounter between two such armies would be like in reality; and fortunately so, for it would be the preliminary to a firing of nuclear weapons. The Yom Kippur war between the Syrians, Egyptians and Israelis nevertheless provides a few clues. The battle, to begin with, would be as noisy as any experienced in the First or Second World Wars, there being added to the constant crash of the projectiles of indirect fire weapons – field artillery and rocket projectors – the explosion of mines (with which the future battlefield is to be liberally sown) and the cascading explosions of cluster bombs dropped from the air, a very great deal of mechanical clatter and whine and the unmistakeable, periodic clang of high-energy rounds hitting tanks. The noise a solid block of tungsten makes on striking armour is highly distinctive, a high-pitched ringing clang, and although that note would not predominate over the future battlefield’s cacophony, it would be the keynote for which the occupants of the armoured vehicles listened, tolling as it would the disablement of a vehicle and extinction of its crew. Not all of its crew perhaps but, being dependent almost exclusively on their sense of hearing for knowledge of events outside their shell, the occupants of tanks and armoured personnel carriers might be inclined to imagine so.

The state of mind of these occupants exercises the leadership of modern armies very considerably. It has already been grasped that to enclose men in a confined and windowless armoured box for long periods is to risk, among other effects, seriously disorientating them. It is therefore intended, when the next type of armoured personnel carrier is built, to provide a quartz peephole for every passenger, so that he shall be able to maintain some picture, however fragmentary, of where he is being taken. It is also understood that soldiers cannot be cramped and congested for long periods without losing their efficiency, and the interior of the infantry carriers are, as tanks are already, to be padded and air-conditioned, provided with means to heat food and cool drinks. Yet one wonders whether all these measures will realize that fighting efficiency they are designed to assure? For what can they be but minor alleviations of a further impersonalization of warfare, a greater alienation of the soldier from anything recognizably human or natural on the field of battle, a steeper reduction of his status to that of a mere adjunct to machinery, the software in the system? And while it is undoubtedly possible for picked men to sustain for short periods conditions of the sort which shut-down armoured warfare will impose – tank and air crews have consistently done so over the last fifty years, naval turret crews for more than a century – it is important to remember that depictions of future battle suppose all fighting soldiers, picked and unpicked, will be able to tolerate something analogous to the aircrew environment for periods not of hours but of many days and nights. The concept of ‘continuous operations’ which it is proposed to conduct in an armoured battle in Europe, and for which the most elaborate electronic night-fighting equipment – infra-red searchlights, image-intensifiers, ground surveillance radars and movement sensors – is provided to the armies, requires soldiers to remain continuously in action for periods of a hundred or a hundred and fifty hours. There is even talk of attempting to keep them awake for eighty hours at a stretch, using if necessary doses of one of the amphetamines as the agent; ironic if official condemnation of the private use of hallucinogens and tranquillizers in battle is to partner an official administration of stimulants. In practice, the Israelis and the Arabs, on whom night-fighting equipment had been lavished, found themselves so exhausted at the end of the daylong battles of October 1973, that they relapsed gratefully into sleep as soon as darkness fell. But the NATOpowers cannot count, as can all parties to the Palestinian problem, on having their wars stopped by outside intervention whenever a defeat looms. Their armies therefore must train in all seriousness for ‘the land battle in Central Europe’, must learn to live for days in stifling gas-masks and clammy radiation suits (which would have to be worn as a precaution even during conventional operations), isolated inside their armoured vehicles from sight or smell of the outside world, connected to it only by disembodied voices received through their wireless sets and able to form an impression of the events transpiring beyond their carapace only from whatever fragments of fact higher authority vouchsafed to communicate.

‘In all seriousness’ requires to be qualified in the light of these circumstances; ‘train with high dedication’ would certainly be correct; ‘train with a firm conviction that the battle they practise is one likely to be fought’ seems much more doubtful. For all the initial advantage which the communist armies’ superiority in numbers gives them, their soldiers are not physiologically different from those on the other side. And we are faced now with a prospect of battle which through the physical and nervous strain, the ‘multiple stress pattern’ it will impose on the combatants, threatens to break them down whether or not they come into direct contact with the enemy. Allied military psychiatrists had learnt by the end of the Second World War that the very first hours of combat disable ten per cent of a fighting force. A major intensification of the strains which broke those men (such as that imposed by several days of ‘continuous operations’) suggests that it might break the majority, and that ‘decision’ would be brought about not by the direct infliction of death and wounds but by the immersion of an army in a situation which would prove psychologically intolerable.

‘Decision’, as I began by saying, is a concept which military historians use in an ambiguous fashion. By ‘decisive battle’ they can mean simply a battle which has a result, which ends in the clear-cut victory of one side over the other; but by it also a battle whose result causes some real shift in the direction of human affairs far away from the battlefield, bringing about the downfall of a heretofore dominant power, setting the term to a hitherto irresistible tide of imperial expansion, toppling a political system, cutting short the career of a conquering hero. By a curious function of hisdéformation professionelle, the military historian’s search for results is almost always directed at one or other of these two levels: at the immediate effect of the battle on the strength of the army and the mind of its commander, or else at its impact on the morale and resources of the war-waging power. Yet, as I have tried to argue, the most important, the really ‘decisive’ effects of a battle are more immediate and personal than those belonging to these other categories. It is armies which fight battles, and armies which contain the men who, in any society, can and will and know how to fight. Battles, or more precisely defeats, are immediately decisive because they kill some of these men and dissuade the rest, for a longer or shorter period, from wanting to fight any more. As to the longer-term consequences: where a preponderance of the fighting men are drawn from the governing stratum, as in a feudal army or a patrician militia, we should look for them first in the rearranged pattern of personalities which death, cowardice or displays of prowess will have brought about, then in the mood and aspirations which the army will carry home with it. Where the warriors form a unique and expensive specialist group, as in the armies of dynastic and post-dynastic Europe, we should look elsewhere; at the economic cost of the state’s effort to reform from the urban crowd or the rural peasantry whence the beaten army was drawn, a substitute for it; at its political costs also, in terms of the concessions the tax-paying classes will wring in return for financing the rebuilding, and the demands for a guarantee of their privileges the military classes will present in competition. Where the army is levied directly on the male youth of the country by general conscription, as in the liberal and not-so-liberal states of twentieth-century Europe and America, we should look far more widely and deeply. The very scale of the First and Second World Wars has determined that, look as we may, we cannot yet categorize all those results or chart their dimensions. But one at least denies contradiction: that the experience of violent and sudden death has been brought through battle into many, perhaps a majority of families, that fear of the suffering – arbitrary and accidental as well as deliberate and purposive – battle can cause to human societies is profound and almost universal, and that the usefulness of future battle is widely doubted.

The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscripts in armies they see as ornamental. The militant young have taken that decision a stage farther: they will fight for the causes which they profess not through the mechanisms of the state and its armed power, but where necessary, against them, by clandestine and guerrilla methods. It remains for armies to admit that the battles of the future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armoured hosts face each other across the boundary between east and west, no soldier on either side will concede that he does not believe in the function for which he plans and trains. As long as states put weapons in their hands, they will show each other the iron face of war. But the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself.

1 ‘Sometimes,’ writes General von Mellenthin elsewhere, ‘the Russians supplied vodka to their storm battalions, and the night before the attack we could hear them roaring like devils.’

2 What evidence we have, drawn from studies done in the Pacific during the Second World War, suggests that fighting between out-groups is more ferocious than between in-groups. Of American soldiers who had seen Japanese as prisoners, a near majority stated they felt, as a result, ‘all the more like killing them’; of Americans who had seen German prisoners, more than half felt ‘it’s too bad we have to be fighting them, they are men just like us.’

3 Yielding metallic segments sometimes so small that the fatal wounds they inflict are almost undetectable. Keith Douglas, the Oxford poet, killed by a mortar fragment in Normandy in 1944, suffered a wound of this sort.

4 Also of animals: the great, protracted battles on the eastern frontier of France in the autumn and winter of 1944 provoked a westward migration of much of its major fauna. Wild boar, for example, not seen in the Seine valley since the nineteenth century, had become comparatively plentiful again in the nineteen-fifties.

5 From Men Against Fire by S. L. A. Marshal (William Morrow, 1947).


1. The skull of a Swedish soldier killed in the Battle of Visby, July 27th, 1361. The fallen defenders of Visby were buried, most unusually, in their armour – it is supposed because hot weather and their great number (about 2,000 bodies were disinterred six hundred years later) defeated the efforts of the victors to strip them before decomposition began. The mass grave yielded one of the most fearsome revelations of a medieval battle known to archaeologists.

Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antiqvetsakademien, Stockholm


2. This miniature from a fifteenth-century Chronicles of Froissart is of the Battle of Poitiers, 1356, but the armour and weapons are contemporary: it conveys the effect of archery on cavalry at short range and suggests something of what happened on the flanks at Agincourt in the opening stage of the battle.

Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris


3. These heaps of dead and wounded are from a miniature in the Chroniques du Hainaut of Jean de Guise (Mons, 1478); it may have been something similar which the Agincourt chroniclers described as the ‘wall of bodies’.


4. This detail from a fifteenth-century miniature in a version of the History of Valerius Maximus may portray the fate of the French men-at-arms at Agincourt cut off by the English archers from the protection of their main body.

Harley 4374, f.68v., Harley Collection, British Museum


5. This representation of a square of Highlanders (perhaps the 1/92nd) receiving cavalry at Waterloo – the time would be mid-afternoon – ruthlessly subordinates reality to artistic convention: the horsemen are arriving much too fast, charging the square head-on instead of lapping round the edges, and actually getting to weapon’s reach with the infantry instead of stopping, falling or turning back several horse-lengths away.

Wellington Museum, Apsley House


6. Scotland for Ever (1881) is an imaginative reconstruction of the charge of the Scots Greys in the early afternoon at Waterloo. The artist, Lady Butler, a sister of the poetess Alice Meynell, was also the wife of a general and so able to persuade the then commanding officer of the regiment to form it up and charge her at her easel. Nevertheless, she has heavily dramatized her subject-matter: these riders (the right-hand half of the canvas is shown) are moving far too fast and on a collision course.

Leeds City Art Gallery


7. A German attack on an improvised British line of ‘scrapes’. The Germans have probably reached as close as they have thanks to the cover of the hedge on the right. One of them appears to be a mounted officer, which would place and date the photograph – one of the very few to show both attackers and defenders – to Belgium or France, August–September, 1914.



8. One of the few existing photographs of attacking troops taken from their front. These Russians, in battalion column, are charging a German or Austrian trench somewhere on the eastern front in the autumn of 1914. Several have already been hit. At some places on the Somme the German defenders may have been presented with targets almost as dense.



9. A French counter-attack at Dien Bien Phu, probably by men of the 6ième Bataillon de parachutistes coloniaux at strongpoint Eliane 1, April 10th, 1954. The helmets in the foreground are of the Vietminh defenders.

Daniel Camus, Paris Match

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!