Monday, August 08, 2005

The Horror of the Trenches.

We just commemorated the 60th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

A lot of comment of differing quality has been posted on this event. (Two of the best, pro and con, come from R J Rummel
II and Dean Esmay (The Links have died 4/13/11) But it seems that an important piece of background information is being overlooked across the board. Namely the total horror of the trench warfare of the First World War.

In 1914 the armies in France quickly developed a line from Switzerland to the coast. Both sides dug trenches to fortify their positions. Any attack was a suicidal frontal assault against a well dug in enemy. At the time there was no way to break the stalemate. Eventually the French tried a strategy of attrition at Verdun. Once I visited that battlefield. The guide, apparently referencing a known incident, said this is where the XXth Division died in 15 minutes. An area that was barely two square kilometers. The whole tour was one incident after another like that. We saw a bunker where several buses of elderly Germans were stopping to pray and remember. An annual trip to the grave of a nine hundred of their relatives. Members of a regiment that was in bunker when French artillery closed all the exits. On and on and on. The Somme, I’m sure, was the same way. The big American battle was the Muse Argonne, many of the same stories. The 35th division was effectively destroyed in four days. Over a quarter of the infantry were killed, like numbers of wounded or stragglers wandering around the battlefield looking for a safe place.

One result of the trench warfare was there was a firm commitment that this would never never happen again. To the point that normal judgment was warped.


The advent of the airplane in WWI as a weapon promised a way out of the trap. There were three schools of thought on the use of Air Power.

The first is tactical. Use aircraft as long-range field or naval guns to support ground or naval operations.

The second is strategic. Use aircraft to destroy factories, supply dumps, and similar targets that support the war effort.

The third was terror bombing. Bombing civilians to break the will of the enemy and force surrender. If you have any questions about the horror of the trenches in WWI, consider that the promise that terror bombing could be done so that only the enemy was hurt was persuasive.

To put it another way, military targets strictly defined, military targets loosely defined and often near civilian areas, and terror bombing of civilians.

The first option was held mostly in services that could never afford large bombers, or the services air section would have no purpose if it was not tactical.

The third option came to dominate the thinking of the RAF with the approval of most the involved civilian leadership accrues the board.

US Army Air Corp thought they could win with the second option, though there was a minority of officers and civilian leadership support in favor of the third option.

Neither the RAF, nor the Army Air Corp put much pre-war effort into tactical bombing.

So when the US and UK entered WWII there was a strong commitment to strategic and even terror bombing in parts of the Air Forces and in the Civilian leadership. Massive amounts of resources were committed to this at the governmental level. The Manhattan project was simply an extension of this program.

The terror bombing option was the result of what happened in the trenches in WWI. The memory burned so hard that even terror bombing looked like proportionally less evil than going back to the trenches. An attitude that would have been unthinkable before WWI and is becoming more so again. When we look at things like the RAF de-housing campaign in Germany or Gen LeMay’s fire bombing of Japan or the decision to use the Atomic bomb, it was made in a context where they saw a far greater evil. (Ironically the targeting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made with much more reference to military value than General LeMay's firebombing.) Captain Truman was an officer in the 35th Division noted above. When President Truman was looking at the decision to use the atomic bomb, he was comparing a known horror burned in his memory that would have been repeated when Japan was invaded, against an abstraction of the results of an unproven weapons system. Something that I’m sure weighed on his decision in a way we can’t comprehend.


Looking through hindsight, it was the tactical operations that proved the greatest contribution to the war effort; and it seems that the tactical element has consistently proven of greatest value.

The strategic bombing was really beyond the technologies of the time, but did make some contribution to victory, but some commentators have suggested the assets would have been better directed into a few more ground divisions and tactical air support. The development of smart bombs that can actually hit the target, and consistently avoid nearby civilian targets is giving this option more promise.

The terror bombing was always counter productive, creating no real change in war production but galvanizing enemy determination. It does not seem to been applied by any major power since then, and WWI being a memory long superseded by the memory of Hiroshima it will probably not be tried again, though every now and they you hear some fool advocate it.


A thought.

What in the name of "Hiroshima - never again" will we accept?


Note 1: The point of this post is not to justify or condemn, just explain. Much comment is pro and con is devoid of solid knowledge of the events in 1945. The issue is to important for the ignorant comments that come from both sides. This is, I hope a minor contribution to informed discussion.

Note 2: The decision has to be evaluated on the information available to the decision makers and a reasonable evaluation of the consequences of all options. It seems to me that, in August 1945, and at the end point of a number of poor decisions, based on the best information available, using the Atomic bomb appeared to be the option that would end the war fastest with the least additional loss of life. Including information not available to them reinforces this conclusion.

Personal note: When US troops landed in Japan, they were not sure what to expect so they landed in assault formation. My father led a rifle platoon in the first wave. In the normal course of these events, if the landing was opposed, he would have died five years before I was born.

Update: 7 September 2005, 13 April 2011

Dr Rummel considered some new information and modified his position (Link Dead)


Ronald Rutherford said...

Very good post, thank you.
It had some points similar to my comments also on the same blog of Dr. Rummel. And at RDRutherford.

Anonymous said...

The horror of the trenches was best exemplified by the Battle of the Somme. See my docudrama on this at:

Rudy Rummel

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