Saturday, November 10, 2007

Veterans Day

The First World War nominally ended on November 11th. First celebrated as Armistice Day. It became Remembrance Day for the Commonwealth to honor those who had fallen. In the United States where Memorial Day already commemorated those who died defending our country it became Veteran’s Day to honor our veterans who came home.

Lord Grey, the British Foreign Minister described the beginning of the war as "The lamps are going out in Europe". The immediate costs in dead and treasure of this pointless war was horrific. The horror of the trenches scarred the psyche of the Western world. The resulting despair allowed political movements to come to influence and power, which have changed for the worse Western culture, the holocaust and gulag being just the tip of the iceburg. Too many of the lamps are still out.

It is a hard truth that this is an especially appropriate day to remember our veterans living and dead. One of the very few bright spots were the solders and sailors whose dedication, loyalty, and valor shamed the politicians and “statesman” who sent them to war. They should always be remembered.

But also we need to remember that in other wars it was this same dedication and valor that bought our Freedom and Liberty, certainly against the forces released as a result of the First World War and in other wars.

Enjoy the holiday, but remember to think of and pray for those who served.

Label:WWI posts

Note: The bad link is fixed.


Anonymous said...

On such a melancholy day it ill-behoves me to pick a fight, so let's just call it a minor correction. WWI was anything but "pointless". Germany was a militaristic society with aspirations, not just to take Europe under German hegemony, but to make Germany a world power on the ashes of the British empire. Perhaps none of that should have bothered the nascent giant of the USA until you, as an American, consider for a moment the difference between dealing with a bunch of half-mad, heel-clicking Huns with delusions of grandeur, and a collection of effete, Eton-educated, half-wits who already sensed the sun was, at last, setting on their empire and were not totally averse to handing on the responsibility to a nation which at least shared a common heritage and culture.

The fact that the inevitable war was terrifyingly bloody, as you know probably better than me, had more to do with the impossibility of getting an infantryman made of flesh and blood across 250 yards of ground against machine guns firing at 600 rounds per minute, a problem neither side solved until (too late) they invented the AFV.

The First World War was absolutely and crucially necessary.

hank_F_M said...


Thanks for different perspective. Some how I do not think trading Kaiser Willy for Hitler and Stalin was trade up.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Excellent post, Hank, and I would definitely agree with your response to the first comment.

Militarism was part of Wilhelmine Germany, as it was of Russia, France, and Austria-Hungary, all in different degrees and for different reasons. But there were other forces at work too in those places, and the political balance of power, in Germany, was moving away from the more militaristic parts of Junkerdom, just as in Russia it was moving way from the more repellent aspects of the autocracy there.

But in any case, the Kaiser was not Hitler, and Imperial Germany was not Nazi Germany. At least in my own opinion, the right did not belong to one side or the other in that war, alone. If Britain and France went to war to protect the rights of small countries like Belgium, and to honor their alliances, the Austrians went to war to avenge their fouly murdered Prince, and the Germans to honor their own treaties; and the Americans to protect the right of their vessels to proceed on the seas unmolested.

No war would have been better than war, and stopping the war with a compromise peace, as soon as possible, would have been better than prosecuting it to the end. As Correlli Barnett (who has influenced my thinking on this subject, although not on Napoleon) -- put it, ". . .the desire for total victory was not rational. The fruits of the victory, or the fate it would prevent, could never be proportionate to the sacrifices. . .'Civilisation' belonged to neither side exclusively."

We cannot know what would have happened had the European state system dodged the bullet that was the July Crisis which gave us the Great War; or had the Great War instead been a Third Balkan War limited to Austria and Serbia. (Serbia had more advantages that way than are generally supposed). In any case, it could hardly have been worse, for millions and millions of people down to today, than what actually happened.

David is on to something with this point about casualties and AFV's, although it was equally or even more important that field-grade officers learned the value of working their infantry in smaller, independent groups, with leaders entitled and psychologically able to use discretion, and that the infantry and artillery (especially in the German Army, but eventually in the others) finally began to learn to work together, thanks to officers like, among others, OberstBruchmuller. The development of man-packable radios, later on, surely helped.

Anonymous said...

I can't agree with EJM, above. First, I think he underestimates the potential evil of 'Junkerdom' without the restraining hand of Bismark. One only need look at their record in Africa where they slaughtered the natives wholesale to gain an insight as to their likely conduct in Europe had they ruled the continent.

Secondly, when Barnett wrote ". . .the desire for total victory was not rational. The fruits of the victory, or the fate it would prevent, could never be proportionate to the sacrifices. . ." he was benefiting from the 20/20 vision that hindsight offers. In 1914, the German General Staff (GGS), in effect the government of Germany, was utterly *convinced* they would win the war in weeks and impose German hegemony at the 'peace' talks. If they had *known* that the Schlieffen plan would fail, would they have given the green light to Austria? I think not. The GGS believed in a short war not as a result of wishful thinking, but on the basis of years of accrued military expertise practiced in war games over and over again. On their part it was not a hope for the best, but meticulously researched *expert* thinking - yet another reason for always doubting experts! (Although, it must be admitted that they came within a whisker of pulling it off!)

It is a myth, I think, to suppose that the leaders, military and civilian, were in much doubt as to the bloody nature of the war if it broke out - hence, Grey's glooming prognostication on the lamps going out over Europe, etc. It was the German belief in quick victory that closed all options.

Also, I would disagree with the inference that Britain, France, Russia - and Germany were equivalent. None of the first three nations would have attacked Germany in 1914 if Germany had restrained its ally Austria; they were forced into war - or surrender! Granted, the French might have been keener than most given their desire to recover Alsace Lorraine, but they would never have mounted an attack without provocation, and not without allies.

The British had the biggest amount of leeway which is why they dithered until literally the last minute. But for them the grand strategic issue was always naval, that is, if Germany over-ran France they would have naval ports on the Atlantic and a grip round out throat. If France was saved, the German navy would be bottled up in the North Sea and the great battle between the two fleets could be fought there, where 'Jacky' Fisher always believed it would be.

My illustration of the fundamental problems of operational warfare at that time was, of course, lacking in detail!

El Jefe Maximo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Jefe Maximo said...

(Sorry, the paragraphs botched on first attempt).

Bismarck as a restraining force ? I about lost my breakfast at that one. Well, yes, certainly Bismarck was an apostle of restraint: after he had won, but from 1862-1871 he was the biggest trouble-maker in Europe. Bismarck, in this period the poster-child for evil Junkerdom if ever there was one, engineered three wars mostly by himeself and created the German Empire almost despite the wishes of his nominal master, the King of Prussia.

Bismarck was a positive genius at posing at the voice of moderation while actually being the biggest bomb-thrower in the room.

After Bismarck won his wars, of course he was restrained in foreign policy: he knew that France had to be kept isolated, and for that to work, Europe had to be kept quiet. Domestically, he was anything but restrained, and as a quasi-dictator did so much to ruin his own creation. When Wilhelm II got tired of Bismarck and fired him, there was nobody competent enough to replace him in foreign policy – largely his own fault, because he systematically undermined anybody who looked like a potential successor.

As for “Junkerdom” in Africa; nobody else’s hands were clean either. Wholesale slaughter went with colonialism.

As for the General Staff in 1914: yes much of it was convinced that Schlieffen’s plan, as tinkered with by Moltke the younger, would work as advertised. Moltke himself was not so sure. The General Staff believed in a short war because it was the only war Germany looked like having a prayer of winning if Britain came in. (In fact, Russia was weaker than it appeared so this was fallacious, but the Germans could not know that in 1914). I’m not sure they came that close to having it work: yes, they got deep into France through Belgium, but the French were not completely asleep at the switch and shifted their weight to counter the right hook.

The best chance of the Germans actually beating the French was in the battles along the frontiers by bagging the 5th Army and then rolling up the French line. But the Germans ran into the BEF and the French pulled out of the sack around Charleroi in time. Later on, even if the Germans had been able to stay over the Marne – they had no plan for dealing with the Paris fortifications – which meant their right was hanging wide open. Unless they could disrupt the French rail-net (a possibility the Germans weren’t tuned into, but I don’t have my notes here, it would have been hard to pull off the giant Cannae they planned under those conditions. I’m away from my books and papers, but I think the main problem with the Schlieffen plan was that it was too ambitious: the forces allocated to the right hook were insufficient, but quite as much as the Germans could supply. Probably they’d have done better to abandon the big encirclement idea and try to grab the channel ports instead.

For their part, the French were convinced that Plan 17 would rapidly smash the Germans and recover Alsace-Lorraine, and the Russians were convinced they could beat the Austro-Hungarians quickly. Oddly enough, the Russians, despite their poor performance against the Germans in East Prussia, were nearer being right (as to Austria) than anybody else; albeit at a much higher cost that they thought of paying in their worst nightmares.

Sure the “experts” (and boy is David right about them) knew it was going to be bloody – but not HOW bloody. The campaign wound down at the end of the year for a spell primarily because everybody was out of ammo.

As for nobody attacking anybody else in 1914 if the Germans had only restrained Austria, best I can do with that one is a “maybe.” First off, why the hell should the Germans have restrained Austria, as least as regards Serbia ? The Serbians were up to their necks in supporting terrorist and rebel groups in Bosnia , and, although the Austrians didn’t have any proof that the Serbians had offed Franz-Ferdinand, they strongly suspected it – and we now know that rogue elements of Serbian intelligence were at least involved. Look what we did in Afghanistan because of 9/11. Why is the Austrian case different ? But the Russians stuck their noses in – for what seemed to them good reasons – and that turned a local crisis into a World War.

As to the French – the government of that country did not in general want a war, but their ambassador in St. Petersburg was, at the least, not unhappy with the idea of war – as long as Russia was in it too, and he did all he could to push the Russian government in that direction. And with good reason ! Remember, the annual French conscription, unlike anybody else’s, including Germany’s or Russia’s, called up almost all the eligible manpower. France had a smaller population, so had to use more of its manpower. Four-fifths of males 17-65 in France had some kind of active or reserve military obligation.

This was, to say the least, politically controversial. Given the falling French birthrate next to that of Germany, if France was ever going to recover Alsace-Lorraine, it had to be soon. The French never would have mounted an attack without provocation – but there were some in France willing to see the provocation supplied. Spengler argues this case, better than I can, here.

The British did dither, but I don’t know that they had much leeway, not only for the strategic reasons David describes, but because the whole momentum of British military and naval planning assumed British belligerency in alliance with France. The dithering was to allow the Liberal Party to find a political way to square this circle.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating conversation, 'EJM', and I trust my remarks concerning Bismark did not cause you to reach for the smelling salts! Of course, Bismark was a brutal exponent of 'real-politik' and was certainly not one to have moral scruples over a war or three, *but*, he only ever used war as a means to a political aim, and his aims were always within reason. Thus, he had no interest in Germany becoming a world power, and if he had been in command the huge German fleet would never have been built and Britain would have remained steadfastly neutral. Nor was he in favour of holding on to teh provinces of Alsace Lorraine because he knew that so long as Germany held them, France would be an eternal enemy. However, the court party had their way and so he insisted on a strict policy of 'friendship' with Russia in order to keep them well away from French enticements. The minute he was gone, the new, young and psychotic Kaiser upset all his careful arrangements.

No time now to look up the details in order to to provide details of British and German behaviour in Africa but there is no comparison.

Equally, no time now to enjoy the never-ending game of 'what if' during Aug/Sep 1914. For example, what if the British army had continued on its withdrawal to the Atlantic coast instead of blundering back into the line between two German corps - causing as much shock to themselves as to the Germans?

As I say, fascinating!

hank_F_M said...

David/El Jefe

It is always nice to learn something. Thank you.

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