Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Pause for Reflection

Wednesday 30th December 1914: As the year draws to a close it might be interesting to pause and think about this war and the direction in which it appears to be going. We seem to be locked into a stalemate in which neither the enemy nor ourselves can achieve a decisive breakthrough. We have two sets of fortifications winding over the face of western Europe from the North Sea to the Swiss border, neither of which can be penetrated. The optimism of summer, that the war would be over by Christmas, has given way to the winter realisation that this could be a long, slow, grinding conflict. Field Marshal Lord Kitchener himself has given his opinion, that the war may last for three years.

The last great European war was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. In many ways it was similar to the wars of Napoleon, a war of manoeuvre, fought in the open, with decisive battles. This war seems a subterranean affair and battles seems to drag on for weeks, as we saw at Ypres in October and November, without a decisive result.

Some senior officers have shared their thoughts with us. They point out that trench systems, in depth, with second and third lines of defence, with the front line protected by barbed wire are reminiscent of the closing years of the great war between the states in America which lasted from 1861 to 1865. The final two years saw Union troops assaulting rebel positions with similar defences and, predictably, saw great loss of life for the attackers. Their eventual victory seems to have had as much to do with their weight of numbers (outnumbering their enemy by about two to one) and with the fact that their blockade starved their enemy of food and supplies.

We do not have weight of numbers on our side. The German army is somewhat larger than the French and our own forces are miniscule by comparison with both. It is true that the Russian army is vast, but Germany has Austria-Hungary as an ally, which makes up some of the difference and the officers to whom we spoke had a low opinion of the Russian army’s effectiveness as it is poorly equipped and poorly led. Until this country can bring the million men Lord Kitchener has called for into the field we will always be at a disadvantage. It is true that the Royal Navy has put an effective blockade in place but blockades take time for their effects to be felt – four years in the case of the conflict in America.

The officers with whom we spoke also pointed out three factors which mean that the nature of this war greatly favours defence over attack, as both we and the enemy have found to our cost. Firstly, the nature of the trench systems themselves; they are deep and extensive and men within them are relatively safe from bullet or shell. A shell might occasionally drop into a trench, though this is surprisingly rare, and at this point it will do great damage. However, the trenches are constructed in such a way as to negate blast from such an event, being zig-zags rather than straight lines, the blast being unable to go, with any real force, around corners so although the men in the immediate section of trench struck by the shell will be killed or incapacitated the blast will not affect men to any great distance either side.

Any attack made on a trench system must be made out in the open. Modern breach loading rifles mean that they can be fired extremely rapidly, causing many casualties in the attacking force. A new weapon, the machine gun, adds to the death toll in such attacks to an extraordinary degree. Such a weapon can fire around five hundred rounds per minute, twenty five times the rate of fire of even the most proficient rifleman, thus one machine gun is almost the equivalent of a platoon of ordinary soldiers. Finally artillery adds its destructiveness to the attackers. Shells burst in the air spraying shrapnel over a wide area killing may men with each burst and this, veterans tell us, even more than the machine gun, is the great killer.

Effective defences and the execution wrought by modern weapons are two of the factors which favour the defender in this war. The third is more difficult to understand but every bit as important. Again, we are indebted to the officers we have spoken to for pointing this out to us. Imagine a battle such as Waterloo, where, in 1815, the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army finally defeated Napoleon. It was a large battle, the duke had some 68,000 men under his command and the front line extended over three miles or so. Battles such as those around Ypres have had several hundred thousand men, of differing nationalities spread over a front of ten miles or more. This makes it very difficult for the general officer commanding to co-ordinate attacks.

The Duke of Wellington had only to send a staff officer on a horse with orders to units which he could see from his command post and the order might take five or ten minutes to get there. In theory today communication is instant, via the telephone, although the commander is unlikely to see the unit to which he is giving orders. This will make his reaction time slower as subordinate commanders will have to ring and give a verbal description of their situation. In reality things are worse than this. Those to whom we speak tell us that telephone lines are almost always cut by shells. This leaves only two methods of communication between the front line and the general – by pigeon, which is uncertain at best, or by runner. Even the swiftest man would take a considerable time to run the distance to headquarters over good roads. Given that he will be navigating trench systems full of men, mostly going the other way (that is towards the action), as well as equipment and ammunition and the time he takes to reach his headquarters is magnified considerably. A message may take an hour or more to reach its recipient and the same time for orders to travel back. In this passage of time much may have happened, making the order, when it arrives, obsolete. The commander on the ground is then faced with two choices – to disobey a direct order in the face of the enemy, or to carry out an obsolete order which may have grave consequences for the men under his command.

It is, therefore, not surprising that this war shows no sign on being resolved quickly. Let us hope that 1915 will bring an end to it but, equally, we should probably all gird our loins for several more years of unremitting and deadly toil.

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