Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Yes. But...

John Derbyshire discusses the remembrance of the Great War over at the Corner:

Why does WWI maintain such a grip on the imagination of the English? Open
any regimental history of the war at pretty much any page. I just did the
internet equivalent. "The Newfoundland battalion, for example, attacked 750
strong. 40 odd unwounded returned in the course of the day and the remaining 710
were casualties." Note that that particular battalion was part of the third
wave, and when they went "over the top" already knew that the first two waves
had been annihilated by enemy machinegun fire. "At the going down of the sun and
in the morning We will remember them."

The emotional reaction is entirely understandable. However, his quotation doesn't really answer the main tilt of his question, with its specific focus on the "English" (or, rather, British [and Commonwealth]). The appalling situation facing many British soldiers in the Great War is not in any way in question. What I do think is interesting (and of course I'm hardly original in this) is the fact that the war arguably has a far greater grip on the imagination of the British than on the collective imaginations of many other nations, in spite of the fact that in both absolute and relative terms we got of substantially more lightly than pretty much everybody but the Americans. In terms of proportions of the population and ratios of men enlisted to men killed and wounded we suffered notably less than the French, Germans and Russians, all of whom lost more on almost any measure you care to employ. And yet it seems to grip the British popular imagination more than it does those of our continental neighbours, who by any reckoning suffered substantially greater privations. There have been various critical inquiries into this, of course, perhaps most notably (and stridently) by Correlli Barnett, but it's still not a very widely recognised fact. Not that this in any way lessens the recognition due to our veterans and the validity of the memorial process.


Anonymous John Shepherd said...


First of all, welcome back.

Secondly, I'd like to raise an issue of causality. Derbyshire says, in part, "the first two waves had been annihilated by enemy machinegun fire". Is this true? My memory is that post-war statistical analysis indicated that artillery was the predominant killer on the WWI battlefields.

Much has been made of the impact of machineguns on the still-prevalent linear tactics of all combatants during WWI. It is my impression, however, that machineguns, like barbed wire, merely served to hold attacking troops in the killing zone, and that the killer was artillery.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...


Sorry for the delay in replying - only just noticed your comment.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that machinegun fire caused the majority of casualties in the case Derbyshire refers to but you are absolutely correct in noting that artillery was far and away the number 1 killer in the Great War (though the popular perception does indeed centre around machineguns).

The common perception is also of machinegunners spraying their guns around. This generally didn't happen either. What you tended to get was machineguns firing on fixed, interlocking lines in an attempt to ensure that no enemy troops could go from point A to point B without passing through a fire zone. Or at least that was the theory. Additionally, as the war progressed British and Dominion forces employed machinegun "barrages" - indirectly fired machineguns designed to dump onto German frontline trenches and keep their heads down.

As for the particular engagement Derbyshire is referring to, I'd need more details before I could comment on the specifics. As a rule though, yes, artillery was the big killer - though in terms of assaults this varied a bit as counter-battery fire got more effective as the war went on.

1:32 PM  

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