Friday, December 30, 2005

Muddy Boots

Dan Todman has the first draft of a joint book review up that repays reading.

Quite apart from anything else, prior to reading it I had no intention whatsoever of buying Peter Hart's book (largely because I had assumed it would be another Lyn MacDonald etc) and now I've got it down on my list of books to get hold of. The Prior & Wilson book is well worth getting hold of, though as has been noted we're probably still a little way from any one volume on the Somme that is comprehensively adequate.

Dan's questioning of Prior & Wilson's focus on Haig is, in my view, appropriate - and doubly ironic given that Prior and Wilson have spent time in the past productively attacking writers who have perpetuated the Haig-centirc focus of the historiography.

As Dan notes, P&W document the fact - which really should be widely recognised by now, but isn't - that the popular image of British infantry marching slowly shoulder-to-shoulder into machine gun fire and being mowed down in rows is largely a load of old nonsense. Perhaps the most interesting thing to draw out of this, a fact that I think goes to the heart of British Army performance during the war, is the fact that different units acted very, very differently. In some cases this was due to local conditions. However, what it does throw into stark relief is the fact that well into 1918 what we would nowadays recognise as a coherent doctrine really did not exist in anything more than embryonic fashion within the army. British best practice in numerous areas was extremely good and in some cases better than that of the Germans, but unlike in the case of the Germans, the mechanisms by which best practice could be disseminated and promoted were inadequate.* For all that the Somme can be at least partly legitimately described as the "crucible" of the British Army, the fact remains - and it's a fact that learning curve advocates, among whose number I count myself, have to grapple with - not only that the British Army would, for a variety of reasons, get itself into an even bigger mess in 1917, but also that one of the primary reasons for German success in 1918 was a near scandalous failure of the results of lessons-learned to be disseminated evenly, not only from army to army (as with the general view that 2nd Army was a great posting and 5th Army was an invitation to have your clogs forcibly popped) but actually within army and even corps formations. When the Germans struck in 1918, some of 5th Army's formations were deployed in a manner that would have met with approval from any modern military commander, while others were set out in a manner that hard practice had (should have - even without hindsight) demonstrated was unlikely to be durable enough to meet an assault, largely on the whim of individual major-generals. In some cases there were mitigating circumstances, in others not.

This shouldn't take away from the overall achievement. The improvement in the British Army to the demands of modern warfare 1914-1918 can plausibly be argued to outweigh any improvement (or none) it made 1939-45. This achievement is doubly impressive when one considers its roots as essentially a colonial police force, pitted against a modern army designed for massive-scale continental combat. At the very worst the British Army put in a performance worthy of Rocky Balboa in Rocky (and at best in Rocky II. Or IV. Or something.). But it is interesting to note the extent to which different officers, including as high up as army and army group command, were able to work on what should have been a unified plan while nursing substantially different assumptions regarding what was going on.

*doctrinal underdevelopment is actually a key theme in examining the 20th century British Army at least into the 1980s, but that's a whole other story.


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