Tuesday 21 January 2014

Lions And Donkeys Or Leaders And Led

A post on the Army Rumour Service web site led me to the BBC item on the characterisation of the British Army during World War One as lions led by donkeys.  The article is a debunking of ten beliefs of the war that have been become common place in recent decades.

The linked article is short enough and clear in making its points. In spite of the intention to avoid this subject until much later in the year, this week there was cause to change the mind.  The National Archive has digitised a number of the War Diaries of some of the units and they are available to view or download.

It is a while since I was going through some of these at Kew, then the Public Record Office, now the National Archive.  It was a costly and time consuming business to go, call up the records and read them, despite being free to enter and look.  Photocopying was not cheap and some not allowed because of the delicate state of the documents.

Now it can be done at home, at leisure and very cheaply given that the broadband links and computer are already in place.  There is still the question of what you are looking at.  The writers of the diaries were different men in a different time and the nuances and meaning of the terse phrasing are not of our present language structures.

Also, it is often almost a technical wording that needs some expertise to fully understand.  Some historians I feel do not fully grasp the essentials of what is there.  Having been in the Army and although mercifully never in battle conditions, I did spend a great deal of time out there in the field doing what might have to be done.  That included keeping the Divisional Log, the basis of any diary or reporting.

A great deal of debate is about officers and men.    Again you have to go back to the realities of the period.  The officer corps was not simply aristocratic.  As well as their younger sons making a military career there were many others from the lower ranks of the county and minor landed classes.  In all of these was commonly a long military or naval tradition.

That they had been to public schools or equivalent on the whole meant that they had a substantial basic education.  Also, they were likely to have done time in the school Army Training Corps.  Then there is the bit rarely mentioned.  For most, nearly all of them there was the experience of field sports, rushing around the countryside becoming familiar with "ground" and using guns.

This was not the case with the modest number of those who had some higher level day secondary education.  The great majority of men had only a handful of years experience for the most part in Elementary Schools of variable quality.  Physical training was usually basic drills on a small school yard. 

There were numbers of men who had studied further after school and many of these became warrant officers (senior NCO's) and sergeants because they were capable of dealing with the paper etc. as well as doing well as soldiers.  In the later years of the war some of these men were commissioned as the manpower crisis worsened.

The officers in 1914 were broadly of three levels.  Junior officers who were leaders of men but did not make decisions, field commanders of companies, battalions/regiments and at brigade who made decisions within a determined framework of operations, and senior staff at Division, Corps and Army who issued the general operation orders.

The Army then was relatively well trained with high standards of marksmanship and with a lot of field experience around the world in small wars.  So at the level of field commander it was very capable.  The junior officers and men were professional and also capable.  The senior staff knew how to fight small mobile wars but not large scale continental wars.  They had to learn on the job.

As the war went on the old professional Army was lost, but among the field commanders were many men of experience and still capable.  The junior officers suffered heavy losses and became increasingly junior.  The senior staff had to direct a war for which the Army had neither been prepared or equipped and without experience of the logistics on this scale.

The politicians who had started the war proved unable to come to a way of stopping it and there was no other major world power to intervene to knock heads together.  The USA was busy with elections, making money and regarded the matter as one to stay away from until 1917.
The critical difference between WW1 and many others is the relatively static nature of the fighting in the trench warfare  This meant that in many ways it was a far more bureaucratic war than others, so there is a much bigger paper trail at all levels. 

Also there was almost a permanent infrastructure behind the lines in which more time was spent than in the trenches.  The reason for this is quite simple.  After very few days of action a typical unit could be exhausted, even if casualties were light.  The 24/7 nature of time in the trenches was not sustainable for long.  My memory is that ten days out there of constant movement and work with little or no rest left you shattered.

One period of the war typically is less mentioned than others and that is the Great Spring Offensive of Spring 1918, also known as the Ludendorff Offensive (see Wikipedia for summary) when for a short space of time the Germans had an advantage.  The assault south of Arras succeeded.  The Germans nearly made it to the coast. 

But Arras was held and the Germans became exhausted and ground to a halt.  This left them both exposed with major salients and vulnerable to counter attack.  The rest of 1918 was a story of Allied advance and gradual attrition of Germany both in the field and in the factories.

What is not said was that to some extent the British were aware and ready.  In one part of my download above, is a report by the GOC of 3 Div (The Iron Division) to Army about a trench raid by the Germans on 13 Bn Kings Liverpool in mid February 1918.  It is clear he knew what Storm Troopers were, that there was a general awareness of the dangers of any German assault and was deeply worried whether the British could handle it.

One matter that has to be allowed is that because of modern technology and facilities it is now far easier and less time consuming to go through much of the detail.  And it is the detail that can tell us so much more than we knew in the past. It has become possible to track very many men individually, who they were, background and the rest and this in itself tells another part of the story.

Again, it was the politicians who started the war who had little or no idea of what might happen.  For the UK it had been a century since our last major continental war.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. There does seem to be much media focussing on Europe and us Brits - I have to constantly inform the grandchildren (20 and 21 - not much history taught in school nowadays) that it was a World War, fought on land sea and air by many different nations. I took their mothers to Ypres in the early 70s. My uncle died near Ypres, my Dad was at Scapa Floe as a boy sailor WW1, then on the China station, and he survived on a destroyer through WW2.