Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Archive for November 8, 2013

Frontline Soldiers in World War One:

The British lost 1.53% of their population in military service during the Great War, the Germans lost 3.23% and the French 3.7%1.

Fatalities in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) were on average 1 in 7 for officers and 1 in 8 for other ranks, and on the Western Front 10% of these fatalities were caused by something other than enemy action (in East Africa over 70% were non-battle fatalities). In the last month of the war alone, over 2,500 british soldiers died from Spanish Flu.

Furthermore, the British suffered over 6 million non-fatal casualties, some 65% of which were classified as non-battle injuries across all theatres, but the British only reported injuries which prevented a soldier from reporting for duty, regardless of how they were caused. Thus if you were going to die then it was likely to be the enemy who were responsible, but injury was more likely to come from a different source. Also many soldiers would suffer multiple wounds so it is very difficult to estimate the chances of a British soldier being wounded during a particular period of time.

The issue is further clouded by the definition of a front line soldier. Before the war it was easy to categorise the infantry, artillery and cavalry as front line (a habit which persists in the Army to this day), but come the middle of the war an artilleryman could find himself posted from the field artillery, a front line unit, to garrison artillery, which sat much further back. Also infantry units were rotated in and out of the front line on a regular basis and so, by sheer caprice, some found themselves in contact with the enemy more often than others. The reach of artillery also brought soldiers in traditionally safer occupations (e.g. drivers or medics) in to the midst of battle.

The census data from 1911 to 1921 shows that 14% of men who would have been of fighting age at some point during the war died during that period. The vast majority of these are for non-war related reasons and for soldiers from the most impoverished sectors of society, life on the Western front was healthier and less dangerous than civilian life at home.

*This gives you some idea why the French did everything they could to avoid war in 1939/40, including their failure to go on the offensive in any meaningful way.

Finger Pointing/ Blame Game

It is universally acknowledged that the United States is a capitalist economic system embedded in a democratic republic political system. When both systems function smoothly, few question this arrangement.

But when one system or the other malfunctions, fingers are pointed and blamed is shifted… all according to one’s ideological beliefs. Take the British Petroleum/Gulf of Mexico oil spill for instance. The people of Louisiana and the vehicle drivers of the nation were happy to have the oil the offshore facilities produced. Jobs were created in Louisiana and the rest of us had gas for our cars. Both assumed the operator, British Petroleum, knew what it was doing and that the appropriate agencies of the U.S. government were regulating its behavior.

Problems arose, however, when BP’s “fail-safe” system failed. Turns out it didn’t know what it was doing. And regulators in both the Bush and Obama administrations weren’t paying enough attention. Now the “free market” disciples are blaming the government, and the critics of corporate excess are blaming BP. The purpose here is not to join one side or the other (though both entities and both systems failed), but rather to encourage both warring sides to consider a new model.

Anyone who takes the trouble to read American history knows that, left to its own devices, corporate interest more often than not puts profits ahead of the public interest. (Consider not only British Petroleum, but also the operators of the West Virginia coal mine.) Likewise, the same history tells us that, when government relaxes its protection of the public interest and the common good, whether out of lassitude or belief that government should not reign in excessive corporate excess, bad things happen.

A mature society, one that understood both history and human nature, would reach a thoughtful balance that permits private corporate interests to drive economic growth, and make a reasonable profit, under conditions where the public interest, the common good, and the interests of future generations and nature were represented by well-trained, alert, dedicated, disinterested (that is to say, not regulators drawn from the industries they are sworn to regulate), and knowledgeable government officials made fail safe systems work.

This is not an impossible dream. It is how reasonable people behave. It is how a mature nation, which the United States of America should be by now, acts. It is the very least the people of the United States should expect from both corporate interests and their own government.

The world wars are interesting because most of the narrative is bullshit.

For example, we’re told Germany invaded Poland to start World War Two, but this ignores how the Austrian-Hungarian empire was parceled at the end of World War One, including the very part that Germany invaded (Danzig corridor). When Russia invaded Poland soon after, neither France nor England declared war on them also. All of Germany’s “invasions” were reuniting the Austrian-Hungarian empire, or for preventing the continental landing by the British. This is why they took: north France (not South), Belgium and Norway (not Sweden nor Finland). Same with Saddam Hussein’s “invasion” of Kuwait. Kuwait and Iraq had been part of the Ottoman empire until World War One parceled it up. 100 years later and Bush’s extension of England’s wars to maintain world domination are still at work.

Churchill began blitzkrieg bombing civilian German areas before Germany ever did, and on the very next day after he took office. 10x as many German civilians were killed in blitzkrieg bombing than English civilians.

Jesse Owens was never snubbed by Hitler, and said in his autobiography that Hitler rose and waved at him.

Victors write history. I’m not defending the Nazis, but a hell of a lot of facts about history are buried to create a fictional good/evil dichotomy. However, after the war, Churchill did say “we slaughtered the wrong pig”. It’s never much acknowledged that National Socialism arose primarily as a reaction to Communism, it’s extent of power intended to match it so Germany itself would not be overtaken by Communists, as it was directly after the war.

A Basic Summary of World War One:

Europe had a long standing culture of regarding war as glorious and honorable Together with a complicated set of alliances that essentially broke most of the world into two camps war was really inevitable. Unfortunately iindustrializationallowed mass production of soldiers and material which meant the war was far larger than the people who started it envisioned.

So the trigger was an Austrian Archduke being shot by a Serb, Gavrilo Princip. Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia considered itself the protector of the balkans and declared war on Austria. Germany declared war Russia, and to avoid fighting a war on two fronts declared war on France in the hopes on knocking them out before the technologically backwards Russians could mobilize.

France had an excellent defensive line but it didn’t extend as far as Belgium and so Germany invaded Belgium. Britain was a guarantor of Belgium neutrality and so declared war on Germany.

Britain, France and Russia were known as the Triple Entente, while Germany, Austro-Hungary and later the Ottoman Empire were referred to as the Central Powers.

The early war had movement on both east and west fronts. Germany did well in the west and poorly in the east, but nowhere was decisive. The war dragged on, with most of the professional armies being destroyed and large conscript or volunteer forces replacing them.

1915 – Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente and the Ottoman empire joined the central powers. The last great cavalry charges occurred. The western front stagnated and trench warfare solidified. Hindenburg and Ludendorff distinguished themselves on the eastern front.

Britain attacked the Ottomans at Gallipolli, it was a catastrophic failure.

1916 – The new armies were ready to use on-masse. Faulkner attacked Verdun not to take ground but to kill as many enemies as possible, a new and terrifying tactic. It had mixed success causing huge French casualties but giving them a morale boost.

The British attacked on the Somme to relive pressure on France, it was the worst military affair In British history. The tank was used for the first time.

Germany was under blockade, but managed to blockade Britain through the use of submarines. This caused diplomatic problems with neutrals.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff became de facto leaders of Germany.

1917 – Russia had a civil war due to the extremely poor conditions for their soldiers and civilians. The communists took control (with the help of Germany). Russia left the war seeding large amounts of land and resources to Germany.

America joined the war. The stated cause was Germanys submarine usage (in particular the sinking of the Lusitania) but really America had been funding the entente and it now looked like they might lose (and hence America would lose alot of money). This had huge implications. America had been isolationist, focusing instead on gaining hold of their massive new territory. But now they became an extremely powerful world player.

Western front was a stalemate. Britain started a campaign to make Arabs rise against their Turkish masters.

1918 – Germany was starving. This year had the most casualties of the war. Germany launched a last ditch offensive which was a surprising success. However the advance outran communication lines and stalled. The Entente counter attack was successful, the German people lost the will to fight.

The Arab uprising was successful and destroyed the Ottoman empire.

A poorly thought out peace treaty was signed and the guns finally fell silent.

The Battle of Passchendale

I came across this horrific story while reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent new history of WW I To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion

This was a brutal battle, typical of WW I battles. Here, British Empire troops (including Britons, Indians, and Canadians) launched an assault against the German lines beginning July 17, 1917. While the battle was scheduled to be only a few days, it turned into several months. British forces would begin with a barrage of artillery shelling from the front of the enemy lines, then aiming farther back to cover the lines and the area behind them. Then soldiers would march forward, cutting barbed wire and enduring return shelling from the Germans. If all went well, they would push the Germans back and regain Belgian territory.

However, the ground where the battle took place – near the Belgian village of Passchendale – was at a low altitude above sea level. The water table was only a few feet below the ground. When the shelling began, the ground was dry, but after the artillery assault and return fire from the Germans, the land between the lines was cratered like the moon. Meanwhile, it had begun to rain.

The rain, combined with the high water table, turned the ground into a soupy mud. Men, horses and equipment became stuck in the mud. From the book:

“I cannot attempt to describe the conditions under which we are fighting,” wrote John Mortimer Wheeler, later a well-known archaeologist. “Anything I could write about them would seem an exaggeration but would, in reality, be miles below the truth…. The mud is not so much mud as a fathomless, sticky morass. The shell holes, where they do not actually merge into one another, are divided only by a few inches of this glutinous mud…. The gunners work thigh-deep in water.” Some British artillery pieces dug themselves so deeply into the mud with their recoils that they dropped below the surface; the crew would then put up a flag to mark the spot.

Injured men would crawl into shell craters to shield themselves from gunfire, only to find the crater filling up with water. Untold thousands drowned.

Private Charlie Miles of the Royal Fusiliers carried messages as a runner—a misnomer in this season: “The moment you set off you felt that dreadful suction…. In a way, it was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down…[then] you knew that it was a body you were treading on. It was terrifying. You’d tread on one on the stomach, perhaps, and it would grunt all the air out…. The smell could make you vomit.” And when shells landed, they blasted waterlogged, putrefying corpses into the air, showering pieces of them down on the soldiers who were still alive.

Meanwhile, the combination of censorship and state propaganda meant that a rosy picture of the battle and its heroism and victory was being pumped out all over Britain:

British, Australian, and Canadian troops inched ever closer to the little village of Passchendaele as newspaper headlines triumphally announced, “Our Position Improved; Heroism in the New Advance” (the Times); “Complete Success in Battle of the Pill Boxes; Haig’s Smashing Blow” (the Daily Mirror).

In the sanitizing language of newspapers and memorial services, these Canadians, and all the British Empire troops who lost their lives in the three-and-a-half-month battle, were referred to as the “fallen.” But in the mud of Passchendaele, falling dead from a bullet wound was only for the lucky:”A party of ‘A’ Company men passing up to the front line found … a man bogged to above the knees,” remembered Major C. A. Bill of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. “The united efforts of four of them, with rifles beneath his armpits, made not the slightest impression, and to dig, even if shovels had been available, would be impossible, for there was no foothold. Duty compelled them to move on up to the line, and when two days later they passed down that way the wretched fellow was still there; but only his head was now visible and he was raving mad.”

Life & Death in The Trenches:

Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves, paints a pretty graphic depiction of life and death in the trenches and goes into trench raids quite a bit. Graves trained to become an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (a regular army battalion), but ended up being deployed with the Welsh Regiment (territorials). His reflections on trench storming vary quite a bit between the two units – everything depended on the circumstances. Who were you attacking, and how long had they been on the line? Were you attacking during the day or at night? Were your attackers particularly keen or experienced at going over? Graves wrote a lot about how the Welsh Regiment was primarily composed of miners, who, while being excellent diggers, were not too pumped about lobbing grenades into German trenches. They spent most evenings spraying the German lines with rifle and machine gun fire, and would leave it at that (they also made tea with the hot water produced off the machine guns, fun fact). The officers had a hell of a time getting them to do much raiding.
 Around the time of the Battle of Loos, Graves pretty much gave up on life, and frequently volunteered to go on trench raids at night. I believe this was after he had been transferred to the RWF. He usually took a small squad of men (as to avoid detection) armed with multiple grenades and Webley revolvers. He became pretty good at raids, and mortality rates on his sorties were apparently pretty low. Another book, K-1 the First Hundred Thousand, by Ian Hay, (an excellent read BTW) is about a fictional unit (It’s supposed to be The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders) fighting in France. It is available for free in many places on line, and discusses trench raiding and its evolution quite a bit (among many MANY other things). Before the advent of more technologically advanced grenades, many soldiers were forced to simply “make do” and used crude substitutes (that were also occasionally furnished by the government) like “jam tin” grenades, which were tin cans stuffed with cordite and a fuse. Better grenades usually meant safer conditions for the ones throwing them, and better results on targets. To try to better answer your question, from what I’ve read, trench raiding evolved pretty extensively during the war, especially in the opening years. If anything, trench raiding quickly became “an art form” (so said Ian Hay, who performed it) and men were self proclaimed “specialists” in what they did – be it throwing grenades, cutting wire, or sneaking around. That being said, mortality and success rates really depended on the circumstances of the fight. Doing a raid during the day, for example was generally a terrible idea. Doing one at night under cover of fog, was a much better one. Having experienced soldiers that had a clear idea of what was going on (and what they should be doing) was an obvious bonus. Just remember to freeze when the flare goes up.

Trench Stroming in World War One:

Trench storming was obviously important, since it was the only possible way to break through the unflankable 400-mile Western Front. What’s more interesting is to see whether it actually worked. According to popular belief this is a no-brainer–assaults during World War One never worked! They were just a complete waste of human life by unimaginative and out-of-touch generals living in mansions miles behind the front line who had no understanding of the number of lives they were throwing away to no purpose! This stereotype is quite simply wrong. Trench assaults could and often did succeed.

Until the end of 1914 the war was obviously extremely mobile, yet even after it settled down into a war of attrition, it was still possible to break the deadlock. At Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the British broke through the single German trench line, thanks to a rapid (35-minute) and extremely concentrated bombardment. This success wasn’t followed through quickly enough to achieve an operational breakthrough, but tactically, the British had well and truly succeeded in overcoming the German defences. The British took the wrong lesson from this; they reasoned that longer and heavier barrages would allow even greater successes, failing to realize that the barrage worked so well at Neuve Chapelle only because it was short and focused on a narrow section of the front. At Loos in September-October 1915, the dispersed bombardment failed to destroy the German defences, although even then, the British were able to break through the defences; again, breakthrough was only prevented by the late arrival of reserves. By the time the offensive could renew, the Germans had reconstituted their defence; but again, the attack was a tactical success.

After Neuve Chapelle, the Germans took the correct lesson, realizing that one trench line was not enough; thereafter they developed a defence in depth, with at least three lines of trenches to absorb the momentum of attacks. This was the situation at the Somme, the classic futile assault. Yet the assault was in numerous places successful; in fact, the British 30th Division was able to break right through the depth of the German defences, within sight of the green fields beyond. That this breach was not exploited does not discount the fact that a trench assault had succeeded in defeating three successive lines of German defences. This map ( shows the ground captured from July-November 1916; although such gains weren’t enough to change the strategic situation, and despite the fact that casualties (on both sides) were extreme, it just can’t be argued that assaults were always unsuccessful.

At the start of 1917, the Germans withdrew part of their line to prepared positions at the Hindenburg (or Siegfried) line. The German defensive art was reaching its most advanced; soldiers manned three successive lines of well-built trenches, with deep shelters to protect them from the barrage and well-practised defensive artillery. Yet these defences continued to be taken, largely because Allied offensive developments–air reconnaissance, creeping barrages, and the tank–kept pace with German defensive developments. The Battle of Arras from April-May saw tactical success, notably the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadians. Probably the most decisive success of the war, at Messines, took place in June; the ridge was taken with ease after a series of 19 huge mines demolished the German trenches (it’s debatable whether this counts as a trench storming, since the trenches were virtually gone by the time the assault began). The subsequent Third Battle of Ypres was wasteful of manpower and achieved no strategic aim, but the village of Passchendaele was captured nonetheless. The Battle of Cambrai in November was an undeniable tactical success thanks to the skilful use of artillery and tanks, a success only marred by a German counter-attack which restored the front line–which shows that the Germans were just as capable of overcoming defences as the British.

The Germans enjoyed even more success in 1918, when their Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s battle), succeeded in finally breaking the stalemate and throwing the Allies back more than 60 miles. The remainder of the war, with far more mobile fighting, saw numerous examples of defences being overcome (although these defences tended to be far less well-prepared than they had been during the stalemate).

So trench-storming was often successful; in fact, you’d struggle to find an offensive which didn’t achieve at least some tactical success. The natural question, then, is: why didn’t the Allies achieve an operational breakthrough if they were able to capture the German trenches virtually every time they launched an offensive? The answer is in the poor state of communications. To have any chance of exploiting a breach, commanders had to hold back reserves until the time was right; sending them in too early would lead to casualties from the enemy artillery, and allow the troops to become disorganised by enemy action and the destroyed terrain. Commanders had to wait for confirmation of a breakthrough before committing their reserves, for if they were used poorly, and came up against enemy defences, their attack would peter out before they had created a large enough breach in the enemy line to form the basis of a break-out operation. News of a breach, however, was extremely difficult to send back; troops lacked radios, telephone lines were quickly cut by artillery fire, and the only alternative was to send a runner, who, if they did make it back to HQ, would take, on average, about 12 hours to do so. The defenders, meanwhile, would be busy reforming their defensive line, which would invariably take far less time. Armies of the time simply lacked the technology needed to react quickly enough to take advantage of breaches, apart from when tactical success was so overwhelming (as in the 1918 German Spring Offensive) that the defenders were incapable of reforming. The need to rely on horse-drawn transport also made the movement of troops slow. By 1939, armies had both portable radios and far more motor transport, which is why World War Two never really became a stalemate like World War One.

There’s a tendency to assume that, since the Western Front was for so long an operational stalemate, this was reflected at a tactical level too. The truth is that trench storming was often successful; no defensive system was safe from assault, as the numerous successful attacks on the extremely advanced Hindenburg Line prove.

Casualties during World War One were extremely high, especially during offensives. Unfortunately I don’t have any statistics, but suffice to say that they would be well into the tens of thousands for major offensives. It’s important to note, however, that casualties were always several times higher (at least) in the mobile periods of the war; trench warfare was relatively safe in comparison. Men in the trenches were not always being shelled in some kind of perpetual battle; on the contrary, on quiet sectors of the front an unofficial true existed between the two sides, with the soldiers doing only what fighting was necessary to placate their commanders, and otherwise trying to co-exist with the enemy (for more see Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System (London, 1980)) It’s also worth noting that World War One wasn’t necessarily more bloody than World War Two; a British soldier was more likely to become a casualty in Normandy in 1944 than on the Somme in 1916 or at Passchendaele in 1917.

Trenches were often taken by assault. The reason everyone thinks they weren’t, is because tactical successes were only rarely turned into operational and strategic successes due to the limitations of battlefield communication at the time.

[It wasn’t the tactics of trench-storming that were lacking, but rather the ability of either side to exploit successful breakthroughs. The defender had the capability to rapidly reinforce depleted sectors via railroads, while attackers had to move forward on foot. The density of soldiers on the Western front and a lack of mechanization made attempts at maneuver warfare futile.]

* Tactical level=involving squads and companies. Operational level=involving units up to divisional size. Strategic level=involving armies.


Sources: •Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18 (London, 1994). •Robert M. Citino, Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (Lawrence, 2004). (Citino discusses the limitations of operations in WWI in his introduction). •Tim Travers, The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front and the Emergence of Modern War 1900-1918 (Barnsley, [1987] 2003). •University lectures and seminars and general reading.

Andrey Vlasov


Andrey Vlasov was well regarded as a commander and given an elite command. His ‘Shock’ army (an army equipped for assault) drove into German lines during a counteroffensive at Leningrad, but his requests for reinforcement or to be allowed to withdraw were refused. The ‘front line’ in Russia was often very much a theory, with vast areas lightly manned. This allowed Vlasov to get into a threatening position but there is no doubt he felt betrayed by Stalin.

This is of course in the context of the Soviet officer corps in 1942: the purges had just killed most senior commanders, and competent military leadership was in high demand. Vlasov could rightly feel slighted, and he eventually surrendered.

It took some time for Vlasov to become a collaborator. The Germans used many foreign ‘legions’ in the war against the USSR and Vlasov was obviously anti communist enough, and had enough faith in eventual German victory (which appeared very likely at least until January 1943) to guardedly accept command of a unit drawn from Red Army prisoners. This was kept without weapons as a sort of propaganda unit for a long time and Vlasov’s support was guarded as he demanded it become a real force.

The Germans eventually made Valsov’s unit into something effective but only in 1944 when they were desperate for men and were using many non-Germans, especially in occupation duty and to supress rebellions.

Vlasov’s troops were sent in the control Slovakia but the rebellion there, very late in the war, seemed quite capable of overwhelming the Nazi occupation. No doubt Vlasov and his commanders could see the hopelessness of their situation, possibly they had a genuine affinity with the Slovak insurgents. Also quite possibly having survived Stalin and German captivity (few Russians did), they were in no mood to be killed fighting the Slovaks and again ‘got with the winning team’.

(The monarchists in Russia are such an anachronism they in all likelihood have to latch on to anyone they can who looks even a bit sympathetic to their cause!)

Life in America isn’t too bad if you don’t mind drinking fracking fluid:


The fundamental issue many Americans fail to realise is the POLITICAL distinction between the United States as a sovereign nation on the world stage – and the United States as a domestic entity filled with Americans.

The US, to Americans, is all about the flag, freedom, cherry pie, democracy, patriotism, supporting the troops, democrats vs republicans, blah blah you get the message.

The United States to the rest of the world is a 100% corporate entity driven almost exclusively by the profit motive and power backed by a brutal military which acts almost solely in the interests of its commercial corporate interests and almost always against humanitarian interests, freedom etc and on the vast majority of cases if it is not the instigator of the crisis is backing the despotic regime behind the crisis.

The Republican Party is almost entirely driven by a corporate agenda – few would dispute this and none would HONESTLY dispute it.

The number one priority of corporations over the past 50 years has been to assume control of the public purse – it is by far, by FAR the greatest prize in financial history as well as the ultimate power grab – it is the absolute destination of all capitalism.

The surest, most definite, reliable pathway to usurping the public domain to private corporate control is by destroying the publics capacity to resist (making them stupid and poor) leaves them entirely reliant on the private sector, please see Victorian England – the dream time, and MOST IMPORTANTLY destroying the public finances of the state, preferably by transferring the wealth to the private sector, which allows them to point the finger at the state and claim it has failed – the only possible solution to this ongoing failure of the public system is to privatise it.

It absolutely BLOWS MY FUCKING BRAIN OUT that people do not realise that this is what is going on.

When people vote for Republicans, or advocate the private sector over the public social sector they are succumbing to a long term strategy to transfer the wealth, power and control of the public state to private hands.

Now lets be VERY, VERY clear about what this means – it is the ABSOLUTE NORM in history for the state to be owned and controlled by private interests instead of the public – remember that, its important. THE VAST majority well over 90% of historical state control has been in the hands of private individuals and companies and NOT public democracies. Public democracies and republics are very, very new and very very rare (despite their origins in Ancient Rome and Greece).

Almost every European state was a feudal principality controlled by a prince, a kingdom, feudal land holdings controlled by aristocracy with white slaves working the land, PRIVATE COMPANIES such as the West /East Virginia companies, the Dutch West Indies Company , the British East India Company, Emperors, Kings and Queens or even entire countries forged for private Individuals such as Rhodesia and Saudi Arabia.

So the destruction of the United States as a public democracy and the transfer of it into private hands would not be some OUTRAGEOUS extreme blip in history contrary to all norms, quite the opposite, it would be a RETURN to the normal, predominant methodology and ruling system of all of history – it would be an end to this extremely rare outlying occurrence of rule by democracy for the benefit of the greater society and populace and a return to the norm of history – private rule of all of society by private individuals with the public having no powers, no rights and no life.

That is what you are voting for when you vote for Republicans.

History does not lie – go read it.