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

Archive for May, 2014

Momčilo Gavrić, the youngest soldier of WWI. Kingdom of Serbia; ca. 1916.

Momčilo Gavrić was the youngest soldier in the First World War.

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In the beginning of August 1914, Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed his father, mother, grandmother, his three sisters, and four of his brothers. His house was also set on fire. Momčilo survived because he was not at home when it happened – his father had sent him to his uncle earlier.

Left without family and without a home, Momčilo went to find the 6th Artillery Division of the Serbian army, which was near Gučevo at the time. Major Stevan Tucović, brother of Dimitrije Tucović, accepted Gavrić into his unit after hearing about what had happened, and assigned Miloš Mišović, a soldier in the unit, to be Gavrić’s caretaker.The same evening, he took revenge by showing his unit the location of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers, and participated in the bombardment, as told by his son Branislav Gavrić in an interview.

At the age of 10, he was promoted to the rank of kaplar (Corporal) by the commander of his unit.

When his unit was sent to Thessaloniki, Major Tucović sent him to Sorovits where he hastily went through the equivalent of four grades of elementary education.

In Kajmakčalan, vojvoda Mišić was stunned when he saw a uniformed eleven year-old boy in the trenches. Major Tucović explained the situation to him; that Gavrić had been with them since the Battle of Cer, and that he had both been taught discipline and been wounded during his time in the unit. Mišić promoted Gavrić topodnarednik (Lance Sergeant). The order was sent out to all units of the Serbian army.

From Wikipedia.

Post-war photo:

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Mithraism:

Often times in history we confront extremely challenging and provoking question, none more so than whether Mithraism was the most metal religion…

The Mithraic mysteries are a fascinating little cult because it was extremely prevalent, yet we know almost nothing about it. There are a handful of literary mentions of it, but the lionshare of information on it comes from its iconography, which places Classical archaeologists in the same place most archaeologists are all the time in reconstructing religious belief from imagery. Because of this, its importance has been exaggerated somewhat in the modern world, and it is not uncommon to see it appropriated by assorted kooks and new agey people today. There is also a persistent story going around that it is the basis for Christianity and Jesus is a redressed Mithras: what the justification for this claim is I will never know. Within the Roman Empire it was of profound importance within the army and within the networks of freedmen and others who made up the Imperial household bureaucracy. That being said, it was never given official sanction, and no Mithraic site has ever been found within the confines of a military camp.

Its origins are a little vague: it was once widely accepted that it was an Eastern import from the Persian Empire, a rather reasonable conclusion given that Mithras was an Iranian deity of great antiquity. However, more research on the Persians has shown that the Mithraic cult was really quite unlike anything that actually existed within Persia itself, rather, the Eastern elements were borrowed to make the imagery more exotic and antique-seeming. Interestingly, Mithraic sanctuaries closer to Persia show a greater prevalence of imagery that was ‘accurate” to Iranian belief, so it seems that those with familiarity with Iran purposefully shifted the imagery to be more authentic.

Even without witches and Jesuses, however, it is a fascinating example of the sort of religious diversity within the Early Imperial period of the Roman Empire.


The largest Straw hat in the world, manufactured in America for advertisement purposes; ca. 1931

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German Federal Archives – Bild 102-11874


Hitler’s Endgame.

Many Germans (even non-Nazis) accepted the idea of gaining Lebensraum as a historical inevitability. As early as the late 19th century, German writers such as Ernst Haeckel combined Darwinian notions of the survival of the fittest with romantic nationalism to create a deterministic ideology which argued that in order for the German people to thrive, they had to acquire more resources in a Darwinian struggle against other peoples.

The concept of Lebensraum was originally defined by Friedrich Ratzel who conceptualized it as a biological concept defined as the geographical area required to support a species according to its metabolism, and that human societies had to expand their Lebensraum through agrarian colonization or perish. These beliefs would be implemented by the Nazi government, who argued that war and conquest were necessary to gain new resources to sustain their race in a Darwinian understanding of international politics. German expansion was thus seen as inevitable by the Nazis because they perceived of history and politics as a deterministic struggle for resources between races.

The German experience in the occupied Russian Empire during WWI saw the establishment of a sort of colonial state called ‘Ober Ost’ which was informed in part by theories such as Ratzel’s. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ book War Land on the Eastern Front argues that Germans involved in the occupation saw the east as barbaric and primordial, and they began to formulate notions that the native population should be removed. In 1917 the German High Command and Foreign Office even approved of a plan to establish colonies of German settler-soldiers in the occupied East.

Liulevicius states that this experience had an important role in shaping the Nazi perception of the east: “Ober Ost’s categories and practices were taken up again and radicalized [by the Nazis]: the gaze toward the East, cleansing violence, planning, subdivision and ‘intensification of control,’ forced labor. Chief among them was the lesson of Raum.” The Nazi dictatorship, inspired by Ober Ost, began to prepare its youth for a push towards the East: in schools, history and geography courses taught pupils that the historic German “Drive Towards the East” was a biological phenomenon and to look at land through the mystical doctrine of “Blut und Boden”, and Hitler Youth members were taught military skills and songs with lyrics such as “we will give [the East] a German face with sword and plow! To the East blows the wind!” The Nazi idea of widespread colonization of Eastern Europe was consequently inherited from theories and practices begun in Wilhelmine Germany.

Nazi Germany’s goal of exterminating Eastern Europe’s population and replacing it with German colonists had real economic goals. Although it might sound absurd to modern readers, early 20th century Germany faced serious land shortage. Germany was more densely populated and had a higher proportion of rural inhabitants than either France or the United Kingdom and lacked extraterritorial colonies where its excess population might emigrate to. Although it was a large country, the actual amount of arable land available for cultivation per farmer was comparable with countries such as Ireland, Romania or Poland, which was compounded by the fact that most of it was held by large estates; in 1933, 75% of Germany’s farms cultivated only 19% of its arable land. The majority of German farmers (88% of them, some 12 million people who made up 18% of Germany’s total population) consequently lived in poverty on economically unsustainable farms.

According to Adolf Hitler, the establishment of an international colonial empire was an unattractive solution because it meant spreading precious German blood over too great of an area; what Germany needed was a contiguous colonial empire carved out of Eastern and Central Europe. Arable land would have to be taken by conquest and its inhabitants driven out. Plans from the Reich-Fuhrer SS dictated that 85% of Poles, 75% of Byelorussians, 65% of Ukranians and 50% of Czechs would have to be deported from German-occupied territory to Western Siberia at the end of the war to make room for German colonists, with the remaining population being forcibly ‘Germanized’. These deportations may well have been a euphemism for a planned genocide, where the displaced Slavs might have been worked to death in Siberia.
Hitler viewed German expansion eastwards and the displacement of that region’s Slavs as a similar process to the expansion of European colonial states in the Americas, as evidenced by his statement made to Reich Minister Todt and Gauleiter Saukel on the 17th of October, 1941: “There’s only one duty: to Germanise this country [the occupied Soviet Union]… and to look upon the natives as Red-skins…I don’t see why a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.” The conquest of the Soviet Union and its colonization by Germans was seen by Hitler as Germany’s version of Manifest Destiny, where the Volga, as he declared, would become Germany’s Mississippi. Slavic place names would be replaced with Germanic ones, especially in places like the Crimea. During the war, the Crimean towns of Simferopol and Sevastopol were renamed Gotenburg and Theodorichhafen respectively. The Germans planned to construct an autobahn directly to Crimea (and likely others elsewhere in Russia), because the Black Sea was to become a German Mediterranean.

The Nazi’s plans for the establishment of Eastern Lebensraum were concretely planned out as early as November 1940 when they proposed the establishment of 50 to 100 acre farms meant to support large families of ten or more, nucleated around massive farms of 300 acres. The east was supposed to be entirely rural; average German settlements were intended to be villages of some 300 to 400 inhabitants. The largest settlements in the east were planned to be large villages known as a ‘Hauptdorf’ (head village) which would contain economic and civic establishments intended to service the smaller settler communities surrounding it as well as rural power stations to remove their dependence on urban cities. Besides these communities of soldier-farmers, there would have been SS estates run by veterans of the war, and massive estates given to high ranking Nazis; the dictatorship even promised its generals huge tracts of land to make them more committed to winning the war in the east. There were two main competing theories for the pattern of settlement: waves of dispersed settlements spreading out gradually eastwards, or a “pearl string” pattern where settlements would be set up along roads and railways and spread into the hinterland over time. IIRC the pearl-string plan became the official pattern for colonization.

According to Hitler, urban areas and industry would not be tolerated in the east; in a private table talk in October 1941, he declared that “we shan’t settle in Russian towns, and we’ll let them fall to pieces without intervening.” Not only would Soviet towns be allowed to crumble, but its main urban centers of Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad would be destroyed. Furthermore, Hitler stated that those Slavs that remained in German colonial territory as slave laborers would only be given only the most rudimentary education; they would learn basic arithmetic and how to read signs but nothing else. The German East was meant to be entirely rural and agricultural, and would produce enough food and resources to make the Reich an autarkic economy, comparable to the internal markets of the United States of America. This establishment of a German autarkic economy would make it a world power capable of competing with the USA for global influence. The Nazis didn’t want to conquer the world; they wanted to compete for international influence without overseas colonies like the USA.

Sources:

Cameron, Norman & R.H. Stephens, trans., Hitler’s Table Talks. New York: Enigma Books, 2000

Kamenetsky, Ihor. “Lebensraum in Hitler’s War Plan: The Theory and the Eastern European Reality” in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 20 No. 3 (April 1961)

Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship, Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel. War Land on the Eastern Front, Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Smith, Woodruff D. “Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum” in German Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (February 1980)

Stein, George J. “Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism” in American Scientist, Vol. 76 No. 1 (January-February 1988). (Tooze, 2008)

Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.


Shooting of demonstrators in Petrograd, Russia; ca. July 1917

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July Days – clashes between Russian Provisional Government and Bolsheviks. The military attacked the peaceful demonstration and engaged in repression against the Bolsheviks. Lenin went into hiding, while other leaders were arrested. The outcome of the July Days represented a temporary decline in the growth of Bolshevik power and influence in the period before the October Revolution. 716 killed or wounded from demonstrators side, 94 killed or wounded from Government side.


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The Giza Pyramids and tombs of Bedouins; ca. 1870


Pregnancy during the Holocaust:

Because conditions varied wildly over time and across the different camps (political prisoner camps, forced labor camps, ghettos, etc.), I will concentrate on Auschwitz since there is rather a lot of material available about this harrowing subject.

Warning: this is not pleasant reading

Jewish Women:

Before the autumn of 1944, when systematic gassing of Jewish inmates was halted, all Jewish babies were killed upon birth, generally together with the mothers who were guilty of the “crime” of arriving or falling pregnant in Auschwitz. If the pregnancy was discovered before the birth, the women were killed too. This led to the drama of improvised abortions and concealed births followed by infanticide, either by the hands of the mothers or by the physicians, nurses or midwives among the inmates that were assisting them in their labor. The most famous of these doctors was Gisella Perl, a Jewish-Romanian gynecologist who wrote I was a doctor in Auschwitz in which she describes how she performed many abortions to save the mothers’ lives.

After October 1944, Jewish babies were not automatically killed, but this didn’t increase their chances of survival significantly, as no accommodation was made for the welfare of mother and child, and the women were expected to continue with the excruciatingly hard work and subsist on literal starvation diets. There are only eight recorded births of Jewish babies in Auschwitz. There is no record of any surviving.

The Family Camps:

There were two “family camps” at Auschwitz where certain groups were allowed to live on as best they could on starvation rations and racked by diseases caused by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The inmates in these “family camps” were not subjected to wholesale gassing of children, the sick and the elderly upon arrival as the regular transports were and families were allowed to stay together.

The “Gypsy” camp was established before it was finally decided that these people were all to be exterminated too. There were sporadic gassings, though. It housed Sinti and Roma families from February 1943 to August 1944. Occasionally, groups of inmates were sent to other camps for forced labor. On August 1944, almost all the remaining inmates were killed. More than 370 children were born in this camp, though it is unclear whether any survived.

The Theresienstadt family camp was in operation from September 1943 to May 1944 and was part of the whole Theresienstadt propaganda effort to “prove” to the outside world that Jews were not being killed after deportation. It housed families deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Bohemia who were forced to write letters about how good they had it at Auschwitz and that the families were staying together. Pregnant women were allowed to give birth. However, after six months the camp was liquidated to make room for new transports from Theresienstadt, and these inmates in turn were all killed in July 194

Non-Jewish and Non-”Gypsy” Women:

Most of these women were Polish and Soviet “political” prisoners, though there were some German inmates (Jehovah’s Witnesses, women convicted of crimes, prostitutes, etc) as well as a smattering of “political” prisoners from other countries. Policies were more erratic here. At first, these women were killed upon arrival if they were found to be pregnant. If they fell pregnant after entering Auschwitz, they generally resorted to secret abortions much in the same way as did the Jewish women. Starting from 1943, women were allowed to give birth, but many babies were subsequently killed, sometimes immediately, sometimes later, depending, it seems, on the whims of the SS. Generally, the women were forced to kill their own babies, or this was done by the medical staff who were inmates themselves. However, some blond and blue-eyed babies were taken away to the Potulice concentration camp or similar places that acted as transit camps for Polish children who were deemed to look “Aryan” enough to be subsequently adopted by German couples. In September of 1943, the first baby was officially registered as a camp inmate and received the distinctive Auschwitz tattoo with its inmate number. At liberation there were 156 children of less than three years still alive in Auschwitz, but it is not known how many (if any) of these were actually born there (a number of children were sent to Auschwitz in the wake of the Warsaw uprising of autumn 1944). The living conditions were such that a baby had very little chance of survival.

Sources:

Langbein, Hermann. People in Auschwitz. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) in Auschwitz

Bársony, János, and Ágnes Daróczi, eds. Pharrajimos: the fate of the Roma during the Holocaust. IDEA, 2008.

Gutman, Yisrael, and Michael Berenbaum, eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz death camp. Indiana University Press, 1998.

(more…)


The differences between German military doctrine and the Allied and Soviet doctrine during World War Two

 German doctrine differed a lot from both the Allies and the Soviets.

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All of course changed throughout the war, as what was available to commanders changed and the strategic possibilities and constraints changed.

 

The Germans:

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The Germans entered World War Two with one of the absolute best armies the world have ever seen. Building on their experience in World War One, where they had developed both operational and tactic doctrines that were well-adopted for both trench and more open fighting. Flexible defense, where you deployed small groups of troops to the front to hold the line and reserves to the back allowed them to delay and then counter-attack an enemy attack both tactically and operationally (note – tactics involves small units, operations divisions and corps and strategy large armies and logistics). A quick counter-attack to retake lost territory while the enemy was still trying to organize his defense, bring his heavy weapons up, entrench and re-align his artillery to provide defensive fire was often devastatingly effective.

On the offence, the Germans had developed infiltration tactics, meaning that small heavily armed groups of men would attack and bypass strong-points and heavy resistance to allow following troops to neutralize them, and continue deep into the enemy line to attack support weapons, artillery and logistics and other rear area troops to cause the most destruction.

Building on these two doctrines, the Germans added a concentration of force – especially tanks – and the idea of punching even deeper to completely disrupt the enemy force. This is what Anglo-Saxon sources love to call‘Blitzkrieg’ (the Germans themselves never gave it a name other than ‘Schwerpunkt’ – “main focus, focal point, center of gravity”). Combined with a strong air force and close co-operation between tactical bombers (German infantry would often have Luftwaffe liaison officers attached for communication and requests of air support), the Germans brought a revolutionizing co-ordination and focus on air support to the battlefield in World War Two.

German NCOs were extremely well trained – the Reichswehr, the 100 000 man army the Wiemar Republic was allowed was trained so that every soldier could be an NCO, every NCO an officer and so on, to allow for a rapid expansion. German NCOs led from the front, died at a higher rate than regular soldiers, trained with their soldiers, ate with their soldiers and brought a very strong unit cohesion to German units, especially early war. It can probably be said that German NCOs led and kept the German army together throughout the war.

German officers and NCOs were not only very well trained – they were also allowed an extreme level of independence of action in what the Germans called auftragstaktik, or mission tactics. The unit was given a mission to solve and allowed a high degree of freedom to solve the mission how they saw most fit (as they were on the ground close to the objective). NCOs and lower officers were also encouraged to take opportunities without waiting for orders as the time to get a confirmation from higher command could mean that the opportunity was lost.

The Germans excelled in tactics and operations, but were not as good in artillery tactics, logistics and strategy as their opponents, especially the British and Americans.

Auftragstaktik was picked up by the Western Allies after the war, and is more or less standard for any western army today. Combined arms warfare, adapted to the armies of the time, is also standard in all armies today, as is concentration of armored assets in specialized divisions.

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The Soviets:

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The Soviets entered World War Two with an interesting mix of experience from World War One, the Russian Civil War, their own type of deep battle doctrine and a political reversal of much of this, which proved disastrous.

The Eastern Front was never as locked or entrenched as the Western Front had been in World War One. The massed attack was on several occasions more successful here – the Central Powers broke through at Gorlice-Tarnow 1915, the Russians almost broke the Austro-Hungarians at the Brusilov offensive 1916 and the Germans managed to break Russia with their Baltic offensive 1917.

The Russian Civil War had also seen armies operating mostly independently from each other with a for the time minimal logistics train.

Generally, the Soviets had experienced that the more strong-willed and politically coherent army would win but also that adding resources to a successful attack would produce excellent results.

Tactically, the Soviets focused on overwhelming firepower and force on the attack and tenacity, excellent entrenchment and camouflage on the defense. The Soviets had also developed their own version of theschwerpunkt idea in their deep battle doctrine, in which armored, mechanized and cavalry formations would be grouped together, force a breakthrough and then act independently by rushing through and going for the deep of the enemy territory.

However, the 1937 and 1938 purges changed this. The idea of deep battle was lost, and armor was assigned to the infantry for support, although some dedicated mechanized and armored formations remained, as well as a large independent cavalry force. The purges also froze the initiative of the Red Army – NCOs and officers would not dare to do anything without orders for the risk of being accused of being a traitor. Tactical flexibility suffered heavily as a result.

In Spain, the Soviets more or less re-built the Spanish army 1937 along Soviet lines and tried to use zeal and discipline as replacements of tactical flexibility – while the Republicans had plenty of zeal, most soldiers came from the various militias and were unused to military discipline. The attempt to replace firepower and tactical flexibility with zeal and discipline spelled disaster during the Ebro offensive.

The Soviet system also proved devastatingly lousy during the Finnish Winter War. The lack of tactical flexibility, the lack of a short-range and long-range patrol doctrine in dense terrain (things the Finns excelled at) as well as operational and strategical planning failure in sending mechanized or motorized heavy formations into dense forests where they were road-bound and easy to cut up in mottis proved the failure of the Soviet system.

However, the Soviets did learn a lot from Finland, lessons they would put to good use against the Germans on the Eastern Front once they had recovered from the initial shock.

1941 the Red Army could in some circumstances be described as an armed mob without any real communications, leadership or even purpose.

The 1945 Red Army was a completely different beast and one of the best armies in the world. What happened?

The losses in Finland, and especially in the first year of the Eastern Front shock the Soviets to the core and allowed them to start learning what they were good at – but especially what they were not good at.

The Soviets understood that they could not match the Germans in tactical flexibility and in the training and education of NCOs and lower officers (since they did not have the same stock of educated people to draw from and because of the extreme casualties they suffered). So the Soviets developed that they called an operational doctrine. Specialized staffs of officers from the central command, STAVKA, was attached to sectors of the front where heavy fighting was expected. Heavy artillery, which had been attached to divisions and made them heavy and unwieldy (and hard to use since the divisions lacked the radio equipment and dedicated artillery staff as well as forward observers etc to use it well), was moved to special artillery formations. Large armored and mechanized formations were created and placed under high command orders.

These formations were attached to these staffs and used where it was deemed necessary. If an attack ran into heavy resistance and slowed down, resources was quickly shifted to a part of a front where the attack was more successful.

Adding to this was maskirovka or large scale camouflage and deception. Hiding troops by radio silence, camouflaging large formations and especially creating the false impressions they were at another part of the front by laying phone lines, creating massive radio chatter, placing dummy tanks and artillery and have trucks run back and forth to create the impression of new roads and well-used supply lines, the Soviets concentrated overwhelming force and tricked the Germans into assigning their reserves elsewhere and then used operational flexibility to keep their enemies off their balance.

The Soviets, learning from the Finns, also created the idea of constant small raids, patrols and infiltration for information gathering at a large scale – the Western Allies and the Germans had used patrol activity to take prisoners and do reconnaissance on the Western Front in World War One, but the Finns taught the Soviets about long-range patrol activity, something which they used frequently and with good effect against the Germans.

The western allies developed their own version of maskirovka (notably by creating their false army that was to attack Calais on D-day), but the Soviets pioneered it, and it became standard tactics for all armies, although at a larger scale and more common among the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies during the Cold War.

Long-range patrol activity is now also a very common concept in all armies – special forces usually take this duty nowadays, akin to how the British commandos operated during World War Two.

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The British:

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The British exited World War One with several sets of experiences. They had excelled at logistics and firepower and towards the end of the war, at the pre-planned set piece battle. The British focused on overwhelming firepower and protected movement during the inter-war years and developed the Universal Carrier to carry mortars, MGs and other support weapons for the infantry to allow them to protect themselves against a German-style flexible defense counter-attack. It would also provide a (lightly) armored LMG carrier for the troops to advance (or retreat) behind, akin to a mobile MG bunker.

On a larger scale, the British had re-introduced conscription in January 1939 and were still in the process of building a large modern force when World War Two started. Large parts of the forces employed by the British all over the Empire were more suited to colonial police duties than to modern warfare. This can be seen in how differently several Indian divisions, such as the 4. and 5. performed expertly, while others melted away at the sight of the enemy. The British were scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel and had problems manning all of their large Empire, the front against the Japanese in India, the North African theater (later Italian theater) and then the Western Front in France, not even speaking of the extensive air war, the Royal Navy and the merchant navy all over the world needed to supply their vast Empire. The British started to form armored divisions 1940, but clung to a flawed doctrine of infantry (for infantry support) and cruiser (for penetration and fast movement) tanks.

The British did very well in logistics. Pre-planning logistics, building infrastructure and ensuring supplies were in place. The British built railroads from Alexandria to El Alamein and from El Alamein to Tobruk in very short time to supply their troops. Likewise, the mulberry harbors to supply the troops landed in the Normandy invasion was a British innovation.

They were surely superior in mobile warfare to the Italians in the desert during Operation Compass, but came up short against the Germans.

Strategically, the British focused on logistics and decisive set-piece battle. Buy time to bring their logistic superiority to bear, fix the enemy in one place and grind him down through superior firepower, superior logistics and superior numbers. The only real step away from this the British conducted in World War Two was the Market-Garden operation, where the British 30. Corps was to link up with previously dropped airborne forces along a very narrow front, seizing bridges, routing the opposition and entering the Rhur area and ending the war. The operation failed due to faulty intelligence and German resilience.

The British had a strong tradition of dominating the terrain around an enemy from World War One and trench patrols and used this actively throughout the war. They also developed this into the long-range raids of the commandos and the LRDG (Long-Range Desert Group) which would consist of highly trained troops inserting themselves behind enemy lines for sabotage and raiding as well as intelligence gathering.

The long-range insertion of special forces still lives as a concept of most western armies. The level of logistics established by the British and their pre-planned logistics is still the mainstay of western warfare.

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France:

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While the French were knocked out in 1940, before that they were considered the primary land power of the world and their tactics and doctrine were widely copied.

The French had suffered extreme casualties being on the offensive during World War One and thus focused on the defensive. The French wanted to be operationally on the offensive and tactically on the defensive. They developed excellent medium and light mortars and their system (Brandt) is still in use with all mortars in the world today. The French alternatively believed in the decisive battle or the slow, attritional warfare and mostly a combination of both.

The French wanted to move into Belgium to ensure fighting did not happen on French soil (since northern France held most of the French industry and coal and iron deposits) and to grind down the enemy there – they were prepared to take large casualties in this battle, as long as the enemy took more. The combination of a British blockade, intact French industry and the combined eventual strength of the British and Commonwealth Armies, the French Army and the Belgian Army was supposed to be able to grind the Germans down.

The French artillery system of pre-calculating artillery data for any possibility as soon as a battery has placed itself was revolutionizing for the time and had served them extremely well towards the end of World War One. Their divisions included heavy artillery for counter-battery fire and (as opposed to its Soviet counterpart) the artillery staff, supply service and forward observers to use it effectively. However, it was a system entirely unsuitable for mobile warfare. It was intended for the set-piece battle and slow-moving front of World War One. However, the basis of this system of pre-calculating artillery firing data, developed further by the British and especially the Americans to today’s modern system.

The French also formed the balanced armored division in their Division Légère Mécanique – infantry in armored tracked transports, a strong armored component, a strong reconnaissance component, a strong artillery component with half-tracked transport and its own integral engineering part. This basic design turned out to be how all armored formation would look towards the end of the war.

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USA:

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The US had, as opposed to other powers that had fought World War One, a strong belief in the individual firepower of the rifleman and a disdain for the LMG. While other countries focused heavily on magazine-fed LMGs with rapidly interchangeable barrels (or in the German case, a rather heavy GPMG in the MG 34 and MG 42), the US issued semi-automatic rifles and automatic rifles (without an interchangeable barrel, the BAR was not an LMG as it could not provide sustained fire) and relatively few MGs and all of them (except for the paratroopers) on unwieldy and heavy tripods.

The US built surprisingly much of their doctrines on French and to some extent British ideas. The pre-World War One US army had been very small and mostly fighting colonial police battles rather than European regular forces, and was cut down drastically after World War One. The budding armored corps was disbanded and what few vehicles were developed given to the still horsed cavalry.

The US had a belief that a rifle squad would be able to provide its own covering fire with rifles, which turned out to be less than ideal. The US also believed that tanks would not fight other tanks – that was the job of tank destroyers. Tank destroyers and sometimes also tanks were attached to infantry formations to help them fight tanks and tanks were equipped with weapons more suited to fire high-explosive shells.

The US also created very tank-heavy formations that looked quite a bit like the early German panzer divisions with what was probably too little artillery and infantry for the armored division to act on its own against a prepared enemy.

The Americans learned logistics from the British and built a supply system that outdid their old masters. They learned artillery tactics from the French and outdid them too by pre-calculating a lot of the data needed for defensive artillery fire and bringing down the time from fire request to accurate fire to mere minutes.

One can study which nations built assault guns – artillery on turret-less tanks. The Italians, Germans, Hungarians and Soviets did – the British, French and Americans did not. Because they did not need direct artillery fire against enemy bunkers, MG nests and trenches, since they could quickly call down accurate artillery fire on the problem.

The US learned from the French and included massive amounts of mortars in their formations.

Above all, the US had what no-one else had. The industrial capacity to actually build, move and supply forces entirely mechanized and motorized (the British did it too, at least on the Western Front, a lot of their troops on other theaters were on foot). While the Germans never reached more than 17% of their forces motorized, armored or mechanized, the US reached 100%.

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Strategically, the Americans learned from the French again – a broad front, grinding the enemy down and then pursuing violently (as the French plan for 1940 had been). When Montgomery’s Market-Garden failed, Eisenhower did not allow for any exceptions to the broad front – no narrow spearheads that could be cut off.


Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

The Mona Lisa famous largely because of good and abundant press, honestly. The various reasons for the fame of the Mona Lisa can be split into the times before and after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911.

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Prior to the theft:

  • Leonardo’s name was a well-known and very well-respected one in art historical terms, meaning owning any piece by him (especially considering there are only ~25 total paintings out there, either known or lost/destroyed/speculated) was a big deal. He might not have been the best Renaissance painter, but he was the Renaissance Man, and rightfully considered a master of his craft.
  • It broke all sorts of conventions for painting at the time: the portrait is cropped oddly, she’s not a religious subject, it’s intimate, the blurred background and use of sfumato was very unusual. Because of this, this new motif of portraiture began to be imitated almost immediately.
  • The painting was owned by a number of kings and kept in their various residences before it was transferred to the Louvre after the Revolution. While it was in private (royal) view, its existence was known because of the copies and imitations that already existed, and also because it was accessible to a number of royals, nobles and dignitaries. Once it was put on public display in the Louvre, in the time of the Romantics, it became a big hit. Writers and poets began to refer to her, romanticizing her, making her something of a myth.
  • In particular, in the 1860s, an English critic named Walter Pater wrote a long and vivid and extremely poetic essay praising the painting, calling her a “ghostly beauty”. At this point, art criticism was in its infancy, so this made a huge contribution to the field, and became by far the most well-known piece of writing about an artwork at that point. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:

It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions… She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her

  • And possibly most importantly, nobody truly knew who the hell she actually was.

So you’ve got this painting that has been copied since nearly the day it was finished, that’s been owned by kings, that was painted by an acknowledged leader of Renaissance ideals and techniques, and that’s had the most famous (at the time) piece of art writing that exists written about it, and its subject is still a mystery.

Then she gets stolen from the Louvre.

After the theft:

  • Because of all of the above, the theft was widely publicised. At this point the Mona Lisa was considered a “treasure” of France. There were rewards offered, there were numerous newspaper articles written – we’re talking worldwide, not just in France. Everybody knew the Mona Lisa now.
  • After the painting was found, the commercial aspect of her image began. You already had painters and engravers from as far back as the 16th century making copies of her. Now, with a much more widely circulated and accessible media, and new forms of printing and photography, her face was everywhere. Film and theatre stars posed like her, parodies were painted (like Duchamp’s with a moustache), she was on greeting cards and postcards and stamps, songs were written.
  • The Louvre lent the painting out twice – once in 1963 and once in 1974 – adding to the international fame of the work.
  • Dan Brown wrote some ridiculous book claiming that the Louvre owned 6 Mona Lisas and the curator got to “decide” which one to display as real the Mona Lisa is androgynous and represents the union of Jesus & Mary Magdalene, and was a threat to the Catholic Church. Or that it was a self portrait. People read Dan Brown and believe this.
  • And now, more than 8 million people every year see her, and her fame continues.

She’s not famous because she’s the best example of a painting ever, or even of a Renaissance painting. She’s famous because people keep talking about her. They have done ever since she was painted, and they’ll keep doing so. It’s a beautiful painting, but it’s 90% myth.


Bill Slim and the “Forgotten Army”:

William Slim was a lower middle class man from Bristol who rose from being a temporary NCO during WWI to getting a commission into the Indian Army during the 20’s to commanding his very own brigade during the early years of WWII until finally arising to becoming a division commander, corps commander and ultimately, army general.

In 1942, Bill Slim became commander of the Burcorps in Burma. The Japanese appeared to be unstoppable and soon enough, what had started as defensive campaign turned into the longest retreat in British military history. The British and Indian soldiers in Burma were under-equipped, under-trained, and suffered from serious moral issues. They kept succumbing not only to battle wounds but also tropical diseases and had no way to escape but to walk with their two feet all the way back to India. Imagine being fatigued, not allowed to sleep as you tried to make your way to India as soon as possible before the Japanese could cut your escape route off. Imagine how much you fear to be surrounded by the enemy who seemed to come out of nowhere and infiltrated through your lines. But imagine how much of a difference the spoken word can have. Imagine how you’d feel if you in the middle of all this tropical hell, you were spoken to by a superior in a caring, straight forward and casual way. If you were an Indian soldier, he’d speak to you in your language. Same thing if you were a Gurkha. The British army walked over a 1000 miles back to India only to be received as cowards and as a burden by the British garrison in Assam, India.

Over the next two years, these men as well as completely new divisions and outfits would be trained by Bill Slim in India. They would receive what they didn’t receive in pre-war Burma: Training in jungle warfare. They would learn not to fear the enemy; the enemy was supposed to fear them. if they were being surrounded by the enemy, they were supposed to consider the enemy as being the one surrounded. Never again would there be any frontal attacks, instead it was outflanking through the jungle that was on the schedule. Later training also emphasized co-operation between air support, tanks and infantry. Bill Slim even revolutionized the concept of air drops, using that as a means to supply surrounded units in his tactic of “admin boxes”. The men were given new uniforms, new equipment, new rations and whatever else they needed, yet they were still under supplied. The war in India and Burma was truly forgotten in the home front and the 14th Army, which Bill would establish and build up from scratch, came to be known as “The Forgotten Army”. But this forgotten army was truly a multi-national one. From the ordinary British soldier from the British isles to the Indian soldiers from all over India to the Gurkhas from Nepal and Africans from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Rhodesia, Kenya, Ghana, Gambia, Uganda, Nyasaland and Tanganyika. All these men would learn to fight, suffer and die next to each other in a campaign that few people cared about. But all of them had one thing in common: They all respected and cared for their general. Bill Slim knew what they had to go through because he often visited the front line and always had a chat with a soldier or two whenever he could. He knew that if he could bring up morale, perhaps the ordinary soldiers could overcome their shortage of everything else. And boy, did they.

Starting with Arakan in 1944, the men under Bill Slim fought and defeated the Japanese. The Japanese had expected an easy victory, expecting the same soldiers they had fought in Burma but this would not be the case. They were met by men who knew their tactics, who could outflank them and who were not afraid of being surrounded by them. Arakan was followed by the battles of Imphal and Kohima in Assam, India which led to the destruction of a large part of the Japanese forces built up in Burma. Operation U-Go, the Japanese invasion of India was stopped in its track and the Japanese were beaten back after ferocious fighting. The 14th Army chased the Japanese to the Chindwin in Burma where they stopped in preparation for the new Burma campaign. Bill Slim would finally get his revenge for the retreat two years ago. In a brilliant battle plan named Operation Extended Capital (which had to be modified from the original Operation Capital due to the changes in circumstances), he used surprise, ruse, timing and maneuver into something which became his masterpiece. One of his corps was to take Meiktila, crossing the Irrawady in the south while the other corps would cross the Irrawady in front of Mandalay to make it seem like they were the main attack. By taking Meiktila, the 14th Army would be on the flank of the Japanese and this would mean the end of operations there. This plan succeeded beyond belief and after that, the road to Rangoon was practically open.

Bill Slim was in many ways the most down to earth general in WWII. He knew and understood the ordinary soldier because he knew where most of them came from. He had personally spent time amongst workers and miners in Bristol as well as worked in a poverty stricken school where he first got his insight into a different world. He never made himself out as being anything but Bill Slim, treating everyone with kindness, humor and patience. He rarely got angry and he was incredibly self-deprecating, blaming all mistakes on him and him alone. Not even in his post-war memoir did he choose to say anything bad about anyone, even those who hated him. He loathed publicity and remained as modest as he could be. He was beloved by his men and never cared about gaining glory or recognition. Despite this, Bill Slim was given the title of Field Marshal, was knighted several times, received the title of “Viscount Slim” as well as the Distinguished Service Order. But in the very end, it wasn’t the titles, the knighthoods or the medals which became his most important title. In the very end, it was the affectionate nickname of “Uncle Bill” given to him by his men which held the most truth to it.

Personally, there is something in this story which not only is inspirational but also seems like a life lesson. Bill Slim was a modest, simple man who found himself in an extraordinary situation after the other. But he never gave up and realized that if you go that extra mile, the people who look up to you will as well. There is also an element of unfairness in this as well, seeing as how the 14th Army sacrificed so much only to live forever in the shadow of all the other theatres of war in WWII. The fact that the 14th Army didn’t even receive a proper welcome home or a parade is inexcusable, according to me.