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

Posts tagged “Battle

Frozen corpses of dead German soldiers during the Battle of Stalingrad; ca. winter 1942-1943

The steel hob nails seen in the soldier's boot were part of the reason the Germans were at a disadvantage in the cold. Their feet got colder much faster due to all the steel.

The steel hob nails seen in the soldier’s boot were part of the reason the Germans were at a disadvantage in the cold. Their feet got colder much faster due to all the steel.

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Journalist Ernie Pyle after being killed during the battle of Okinawa; April 18, 1945

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This photo apparently only surfaced in 2008. And technically this is apparently on Ie Shima, a small island near Okinawa.


The use of ramming in naval warfare after the 16th century.


Outside of the resurgence of ramming which came along with the development of armored ships, arguably beginning with the ramming of the Cumberland at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, and continued throughout the riverine campaigns of the American Civil War before being picked up by foreign navies (see the Battle of Lissa (1866) and the Battle of Iquique (1879) there is very little mention of ramming as anything but a last-ditch tactic.

In my opinion, the more interesting thing about this question is why ramming fell out of favor. Why does the battle-tried bread-and-butter tactic of great navies from at least 535 BC until the Dark Ages1 simply vanish from use following the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 (the last instance of galley warfare as we generally think of it) and remain more or less completely unused for the next 300 years?

To understand this, we need to look at the differences between galley warfare and the naval warfare of the Age of Sail. Galley warfare is what might be termed “consolidated” warfare- it almost always occurs between large fleets and has as its goal the destruction of the enemy fleet. In a fleet engagement such as this, there is a great deal more support available than in a smaller engagement, so the risk of accidental death due to ramming (i.e. sinking one’s own ship by ramming another) is perceptually reduced. The battles during this time also take place in fairly calm seas with which the participants are familiar; this also makes ramming ‘safer’ from a psychological perspective. From a technological perspective, there is no really effective anti-ship weaponry available (even ballistae are incredibly difficult to fire accurately at a moving target while pitching and rolling in the sea) at the time, so ramming has de facto standing as the most effective anti-ship tactic simply because it is pretty much the only anti-ship tactic.

Warfare in the Age of Sail is much different, it is primarily “distributed” warfare. Mostly small engagements over a wide area in all weathers, with various goals. Prize money becomes an increasingly important factor in this era, so the goal of engagements becomes less about destroying the enemy fleet en masse and more about capturing the individual ships that made up the enemy fleet in small chunks, to increase the size of one’s navy and inflate one’s pockets. In a tactical climate like this, ramming carries a very low cost-benefit. For one thing, ships in the Age of Sail were designed to carry lots and lots of guns, not a ram; this being the case, ramming is far more dangerous to both ships than it would have been in the days of galley warfare. If you ram someone and either ship sinks, you’ve lost out on a lot of potential prize money. The fact that battles often took place in varied locales and weathers also contributed to the deprecation of ramming, as sailing ships are bound to the wind whereas oared vessels are not. There exist a great many battle scenarios where actually positioning in such a way as to be able to ram the enemy would be more or less impossible- in these situations, guns provide an advantage, because they increase the area in which you are able to fight your enemy. Instead of having to be right up against them, you can be right behind them and chasing them while fighting. The increased use of guns also made ramming less desirable in that even in ideal ramming conditions, ramming would require you to run straight into the enemy’s fire, risking heavy damage to your ship and crew. Worse, at the end of the day, if you decided to pull alongside in the same conditions and exchange point-blank broadsides with the enemy instead of ramming, you’d probably do more damage than you would if you rammed them.

One other reason that navies in the Age of Sail did not ram might have to do with the development of European naval warfare. For a large portion of history, European navies fought naval battles by tying their ships together and fighting what amounted to a land battle at sea (see the Battle of Svolder (1000) and the Battle of Sluys (1340)). Because of this, tactics developed in a much different way in the European naval tradtition than the Medeterranean/Arabic tradition (i.e. the fo’c’sle or forecastle was basically an attempt to copy the effectiveness of a fortress on land for application at sea during battles of the lash-the-ships-together-and-thunderdome-it-out type, and ships themselves grew out of this to be mobile, long range fortresses capable of supporting populations (almost like little towns) rather than purely offensive weapons like galleys, which were short range, crewed by comparably few men, and pretty much disposable).

The reason you see the move back to ramming with the onset of the Civil War is because the tactical climate shifts back to “consolidated” warfare of a slightly different kind. In this case, combat doesn’t occur between large fleets because ironclads can just annihilate any wooden ship you throw at them- instead, it occurs between high value targets- the most important ships in the fleet. Just as in the days of galley warfare, you have the factors of localized combat, predictable weather/seas, and the ultimate goal of destroying the enemy’s ships- what is really interesting, though, is that once again we see that there is no effective anti-ship weapon. Ironclads are highly effective against wooden ships, but they can’t do anything to one another ( for the most part the cannonballs just bounce off the armor), and since this is the case, ramming once again becomes a viable tactic. Since being chewed up by the enemy’s guns on approach isn’t an issue anymore because of armor, and since due to the advent of steam wind position and current are trivial aspects of a typical engagement (i.e. captains no longer needed to wait for the wind to shift just right to be able to get into ramming position), it makes sense to start ramming once more, as it is a means of attack capable of piercing through armor and achieving the desired end result of destroying the enemy.


Winston Churchill and one of his dogs; ca. 1950

I grew up thinking that Churchill was a fat man, remarkably fat. By today's North American standard, he's just a little chubby.

I grew up thinking that Churchill was a fat man, remarkably fat.
By today’s North American standard, he’s just a little chubby.


A soldier stands alone during the Battle of Passchendaele; ca.1917

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When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher asked everyone in the class to come up with parts of a story, a character’s name, a setting, and something else which I can’t remember. Anyway, I picked some generic name, but my setting was “3rd Ypres, Passchendaele 1917.”  The teacher then split each of the items up, put them in a hat, and had people pick from this random assortment to put together a story. I still remember the look on the one girl’s face who had to try to figure out what to do with my setting…

Aerial photos of the village of Passchendaele, Belgium, before and after the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917:

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Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And floundering like a man in fire or lime.– Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

-Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen


The carnage of the Battle of Passchendaele .

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I came across this horrific story while reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent history of WWI, “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion.” Actually, the book is not a general history of WWI, but rather a history of the tiny but important opposition to the war in Britain. Hochschild follows the lives of several families who were torn by the war, with opponents pitted against their family members who were very much in favor of continuing the inter-imperial slaughter. It s a beautiful and moving book, and I highly recommend it.

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In one chapter Hochschild tells of the disaster at Passchendale. I’ll summarize:

This was a brutal battle, typical of WWI 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 in 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. Both sides had used this technique in battles farther to the south.

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However, the ground where the battle took place – near the Belgian village of Passchendale – was at a low altitude above sea level. This made for effects that neither side had anticipated. 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 triumphantly 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.”

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”I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele”

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When You see Millions of the Mouthless Dead, by Charles Sorley

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dreams in pale battalions go,

Say not soft things as other men have said,

That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know

It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?

Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.

Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.

Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,

‘Yet many a better one has died before.’

Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you

Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,

It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.

Great death has made all his for evermore.

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Field Marshal Erwin Rommel shortly after arriving in North Africa-Unknown date, 1941

I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum...

I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum…

Rommel was able to get a combat command due to his relationship with Hitler. Rommel had known Hitler for years and had asked Hitler for a combat command. In France his division became known as the Ghost Division. That’s generally seen as praise. However, it was called that because no one in his own chain of command ever knew where it was because Rommel kept out running his own lines of communication and command. If his French opponents had been more on the ball they could have cut him off in a Kessel (surrounded) and destroyed him.

German military officers were trained to think for themselves. Today this is known as Mission Type Tactics. The commander was supposed to give an order which stated the resources available to be used (troops, tanks, etc) and the objective. It was up to the lower ranked officers to use their own initiative in how to obtain the objective.

Rommel however was quite an interfering General. He gave orders with specific instructions and expected them to be followed to the letter. He would also drive around the front and give orders to soldiers thus cutting their actual officers off (there’s accounts of him issuing individual targets to anti tank guns rather than let their own officers decide and almost being killed by the return fire. In fact, Rommel lost quite a few aids while “touring” the front in this manner). This could lead to confusion and also resentment. Rommel was loved by the enlisted men under his command and quite detested by his officers as they considered him interfering and that he didn’t trust them to do their actual jobs.

By going around the front Rommel also quite often cut himself off from everyone. No one knew where he was and it could be quite difficult to get in communication with him.

People also seem to cherry pick things Rommel did or said to prove he was great. They will point out that Rommel believed the Allies would invade Normandy but then leave out that he thought said invasion would be a feint which made him like every other German officer.

I also think that Rommel looked good in North Africa due to the Allies helping him with that image. Churchill “stole” quite a lot of troops from Wavell for the impossible task of defending Greece. Wavell was so worried about his job that he didn’t say anything and thus made it easier for Rommel to attack him, which Rommel did against orders. Wavell also isn’t considered one of Britain’s finest. It is easier to look great if your opponent isn’t.

A lot of people try to make North Africa look like this huge battle for the control of the Suez Canal, to block access to oil fields in the Middle East, etc and thus state that Rommel was sent there as he was the best of the best. In reality the years of war in North Africa were pretty much because Rommel disobeyed orders to not attack.

Which leads me to my next point that if Rommel was so great why wasn’t he on the Eastern Front? Why was he never given that “prestigious and highly important command?” In the West we like to “pretend” that North Africa and Western Europe were every bit as important as the Russian Front, but to the Germans the Russian Front was it. That’s where they sent over 2/3 of their military and suffered 80% of their casualties. Rommel wasn’t even privy to knowing that the invasion of the Soviet Union would be happening which is why he thought when he launched his attack across North Africa that he would quickly be given all the men and supplies he would need. Sadly for him this wouldn’t be the case.

Rommel though was a gallant enemy. He didn’t order his men to execute troops. He didn’t set out to oppress Jewish populations. If he could have avoided this on the Eastern Front we’ll never know, but we can credit him for it where he did fight. In fact, he is said to have ripped up an order from Hitler that ordered him to execute prisoners and then announced that the order wasn’t clear to those around him.

The Australian General Morshead considered Rommel to be highly predictable in how he would initially attack. This is one of the reasons why he failed to take Tobruk from the mostly Australian garrison. Morshead was able to time and time again work out where Rommel would attack and would have the needed defences there to resist. Morshead said that if Rommel had shown a bit more unpredictability the “Fortress” would have fallen as the defenders did not have enough antitank guns, etc to defend everywhere.

I feel that a lot of people talk Rommel up because he’s well known and he’s the “Nazi” you can openly talk about respecting without people looking at you funny. However, I would say he was a mediocre general who was promoted above his means due to his relationship with Hitler. He was a captain trapped in the body of a General/Field Marshal. As a captain things he did wouldn’t have been a problem, in fact they would have worked well. As a general though he acted as a captain. Rommel is quite often praised for his tactical abilities. Tactics though (the small scale stuff, what soldiers do in battle) wasn’t supposed to be what a general worried about.


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.