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

Posts tagged “Combat

Hiter, Speer and entourage mesmerized at the Schwerer Gustav. Largest and Heaviest artillery ever used in combat; ca. 1941


Also know as Dora, Krupp was responsible for its development. It saw very little combat as the gun proved to be a logistical nightmare. Stands as the largest-calibre rifled weapon ever used in combat, the heaviest artillery piece ever built by weight and fired the heaviest shells of any artillery.


The Schwerer Gustav could fire armor-piercing rounds weighing over 7,000kg (~15,000lb) with a muzzle velocity of ~700 m/s (~2,400 ft/s)

(Size compared with the OTR-21 Tochka.)


A Rusland Hilfswillige Soldaten using a Soviet PPSch-41 submachine gun, Army Group North, Soviet Union; 1943


A Rusland Hilfswillige Soldaten is a Russian who joined the German army and fought for them, hence his cap, and his ammunition pouch (which appears is German and not Russian).

This photo is titled:

“Kosaken-Kavallerie-Division mit sowjetischer Maschinenpistole PPSch-41 im Anschlag im Wald hinter einem Baum stehend, in Schießbereitschaft; PK 693”.

Translated: A Kossack Cavalry Division with a Soviet submachine gun PPSCH-41 standing, ready to fire, behind a tree.


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.

Shell Shock

Early in the war, physicians began to handle cases of psychological breakdown, paralysis, and disturbing, uncontrolled physical behavior among men who had been in combat. C.S. Myers was one of the first to coin the term “shell shock,” as doctors assumed that artillery fire and the like had had caused concussion-like damage and possibly physical legions somewhere in the brain. Other doctors saw the same thing, but Myers discovered that many men experiencing these symptoms hadn’t been near artillery bombardments and so he tried to withdraw the term, but it stuck. The condition was called “soldier’s heart” in the American Civil War and “combat fatigue” in the Second World War, and now we call it PTSD. It’s not until 1980 that PTSD gets into the medical handbook as a legitimate syndrome, which means that doctors can treat it and that those who suffer from it can receive a pension. 8182904290_1fb23938fc_z

  • Why was it so difficult to pin down a definition for “shell shock?”

sheel shockedThe medical profession of the time was conservative and relatively endogenous. Many of them thought that shell shock was a license for cowardice or a renunciation of “manliness,” which made it partly a problem of gender. It’s important to understand that although we usually think of PTSD as a psychological disability, it often manifests itself in physical ways. At the time, the conversion of mental symptoms to physical ones was called hysteria – a term reserved for women. This meant that men suffering from “hysteria” were transgressing Victorian gender norms, and we can see the stigma of this diagnosis clash with social conventions – only enlisted men were diagnosed with hysteria, while officers were diagnosed with “nervous breakdown.” The difference in diagnosis was paralleled by differences in treatment – treatment for enlisted men was largely punitive and coercive, while treatment for officers was based more on persuasion, sometimes through psychotherapy. Lest you think officers were in a better position, remember that the casualty rate for them was almost double that of enlisted men. WWI Diagnosis and treatment were further complicated by the difficulty in identifying who legitimately had a problem and who was just trying to get away from the front. For some physicians, the solution was to make treatments more painful than returning to the front. For example, electric shock therapy could be used on mutes to try and stimulate the tongue so that they would make noise. In Austria, future Nobel Prize winner Julius Wagner Jauregg was accused of torturing his patients because he used electroconvulsive shock treatment to discourage malingering. In general, the war tore up the Hippocratic Oath because doctors became servants of armies that needed men to return to the front as soon as possible. Thus, the principal aim of doctors was to heal the injured enough to send them back to the front. This meant that if a soldier had a physical wound in addition to psychological symptoms, doctors would often treat the wound and then send the soldier back. Treatments were thus largely coercive in nature – there’s a famous French story in which an army doctor told a soldier “Yes, you are going to get this.” The enlisted man responded, “No, I’m not.” “Yes you are, I’m your officer, I gave you an order.” The exchange continued back and forth until the doctor moved to put the electrodes on his forehead and the enlisted man knocked him out. The soldier was then court-martialed, found guilty, fined one franc, and dismissed from the army without a war pension. This is the sort of thing that contributed to desertion, especially from men who felt they had no way out. tumblr_mb4h1bDnjK1rubozqo1_500As you can see, there were numerous problems with the medical profession’s approach to the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of shell shock. Consequently, we really don’t know how many suffered from it. The British Army recorded 80,000 cases, but this likely underestimates the actual number. Regardless, we can be sure that a significant number of those that went through artillery barrages and trench warfare experienced something like it at some point. While the number is significant, it’s important to remember that a minority of soldiers suffered shell shock, and consequently it does fit into the spectrum of individual refusal.

  • What about executions?

In the late 90s there was a movement in England to apologize to those that refused to continue fighting in the war. There were 306 men that had been shot for cowardice or desertion and although the British government refused to make a formal apology, one of Tony Blair’s last acts as prime minister was to posthumously pardon them. The problem here should be obvious – it’s unclear how many were shell shocked and convicted of cowardice or desertion when they really were insane. There’s serious doubt as to how many men actually thought it through and decided that they couldn’t fight anymore and were going to leave. 800px-1917_-_Execution_à_Verdun_lors_des_mutineriesIn the French case there was a terrible period at the beginning of the war when there were many summary executions. It’s a perfect example of what happened when officials and the professional army feared the effects that desertion might have on the rest of the men that had been mobilized at the start of the war. The French CiC, Joffre, felt that if offensives didn’t proceed because people were “allowed to act as cowards,” the rest of the mobilized army, made up of millions of reservists, would be contaminated. The upshot was the summary executions of numerous soldiers. The French parliament set up a special tribunal in 1932 to reexamine many of the cases, and a number of those who had been executed were subsequently pardoned, some on grounds that they had originally been denied the right of appeal despite being citizens. There is an important distinction to make here – French soldiers had the vote and could appeal to their representatives for better legal treatment, while millions of British soldiers could not since they were subjects of the crown. By the end of the war, every capital sentence required the approval of the French president.

  • Why do we think PTSD began with “shell shock?”

Storm TroopsWorld War I was the first to really introduce mental illness to mass society. The notion of traumatic memory that was brought back home and reappeared in literature helped normalize mental illness in the absence of consensus by the medical profession as to what it was. Although PTSD existed long before the First World War, the circumstances of the war pushed hundreds of thousands of men beyond the limits of human endurance. They faced weapons that denied any chance for heroism or courage or even military skill because the artillery weapons that caused 60 percent of all casualties were miles away from the battlefield. The enthusiastic men that signed up in 1914 were loyal, patriotic, and genuinely believed that they were fighting to defend their homeland. While they consented to national defense, it’s not clear that they consented to fight an industrialized assembly-line murderous war that emerged after 1914. Unlike previous wars, there was no beginning, middle, and end. Trench warfare was seen as a prelude to a breakout, but those breakouts never really occurred. Many men withdrew from the reality of the war into their own minds, and in this sense shell shock can be seen as a mutiny against the war. PTSD has numerous symptoms, but among them is the sense that the war the soldier lived had escaped from human control. This is why many PTSD sufferers are constantly reliving the trauma – the horror of combat never goes away and time has no hold over it. wwi-planes There’s a wonderful autobiography by Robert Graves called Good-Bye to All That; it’s one of the most famous World War I memoirs. Of course, the great irony is that he can’t say good-bye to all that – his life is constantly affected by his war experience, even 10 years after the war ended. There are so many great World War I memoirs, but I’d highly recommend the following: The Secret Battle by A.P. Herbert and The Case of Sergeant Grischa by Arnold Zweig Both deal with executions and the perversion of military justice during the war. I would also recommend The Legacy of the Great War and Remembering War. Both are by Jay Winter, who specializes in historical memory and World War I. (When he was teaching at Cambridge in the late 70s and early 80s, he traveled to Warwick hospital to study some of the records of patients that had been institutionalized there during the war for shell shock. When he went there, he discovered that there were still several men that had been kept in the asylum without treatment since the Great War. Once enthusiastic young men, psychologically crippled by the war, had spent the next 70 years constantly reliving their trauma, locked away from a society that didn’t understand what was wrong with them. I can’t think of a more horrible fate.)


What was it like to be shelled in World War I?


Here’s one description, from German officer Ernst Jünger’s 1920 memoir Storm of Steel:

“It’s an easier matter to describe these sounds than to endure them, because one cannot but associate every single sound of flying steel with the idea of death, and so I huddled in my hole in the ground with my hand in front of my face, imagining all the possible variants of being hit. I think I have found a comparison that captures the situation in which I and all the other soldiers who took part in this war so often found ourselves: you must imagine you are securely tied to a post, being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer. Now the hammer has been taken back over his head, ready to be swung, now it’s cleaving the air towards you, on the point of touching your skull, then it’s struck the post, and the splinters are flying — that’s what it’s like to experience heavy shelling in an exposed position.”


And several more, collected in Arnold D. Harvey’s A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War(1998):

Here is some descriptions of the sound: 

“For the civilians herded into the ranks the sounds of shell and bullet were strange and unexpected as well as frightening and called out for description. At close quarters an artillery barrage sounded ‘as though the earth were cracking up like an egg of super-gigantic proportions tapped by a gargantuan spoon’: it created, according to the same witness, ‘A veritable crescendo of sounds, so continuous as to merge and blend into a single annihilating roar, the roar of a train in a tunnel magnified a millionfold: only the rattle of the machine-gun barrage, like clocks gone mad, ticking out the end of time in a final breathless reckoning, rises above it’. At a greater distance it was ‘like someone kicking footballs — a soft bumping, miles away’, or a noise, felt rather than heard ‘like the beating of one’s heart after running’. A German infantry officer recalled, ‘If you put your hands over your ears and then drum your fingers vigorously on the back of your head, then you get some idea of what the drumfire sounded like to us’.”

“The sound of an approaching shell, it was claimed, ‘can be imitated by a suitable rendering of the sentences, “Who are you? I am (these words being drawn out to full length) — (a slight pause) — Krupp (very short and sharp!).”‘”