OxBlog

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

# Posted 2:10 AM by Patrick Porter  

OXBLOG BACK IN OXFORD: Greetings from the UK!

First things first: Italy 1, Australia 0. So it goes. What a heartbreaker. Italy seem to be one those teams who have many ways of beating you, and Totti took his penalty beautifully. Congrats to Italy.

As the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme approaches, a new book I'll have to read when I get the chance:
The Battle of the Somme has an enduring legacy, the image established by Alan Clark of 'lions led by donkeys': brave British soldiers sent to their deaths by incompetent generals. However, from the German point of view the battle was a disaster. Their own casualties were horrendous. The Germans did not hold the (modern) view that the British Army was useless. As Christopher Duffy reveals, they had great respect for the British forces and German reports shed a fascinating light on the volunteer army recruited by General Kitchener. The German view of the British Army has never been made public until now. Their typically diligent reports have lain undisturbed in obscure archives until unearthed by Christopher Duffy. The picture that emerges is a far cry from 'Blackadder': the Germans developed an increasing respect for the professionalism of the British Army.

This would seem to reinforce the arguments of Gary Sheffield, that the Somme offensive inflicted terrible damage on the German army even if it was indecisive, as well as relieving the pressure on the French at Verdun. It degraded the quality of the army, which lost some of its most seasoned professional soldiers (the British regulars had already suffered terrible losses earlier in the war), and one German officer called the Somme the 'muddy grave of the German army.'

It also reminds me of an interesting fragment I picked up in the Protestant church archive in Stuttgart last year. I found the reports of military chaplains of Baden-W├╝rttemberg who had visited the country in 1917 to bolster morale and encourage the war-weary population to show solidarity with the war effort.

One pastor reported a debate he had with some civilians, who claimed that the Somme had been a calamity for the army. He insisted that it had also been a defensive victory for German arms. In some ways they were both right. It read almost as a curtain-raiser for a similar debate amongst British historians years later! The significance and value of the battle was contested on both sides of the front, and civilians at the homefront were clearly obtaining enough information to form negative views on the impact of the battle (the main complaint of the chaplains reports was precisely that soldiers were telling civilians too many things about life at the front!).

I'll be putting together some of these archival titbits at a conference to mark the 90th anniversary of the Somme next month. It has been treated in much folk memory as an episode in British military and cultural history, reducing the role of the German defenders to impersonal hands on the machine guns that cut down the flower of British youth etc. At the hands of AJP Taylor and Arthur Marwick, the battle became a hallmark for the death of innocence and even faith in British culture, claiming that a tectonic cultural change took place as a battlefield event.

But no matter how unreliable were some of the British shells, no matter how ineffective the infantry assault, it was also deadly and terrifying for German defenders.

Hopefully at the conference, the new and welcome stress on comparative cross-national history in World War One scholarship will help to give the battle a richer history.
(13) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
In short, the re-appraisal of the Somme consists in appreciating that war is a zero-sum game.
 
Clark, of course, was writing not of the Somme, but of the year of fighting that preceded it. I'm an agnostic on the whole matter, but for an army that found its "muddy grave" on the Somme, the Germans still managed to put in three years of hard fighting. The best defense of it is probably still the one made by Haig and Robertson at the time - that it was a nasty business that was nevertheless a necessary stage in the grinding-down of the German Army. If something "broke" the German Army, that thing was probably the Allied defensive success and the general counteroffensive that followed it in 1918.
 
which army though? the 'muddy grave' quote could be read as the fatal blow to a large segment of the professional core of the army. In the words of the Crown Prince of Bavaria, "What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield."

Of course, the Brit regulars had met their muddy grave at First Ypres, the Marne, etc in 1914-15, but the higher combined manpower of the Entente helped them to survive this.

muddy grave in other ways is a little hyperbolic, but it was still a major part of the 'grinding down': the Germans don't try a major offensive again on the western front until March 1918, as their losses on the Somme combined with Verdun switches them to a defensive stance (while they still defend doggedly and resiliently, as you suggest).

Another important effect, which ultimately turns the balance against Germany, was that the damage they suffered led them into unrestricted submarine warfare, which would bring the USA into the war. Such a gamble, I would argue, happened partly because the Germans reckoned that they couldn't continue to suffer that kind of attrition.

On the matter of Haig's defence of the war: I think you are right about the attritional benefits. But is it not possible that Haig's defence of the Somme offensive, as an attritional blow, was his way of rationalising a failure to break through? Even if this was the case, however, it still had beneficial consequences for the Triple Entente.
 
Whats this, Patrick? Not even a comment about the crappy call that led to the penalty kick? I've seen two games in the past two days (even discounting the US/Italy game) that were won on a player's acting ability, not his skill level.

First the Australia loss, then yesterday the goal that put Spain down 2-1 and effectively took them out of it. An elbow inadvertently hits the France player in the chest, he goes down writhing in mock pain and grabbing his face!!!

So of course, the ref thinks he got an elbow in the face. Calls a free kick that gets headed in. Where's the outrage?
 
One more thing - after the foul that led to Totti's penalty kick, the commentators were replaying it saying over and over again "Oh, wow, he sold that one perfectly. Well done. That was perfect."

Does anyone find this sad, that this has been accepted as a legitimate part of the game? They're soccer players, not drama students.
 
anonymous,

I'm not a big fan of recriminating after being knocked out of a tournament. You either take responsibility or you don't.

After the ref sent off the Italian defender, an unjust red card in my view, we were a man up for a long stretch of the game, and failed to translate that into a goal.

Whether or not it was a penalty, Lucas Neil's defending was a little clumsy , so we contributed to our own demise.

And we had chances that we failed to take.

Football is about putting the ball between the sticks, and if you don't do it, you get punished.

Even if it was a dodgy penalty, ff we had been awarded a dodgy penalty and scored in those circumstances, I doubt we would be offering the Italians a rematch because it was a harsh result.

But if you really want to hear it, I am OUTRAGED. Is that ok?

Patrick
 
My apologies for the delayed response - it's been a busy week here.

You are right in pointing out that the Germans shut up shop in the West after Verdun, but Verdun was an exception anyway: with the exception of Second Ypres (which was considerably smaller than Verdun), they generally stayed on the defensive and devoted themselves to offensive efforts in other theaters that appeared to offer more promising prospects - crippling the Russian Army in 1915, knocking Romania out (and saving the Austrians) in 1916, and trying to knock Italy out in 1917. So I don't know that I'd label this posture a result of the Somme as much as it was a product of better opportunities elsewhere.

Remember, too, that the Somme was a not particularly large part of the bigger picture. One of the remarkable aspects of the British participation was the relatively limited scale of the offensives they were able to mount prior to 1918 - 1 July 1916 was a small attack compared to, say, the multi-Army offensives the French launched in Champagne in 1916 and on the Chemin des Dames in 1917, to say nothing of the fighting in the east. The casualties from all of these operations were high, but they are less noticeable, because they were less concentrated in time and space than those of Verdun and the Somme. They were also distributed across a wider number of units, which tends to change the perception of those involved, I think. But things got a whole lot bloodier in 1918, in part because the British Army had improved out of all recognition. If you can get ahold of the Official History, compare the British casualties for 1916 and 1917 with those of 1918 - it's sort of a proxy for the German casualties (I have to admit I don't know where those might be found - something by Fritz Fischer, perhaps) - and they are considerably higher for shorter periods of time. The Brits lost as many men in the March Retreat (a few weeks) as they lost at Passchendaele (August-November). There aren't the horrifying crater and mudfields, of course, but the greater offensive effectiveness on both sides made for some of the worst casualties of the war.

On the other hand, I think you're right about Haig's rationalizations. Robertson got pretty nervous about them, too, and his writings in early 1918 betray some serious concerns about the strategy of attrition.
 
Patrick, You're absolutely right about not wanting to be a sore loser. Let me point out then, that I did not care who won the Australia/Italy game, or the France/Spain game; I had no stake in either game. But the result of both of those games explains why it's hard for me, and I suspect many others, to really get into soccer.

When France gets a goal because Thierry Henry grabs his face to pretend he got an elbow there when he was really just nudged in the chest, resulting in a yellow card on Spain, I don't see a "beautiful game," I see a bunch of cheats.

FIFA has got to do something to cut down on the cheating and play-acting. They pretend they care, but they really don't.

When a player who was just a second ago writhing in pain and grabbing his shin is, in the next moment up and running around after a foul has been called or a yellow card given, it leaves a bad taste in the viewer's mouth.
 
Hey Anonymous,

some good points there. I guess I would view the German army on the western front as more offensively-minded - don't forget the battle of the Marne in 1914, which makes it a damned near thing for the Brits/French. Its hard to argue that this offensive was intentionally limited or attritional. It is a manouverist, mobile, attempt at decisive breakthrough.

There is also one crucial event that inclines the Germans towards a more adventurous attitude to the east: the classic, set-piece victory over Russia at Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes. Whereas the result of the Somme is to persuade the German Army that the Brits are a pretty high calibre force. That they thought there were more opportunities in the east is partly because three of their offensives in the west had failed and because they had developed greater respect for the BEF than for the Russian forces, as well as the problem that they had to bail out their frail Austro-Hungarian ally.

Along with the Marne and Second Ypres, Verdun was not therefore an exception strictly speaking, and Germany, after all, was an invading power. With its ally, it invaded Belgium, France and Serbia. Whatever view you take over the controversy about whether there was or was not a Schlieffen plan / what were the exact implications of their mobilisation plans and railway timetables/etc, there does seem to have been a logic towards the knockout blow in the west to pre-empt the arrival of the full Russian steamroller.

So I still suspect that the defensive stance they eventually take on the west is not the natural 'default' position. Instead, they were pressured into it, and this is partly attributable to the impact of the Brit offensive (though your point about other Entente offensives is well taken).

On the eastern front, yes, there is continued aggression, and we shouldn't forget that this is deeply political, with other commanders who don't want the eastern theatre to turn into a low-priority backwater.

But the forcing of Germany into a defensive on the west is crucial for keeping Britain in the war, with all of the advantages in manpower, resources and economic leverage that brings the Entente. Especially as they have to take the lead when the French suffer their mutinies in 1917...
 
Well, I don't think I said that the decision to go on the defensive in the West was a natural default position, insofar as I said they preferred to seek better opportunities elsewhere (the refusal to consider the same was always Lloyd George's biggest complaint about his generals). But from the fall of 1914 until Verdun, they launched only one offensive in the West, at Second Ypres. After Verdun, they stayed on the defensive until March, 1918: that's pretty much the bulk of the war. Second Ypres gets a lot of notice because of the chemical warfare aspect of it, but it was really just an attempt to chop of part of the Salient - a limited goal, with limited resources. Compare that to the scale of 1 July 1916 (15 divisions in the attacking force) or Operation Michael (63 divisions in the attacking force) and you sort of see how few serious offensive operations the Germans really undertook in the West between First Ypres and March, 1918, if this one makes the books.

The Germans were really in a race against their own losses, and although their strategy varied with changes in the Supreme Command (a great weakness - the strategies of the Entente Powers were at least consistent), they were always in a race to knock individual members of the Entente out of the war before Germany reached her own breaking point. Sir Henry Wilson got this, and expressed it with a characteristically caustic aphorism: "They take Romania, we take Thiepval; they take Italy, we take Gheluvelt." They Germans almost made it work, and probably would have if Hindenburg & Ludendorff hadn't insisted on unrestricted submarine warfare. As it was, even with the knowledge that American troops were trickling into France, the attitudes of the Allied leadership in early 1918 were uniformly gloomy - their own societies were war-weary, the Germans were massing divisions in the West, and most of the allied nations (Serbia, Italy, and Romania) were hovering somewhere between liability and total loss.

This is, as you note, an argument for the primacy of the offensive in German eyes, but the real point is their decision to direct it where it would do the most good. This was going on before the Somme and it went on after it, and the fact that the Germans were prepared to give up a lot of France in early 1917, rather than defend it or launch a counter-offensive, suggests that they were waiting for the time and the circumstances for a truly effective blow - they certainly weren't driven to the ropes by the allied attacks on the Somme.
 
Oops - one addition: seven attacking divisions at Second Ypres. Kinda makes the comparison inconclusive if you forget the numbers.
 
anon,

so why do the Germans call off a planned offensive against British forces between Arras and the Somme, (which Duffy demonstrates)? Why do they scale down the offensive at Verdun? Why do several sources indicate that the professional core of the army was demoralised and devastated by the Somme attack, and that this was subjectively believed to be the case?

None of this suggests that the Somme 'won' the war for the Entente, but it suggests, in Duffy's words, that 'the offensive on the Somme was, if not a victory, at least a costly strategic sucess that was important to the outcome of the war.'

That Germany chose to pull back and prepare an offensive later on, only after an intensive effort at remobilisation of all material and 'moral' resources, does not prove that the Somme was not particularly significant in the big picture. they had been propelled back to this position. In the final analysis, the Entente sustained horrific losses like Germany, but Germany could less afford them. Its a dark arithmetic, but one that counted most against the Kaiserreich.

anyway, I am literally about to run out of time! gotta go.

P
 
let me rephrase one tiny bit of that: their morale was weakened, rather than them being 'demoralised.' as my little fragment suggested, this then has implications for the home front morale too: those who survive go home and often tell stories, and civilians claim that the Somme is a disaster - subjective perceptions matter as well!

things are indeed gloomy for the British in 1918, but they simply don't suffer the scale of desertions and domestic upheavals that Germany does, and this despite being on the receiving end of the March 1918 offensive. the Germans, surely, are far closer to the breaking point when they launch their attack in March 1918. as you say, this need to race against their own feared collapse was part of the dynamic that drove their offensive.
 
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