Today we mourn those who died on the Somme

Today we mourn the loss of 19,240 men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Following an eight day bombardment with 1.7 million shells, and seventeen mines exploded under the German front line, 750,000 troops set out across No Man’s Land at 7.30am on that fateful day. Their General, Sir Douglas Haig, was sure the bombardment would have destroyed the German front line and made the attack relatively easy. Casual observation would have shown him that the barbed wire and the concrete emplacements had withstood it. The British had air supremacy so they should have seen that. War on an industrial scale went to deadlines and plans laid well in advance. Commanders showed little flexibility. Wellington’s brilliance at husbanding his resources and avoiding heavy loss of manpower was replaced by a casual acceptance of massive losses for little territorial gain.

We all admire the heroism and stoicism of the many men who served in that army. My own two grandfathers fought in that long war. They were amongst the lucky ones, both surviving, and only one wounded. We should be more critical of the political and military leadership of the time. The Liberals in government presiding over mass slaughter would never recover as a governing force after the war. The decision to go to war over a dispute in the Balkans and over the neutrality of Belgium was questionable. We then fought the wrong kind of war for the UK. Our strength lay in our navy, kept substantially stronger than any rival, so we fought a static land war on the continent where we could not deploy our sea power to good effect. The men and money the war took damaged the UK’s subsequent position in the world and is part of its twentieth century relative decline. It reminds us how much blood and treasure in the past commitment to Europe has cost us, when the world’s oceans beckoned to a better future elsewhere for an island trading maritime nation.

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42 Comments

  1. Kevin Lohse
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Hang on a minute! British naval power was used by the Allies to successfully blockade Germany and keep the Grand Fleet out of the War. German commerce raders were hunted down and destroyed, and the convoy system ensured minimum disruption to Britains' trade.
    British control of the world's oceans enabled Allenby to fight in the Middle East and ultimately remove Turkey from the War. The brilliant strategic concept of the Dardenelles was only possible due to British naval power and failed only because of the military incompetence which was endemic to both sides.
    My maternal grandfather served thoughout the War on the Western Front as an SNCO in the West Kents. All his 5 brothers and 3 of my grandmothers' brothers joined the "Pals Battalions" and never came back. Like yourself, I,m lucky to be here.

  2. Matt
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Interesting, but I note that you've been very careful here not to make specific charges against individuals. As I'm sure you are aware, modern historical scholarship has moved on ever so slightly since Alan Clarke and , God forbid, AJP Taylor, and most historians of any serious repute in our universities are increasingly coming to view Britain's Great War generals with a good deal more respect.

    Sadly, as yet, we can't say the same about the politicians, whose star seems to be continuing its descent- a charge increasingly led by the more revisionist studies of Lloyd George.

    Would like to look at this further, but sadly have to do some salaried work….

  3. Keith
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I agree with your comments on the terrible waste of life and the subsequent effects on our economic strength. I lost a great uncle who was gassed.

    I wish to make a few points.

    It easy to make sweeping comments with the benefit of hindsight.

    Britain's decision to enter the war was not triggered by events in the Balkans but by Germany's invasion of Belgium which was part of the Schlieffen Plan. The neutrality of Belgium (or the Austrian Netherlands before it) had been a tenet of British foreign policy since the 17th century.

    We did use seapower to good effect as the navy blockaded Germany causing severe shortages there. The fact that there was no decisive engagement was because the German fleet never put to sea after the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

    Also as the French had suffered terrible losses at Verdun in 1916 and were paralysed by mutinies in 1917, Britain had to bear the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front from 1917 onwards. The portrayal of Haig as an incompetent general is unfair. In Aug 1918, he won a great victory over the Germans, making final victory inevitable.

    In WW1 war by attrition was inevitable owing to the supremacy of defensive technology i.e barbed wire, machine guns while use of tanks and air power was in its infancy.

    Churchill did adopt an alternative strategy with his brilliant concept of attacking the Turks at Gallipolli in 1915. it was only a failure as the execution on the ground was botched.

    Reply: The British navy lost more ships at Jutland than Germany, probably because they placed too much explosive close to the guns where it could be detonated by german fire. The sheer weight and firepower of the Grand fleet meant the Germans gave up and Britain held the advantage at sea for the rest of the war. We did not, however, use the collosal advantage that control of the seas brings in the way we did against Napoleon.

  4. Cliff
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    From what I have read, it seems that ordinary soldiers were seen by the military elite as "The King's own Cannon Fodder." It appears the main qualification to be an officer at that time, was to be born in to the right social class.
    I am pleased that in general terms, we no longer adopt such selection criteria for officer selection today.
    What does worry me however, is what appears to be the rise in the armed forces and in the uniformed public services, of the "uniformed politicians." I see the leaders of the armed forces and some leading police officers on the news channels and I cringe as I hear them speaking like politicians, many being very PC and not answering questions put. Perhaps the social elite that led our armed forces during the first world war and before, are being replaced by a political elite now, I don't know.

    I salute those brave men that fought at the Somme and indeed all those that fought during WW1, many giving their lives for our country. I also salute all those that fought battles and wars, often in Europe, to protect our freedoms and way of life.

    I feel the biggest dis-service we do those that gave so much, is giving away our nation's identity and indepenence to the EUSSR. These brave men gave their lives so that we in Great Britain could be free from such oppression that the EUSSR wants to inflict on us.

    Every politician that is in favour of further integration into a European superstate should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

  5. Rob D
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I do agree that the "butchers and bunglers" school of the generals has a lot more to say for itself than the revisionists. After all, the disaster on the Somme followed the mistakes at Loos and Neuve Chappelle in terms of bad tactics. Also, Haig never went to take a look. Sir John French did (indeed, one of the reasons he was sacked was because he kept going forward to look rather than remaining at his HQ) and would have realised the bombardment had not worked as promised.

    But I can't see what else could have been done other than to send an army to France. We did have a huge navy to blockade Germany. We did all that. What else could we have done? An amphibious landing in the Baltic? Please-submarines would have finished that before it started. Grab a colony? If we lost in France they Germans would have got all the colonies they wanted back at the peace talks.

    The Germans could only be defeated by beating their army. The French and Russians couldn't do it on their own. Without British intervention I can't see the Russians and the French surviving beyond 1917 (if they even got there).

    If you think we shouldn't have got involved, fine-you might well be right. But that would have resulted in a German-dominated Europe. Not fielding a mass army would have meant the Kaiser winning. Perhaps not that bad? Perhaps not? But don't talk about using the navy-other than a blockade and keeping open our sea lanes (both of which it did-at least when ordered to convoy) there was not much else for it to do.

    Reply: In Napoleonic wars and in the 2nd World War the expeditionary capability of the Uk and the USA in the later conflict was crucial. Seapower was an important part of the supply and engagement of troops which we did not use fully in the First World War. Had the UK not entered the conflict Germany may well have beaten France, but probably agreed a peace with some German territorial gains. The UK would have remaiend strong, and looking to the USA, Canada and its Empire for trade and friendship

  6. mikestallard
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    The Somme was an outrageous mistake. The Germans were all there waiting when the wretched, untrained men went over the top. And, yes, it was an unmitigated disaster recorded even in the tiniest village war memorial. We have ten names on ours for what was then a hamlet.
    But, we thought it through and introduced the highly successful rolling barrage and then the tank. Haig won.
    And let us not forget the utterly unpleasant German Second Reich. They really did have plans, as late as Spring 1918 to take over Europe and the Kaiser thought, even in the summer, that they had won. People like Hitler never conceded defeat.
    The war aims in the East were pretty well achieved at Brest Litovsk and they were utterly Hitlerian. Remember, too, that Belgium was to be annexed even as early as 1914.
    There was also quite a bit of over the top anti Semitism in Germany in 1914 – perhaps more even than either France or England.
    And let us not forget, too, who planted, quite deliberately, the seeds of Communism in Russia.
    The problem with the world of 1914 is that not everyone was English and not everyone was a sportsman. "TRhe pike in the European fishpond have prevented us becoming carp" – Bismarck of the Second Reich.

  7. Posted July 1, 2008 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    In the search for villains the politicians & generals have been easy targets. It is worth noting that the heaviest casualties were among lieutenants, because doctrine required they lead their men over the top, & airmen. Both drawn heavily from the upper classes. Asquith, for example, lost his son. There were no villains, there may have been fools, there were certainly people who did not have the advantage of our hindsight.

    Using that hindsight the way to win would have been to let France, where the lines were impenetrable in both directions, defend itself & use Britain's army & even more its industry, to strengthen Serbia & Russia (a Russian convoy system would not have suffered the losses it did in WW2 because Germany did not occupy Norway). A thousand Rolls Royce armoured cars on the Russian front & a million rifles would have been enough for the Russian army to move forwards rather than back.

    Reply: Good comments, but I do think the politicians and Generals should have been more concerned about loss of life and thought about mroe intelligent ways of waging war.

  8. Kevin Lohse
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Matt@0903. I prefer Liddel-Hart and Monty and my grandfathers' family tales – they were there.

  9. The last toryboy
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I'm not quite sure what you mean by "not using the navy". We used it as well as we could, and in fact the naval blockade was decisive. The first food riots happened in Austria in 1915! and by 1918 the German Empire was a nation of ghosts, they were down to eating grass in some places at that point. During the Spring Offensives in 1918 the Germans stopped the advance to eat the captured Entente rations, making themselves sick by so doing, because they were all on borderline starvation.

    If you mean a direct assault on the German coastline, that coast is a very difficult invasion route, with a lot of shallow islands off shore, all mined, and not really feasible. Besides, only one major amphibious operation of the war actually succeeded (and it was against a Russian Baltic city, a much easier target), given the incompetence shown at Gallipoli its hard to believe we would have succeeded with a direct assault on Germany.

    As for Jutland, well. Admiral Jellicoe has been dogged by controversy ever since regarding him turning away from German torpedoes rather than turning towards. But I think he did the right thing. The naval war was won by our sheer mass, the Germans had to overturn it. By declining to risk his dreadnoughts he did the right thing. After Jutland the situation was as it was before – ie Germany was starving and the Royal Navy was still ruling the waves.

    On the land we had no choice, the French alone couldn't have stopped the German army. In fact we intended to let the French bleed and then mop up, that was always the plan! Unfortunately it turned out the French simply couldn't do it (and the French generals were even more incompetent than the British ones, except for maybe Petain). And so it ended up being the US that mopped up rather than us.

  10. Richard
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I too have always thought that Britain's relative decline and the acceptance of the infliction of sixty years of brain-dead municipal socialism by both Labour and Tory governments, was related to the fact that we lost so many of our best and our bravest in two world wars.

  11. James Strachan
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    We got involved in a European war because of the breach of Belgian neutrality, but also because the Kaiser was targetting us. The Kaiser was building a Navy which could have no conceivable purpose except to endanger Britain.

    And he was threatening other European nations as well.

    The great difficulties of the middle period of the war were (a) the equality of the opponents, (b) the inability for generals to exercise voice control over their command and (c) the immense logistical preparations required for each offensive to feed the troops and to support the artillery war.

    An offensive could not be broken off and resumed elsewhere as the artillery and logistical infrastructure would have to be moved before a new attack could commence. This explains the duration of the major battles of the Somme and Third Ypres.

    By 1918, things had changed. Logistical arrangements were easier due to lorry transport and the German Army had lost much of its strength.

    The last 100 days show a series of British victories leading to a restoration of mobility on the battlefield. By then, the British Army had learnt how to fight this most difficult of wars.

    It would have been better not to fight the Great War and to have avoided so many casualties and grief.

    But the Kaiser did not allow us this option.

  12. Posted July 1, 2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    John – Like others I count myself lucky to be here, since my grandfather was the only one of 5 brothers to return from the Somme. I agree with your comments re if we had stayed out. I have long thought that if we had not sent an army to France in 1914 we would simply have seen a re-run of the Franco-Prussian war of 40 or so years earlier. When the 1914 papers were relaesed some years ago I remember being shocked at the casual way that 100 years of policy was overturned – if I remember rightly it was a half-page minute from Grey that committed us to war and sent millions of young men to their deaths. But this is how really bad decisions are taken, casually with no discussion. It confirms to me that every time we have become involved with mainland Europe it has ended in disaster for us. This error led to the 1939-45 conflict which weakened us fatally and allowed the US to destroy our international position. In my view, UK politicians, and not for the first or last time, completely misread what was happening in Europe. De Gaule was right, the UK should turn its back on Europe and look to the blue water.

  13. alan
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Quite astonishing. The numbers slaughtered, the names on countless memorials throughout our land. Never forgotten but just imagine the grief caused by each individual death. No opportunity to pay last respects. The majority of the people left behind unable, ever, to visit the grave of their loved ones.

    What did they die for? ' A land fit for hero's' and a country being sold down the river to the architects of the EU, whose planning started whilst our brave boys were being slaughtered!

    This Country appears never to learn from its history.

    I salute every one who gave their life for our freedom.

  14. Stuart Fairney
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Like many contributors, my grandfather was involved in WW1 and had a couple of bullet wounds that he was lucky enough to survive.

    Having read Robert Massie's excellent "Dreadnought" you have to say WW1 had an awful inevitability about it. Sir Edward Grey is often criticised yet looking at his actions, step by step, at the very least one can understand his thought process.

    Perhaps the greatest lesson of the conflict, is that sometimes wars are forced upon a country, but that does not mean one should go looking for them.

  15. Matt
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kevin,

    That's just the point- Liddel-Hart is to the go-to guy for anyone writing about the war in the 1960s- his fingerprints are eveywhere. I tried referencing him in an Oxford postgrad seminar last year and was practically laughed out of the room.

    (Hopefully this won't leave me open to accusations of academic ivory towers, I have served as an officer in the regular armed forces)

    I think the problem is that you can observe the arc with WW1 quite easily. The peace was lost, WW2 came about, and then in the 50s and 60s the angry young men came along and indulged in a bit of iconoclasm.

    My great grandfathers were out there and lived long enough for me to talk to them. They were pretty much uinversally condemnatory of the conduct of 1914-1918. The difference is that I'm willing to bet that if I'd had the chance to talk to them in 1920 then I'd have got a completely different take on it, because they were different people then.

    My argument is that the disillusion set in well after the war. You only have to look at the vast numbers of old soldiers who lined the streets for Haig's funeral- they hadn't just gone to check he was dead. There was a real feeling in 1918 that Britain had won the war- the British army had romped to victory in the 100 days up to the Armistice, and that's not just Beech-Thomas in the Daily Mail, it's what the troops themselves thought at the time.

    After the war, these men had to watch the world that their children inherited riven by a conflict in which far more civilians died, and quite naturally they came to re-examine the events of their own youth. It was at this point that they started to wwonder whether it had all been worth it.

    Sassoon and Owen were in no way representative of the average infantry officer. the poetry was great, redolent of the pity and futility of war- but that's not the way the average chap felt- or they would all have hurled their MCs into the Mersey and gone to Craiglockhart.

    I don't want to get on a soapbox and defend Haig to the hilt, but he still gets an awful press from too many people. If not him in command, who? Under Haig, for all his faults, the British Army became a decisive war winning weapon. Circumstance forced his hand.

    How do you keep a war going when all the advances in technology up to 1916 favoured the defensive at a time when you had to be on the offensive. Sad and callous as it may today seem, Britain did not have the option of sitting tight in the trenches while the French were bled white in defence of their homeland. Once we had become committed to the conflict, and the rights of that are a different argument altogether, we had no option but to fight.

    From 1916, pioneering new methods of assault, the tide turned. Yes it was slow, yes it was immensely costly in blood and treasure, but Haig and the men under him, all the way down to private, came through and won the war. The real question here is what on earth the FO was thinking at Versailles to agree to something that meant that we lost the peace so comprehensively.

  16. Posted July 1, 2008 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    People are not developing one of John Redwood's original points that the British lost out by helping the French at the Somme: just to show we were pulling our weight in the alliance.This has continued relevance to our being dragged along by the the European project .
    Although I am a pro-European, the facts appear to be that the Somme was conceived to relieve pressure at Verdun, about which the French obsessed while we remained junior partners in the offensive ,though providing the most men. I concede that this has all kinds of implications.

  17. Posted July 1, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    DBC Reed – I tried to address that point, sort of, in my post above. We should have stayed out. Whenever we get involved in Europe it is because we are being manipulated by one or other of the continental powers. Also, our involvement lengthened the hostilities into the slogging match that it became. When two giants start fighting its best to stay out of it and pick up the pieces later. Finally, I don't think it's sufficiently appreciated by our pro-EU politicians just how much we are hated on the continent for our involvement in both wars – France for one has never forgiven us.

  18. The last toryboy
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    The Somme was indeed there to relieve pressure at Verdun, but the Big Push was going to happen anyway one way or another. What was Passchendaele all about in 1917, after all. Haig's hand was forced but the assault was going to happen and in much the same way. The Somme had a terrible inevitability about it I think.

    We did help the French, yes – and we did pay an incredibly high price for doing so. But as has already been mentioned here the Second Reich was not a pleasant regime, it was an extremely autocratic and militarised state. Sitting back and letting Europe be united by force under the Kaiser probably was not an option.

    World War 1 is an absolutely fascinating war in terms of military history, because a complete revolution in how war was fought went on in those four years. Really World War 2 pales in terms of being a hotbed of innovation. Things like the blitzkrieg, the Dowding system, were all thought out in the 30s. In World War 1 they had to do it on the fly. In 1914 they were using tactics which would not have been unfamiliar to Napoleon. In 1918 they were using, essentially, the tactics of modern war.

  19. Kevin Lohse
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Hi Matt, thanks for replying. I'm a retired officer too. I spent 18 years as a small piece of grit in the mighty machine that was Cold War NATO.
    I do not think that one can maintain intellectual honesty by bowing to scholarly fashion in military history. It is not a case of lengthening the hemline or showing more cleavage – the history of war is written by the tombstones of the dead and in the memories of the survivors – often in a cold sweat at 0400 hours. I have never been able to understand the disdain shown, by those two or three generations removed from the Great War, to those who had sufficient moral strength to revisit their experiences and attempt to distill their painfully gained wisdom so that those who followed them could learn from their suffering.
    In fact that same disdain is shown by today's' chattering classes , (which unfortunately includes many who profess to be intellectuals), and has led to the appointment of a part-time Minister of Defence while the military fight a war on two fronts.
    Liddell- Hart was gassed in the trenches but he was still able to write a paper, in the Thirties, arguing that Chemical Warfare was at least as humane as slowly dying from a bayonet in the stomach or bleeding to death with every bone in one's body shattered by a near miss by a heavy artillery shell.
    You have a point about Haig. In the final advance, he moved over the front line and reputedly saw the hellish scenes for the first time. Not an emotional or sensitive man, he was moved to tears by the evidence of human suffering he saw all around him. After the War, he did an incredible amount of work to address the pain and suffering of the wounded, dead and their families. I would suggest that this act of atonement was what drew the crowds, in an age where the general public were more forgiving of human frailty than today. Also, the closeness of a shared experience, the "He may be a Bastard, but he's OUR Bastard", could have had an effect. I would suggest we saw a similar effect at the death of Princess Di.
    Modern scholarship is apparently more forgiving of the generals' limited abilities than of yore. I wonder how modern scholarship explains away sending the troops at the Somme into battle carrying more than their own body-weight of equipment, of allowing useless gas masks to be issued, of ignoring the evidence from patrol and air reconnaissance reports because, "The troops were too cowardly to tell the truth". and of keeping vast numbers of cavalry in reserve, creating a vast re-supply problem, for the breakthrough that never came in a battle environment where cavalry could not exist as an effective fighting unit

    If you are my vintage, you were probably required as a "young sir", to read at least two books. One was Slim on "Courage" and the other was "a Psychology of Military Incompetence", by Smith, who also has served in the Armed Services.
    "Courage", led me to decide that my personal qualities neccessary to attain senior rank were somewhat limited.
    Smith comes at the problem from the viewpoint of a psychologist and, when dealing with the Great War, in the main, confirms Liddell- Harts findings. Monty by admission was a Liddell-Hart man, but his experience as a front-line brigade-major led him to have a pretty dim view of the Generals. I second your dismissal of A.J.P. Taylor. At the risk of giving me a heart attack, could you recommend a book written by a current mainstream revisionist?

  20. Posted July 1, 2008 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    I have visited the Somme many times now and visited my Great Uncle's grave. My most recent visit was last October when I took my mother. We planted some flowers on the 90th anniversary of his death.

    He was unlucky. He survived his initial injuries on the battlefield, however, he was killed when the ambulance taking him to a field hospital was bombed. There is hardly a day goes by when I don't remember the sacrifice those men made. An completely unnecessary war, where, as you say, there was carnage on an industrial scale.

  21. Posted July 2, 2008 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    You can forgive Haig the Somme.
    Untried troops, new methods, an optimistic approach etc.
    He can even be forgiven for the continuation of the battle long after it was a failure just to keep the pressure off the French.

    But Passchendaele? it should have been canceled. And to use similar failed tactics again..and again..and again?

    Haig didn't learn the lessons well enough or quickly enough. He nearly lost the war [with lloyd Georges help admittedly] at the Kaiser's offensive, and only then did the British army adopt the stormtrooper tactics that complemented the admirable advances in close air support, excellent artillery advances and tank use, that won the war.
    The Empire won the war as much in spite of Haig as because of him.

    Haig.. 5/10

  22. Posted July 2, 2008 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    "We then fought the wrong kind of war for the UK. Our strength lay in our navy, kept substantially stronger than any rival, so we fought a static land war on the continent where we could not deploy our sea power to good effect"

    As has been said the navy blockaded Germany. We did indeed try to bypass the Western Front fighting in Gallipoli and there was a landing in Salonica as well – all came to nothing.

    But I can only suggest you stick to economics.

    Germany forced the war and had been planning for it for some time. We could not avoid it.
    Germany occupied the Channel coast dominating Britain – this was quite unacceptable to British interests. We had to be involved.
    We had to be involved in the land campaign because without us the Germans would have defeated France.
    The choice of the Somme was dictated by France – Haig wanted an attack on the coast.
    The attack was brought forward because of the French losses at Verdun. So our forces were even less well prepared than they would have been.
    The Somme was not an unmitigated disaster. Even on the first day the southern third of the battlefield obtained significant success.
    Even just 2 weeks later the British demonstrates that they had learned significant lessons and mounted successful attacks.

    Overall the Somme was the most significant battle of WW1.
    At the end the German Army was in shock at its suffereing at its losses, an officer called it the bloody grave of the modern German Army and the British Army had evolved in to an increasingly capable mass European Army. The following spring the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line. They could not see a victory and so felt forced to implement unrestricted submarine warfare which ultimately brought the USA in to the war.

    In terms of the dead, the slaughter in the final hundred days of the war, which were a period of unparalleled success leading to the defeat of Germany, we suffered even greater casualties than those on the Somme. All sides including the incoming Americans when they finally made a contribution in late 1918 – all sides – suffered horribly. It was the nature of the terrible beast.

  23. Posted July 2, 2008 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    And some other assumptions are wrong – not sure 17 mines were exploded – there were some and we were too slow to exploit them.

    Also 750,000 men set off in to no-mans land ??

    No. The Somme was carried out by the British 3rd and 4th Armies and the French 9th. Thanks to Verdun the French contribution was smaller than planned and the British larger – despite its lack of experience.

    Some 16 British and French Divisions – equals about 250,000 men, not all were involved in the initial assaults.

    By all means lets discuss The Somme – but a little effort to do so based on facts would help.

  24. William B.
    Posted July 2, 2008 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    The two essays you added to your blog today (Monday) share a common theme which is, in my opinion, of vast importance in the EU debate. I am not a military historian and do not profess any personal knowledge of military or naval matters, my views are formed from my family history.

    Your posts take me back to a time before I was born, 1940 when my late father, a Ukrainian, joined the Polish forces to fight against Hitler's Germany. He had the choice of joining the Russian army, the army of the country which ruled his homeland, or the Polish army. As an ordinary man he applied ordinary common sense based on his own experience. The Holodomor made him implacably opposed to Russian rule. Stalin's support of Hitler and their joint annexation of Poland reinforced that opinion. He was one of many Ukrainians, and how interesting it is that they joined the army of a traditional enemy in order to fight against something so very much worse (although they could have had no idea of the full extent of Hitler's plans at the time).

    Like many he suffered serious physical injury and was interred as a prisoner of war. Escaping twice and being recaptured twice put him in a concentration camp. The third escape resulted in a perilous journey to Spain from which he was invited by British troops to come to the UK in 1944.

    From then until his death in 1995 he never left this country, it became his home. He had no desire to "go home" because, for all the problems this country encountered, it was a million miles better than Stalin's rule.

    Just in case any lefties are reading this and think my father stayed here because he was a "fat cat", he was always a manual worker. His struggle to balance the household budget was infinitely preferable to what the USSR had to offer.

    Had he lived long enough to hear that the UK was to be subsumed within a European Union he would have asked himself whether his sacrifice was worthwhile.

    Proud though I am of my father, he was just one of many who fought and suffered to allow self-determination to countries which would otherwise have been under Nazi rule.

    Self-determination is a vital concept because it encourages personal responsibility and that encourages direct and effective governmental responsibility. The current government's back-down over the 10p tax issue was a result of self-determination … there would have been no chance of achieving a change of policy had the taxation decision been made EU-wide.

    Let the demand for self-determination ring out loud and clear. I believe the people of every country in the EU would vote for it if given the choice.

  25. Matt
    Posted July 2, 2008 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Kevin,

    it's a bit of a polemic, but you could do worse than starting with Gordon Corrigan's Mud, Blood and Poppycock- just bear in mind that he's got an axe to grind and has a tendency to gild the lily. His analysis is reasonably sound though- particularly his use of statistics in debunking the myth of the "lost generation." I appreciate that you can make statistics say pretty much what you want, but if he's even half right on that, it stands the received wisdom completely on its head.

    Other than that, and they're neither of them actually that modern (1970s I think), try Gerard J DeGroot, Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War, and Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. I

    nterestingly, the last two were both written by Americans, who seem to be disproportionately at the forefront of British Great War Scholarship. My old tutor Hew Strachan's book is also very good, although he hasn't actually reached the end of the war yet.

  26. Posted July 2, 2008 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    One problem with the " we-should-have-stayed-out-of-it" thesis as regards the First World War is that many of the same arguments could be adduced for WW2. More so really since Hitler always maintained that geopolitically he wanted the British to police the Imperial fringes while he stomped all over Europe. Most of his peace offers 1939,1940,the Hess mission (probably)were variants of the German Europe/ British Empire division of world power. A strict interpretation of the none-of-our-business doctrine would in
    1940 especially have led us in a dubious direction.

    Reply: The what if question with the 2WW is not should we have fought it, but shouldn't we have intervened much earlier before Hitler had rearmed?

  27. John
    Posted July 2, 2008 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    "Sadly, as yet, we can’t say the same about the politicians, whose star seems to be continuing its descent- a charge increasingly led by the more revisionist studies of Lloyd George"

    Don't knock Lloyd George too much . My grandfather was in the Essex from 1914 to 1917, in France all that time and in the infantry.
    It was Lloyd George who was reluctant to let the generals have too many men and who was instrumental in seeing that some of the battalions who had "done their bit " were sent off to somewhere nice and quiet.

    In 1917 grandfather's battallon was withdrawn from France and sent to Poona!

  28. Posted July 3, 2008 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    To say that we should have let the French and Germans get on with WW1 and intervened earlier (pre-emptive strike?)in WW2 is contradictory.
    The appeasers could always claim that we should stay out and encourage Hitler to attack Russia which would kill two birds with one stone (from their point of view).So the stand on the sidelines proposition did have some weight in a macabre board game view of things.More weight than WW1
    Chamberlain's apologists always said we needed time to re-arm anyway and so early interventions were impracticable.

  29. Posted July 3, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    DCB Reed and others. My thesis that we should have stayed out of WWI is that if we had stayed out there would have been no WWII. In any case I think we should have stayed out of WWII as well. Churchill was a total war freak and saw it as his way back to power (disparaging remarks left out -ed) WWII was the last hurrah of the old 19C deferential classes, vide all those ghastly 1950s British films about how the chaps won the war with just a little bit of (reluctant) help from the blokes. History will judge Churchill for what he was – (left out words) He destroyed the lives of my parents' generation, as well as the economic livelihood of the first part of my life. But the political class are at it again, inventing duties for themselves. I saw Oborn yapping recently that we have a duty to the people of Zimbabwe. We have no such thing, no more than we have to Iraq or Afghanistan. Blair used this stunt to involve us in the mess that is the middle east. Fools will always rush in, and the rest of us will always have to clear up the mess.

    PS – to those who argue that WWI and II were inevitable for the UK – nothing in life is inevitable except death. Life is a series of decisions. The inevitability argument is always deployed by scoundrel politians hell bent on a course of action for which they can find no convincing justification, or when they have taken decisions that are plainly wrong when they bleat that it was inevitable anyway.

  30. Posted July 3, 2008 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Kevin – (if your still there)

    "in a battle environment where cavalry could not exist as an effective fighting unit" — cavalry fought as mounted infantry (on analogy has been that they can be considered a bit like airborne troops) and there are many examples of them being able to move forward to seize and hold ground.

    All troops suffered from the problem of being ineffective once they moved beyond their own artillery support.

    By all means criticise British Generals but do so in the context of their contemporaries, Russian French German Italian and Austrian. In that context they were not incompetent at all. Just faced with insurmountable difficulties.

  31. Posted July 4, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    It was also LLoyd George personally who insisted on intorducing the convoy system. This broke the back of the U-Boats war when Britain had been wiyhin a few weeks of collapse & was done in the teeth of the Admiralty who said it couldn't be done.

    I have no doubt that without Lloyd George's leadership we would have lost. He was more important to winning WW1 than Churchill to WW2, which doesn't mean that with hindsight we can't see both of them made major errors.

  32. Posted July 4, 2008 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    John – Why is my last post marked "awaiting moderation" when there are other later posts displayed. Is it because I showed less than total adulation for W Churchill, the great Tory and national hero?

    Reply: Yes, I am thinking how to edit, as I do not encourage too much abuse of individuals on my site as it does not usually add to the points being made.

  33. Posted July 4, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    John – I am sorry to have given you a problem. I find your response fascinating in that it shows just how powerful the Churchill mythology still is. I think we will have to wait many years, and long after I am dead – for an objective assessment. Such an assessment will include his contribution to the great recession of the 1920s as a less than glorious Chancellor of the Exchequor. But that is another story. As to his war career, I suppose my main point is that history, in the short term at least, is truly the propaganda of the victors.

  34. mikestallard
    Posted July 5, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Churchill was probably, by our standards an alcoholic. He was outrageously sexist by our standards too. Worse, he actually was proud of smoking. Yes, he did flash a V sign at Hitler and insisted on not calling him "Herr Hitler." He was very old fashioned too – he loved the British Empire and he simply could not understand what Beveridge was on about with his "Welfare State". Hence the arrival of Major Attlee.
    History seems so obvious to us.
    But it isn't.
    Conservatives of all sorts wanted to appease Hitler and Hitler (and Hess) wanted to be appeased. That was (probably) why Hess flew to England – to arrange peace. Hitler loved the British Empire and admired the British for having it. It would have been so easy to make peace between the two great Empires – Germany on European land and England on the Seas. Little Japan could still have been "gallant little Jap" as in the First World War. Italy was, of course, a joke, but as figurehead, Mussolini could have been a sort of mascot for Imperialism.
    Churchill's achievement was to focus and strengthen our resistance to Hitler and the Third Reich. That can never be taken away from him. It would have been so easy to accept Hess' demands and give in – and to have saved so many innocent lives in the blitz.
    He didn't.
    And therefore this really was "our finest hour."

  35. Posted July 8, 2008 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    Having suggested that the Hess mission was to start peace negotiations, I thought I'd check it out and according to Spartacus Educational on the Net,not regular reading on this site I expect, Eden announced to the Commons that Hess was here for peace negotiations but not with Churchill (!!)This account of Hess is controversial to say the least but the most provocative assertions :that Liddell Hart had evidence that the German tanks stopped short of Dunkirk to allow us to escape IS in his"The Other Side of the Hill" and most histories of the Blitz do ,in fact, give the end of the campaign as 10th May 1941 which coincided with Hess's arrival.This would mean that some kind of negotiations might have taken place,perhaps along the lines of we'll stop bombing you ,if you stop bombing us and anyway we're going to invade the USSR so you're off the hook.So what would have happened if Hitler had succeeded in his Eastern Campaign? Idle speculation no doubt but the whole peace negotiation process during the war is very murky and challenging to a straightforward account of the conflict.

  36. John
    Posted July 14, 2008 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    We might not have stayed out of WW1, but did we have to see it to it's bloody conclusion? Why not in 1915 to have made a peace? Or even in 1916? When did war become so total?

    Still, it's all water under the bridge now. I think eventually we will come to regret our neglect and banishment of our Commonwealth ties, and see that as a colossal blunder on a par with going to war in 1914.

    As for what is happening today, we probably have to make the best for now that we can out of being in Europe as it's likely that the US will look to it's own interests more and more.

  37. Paul Barton
    Posted October 17, 2008 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Coming late to this discussion, most of the points have already been made – we had to send a major land commitment to France otherwise she would have been beaten as in 1870, the British (and other countries) did develop new tactics as the war went on but the sheer weight of manpower made a vast butcher's bill inevitable, etc etc.

    One other thing that needs to be pointed out is that in World War Two it was the Soviets (20 m dead) who were doing most of the fighting. That was what gave Monty the luxury of "conserving manpower". In the West we tend to forget this.

  38. John
    Posted October 17, 2008 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Au contraire, for years and years all I seem to have heard about is how the War was won in the East by the Soviets. What we tend to forget is that the Soviets only came into the War in 1941, and if the British Commonwealth and Empire had been defeated first, the Nazis and their Allies would have been much better placed to defeat the Soviets, something they very nearly achieved in 1941/2. The Soviets were never threatened in the East either, mainly because of their defeat of Japan in Manchuria, but if Japan had not been occupied fighting the US and other Allies, it's involvement in a War with the Soviets as a Nazi ally could have been crucial.

  39. mikestallard
    Posted October 18, 2008 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Japan had to expand in 1940 simply because it had run out of resources.
    It could, yes, have expanded North into Russia, but how much easier to go South and take over the Pacific ocean! Its brilliant and hugely successful strategy nearly worked, too.
    The Japanese high command discussed all this thoroughly. And, of course, their deliberations were carefully reported to Moscow by Richard Sorge, Stalin's "brothel keeper". 400,000 troops were rushed across Siberia by Kaganovitch just in time to save the day. 12th -14th October 1941 were the dates of this outstanding achievement.
    Had the Americans lost the battle of Midway, for instance, or if the crucial invasion of Australia had succeeded (the invasion was scuppered by the loss of just one Japanese vessel) the war might well have dragged on far longer.
    Without the Russians and the Americans, the British Empire might well have gone under. In 1945, for instance, we were broke.

  40. Paul Barton
    Posted October 21, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    John, OK, perhaps we now know more about the Soviet contribution to winning WW2 than we did in the days of 1950s/1960s war films. It is also true that the Soviets were rather more dependent on US equipment (boots, trucks, jeeps, machine guns, rebuilt railways as they moved west again and above all aviation fuel shipped into Vladivostok under Soviet flag) than they care to remember.

    My point is that in terms of men fighting and dying on the ground, in WW1 the Western Front (where the Germans deployed between 150 and 200 divisions, two thirds of their forces, at various times) was the main theatre of operations, just as the Eastern Front was in WW2. To see the Somme and Passchendaele in perspective they have to be compared to the vast battles on the Eastern Front in WW2 – Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad etc. Normandy (1944) was the only battle fought by the Western Allies on that scale, and it was half the length and half the size of the Somme, and the Allies enjoyed massive air superiority.

    Another way of looking at this is to say that the Germans were never going to be defeated by small campaigns in Salonika and Palestine in WW1 any more than they were defeated by the smallish (10-20 divisions per side) campaigns in the Desert and Italy in WW2.

    If you fight a war on that scale, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men, are going to die. In WW2 it was the Soviets. In WW1 it was the French and British on the Western Front.

  41. Posted October 22, 2008 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    And Yugoslavia's entry into the war (A) meant Hitler had to redeploy & his invasion of Russia started a month late, which considering he got within 20 miles of Moscow may have been decisive & (B) according to Churchill their resistance occupied the attention of more troops (albeit some of them also Yugoslavs & of little combat use) than Britain & America combined prior to D-Day. As Wellington said in another case "A damned close run thing" & afterwards everybody says everybody else should be grateful to them.

  42. mikestallard
    Posted October 22, 2008 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    A footnote to this comment:
    OK, so the Russians were fouled up by Communism for the first part of the Second World War and then, thanks to their bringing men from the East and also thanks to the Arctic convoys of the British convoys, they were able to advance. And they lost many, many brave men.
    In the Far East, of course, the Chinese were slaughtered in droves. But – hey – they don't get a mention!
    In the West, we really did carry on through North Africa, knocked out Italy, then invaded Northern europe. I reckon the honours are pretty even myself. And then, of course, there was the bombing which we did almost exclusively.

    In the First World War, it is often overlooked that the Germans won it. In the East, at Brest Litovsk, the Russians gave huge chunks of their territory away and the Germans had their army stationed in the middle of the Borderlands right up unto 1920. They assumed they had won in the West too, right up until the autumn of 1918.
    Russian sufferings were awful. German sufferings were awful. In Italy and Turkey, too, quite a number of very brave men died. It really was a war on two fronts.

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  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood has been the Member of Parliament for Wokingham since 1987. First attending Kent College, Canterbury, he graduated from Magdalen College, and has a DPhil from All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.
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