Thursday, November 01, 2007

Four Score and Ten Years Ago

The Chief of the Australian Army has a tradition of sponsoring an annual military conference, an event I belatedly discovered after a friend suggested that I go. Last year the subject was Theory and Conduct of Small Wars and Insurgencies, which I missed. This year's subject is ancient history: the revolution in military affairs of 1917. Present at the conference were a number of serving military historians and academics, all of whom were published experts on the subject of the Great War. The audience was half uniformed, and most of the rest recently so, apart from a few oddballs like a businessmen for whom history was a hobby.

But it was the seriousness with which the participants approached the study of history which was singularly impressive. Lt General Peter Leahy, the current chief of the Australian Army was entirely in earnest when he described it as a necessary and valuable exercise -- "our real world datapoints" -- as I remember he described it, before he went on to introduce the speakers. One of the books handed out to all participants was the Chief of the Army Reading List, a suggested compilation of books fictional and nonfictional, on the subject of war. When I picked up my copy outside the door, I saw that there were individual lists for different ranks. The nonfiction list below is the suggested reading for a Captain.

  • Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare by Colin Gray
  • The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform by James Corum
  • Future War in Cities: A Liberal Dilemma by Alice Hills
  • The Battle of the Casbah: Terror and Counterterror in Algeria by Paul Aussaressess
  • The American War of War by Russell Weigly
  • The Army and Vietnam by Andrew Krepinevich
  • Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 by Antony Beevor
  • Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle by Stephen Biddle
  • etc

The fiction list was almost as interesting. What novels should a Captain read? The Matthew Hervey series. Slaughterhouse Five. Len Deighton's Bomber, etc. All in all the reading conveyed the flavor of intellectual environment of the Australian Army, which gave the same sort of clues as might be found in inspecting the home library of person you are visiting. It wasn't egghead, but it was literate.

Although I had a passing familiarity with the shape of the Great War the lectures brought that long conflict, the hinge upon which European history turned, back to vivid life. We were back in the year 1917 and the pressing question facing all the combatants -- upon whose answer victory or defeat depended was whether they understood the face of modern war. The Western Front was in some respects a titanic Iwo Jima where millions of men looked across a barrier of fortifications at their enemies without a clear idea about how to proceed. Eventually the British and Commonwealth Armies reshaped their doctrine around the idea of combined arms, in particular the artillery sword working in conjunction with infantry. The artillery killed and it became the task of infantry to hold what the artillery had more or less taken by fire. The rest of the conference, which will continue tomorrow will examine the somewhat different German solution to the same problem of trench stalemate, a solution that involved shock troops and infiltration tactics.

Halfway through the first day I realized that even though I had missed the history conference on small wars the study of the Great War was in itself a fascinating and productive exercise. Because photography was still so primitive in those days, it is hard for people today, nearly a century from the events, to imagine just how violent the Great War was. For example, an analysis of artillery densities at Ypres show that certain sections of the German trenchline were bombarded with literally nuclear intensity: the destruction was equivalent -- sans the radiation -- to the employment of a tactical nuclear weapon. Some of the mines detonated beneath German positions were heard across the Channel in England. The casualties of course, were in due proportion. Hundreds of thousands of casualties were expended to gain a single mile.

"I became a stranger to myself," went one of the diary entries cited by in connection with the campaigns of the mud in 1917. And what mud the low-lying Flemish countryside produced. Horses sank in it. Men wandering off the duckboards disappeared beneath its murky surface without a trace. Sixteen men labored for hours to free a single man who had tumbled into it's clutches and ultimately failed. Men floundered behind it chasing the Rolling Barrage which alone promised a way through 30 yard deep wire entanglements, enemy trench lines and hundreds of pillboxes. The Great War was the cradle of the Revolution in Military Affairs that made the 20th century the most violent period in the history of mankind.

But above all it was the story of the cost of understanding. It was the narrative of how arduous it was to make the mental shift from the 19th century to the 20th. And although the subject was never broached, in the coffees afterward one could overhear comparisons being made with the dilemmas of the 21st century. We too seem to be living through a period of transition. What history -- the datapoint -- seems to suggest is that understanding the nature of change is neither cheap nor free from tears; that even unbearable sorrow may simply be an earnest of worse to come. 


Blogger lgude said...

Yes, I have consistently viewed the criticism of the current war leaders through the lens of the great difficulty everyone has when the rules of the game change.There is no greater monument to obsolete fixed ideas than the slaughter of the Great War. It sounds like the Australian military has its thinking cap on.

11/01/2007 07:30:00 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

There has been steady scientific & technological change for the last 200 years. However, during that time there has also been two previous times of massive industrial revolutions. The first was the mechanical/steam revolution from1820-1840 and the second was the industrial revolution of 1890-1910 in which most the elements of 20th century science and techonolgy were born.

We have entered a third period of intense scientific and technological change.

11/01/2007 07:31:00 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

If one is interested in a moving accout of what is was like on the western front in 1917, I highly recommend "Some Desperate Glory: The World War I Diary of a British Officer" by Edward Campion Vaughan. It ends with Vaughan's horrific experiences at Ypres.

11/01/2007 07:34:00 AM  
Blogger El Jefe Maximo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11/01/2007 07:54:00 AM  
Blogger El Jefe Maximo said...

The Great War is one of my favorite historical subjects, and I would have loved to have attended this conference.

As for the conditions of the conflict itself, particularly the problems of the generals trying to fit their 19th Century traning experience (too much focus on Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War) to 20th Century technology, I'd recommend strongly Norman Stone's The Eastern Front. Besides being a splendid operational history of what was, in my opinion, the most important theatre, it's interesting simply because most of it is unfamiliar to most American readers.

As to the British and Commonwealth armies you mention, many of their problems stemned from the almost complete destruction of the BEF in the first year and a half of the war. The wrecking of the BEF meant that the New Armies, even after the British culled their home forces and units out in the Empire -- lacked sufficient NCO's and junior officer cadres to train them properly, and there were not enough of such people who could be spared from what was left in France. The BEF, essentially 80 percent of the British regular army, was really splendid -- but it, and its precious cadres, was gone.

Consequently, the British had to fall back on officers and NCO's whose primary experience was with low-intensity warfare in the Empire, plus retirees, scrapings of the home garrisons, the Territorial Army and whatever else they could put together. People with experience and the proper training and military educational background were lacking. And they had to do all this while inventing military industries and manning the Royal Navy.

The New Armies had to learn by OJT and bloody experience ,and this cost them, particularly in the Somme.

The French and German armies, also expanding, had conscription and a large reserve system pre-war, thus, they had larger cadres, and their expansion proceeded on a more solid basis.

11/01/2007 07:57:00 AM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

WWI was capitalisms "Creative Destruction" applied to destruction. Of course, it did a job on politics and geography, too.

Sometimes I suggest to promoters of the Palestinian cause that they look at the borders of Germany through the twentieth century. If our leftist puppies want to let slip the dogs of revanchism and resentment (populism + demagoguery) they should take care: Those dogs eat their own, and will make short work of their supposed masters.

11/01/2007 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger maximus_livius said...

Fascinating. I always thought that we, modern westerners (including you guys in Australia!), do not study history enough. As a result, we always think that the challenges facing us are brand new and thus we have to reinvent categories of thought, come up with new strategies, etc. Some things, however, reappear over and over throughout history.

I found this piece to be interesting along these lines. Ancient history, not even 1917 but much farther back, is relevant!

11/01/2007 08:31:00 AM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

Stout Hearts that Never Failed

The charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba

11/01/2007 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger BrianFH said...

One interesting thought this inspired was to compare how much more efficient the MNF in Iraq was/is at preserving its NCOs than the AQ et al are.

11/01/2007 10:07:00 AM  
Blogger Byron said...

See 'A Rifleman Went to War,' by H.W. McBride, Prologue by Jeff Cooper.

The best first-person account. The ending is unexpected and very powerful.

11/01/2007 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger El Jefe Maximo said...

Maximus Livius is correct: the same challenges do occur again and again.

My favorite example lately is the South in the American Revolution. Students of counterinsurgency could do worse than have a look at the problems of the British there: particularly General Cornwallis, in trying to pacify Georgia and the Carolinas with far too few of of the excellent British troops to do it with; vast distances; a chaotic local political situation divided between friends, including local militias that often did more harm than good; neutrals who didn't care who won as long as they didn't have to take a stand; then enemies (American rebels)who had regulars, militias and lots of guerrillas -- the Americans increasingly armed and financed by interested foreigners. The British had to face all this with uncertain political support back home; and plenty of backbiting, inter-front infighting and interservice rivalry in the high command.

11/01/2007 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Smitten Eagle said...


Is there a link you can give to an online copy of the reading list you mention?

Many Thanks,

11/01/2007 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

The Kagans' book "While America Slept" points out in some detail that the British thought there would be a Revolution in Military Affairs as a result of the WWI experience. The airplane and tank would replace the massed infantry that had become so terribly vulnerable to machine guns and artillery - and so there was no need for a large standing army.

And so, despite the fact that Great Britian had greatly expanded its empire as a result of WWI, the "revolution" was taken as justification for reducing the country's military to pre-war levels. Even worse, the "revolution" was never realized except in theory - the squadrons of tanks and aircraft that should have proven so powerful were never even developed and procured.

And so it was in the rest of the Empire. When faced with an uprising in some far-off place called Iraq, only New Zealand offered to send troops.

P.S.: Surprised to see "Bomber" on the fiction list. Great book, but I always thought it rather obscure.

11/01/2007 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger newscaper said...

Responding to various comments here as well as the general discussion:

Re: WWI and WWII
The US absolutely had to act in WW2 -- there was an existential threat.

OTOH we probably should have passed on WW1. It really was the typical internecine European warfare, just writ larger than ever. It is likely that a long enough stalemate on the Western Front would have caused it to draw to a close w/o our blood & treasure. Further, once the US helped the tipping point be reached, the stage was set for the draconian Versailles Treaty -- which fueled the popular resentment Hitler fed on.
Worse, according to some economic historians, reparations made the Great Depression much worse because so many US banks were loaning Germany money to pay the Allies back!

11/01/2007 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

Oops - left out the other part.

Regarding the South -- it has been suggested that Lee et al made a mistake in forgetting what the South did so well in the Revolution, instead choosing to fight the Union on its own terms, terms on which it could not ultimately compete (even though sheer brilliance almost made up for it).

11/01/2007 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...


I don't know if there's an online list. Actually it's more than a list than a study guide. Each book is introduced and a thumbnail of its contents is provided. I will actually read through the list.

BTW, Lt General Leahy comes across a really funny guy and better yet, understands the need to finish the discussions on time so that people can get to lunch and cocktails. "Never in my life did I think to see Diggers in one room while free alcohol was available in the other room." etc

Unfortunately he has to go off and attend the funeral of an Australian soldier who died in action, which I think speaks pretty well of him.

11/01/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...


But I will post more readings in the list if you like. The fiction list for enlisted non-NCOs is Red Badge of Courage, 1984, Catch 22, Fields of Fire and The Good Soldier.

11/01/2007 01:05:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...


The subject of the "de-skilling" of the British Army following the destruction of its original cadre was addressed, together with the process of "re-skilling" -- the rediscovery of what operational methods could prevail against the new defensive technology.

Much of the relearning revolved around figuring out how to do training, solving the logistics problems, mobilizing the industrial base, developing the technology of unobserved artillery fire and adopting platoon tactics. It's amazing to learn that the company was the tactical unit of 1915.

It was the "software" change, not only in the general officers, but among the all ranks that qualitatively changed the armies, on both sides, from 1914 to 1917. By 1917 it had taken on the appearance of 20th century war. The concepts had be developed.

What was also evident was how much lagged the political system was. The politicians of 1917 too were interested in CYA above all. Men do not grow wiser as a rule, without some threat to sober them up.

I'm sure you would have liked being here. Very knowledgeable audience. Nearly every question was both pertinent and deep. Sorry you weren't here.

11/01/2007 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

A good list. Love the Aussies. There is not and has never been a problem that could not be laughed at.

How come E4s get simple lists? You have to be a general officer in Australia to comprehend long/nonfiction books?

11/01/2007 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

Maybe this reading list should be mandatory for the Democrats in the U.S. Congress.

Not content with passing a resolution condemning the Turkish genocide of Armenians nearly a hundred years after it happened, House Democrats are now dead-set on trying to punish Ethiopia, one of our most valuable allies in the War on Terror.

All the education and training in the world doesn't mean squat when the folks that pull the levers of power cannot see beyond the bridge of their nose.

11/01/2007 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Pangloss said...

Along these lines, if you haven't read Storm of Steel by Junger you really must. It is an infantryman's eye view of WW1 from the German side, and actually might convince those of the English-speaking persuasion to cheer when the Germans infiltrate English trenches and do a whole lot of killing and capturing, if only for a little while.

11/01/2007 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger Smitten Eagle said...


I'd be much obliged if you could post the contents of that list.

I'm the sort of officer who spends much of his time reading, and who cares about what his bosses are reading.

Gen Mattis has been one who has distributed reading lists when he's in leadership positions. He had one for 1st Marine Division, one for I MEF/MarCent, and I'm sure he'll have one for JFCOM. It would be worth a look when that comes out. It should give us an idea of the intellectual direction the military is going, much like you speak up with regard to the good Aussies.

Semper Fidelis,

11/01/2007 03:05:00 PM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

The Desert Column

“Brave soldiers, you are going into the Desert. I ask you to have patience and perseverance.
You will return bearing your arms in victory, or you will leave your bones in the Desert. Everything is bad in the Desert, hunger, nakedness, dirt, every privation, therefore, I ask you to have courage and perseverance, 0, my soldiers.”

11/01/2007 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Israel had to relearn history after its most recent Lebanese campaign.

Bill Powers explains:
All through the 1990s the Israeli government and military bought into the argument that technology and air power could win wars and that nasty combat between opposing ground forces might be relegated to the pages of history.

Concurrently, the Israeli population discovered that living in relative peace while experiencing unprecedented prosperity was something that they did not want to surrender to something as nebulous as seemingly non-existent threats to national survival.

The Israeli Air Force concentrated on precision weapons delivery and long range, standoff employment of those weapons as opposed to integrated operations with the ground forces and conducting such complicated missions as close air support. In fact, close air support ceased to be a task performed by the IDF and the tactics, techniques, and procedures required to accomplish this complicated mission were lost from Israeli doctrine.

Airpower was ultimately counterproductive against an asymmetric adversary such as Hezb'allah, who fired mobile katyusha rockets to inflict civilian casualties and then used media reports of the collateral damage to intensify support for its ideology and recruitment. In such an asymmetric environment, airpower, and perhaps even military force more generally, may be limited in their effectiveness. Only a comprehensive strategy integrating airpower and military force into a broader political strategy will be successful against this type of adversary.

And now it seems that the IDF has also come to this realization. The war in Lebanon served as a wake up call to both civilian and military leadership that Israel cannot afford to bear the appearance of losing, much less actually losing, a war to its relentless enemies.

11/01/2007 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

My father had an old coffee table book with superb black-and-white battlefield photographs of the Great War. Reading it was one of the first great shocks of my life. I haven't seen it in decades and I don't know where he got it.

Frank Warner has links to some fascinating color photographs from World War I and Czarist Russia. ... Really! ... I don't think they're colorized either.

11/01/2007 08:16:00 PM  
Blogger Allison said...

I think World War 1 really is the central cause for the demographic and religious death of Europe. They've never really gotten over hte horror. They basically were so shattered by what modernity could do to young, vibrant, courageous, optimistic, intellectual young men (and women) that they abandoned hope and God. They dont' seem to trust in living anymore. The cynicism that permeated the final year in the mud trenches has never left.

What will we think of our colossal change? Will we abandon living when we finally see the battle for what it is? Can we swallow down our cynicism? Or will we see the isolated nuke here, the isolated bio attack there just as Europe saw their own land's destruction? inevitable?

11/01/2007 10:04:00 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

That is a brilliant thought; that western Europe lost its soul in the trenches of World War I. Read the British war poets for a glimpse into the dark night of the soul or Eliot's "Wasteland" era poetry. At least, he found faith later on in life.
Harry Crosby, American expatriate ambulance driver in France and a young suicide wrote:


Arrow into the sea
Vanishing like hope
heavy as red lead
a lamp is extinguished
hand into a pocket
a ship founder
the diver plunges
a thought is buried
an eye closes
a bird drowns
a giant dies
last throb of a heart.

11/01/2007 11:33:00 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

make that title of the Crosby poem;
not "Sunrise" but "Sunset"

11/01/2007 11:35:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

I think that it can be fairly said that the present war in the middle east is in part about the middle easterners waking up from history. The stars are burning too brightly in the night sky. Things are moving overhead. Unaccountable things. This is what happened to Europe in WWI. DH Lawrence talks gives a very good picture of this process in his discussion of Harry Crosby's poetry.

Poetry is a matter of words. Poetry is a stringing together of words into a ripple and jingle and a run of colours. Poetry is an interplay of images. Poetry is the iridescent suggestion of an idea. Poetry is all these things, and still it is something else. Given all these ingredients, you have something very like to poetry, something for which we might borrow the old romantic name of poesy. And poesy, like bric-a-brac, will forever be in fashion. But poetry is still another thing.

The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers' a new world within the known world. Man, and the animals, and the flower, all live within a strange and forever surging chaos. The chaos which we have got used to, we call a cosmos. The unspeakable inner chaos of which we are composed we call consciousness, and mind, and even civilization. But it is, ultimately, chaos, lit up by visions. Just as the rainbow may or may not light up the storm. And, like the rainbow, the vision perisheth.

But man cannot live in chaos. The animals can. To the animal, all is chaos, only there are a few recurring motions and aspects within the surge. And the animal is content. But man is not. Man must wrap himself in a vision, make a house of apparent form and stability, fixity. In his terror of chaos, he begins by putting up an umbrella between himself and the everlasting chaos. Then he paints the underside of his umbrella like a firmament. Then he parades around, lives, and dies under his umbrella. Bequeathed to his descendants, the umbrella becomes a dome, a vault, and men at last begin to feel that something is wrong.

Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun. But after a while, getting used to the vision, and not liking the genuine draught from chaos, commonplace man daubs a simulacrum of the window that opens onto chaos, and patches the umbrella with the painted patch of the simulacrum. That is, he has got used to the vision, it is part of his house-decoration. So that the umbrella at last looks like a glowing open firmament, of many aspects. But alas, it is all simulacrum, in innumerable patches. Homer and Keats, annotated and with glossary.

This is the history of poetry in our era. Someone sees Titans in the wild air of chaos, and the Titan becomes a wall between succeeding generations and the chaos they should have inherited. The wild sky moved and sang. Even that becomes a great umbrella between mankind and the sky of fresh air; then it becomes a painted vault, a fresco on a vault roof, under which men bleach and go dissatisfied. Till another poet makes a slit onto the open and windy chaos.

But at last our roof deceives us no more. It is painted plaster, and all the skill of all the human ages won't take us in. Dante or Leonardo, Beethoven or Whitman: lo! it is painted on the plaster of our vault. Like St. Francis preaching to the birds of Assissi. Wonderfully like air and birdy space and chaos of many things – partly because the fresco is faded. But, even so, we are glad to get out of that church, and into the natural chaos.

This is the momentous crisis for mankind, when we have to get back to chaos. So long as the umbrella serves, and poets make slits in it, and the mass of people can be gradually educated up to the vision in the slit: which means they patch it over with a patch that looks just like the vision in the slit; so long as this process can continue, and mankind can be educated up, and thus built in, so long will a civilization continue more or less happily, completing its own painted prison. It is called completing the consciousness.

11/02/2007 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

Here is a wikipedia discussion of Lincoln's gettysburg address that begins four score and seven years ago.

Lincoln's Gettysburg address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

11/02/2007 11:00:00 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

From the declaration of independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

11/02/2007 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

Here is the Utube version Actually there are several versions. They each tell different stories. this one robbie rivera feat. jesus jones-right here right now is light on story but the tune is catchier. This one Right Here, Right Now - Jesus Jones has background of the fall of communism.
There are others.

Right Here, Right Now
Jesus Jones

A woman on the radio talks about revolution
when it's already passed her by
but Bob Dylan didn't have this to sing about you
you know it feels good to be alive

I was alive and I waited waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history

I saw the decade in, when it seemed
the world could change at the blink of an eye
And if anything
then there's your sign of the times

I was alive and I waited waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now

I was alive and I waited waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history

Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history

Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up

11/02/2007 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Allison said...


That poem is beautiful in its sadness. I've read other poets from that era, and I've read other stories from that time, other memoirs. It was reading those stories and poems that led me to think that about Europe in the first place.

Charles, I will read about Crosby's poetry. Thank you for the pointer.

I just hope we won't decide that one of those obsolete fixed ideas is faith in our own future.

11/04/2007 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Levy said...

I see someone else has already recommended Junger's Storm of Steel, so let me add a few others -
The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook
The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne
Also, John Keegan's treatment of WWI in 'The Face of Battle' and in 'The First World War' is well worth a read.

11/05/2007 03:48:00 AM  

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