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
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.