I'm a little groggy this Wednesday afternoon as I begin to type (but not finish), for various reasons,* but Robert Farley has restored my drive to write! Blah blah A-10s are awesome, sending airplanes to shoot at tanks is a good idea. The USAF is wrong a bunch of stupidheads to think otherwise. (Not a stupidhead. This is what a stupidhead on this subject might look like, if he were actually a dumb historian, as opposed to an excellent scholar who just happens to be wrong about this one thing.) So I am going to talk about sieges, and fortresses and how technology changed them in the age of the electric city until air power became the only substitute for human waves.
So the argument, in the end, is that the German Air Force of 1940 just precisely was a siege train, and not a "close air support" arm. But I have a great deal of material to work with, so I can afford to meander my way towards that conclusion. Today, I am going to try to link urban development to the Somme. We'll see if I can do it.
Sure, that's just another apology in advance for meandering. I'm going to need it, because this trip towards the debacle on the Meuse begins with an anecdote about David Lloyd George, and not a funny or an interesting one, either. It just goes like this: one day, while preparing for his son's marriage to an heir of the large British construction/civil engineering firm Sir Robert McAlpine, Limited, he hid from the press at a newly built home owned by one of his supporters, who specialised in turning farm estates around London into mixed-used residential/golf course developments. (This might be the golf course in question, although, if so, it doesn't mention the related housing development or the developer.)
One might take as rather gauche an investigation of the way in which big money backers affected the policies of the great politicians of old. I've already trod on FDR's feet by gesturing to the odd conjunction between a family interest in a naval technology firm and major military purchases of their less-than-fully-proven boilers, and I certainly don't want to get into the question of whether Lloyd George was a lying liar here (but more below!). That being so, the triple conjunction of modern civil engineering, urban development and public policy pretty much defined the way that we live today. If I point out the conjunction between "Concrete Bob" McAlpine and the national security apparatus, it's to make some kind of point for the purposes of my inquiry.
As far as London and McAlpine go, that point is pretty basic. Garden suburbs, aircraft factories, and air fields sprang up together along the major new commuter rail lines being built to serve Greater London during the Edwardian era. Hatfield is going to be my first example here. Twenty miles from King's Cross on the East Coast Main Line of the Great Northern, later the London and North Eastern Railway, Hatfield's station served as the collector point of two minor radial lines. The town grew up around the nucleus of the Marquess of Salisbury's country house and was De Havilland's home from 1930 into the 1960s. That doesn't quite take us back to Lloyd George's time, but the line also served Enfield, and the Oakleigh Park Estate (an 1866((!)) suburban housing play). Still no air base, so how about Brooklands, the "motor raceway" turned WWI airbase turned interwar airport near Weybridge on the London and Southwestern Railway? LSWR is the line that famously delivered the BEF to Southampton Docks with a troop train running like clockwork every six minutes.** The enthusiast's Wikipedia article manages to turn a company that was ever-so-slightly a laggard in branch electrification into a pioneer, but the point remains that they were electrifying even as the war began, with work beginning in 1913, and the first electrically-powered train running in 1915. That's Edwardian industrial progress, for you. Weybridge still has two feeder lines so that commuters from even deeper in suburbia could reach their places of employment in Kingston-upon-Thames, notably Hawker-Siddeley. I'll talk about Halton below.
All of this, of course, is about an electric city that was never really fortified. I could talk about British politics and odd fortification projects,
or I could make a case that the air-and-factory complex around London is what a modern fortress, circa 1940, looks like. But to get there, I will start with another great electric city, the last true fortress city to actually stand siege: Antwerp, the place of the hand-taking. It's a bloody and sinister legend for a town with a sometimes dark and sinister past, although that's not the worst that I think of when I think of the Red Hand.
More funny than sinister until used by marching thugs to justify violence in the name of prejudice. That being said, it is time to bring tired and frightened Prussian reservists marching on Louvain, and carry things forward through a foggy dew settling over Dublin till dispersed by long range guns.
Antwerp stands on a low-lying floodplain on the right bank of an eastward meander of the Escaut/Scheldt. Doomed to be a major strategic centre in both world wars, Belgian planners also had to accommodate the end of a centuries-long passive blockade of its great port by the Dutch, or possibly the Zeelanders, if my speculative hypothesis that the blockade had something to do with downstream flood control as well as with taking away Antwerp's trade.
In the early 1870s, the city was just beginning its growth as a major port. The inhabitants drew their water from wells, and the city depended on its ancient enceinte and citadel for protection. The siege of Paris demonstrated that siege guns could engage fortifications from distances of up to 7 miles, and, under the direction of General Brialmont, protection was displaced outwards to isolated concrete forts. The invention of barbed wire in the 1870s allowed engineers to lay convenient barriers in the intervals between the forts. It was covering these barriers with fire that was a problem. The whole Belgian army might be too small to prevent enemies from infiltrating between forts placed far enough out to cover Antwerp. Fortunately, this was only part of the work of modernising Antwerp, and great inundations were also possible. For at the heart of the new city, massive docks were being dug in a backwater of the river. Cast steel gates, a triumph of industry in both creation and transportation, impounded 30 feet of water. This allowed the city to handle up to 6000 ships a year, but clearing them required an enormous concentration of railways. This would have been a problem with all of the flooding ground around the city even were it not for the huge head of water in the midst of it all. Meanwhile, health questions were raised about watering 275,000 people who lived in a location where all of the necessary industrial water was held above the natural water line. The answer was a massive filtration, settling and “purifying” farm (with associated water quality laboratories) feeding a huge pumping station that provided all water for domestic use. The idea of pumping water for urban use is so straightforward today that the implications of centralising pumping within the fortifications needs underlining. The pumps required a very large amount of energy from a very modern power station. The new Antwerp of 1905 was an electric city to its core,You can tell that I'm quoting an article from Engineering (“The Antwerp Waterworks, Ibid, 27 May, 1904: 727; 10 June: 868) when I move right on to point to a heroic example of all of this planning and building being promptly vindicated, in this case, by a major oil tank farm fire in 1904.
Then, tragedy. Geography and hydrography defined positions that had to be held, but the guns-versus-armour race had spun out of Belgium's reach. The concrete and steel of the Brialmont works had been superseded by great masses of reinforced concrete at places such as Fort Douaumont , and this in turn provoked the construction of ever larger siege guns, the Gamma and M-Devices of the last post. It's a remarkably understudied subject: a quick search reveals that Google Scholar knows nothing of any conjunction of the concepts of "history" and "reinforced concrete," although no doubt I'm doing it wrong.
Still, I don't want to talk about the strength of the ouvrage. I want to talk about its capacity to control space. Antwerp is a particularly obvious case, in that the city had vast amounts of water to deploy on low-lying ground. Verdun is a less obvious one, because it is a hilly topography where a system of forts channel movement in a way that requires much squinting at maps to even begin to understand. London is even less obvious, in that its siege, when it finally came, was waged entirely from the air, and its ouvrages were grassy fields in (mostly) garden suburbs. And if space, rather than strength, is the issue, than are we perhaps missing the point when we talk about the size of the guns? Douaumont did not fall to being smashed by a 420mm bombardment; but, first, to a coup de main, and, second, when a demoralised German garrison evacuated it ahead of the Moroccans, attacking under the cover of a 16" railway gun bombardment. Or so says Wikipedia. I can't find anyone talking about a weapon in this calibre, although enough heavy iron was improvised that I expect that it's just a matter of this particular monster not having attracted a fan boy yet.
Heroic as the gun and the arrangements used to deploy it were, there is a certain sense of futility here. Forts are not meant to be invincible. They are human machines, vulnerable in all kinds of ways. Controlling space is an issue of weapon ranges, not penetrating power. The Austro-Hungarians, who took to heavy metal in a way that no other power did, was aiming for range rather than penetration in its final iteration of wartime siege artillery. Britain entered the war without much in the way of a heavy siege artillery. An improved copy of a Skoda 240mm bought for South Africa was just entering service at the outbreak of the war, with the prototype firing its first round in anger in October, 1914. On 24 June, 1916, General Birch, the man who was about to take the Royal Artillery into its greatest battle yet, asked for 15,000 yards range, a full mile over what the existing apparatus could achieve. At the same time, the army was receiving a 12" howitzer giving just over 11,000 yards range (to be improved to 13,500), and a 15" howitzer that weighed a hundred tons all up, throwing a 1500lb round to, again, 11,000 yards.
Let's take this in a different direction; to the Somme, the (British) battle of 1916.The year opened badly. 1915 had been hard for the Allies. In both western countries, war ministers came under heavy pressure. Asquith had made what I think was the perfectly sensible and constitutional appointment of Lord Kitchener as Secretary of State for War. The last of the old military intellectual ascendancy of Woolwich enginering graduates in the British army before the brief interregnum of the cavalry, he had a first-class technical and military education and vast experience in running national war efforts. His basic decision to accept the enormous flood of volunteers and organise them into the basis of a British army of 50 divisions was proven right by events. Unfortunately, this thrust him into national politics and attracted Lloyd George's animosity, not without reason, because procurement crises opened up a new political front within weeks of the beginning of the war. It was the ministers, not the generals for whom Kitchener spoke, who were on the hook for heavy artillery, rifles, aeroplanes and above all, shells.
For the French, the shell shortage was tied to the whole course of the war. The Germans had taken the bulk of France's iron mines and coalfields. In a larger sense, French heavy industry was crippled. In 1793, the Republic had (supposedly) saved itself by a combination of science and patriotic republicanism. If will, science and industry could make up the loss of the Lorraine fields, the Third Republic did not deserve to survive. France's large, albeit late-developing industrial base, including the largest automotive industry in Europe, had to save the nation.
Only it couldn't. France was a robust, resilient society. It had massive resources of organisation and ingenuity, but industries are designed to serve specific needs. The endothermic steel industry had served the needs of rail and construction, The few open hearth plants that made a much smaller amount of high grade steel for modern shells were gone, and they couldn't be replaced overnight. France would replace them. It would build new electric hearths, and the hydroelectric plants to power them. It would be something to celebrate in decades to come. Right now, it was a matter of replacing good steel, and even a country that produced more engines than Britain and Germany combined could not do that. Good weapons would be made up with bad. The artillery would lose hitting power and range, and men would be sacrificed in lieu of materiel. It was vitally important that this implication not be drawn out, and the appointment of Albert Thomas as Director-General of Munitions proved politically productive. No wonder Asquith copied it immediately, making Lloyd George Minister of Munition. A good decision, except in so far as it shapes the way we still see the Battle of the Somme today.
Kitchener had not wanted to fight in France in 1915. His men could not attack at night; that year, or, for that matter, next. He wanted to save his men for 1916, surely the last year of the war, since German farmers would never slaughter their pigs, as they must do in the fall of 1916. Though, first, the French would have to hold. If Verdun did not decide it, Kitchener would. And Verdun did not. In spite of steel helmets, grenades, trench mortars, flame throwers, specially lightened machine guns, and élite Pioneer stormtroopers, Verdun held, not least because the French truck fleet proved able to provide enough logistic lift to keep its army in the battle; another sign of a changing world.iii
And yet France was bleeding. Where were the Kitchener armies? Where was Britain's industrial might? For a while, lit looked like Asquith had won one battle. David Lloyd George had to answer the questions that he had fostered when he was aiming at Kitchener. He could answer that output rose quickly through 1915. He could answer that he was a political genius who could find new sources of labour in Ireland and amongst women, as only a Radical could do. As a Radical, he could stand against the trade unions and call for “dilution,” saving the day while killing the Liberal Party. (For the first time. It's starting to look like a slow learner.) He could build a political coalition of "men of push and go,"(1, 2) He could use a “war of engineers” and use that formula to finally define engineers as middle class professionals rather than machine operatives.iv
Take the example of shell bursters, where Britain had followed the French lead by adopting a dinitrotoluene composition in the 1890s. In its Lyddite form, this former industrial dye had good stability, reliability, high internal energy and good brisance. Unfortunately, during the South African War, British gunners noticed that their newly-issued Lyddite shells tended to explode on first graze rather than rebounding up and then down into Boer trenches. Given that they had been shipped all the way through the tropics, this is hardly surprising., but critics preferred vast muddy social issues to the tedious details of condensation contamination. And it got better. When the dual-base TNT/nitrocellulose/nitroglycerine propellants and bursters that replaced Lyddite proved difficult to produce in industrial quantities in wartime. Two Liberal Members of Parliament, Frank Brunner and Albert Mond stepped forward to explain that the shortage was a deep national failure. Didn't Germans go to rigorously academic, state-supported schools where they solved partial differential equations for fun? Weren't their British equivalents being taught to decline Greek verbs by Anglo-Catholic schoolmasters? (If you can't already guess who and what you'll find when you look up the founders of Imperial Chemical Industries, go ahead and wiki them now.) rich with wartime profits from following the trail blazed by the impecunious Austro-Hungarians, who were first to mix in cheaper but less powerful ammonium nitrate to create Amatol. On the one hand, the Ministry of Munitions did not have to admit to issuing inferior ammunition. On the other, the soon-to-be Premier's alliances with British industry were going ever deeper.v
This was exactly the kind of magic that Asquith was looking for when he made Lloyd George Minister of Munitions. Technology was another place where Lloyd George could maneouvre. We have all heard about machine guns and tanks, but he also took ownership of the heavy siege artillery. At the same time that the Minister promulgated ever grander alphabetic schemes of artillery expansion by numbers (Scheme “A” through “C,”), he pushed up calibres. If in the real world the 15” siege howitzer existed for the sole purpose of digging up hardened fortifications, in the world that mattered, it was an indicator of political success.vi
Since Lloyd George was successful, the inevitable consequences of political success followed. But before that came a series of political crises in an entirely new strategic dimension, as airpower that he did not weather anywhere near so well. First there were zeppelins. Then there was the failure of various Royal Aircraft Factory designs. Then, there was the East Hertfordshire byelection on 9 March 1916, won by epic-scale grifter-cum-lunatic Noel Pemberton Billing as "the Member for the Air." Formerly a remote London suburb, barely won in the Liberal landslide of 1906 and lost to the Conservatives 1911, Hendon saw the future in Pemberton Billing's lunacy. Where Edwardian mansions had once sprinkled green fields, now an Underground terminus at Hendon just across the border in Middlesex was fed by commuter trains stopping at Radlett. A 220 acre estate was sold near Hendon to George Holt Thomas, whose Airco employed 2000 workers by 1916. Airpower wasn't just a strategic issue. It was a political issue, and an issue of political finance. Unless the Liberal Party wanted to be relegated to Tyneside, it had to take the lead here. The Minister of Munitions let it slide, and, if he ever had a chance, failed to take the London suburbs from the Conservative party. In his defence, there was a war on, and the hammer blows came thick and fast. Even if France didn't collapse, Ireland might, or Russia. When the Royal Navy failed to win a decisive battle at Jutland, the pressure got worse, with the notion taking root that defeat had been the result of the failure of British shells. It was a story that the Germans liked. British shells were about to fall on German boys in far greater numbers than even at Jutland. Even the Germans knew it. Stories about shells failing to burst, or bursting with no force, were a consolation against imminent nightmare.xivxvxvixxixii
It was a nightmare, all right. On 1 July 1916, when the initial British offensive in the Somme river valley cost 20,000 Commonwealth troops were killed, another 40,000 wounded. Writing the next year, novelist John Buchan would describe the men of the Commonwealth marching forward in brave human waves of voluntary sacrifice. This was the poetry of a man shaped by the wars of previous decades, whether taken straight up or ironically, the harsh truth was that many of them were killed by enemy artillery and machine guns before they even left their own trenches, while most of the remainder were caught in prepared killing zones by those same guns, and it didn't matter whether they advanced in waves, kicked soccer balls ahead of them, or bloody well Highland Flung themselves across No Man's Land. The battle went on another two months and cost perhaps a million casualties between British, French and German participants. The first day slaughter was never repeated, because no-one launched another attack into the teeth of unsuppressed German artillery.
How did it happen? How had the massive logistical effort that dumped 2 million shells for the weeklong preparatory bombardment failed? We like to blame Haig, and, Lord knows, with reason. Yet, at the cabinet meeting where the attack was approved on 21 June, the Premier-cum-Minister of Munitions put on a dazzling statistical show, telling the Cabinet that Haig would have all the guns and ammunition he needed. When the lesson of the Somme was finally reaped at El Alamein 26 years later, the generals who had manned guns in 1916 fired 2 million shells in 2 hours instead of a week. And they did so with guns with a range at least 40% greater than the siege guns at the Somme, in spite of firing 25 and 100lbs.xxii
What happened? Lloyd George explained that it took 1400lb shells to destroy bunkers 40 feet deep. There had been enough shells, but they were too small, or, worse, were useless shrapnel rounds. That requirements, fortunately, could be put back to Kitchener's day. Lloyd George's schemes would not deliver enough heavy guns for --well, for just long enough for it not to be his fault. But that was not the point; that was never the point. You can't suppress guns if you can't reach them with your fire. And you can't mass guns in defence of a threatened part of your front and still bury them 40 feet deep. Plot a pattern of fragment sweep, and it is not hard to see that you can beat the effect of a 1400lb HE shell with far fewer than 14 100lb (roughly a 5.5" or 6") shells.xxiii
Shells-as-big-as-cars were never the economic solution to the problem. Nor were they the sane solution. Extracting range from a gun is a matter of putting more propellant in it. More propellant means more hot, corrosive gas. That means replacement barrels, and, at this point, one can see why you want to fire at a target 15,000 yards out with a 5.5" rather than a 12" gun. It's just so much cheaper to replace the barrels. Why didn't anyone see that? Because as small as the field guns of WWII were, they were too heavy to be towed by horses. Siege guns throwing 9.2” shells did not have to be towed, or, at least, did not have to be towed like field artillery. Other technical means, in reach by 1914, could move them, whether by railway or by steam tractor. That they were needed for range rather than penetrating power was not clear until the first shell hit the first reinforced concrete position. That the solution was to found in the air was first implied in that very fall of 1916, when poor flying weather meant shutting down the attack.xxiv We'd learned.
Turnip winter was upon the Central Powers. Austro-Hungary wouldn't survive it, not really. In 1912, the formal context of a siege were the works around a city, and it seemed far from clear that the Belgian army could defend a fortress built in the context of artillery that reached out to 10,000 yards. In 1916, it was a continent under siege. The siege train had to contest control of space across hundreds of miles. London, the electric city itself was the fortress of the new age. France, on its way to becoming the electric nation, would be another.
The numbered footnotes are the residue of extracting and editing this post from a longer manuscript that doesn't really deserve to see the light of day. I've fiddled with them a bit and cut the irrelevant ones, but there is no automatic renumbering function on the blog editor. The moral of the story is that I should probably have done it in Word, but I'm hoping the savaged remains will rise to the standard of a blog posting at least. You certainly aren't missing (many) relevant citations after the editing, and the irrelevant ones are gone, except from the pocket bibliography of Jutland below. We'll get to that.
iiiA great deal has been written about Verdun from the French and German perspectives, too little of any great value in English. For the German planning process, see Foley, 90ff; for splendid illustrations and modern synthesis straight from the files of the French army's historical branch, see Allain Bernède, Verdun 1916: Le point de vue française (Le Mans: Éditions Cénomane, ): 57—9, 86ff; the contemporary apology for the German side can be followed month by month in Mellenthin's articles in Current History; Weltkrieg, 4: 31.
ivPearce and Stewart, 211—14; see further Broadberry and Harrison; Broadberry and Harrison cover the strike comparison in S. N. Broadberry, The Productivity Race: British Manufacturing in International Perspective, 1850-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 177, 248.
vEncyclopedia of Chemical Technology, s.v. “Explosives;” P. R. Courtney-Green, Ammunition for the Land Battle (London: Brassey’s, 1991): 1–11; J. Akhavan, The Chemistry of Explosives (Cambridge, U.K.; Royal Society of Chemistry, ): 9–11, 36, 171; E. Freeman, “Thermodynamic Properties of Military Gun Propellants,” 103–32 in Stiefel, ed. 122–27; Constance M. Green,, H. Thomson, and P. Root, The United States Army in World War II: The Technical Services: The Ordnance Services: Planning Munitions for War (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1953), 354; John Campbell, Naval Weapons of World War II (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994; Originally published London: Conway, 1985): 5, 172.
xixJutland has generated an enormous literature. N. J. M Campbell's dispassionate discussion of what actually happened is enormously welcome (Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting [London: Conway Maritime Press, 1986]); but much less attended than the more readable G. A. H. Gordon's The Rules of the Game : Jutland and the British Naval Command (London : John Murray, 1996); Samuel Brooks, Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland [NB] represents a significant step forward in analysis of events; for a conveniently accessible version of Scheer's account, see Reinhard Scheer, Germany's High Seas Fleet in the World War (London and New York: Cassell, 1920): 174ff.
xxiiRobin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005): 90—110.
xxiiiMalcolm Ian Brown, British Logistics on the Western Front, 1914—1919 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998): 116—23, 140—3;Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005): 24—34 and ff.; Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein (London: Pimlico, 2005): 290—3; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I (New York: William Morrow, 1991): 250—2, 257, 266, 281—2; Martin Kitchen, A History of Modern Germany, 1800—2000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006): 206—7;
*A lead like that and no explanation? It's this. I'm four days into a three week stint as night manager at the store. Four-to-hell should be for a kid living on Red Bull and ambition. I'm hoping that it'll be three weeks, and I can go back to having vanilla lattes with the morning gang. All we need is a bright kid who wants to be a "Management Trainee." A little seasoning, some experience, and they'll be promoted to store manager and make, oh, more money than a full professor. (Woo-hoo!).
So, you're probably wondering: track record in our store? Of the last 20 night managers, more have been fired than promoted (2). An by more, I mean "a lot more." And by "promoted," I mean that they were hired at the rung below "Management Trainee" and are now M.T.s. Did you think that I meant promoted to manager? Silly reader. We have lots of store managers in their 40s. (Baby Boom, etc.) The kind of guy who was trained by a store manager who wore Italian loafers and retired at 55 back in 1998 or so. The kind of guy who dreads getting the latest memo from the company pension plan. The kind of guy who bought a house and had a kid on the expectation that their income would keep up with the cost of housing, No wonder that they're looking at proposals to raise the retirement age to 67 with mixed feelings.
So, anyway, we need to find a smart, ambitious kid who wants to work a killer shift in the hopes of being a grocery store manager sometime in the flying-cars-and-moon-base 2030s. I'm cautiously optimistic. Hey, why should marketing have all the fun of living in its own constructed reality?
**Or twenty minutes or somesuch. Anyway, the dual points are that troop trains are small, and that the number is impressively smaller than some other number that's large.