Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fall of France, X: A Machine For Controlling Space And Killing Fascists, I.

I preferred "Rasputin."

I want to talk about a much misunderstood machine today. This one:


Not a submachine gun, or a "medium machine gun," or even a "heavy machine gun." It's a "light machine gun," although that doesn't mean that you can't hunt pretty big game with it, at least if you're Jesse Ventura.Google Images wouldn't turn up Sergeant Rock firing a Browning from the hip.)

Or, no: the social change that flowed from and to some extent directed the agricultural-industrial transition in Europe in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, and the relationship between conscription and the technology at hand.

There's three places to start here. The first is one of those historical recursions that I love, an essay by a grand old historian, born in 1909, probably best known for writing everybody's freshman textbook, but coming just a little earlier in his career, in an anthology called Makers of Modern Strategy.

It's fascinating to speculate on the psychology of a man who probably had to struggle for the bourgeois security he'd achieved by 1943, but who nevertheless was writing an essay intended to be read by shavetails in short OTC classes about to ship over for Normandy. Perhaps that is why Palmer wrote of Eighteenth Century military practice that the period from 1740 to 1815 that it saw both the perfection of an "old" style of warfare and the birth of the more modern one, which, in many ways, we still practice. It was an insight held foundational enough to be perpetuated in the 1986 edition that's sitting on my desk right now. Everyone has Palmer to hand, suspended between 1943's ideas of 1740--1815 and 1986's ideas of 1943. 

The second place to start is with the Secretary of State for War's plans for the new Royal Engineer (Transportation) component of the army's Supplementary Reserve, laid out in 1939. In my previous blithering on the subject (starting way back here), I seem to have buried the lede here, so I'm going to tee off on the facts now.

From 1908 to 1924, the British Army had a Special Reserve. Lord Haldane created the S.R. out of the old militia, which in turn went back to the Volunteer craze of the 1860s. Much sociological water under the bridge, what survived was a body of men who volunteered for war service in peacetime, but undertook minimal training obligations in peacetime. This actually worked out pretty well in World War One. For one human resources reason or another, the battalions  mobilised for France in 1914 had holes in their ranks, and were locally recruited in a way that connected them with at least some S.R. men, allowing them to be called up to fill the holes. This means that while some S.R. units were barely more than Dad's Army farces, other S.R, men were at Mons, firing their Lee-Enfields fast as (medium) machine guns according to the old myth that isn't just told of Mons, or the British Army. (Here's my search results for "Special Reserve at Mons," in the way of a footnote.)

In 1924, the Special Reserve was abolished in favour of a Supplementary Reserve, but no attempt was made to fill it with recruits. It basically served as a basket of authorised recruitment To Be Filled Later. The process was already very sluggishly underway when Hore-Belisha proposed the RE(T) SR in the spring of 1939.

I could stop and meditate on the implications of replacing a reserve of farmboys who had volunteered to shoulder a rifle in wartime with a reserve of motor industry workers who had volunteered to overhaul internal combustion engines when the balloon went up. And, in fact, I will, in a bit, but for now I want to move on to the third potential staring point: S. L. A. Marshall.

By all accounts, Marshall was what you might call a creative storyteller with  a certain looseness with the truth that had unfortunate consequences. He did a certain amount of damage to the cause of sanity with his pet "other side of the hill project," which gave men like Guderian and Halder a chance to vet themselves. He made up key research of his most famous book, Men Against Fire.  And he did so partially in service of a weird and racialist agenda. The reason, he suggested, that many American soldiers didn't fire their weapons in combat was that they weren't properly indoctrinated as "warriors." And Marshall was quick to notice that because he was part-Indian, and Indians were, y'know, warriors.

But, see, he wasn't wrong. That's the thing. The infantry branch of the United States Army was egregiously featherbedded, which was a pretty poor use of human resources in a branch that was nearly as important  as the SEALs are in the modern American armed forces.

We just disagree about  causes. Marshall blathers about indoctrination and suchlike, while Kelly C. Jordan's* research establishes that it was because the WWII infantry squad was too large. The United States Army infantry squad consisted of thirteen men (the most that you can fit into an old fashioned military wall tent). This included a Browning Automatic Rifle team and lots of riflemen with various missions. Kelly's research establishes that only the BAR gunner and his assistant consistently fired their weapon in WWII, and thus Marshall's findings.

This changed dramatically in Korea, not because of better indoctrination or the application of the "primary group" concept, but because the infantry squad was reduced to nine men including a BAR team. 1 BAR/nine men=more BAR gunners firing their weapons for every rifleman not firing. What a breakthrough, said the Commonwealthian, sarcastically.

It's a good illustration of the shallowness of our understanding of the history that we've lived through that military historians debating the military effectiveness of WWII belligerents apparently haven't noticed that the United States Army Infantry Branch laboured under a defective basic tactical organisation during World War II. It's an even more amazing fact that the British did so much better. I bow to no-one short of Robin Neillands in  my revisionist pro-British prejudice (justified by the claim that government investment ought to have consequences, so that high defence spending ought to lead to a better armed forces), but even I have to admit that these trends aren't to be expected to apply to the British army!

The answer to the puzzle is that it wasn't the British who came up with this. The French reorganised their infantry branch around twelve man squads built around a light automatic weapon. At first there was pressure for the adoption of an automatic rifle like the BAR, but, eventually, the Chatellerault  won out, and the numerical strength of the French infantry squad, I believe, began to shrink. I write this in a state of some uncertainty because the only author whom I am aware of discussing this, Bruce Gudmunsson, gives an extremely summary account. The reorganisation of the French Army, huge news in the 1920s, just doesn't much interest people any more, and you're certainly not going to find any of the parties who are likely to care about such things discussing the factors that made the BAR, although a nice weapon in its own right, the worst squad automatic weapon of WWII. The limited magazine and light weight that made it difficult to fire in burst fire mode flowed from the worst of all possible design errors --a failure to consider what the weapon was actually for.

Now that's quite an introduction: now I need to go back to my introduction to talk about R. R. Palmer and the great transformation of war during the Napoleonic period. Clearly, to the extent that automotive mechanics are replacing militia riflemen, and this is basically the same "modern war" invented in Napoleonic times, Palmer, who was a fine historian, has a point that goes beyond mere matters of technology, even if I'm going to try to wrestle it back to that point.

So what is it? You probably know, because you've probably read this article. "Civilian armies replaced professional armies. Aggressive, mobile, combative strategy replaced the slow strategy of siegecraft." It was all as Machiavelli predicted, and we all know what that means. Or we would if we could just agree on what Machiavelli was trying to say. (Strauss versus Pocock: Fight now!) Giving Palmer due credit, I'm going with the Pocockian reading (as I understand it, it's not like I've actually read Pocock on Machiavelli); citizen armies and "combative" strategy go together in the modern republican moment.

To bring in a concept that's distinctly non-Machiavellian, Palmer points out the background of this transition, which was one from a dynastic to a national state. Wars became contests between "peoples," and hence increasingly more "total." Old regime armies were class-ridden and lacked common spirit. New armies were bourgeois in character and structured by merit. They were infused with national spirit. Old regime armies, lacking this national-patriotic morale, became highly disciplined "firing machines."

Palmer leaves off before invoking the levee en masse, and the by now fortunately discredited idea that Republican citizen soldiers could fight in a skirmishing mode of warfare that allowed them to defeat old regime armies, although Peter Paret, in an essay shortly following does allow that Revolutionary fervour did allow armies to "live off the country." (High morale made soldiers better at finding where the peasants hid their hay!)

Indeed, we could throw out the whole idea of political modes of organisation (if it weren't going to return to the table shortly) in favour of technology. According to this account, tactics remained in stasis because of the weapon of choice, a highly inaccurate smoothbore musket that could only really be used by waving at the enemy and pulling the trigger,  hoping for a miracle. When armies finally adopted the rifle, the lethality of the new rifled musket forced armies to adopt new tactics, and warfare changed forever. And since rifles appeared on the field during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, technology could be the driver of change. More importantly, because British Riflemen were incredibly more awesome than French voltigeurs and chasseurs, this proves that the French weren't actually more politically progressive and all that good stuff than the old-timey British, so suck it, Frenchie!

Does any of this strike you as a little ...incoherent? Ancien regime armies had an ineffective weapon, which forced them to use ineffective tactics, even though a better weapon was available? At least the political explanation doesn't force us to believe that every army in the eastern hemisphere got it wrong.

So here's the issue as I understand it: guns fire bullets, which are natural Newtonian objects, and they do what normally Newtonian objects do, which is fall, when they're not sitting on something. So the moment a bullet comes out a muzzle, it starts to fall, quite quickly, soon hitting the ground rather than what is being aimed at. To prevent this, the muzzle of the weapon is lifted slightly, leading to the bullet rising gently in a parabolic arc. This means that you can point a weapon at a target quite accurately, and still miss it, because eventually the bullet will rise so high on its ascending parabolic arc that it will pass above the target. This is called the "grazing range," and, once upon a time, it was so important that you could find it explained repeatedly in the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, although the only version of the explanation from that Edwardian depository of useful knowledge that I could find digitised discusses artillery sights.  (Wikipedia is failing me, so look up "Rifle" in the Ninth Edition if you have it handy.)

Anyway, it is, of course, the case that you can also hit a target in the descending arc. In fact, in some ways this is preferable, because the bullet will "plunge" down past the enemy's cover. However, to do this, you have to aim your bullet both in terms of the correct arc to intercept the target and the range, and estimating range is much harder than getting the arc right. Modern rifles have dial sights that can be used to set range, but old time muskets do not, for the simple reason that measuring range  by observation is hard.  (You can see engineer subalterns setting ranging marks before Isandwlana here.) And since your dial sights need continuous calibration, implying firing lots of practice ammunition on large firing ranges, there`s not much point in doing it.

Now you're going to have to take this on faith, as I haven't been able to source it on the Internet, but nineteenth century fire tacticians routinely advised infantry to make blind platoon fire against distant targets. The argument was that aiming at a target at the wrong range (at least, outside of the danger space) will result in zero hits, whereas a platoon developing a random fire across the full range will produce some hits. Dispersal, the tendency of a weapon to scatter rounds around a target, isn't necessarily a bad thing in this situation. In fact, too tight a dispersal pattern statistically reduces the number of hits!

Crazy. So the musket actually makes some sense, granting that you can't actually sight the thing to set ranges. But I`m more interested in the specific situation for which this is apparently a good idea. And that is the engagement at long ranges with a fire that by design will only produce a few hits over a given length of time. What good is that kind of fire? It's not going to produce annihilate an enemy unit, or even crush its morale. Why are you bothering?

The answer that I evolved and talked about at vast length in my monograph is that this kind of fire is good for controlling space. Your fire is denying the use of that space to the enemy. Your objective might be offensive, to clear a bridgehead, or defensive, to cover a barrier such as an inundation or abatis, but the point is that the fire prevents the enemy from doing what it wants to do in that space.

And here I come back to the Chatellerault. This might look like a great weapon to replace platoon fire, but it's not. Its dispersal is too low.

Something's going on here. I could just explain what the French army is trying to do, but then I wouldn't be able to go back in time and dig up the Volunteers and the Lebel Rifle (again.)

What I am going to say instead is that we need to look at the end of the Special Reserve again. Here's the institution that existed specifically to make sure that the infantry platoons of the British army were filled out with men who could develop its space-controlling fire. In twenty short years, actually far less than that, between 1920 and 1940, and so quickly that the American army doesn't seem to have even noticed, that mission is gone, and what matters instead is having more automobile mechanics.

That's a huge change, and this is already a good-sized post, so it's also a subject for another day.

*Kelly C. Jordan, “Right For the Wrong Reasons: S. L. A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire in Korea” Jour. Mil. Hist. 64 (January 2002): 135—64; citing DuPree and Homesley,  A History of United States Army Squads and Platoons, 1935—1967, citing pp. 38—9.


  1. The Bren was criticised as not providing enough "spread"/praised for its accuracy at long range. Obviously these are two sides of the same coin and which matters depends on tactics and situation.

    You're on to something, though - the British army's Light Support Weapon is used both as a section light machine gun, and as a designated marksman's rifle, just set up slightly differently.

  2. I'd criticise the Bren for being a rimfire weapon. Especially since it had to be engineered back from a rimless Czech cartridge. At work, we say "penny wise, pound foolish," and we laugh and we laugh, because it's so entirely impossible for real-world organisations to actually act on the proverb.