Monday, August 20, 2012

The Fall of France, X: A Machine For Controlling Space, V: Backs To The Wall

(Edit: An earlier version of this post identified Podolians as Slavic-speaking northeast Germans. The author meant the Wendisch Sorbs of Pomerania. Podolia is in western Ukraine.)

What's that coming at us out of the smoke? Not 99 red balloons so much as the last kaiserliche Armee. Prussians, Saxons (Upper and Lower), Frisians, Westphalians, Rhinelanders, Thuringians, Hessians, Franconians, Swabians and Bavarians. (Also Danes, Lusatians, Alsatians, Lorrainers, Jews and Poles. Lots and lots of Poles. Let's ignore them, shall we?) It's a last offensive for the Kaiser. They're coming for you.

It's 21 March, 1918, and your back is to the wall.

If I wanted to tell the story of the offensive, I would follow the progress of five German armies launched into action in four offensives beginning on 21 March 1918 with a 1.1 million shell barrage fired off in the course of 5 hours. The summary bulletin of the Wikipedia article from which I'm extracting my numbers asserts that although the Allies suffered 250,000 casualties, they could "easily be replaced."

This is utter bullshit, in a battle permeated with it, thanks to the fact that David Lloyd George was running the show on one side. Love him or loathe him, there is no doubt that Lloyd George was a first-class liar, and for reasons that could really do with a clearer explication than they generally get ("Jerusalem is a Christmas present to the British people"), there weren't as many troops in the British armies facing the Germans on this day. In the volumes that the official history devotes to 1918, General Edmonds returns to Lloyd George's undoubted duplicity and his more dubious responsibility for bringing the Allies to the verge of defeat in the spring of 1918. Such a case requires evidence, and these volumes are packed with appendices documenting Edmonds' case. 

I don't care about that. Even the hair-raising religious bits have been done recently by Michael Oren. What I want to do is read the evidence against the grain and find the real story of 1918. Now to the meat of the day, the Appendices of the 4 part Military Operations in France and Belgium, 1918 of the official history (James Edmonds).* (The "Appendices" volume, unless otherwise noted.


General Staff to Hague, 14 November 1917, re: manpower.

How many men can you have? It is estimated that 110,000 men will be required for new units. The RFC will require 48,000 men; the artillery 40,000; the remainder going to Machine Guns, tanks and Military Railways. The Director General of National Service will require 20,000 men to be released, and 80,000 need to be set aside for wastage of the  non-infantry arms. This leaves 210,000 men to be removed from the numbers which can be made available to the infantry.
Against this, 163,000 men will become available from those already in hand this year new, and 250,000 men will return to duty, while the DGNS hopes to provide 275,000 new, a total of 688,000, which with the afore-mentioned 210,000 deducted, gives 478,000 infantry replacements. Wastage being predicted at 782,000, plus 75,000 accounting for the current deficiency in establishment, there will be a deficit of 379,000 not counting wastage in other theatres (60,000). (Implied: if you don’t like it, you can do a better job of combing out your own command.(1)

Context: (From: “Manpower and the Strengths of the Army In France” (Appendix 7, 30—4).)

Estimated Total
“A” Men

Other Categories

Estimated Number
Suggested Levy
Estimated   Number
Suggested Levy
Shipbuilding, marine engineering, munitions, etc, Unskilled or semi-skilled,
Skilled or in coded occupations
Coal miners
Railways and transport
Public utility and other certified occupations
Excepted men, aliens, low category men, certified men, dischared men, etc.
Balance of  Men

In short, by combing out all available civilian sector resources, the Minister could supply 250,000 men, 100,000 “A,” 100,000 of lower categories, and 50,000 for the navy and RNAS, plus 120,000 Aiv boys for the Home Army. 

Meanwhile (33) in France there were:

Fighting Troops
8 Jan 1917
30 June 1917
5 Jan 1918

MG Corps
Total Fighting Troops

Transportation LOC
Total Strength

Haig to the General Staff, 24 November, 1917: Subject: the Prime Minister can bite me.

From the foregoing numbers, and given the decision to send 6 divisions to Italy, it is clear that the BEF will be 250,000 short of infantry on 31 March next, or 40% below strength. The 46 British divisions in France at that time will have 317,849 infantry, and the average battalion strength will be 542 men. Only by breaking up 5 corps and 15 divisions will the remaining units be brought up to strength. And the Field-Marshal needs to know what is to be done now, so that he can start breaking up units, which will really impress the Allies.(2)

Haig to Everybody, 14 December:  Subject: "So, uhm turns out that we're fighting with 542 man battalions. Here's what we do."

To prepare for defence as thoroughly as possible, communications and observation must be improved. Machine guns should be well-sited as an organic part of the defence, and wire laid out with a view to machine gun overlook. The artillery must be sited carefully with a view to possible reinforcement on the one hand, and counter-battery fire on the other. Battery positions within 3000yds of the front line should be wired all round. The men should get plenty of musketry practice to develop faith in the stopping power of their “rifles, Lewis guns, and machine guns.” 

Even shorter: guns no longer belong in visual range of the enemy. The primary reliance for defence is barriers defended by automatic weapons. (3)

Rawlinson's plan: Field battery positions must not be placed too far forward, and must be positioned to give defensive barrage behind our front line, in other words, for all-round fighting. Forward positions that may need to be occupied for defensive or counter-battery work are to be sited for defence, constantly changed, and well-wired.  Certain single guns will be sited to fire over open sights at penetrating armour and infantry. That is, the infantry needs supporting heavy firepower, even at the expense of battery guns. Heavy and siege artillery, which cannot be moved regularly, must be well fortified, with an alternate position. All communications to Ops of various kinds inspected and secured against damage as best as possible. Trench mortars will be “fully employed.” There are not enough 18 pounders to go around, and where they are lacking, 4.5” howitzers and trench mortars will fill out the fire preparations for the defensive “SOS” barrage. Medium and heavy artillery wil form a secondary defensive barrage, and super-heavy artillery will “be employed on counter-battery or in the bombardment of known and important command posts or communications centres.” (4)
Positions will be prepared for reinforcing artillery. No specific guidelines about how many pieces might be expected can be given, but GHQ reserve available for road or rail march at 24 hours notice is 4 heavy brigades, 2 1/3 army artillery brigades and one brigade tanks. 

The takeaway here is that the BEF has a profoundly ill-suited artillery. Guns must be both more mobile and longer ranged. They must be quick to relocate, and heavy enough to carry out counterbattery and "strategic bombardment" of vital communications nexi far behind enemy lines. This kind of gun is a strategic resource in another sense, in that it is a GHQ asset that will be allocated to army fronts as required. Anyone else see where this line of thinking is going? 

Now I'm going to temporarily move past the Kaiserschlacht to a brilliant tour d'horizon by a new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Wilson.(5) Let's not worry too much that the basic assumption, that the war will go on into 1919 and that the Germans will receive massive reinforcements from the East is wrong. Let's focus on what he actually has to say about manpower.

On the Western Front, economy of manpower is vital. We must for now keep 59 divisions in being per our commitment to General Foch, and that means that many of them will be understrength. A reduction in formations, and formation strength, implies increasing the remaining men’s resources of “man-killing equipment.” (543) 

What does man-killing equipment mean? To get down to brass tacks, FM Wilson is alarmed that the British ratio of rifles to MGs has fallen to 1-90, compared wioth 1-52 for the French, 1-71 for the Americans, and 1-70 for the Germans. The MG strength must be increased, even at the expense of the infantry, and certainly the cavalry [zing!]. Field artillery must be provided at 4 brigades per division instead of two, and a proportion of army brigades, while heavy artillery totals will be capped. Per Foch’s scheme of a general Allied offensive on a 50 mile front led by armour, Britain is on the hook for 3000 tanks, plus 7,300 mechanical tractors for logistics. This will necessitate providing 35,000 British men for armour. This scheme must be realised, even at the expense, “if need be, of the other half of the British Army not earmearked for the striking force.” Man-killing equipment is to come before rifle strength.

One way of looking at Field-Marshal Wilson's solution to the general manpower shortage as of the summer of 1918 is that technology must be substituted for manpower. Everyone knows that the British were all afire to introduce strategic bombing and mechanisation and cool stuff like that in 1919. When they didn't get a chance, however, the whole army fell asleep and didn't wake up until it was too late and the Battle of France was over.

I think that's the wrong reading. Wilson is not out for more technology. He is inviting Haig to substitute one technology for another. The rifle is a good technology, but it is not the right technology. Therefore, manpower is to be shifted out of rifles and into other technologies. 

Again, this was not obviously the only way to go. The rifle has a huge amount of  technological development ahead of it. The Browning was just appearing on the field, along with the even more promising Avtomat. Generals would continue to look forward to the bright new era of the automatic rifle until it actually arrived in 1949. I've got a British general in my pocket who is so self-consciously progressive (for 1932)  that he thinks that the day of the field artillery and machine gun is precisely over. They are to be replaced by tank guns and automatic rifles. (Link to the EM-2, a bullpup assault rifle introduced as a British standard in 1949). Thanks to Boney Fuller, he's not even the craziest British general writing about the future of war!

So what's the framework here? A transition (hold on to your socks here!) from agricultural war to industrial. Rifles are for farmers, and crew-served weapons are for trade unions.

I wonder how different the United States' history in the Twentieth Century would have been if it had managed to fight its colonial wars against enemies with the means to fire a good Trommelfeuer.

(1)“Man-power: War Office Letter to the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief, British Armies in France,” 3 November 1917 (15—16).

(2)“Man-Power: Letter from Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commanding-in-Chief British Armies in France, to War Office, 24 Nov 1917,” 17—19.

(3)“G.H.Q Memorandum on Defensive Measures, Issued with O.A.D. 291/29, dated 14 December 1917.” 

(4) Appendix 14: “Third Army Defence Scheme” (53—67). Beginning (54)

(5) Volume IV Appendix V, “Memorandum of the Chief of the General Staff, 25th July 1918,” 527—48.

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