Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Electric Santayana II: Douce Gigawatt

So let's talk about a time when a government facing a "business slump" launched a  major infrastructural project, and it turned out well.

Our idea of the Nineteenth Century is the Gaslit Age, so it is amazing in retrospect that the gaslight was only fully tamed for indoor use with the development of mantles in the 1880s. By the time that Welsbach's first white light mantle was in production, Thomas Swan had been installing his lightbulbs around the U.K. for more than a decade.
By 1890, electrical lighting was making specialised inroads against gas. And by specialised, Hannah Leslie, the great historian of the industry means "indoor lighting." The typical British electrical power station had 8 machines of about 0.1 MW (134hp), all reciprocating steam engines running local DC supply grids. That's a whole lot of obsolete technology all wrapped up together, but these little plants burning slack coal on the canal side were still enough to light as many as 26,000 Swan lamps (ie. "lightbulbs") each. Let's put our expectations in the ol' time machine and send them back to 1890. That's what a big deal in electricity looks like in 1890. For those of our expectations with some engineering background, I'll note that this was at 10lbs/coal per kWh. 

with AC distribution, turbines instead of pistons, and better cables, there was almost unlimited room for expansion. Overall sales rose from 40 Gwh in 1895 to 1400 in 1910, the year that industrial power demand overtook illumination. In the course of WWI, the existing generating plant was put to new uses, run at overload and without maintenance, and been a boon to war production generally. What didn't happen was significant investment in new generating plant, something that greatly concerned the business-background technocrats that Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George brought into government to wage the war. Which is why Eric Geddes proposed a technocratic, top-down solution to the problems of the electrical supply industry problems in 1919, which got run out of Parliament.

Why? Because "socialism" versus "free enterprise." And also because David Lloyd George was a bit of a dick. (Geddes, by all accounts, was a lot of a dick, but not in a bad way when you need to get things done, whereas Lloyd George's dickishness tended to get in the way of his schemes in the long run.) Anyway, this set up the new Labour Government to take a new look at the problem in 1925. "Socialism? We're all over that!" Interestingly enough, the young Labour MP most involved actually had abackground in the electrical supply business --one Clement Atlee. More big names: as already noted, the guy they put in charge of thew new look investigation was another of Lloyd George's "men of push and go," but of an even higher calibre than Geddes, William Weir. 

And here the story out to end, you'd think, because the first Labour Ministry was shortlived, and Weir reported to a huge new Conservative majority in March of 1926. Weir himself was an industrialist. The MP that pushed himself forward as the Conservative spokesmen on matters electrical-supply related, George Balfour, was building his own private grid in the north of Scotland to power an aluminum plant, and was convinced that socialistic central planning would just hobble the industry. It's not as though the ultimate outcome of the Weir scheme, a national supply grid, was visualised at the outset. The Weir idea was, in fact, just to link up 140 main "flagship" generating plants with a system of high-voltage main lines to allow interregional, coordinated, electricity markets for a standardised product (50Hz AC). The fact that all the regions of the UK (except northern Scotland) were to be integrated meant, in effect, that this would be the infrastructure of a national grid, but a lot of engineering problems would have to be solved first.  A government that wouldn't even let the Royal Airship Factory build a zeppelin without commissioning a private-sector rival was not going to go for something so Bolshevik ...was it?

And then Clement Atlee received a visit from a similarly junior MP opposite. And not just any MP, because while the future Baron Brabazon was a man of the technocratic future, no-one could call him wet, as his favoured political party of the 1930s would suggest. And yet here he was going behind Balfour's back to push the Weir scheme through Parliament.

The substantive consequences are clear enough. The scheme was completed, on time and on budget, by the end of 1930. A perhaps over-optimistic estimate was that building the grid created 120,000 jobs directly and indirectly, more than all the other government make-work schemes of the 1920s put together. The National Grid came into operation late in 1938. Meanwhile, on the generation side, the development of those 140 flagship generating plants galvanised a great deal of the 750 million pound investment into the British electrical engineering industry in the interwar decades that made it the leading sector of Britain's leading industry [Hannah, 148]. There was the development of the larger part of Scotland's hydroelectric potential. 

And the failure to develop adequate new generating capacity to cope with runaway demand during rearmament and World War II underlined the timeliness of it all. Why not build these things when aggregate demand is slack? In retrospect, the biggest mistake was the failure to invest in several new generating schemes, including coal-burning plants in Ebbw Vale, a tidal project in the Severn estuary, and more dams in Scotland. More generating plant, built when private sector investment was at a low ebb, would have paid off in spades during World War II. (So would have the new port on the Severn that was part of the tidal power scheme.) The timing was not completely perfect. In retrospect, building ought to have peaked during the 1931 crisis instead of the year before, but that would have taken a neat bit of prophesy back in the spring of 1926.

And speaking of prophesy, I have not answered the reason "why." What was the meaning of this amazing outbreak of bipartisanship, with Conservatives implementing electrical supply "socialism?" The instrumental answer is that by the summer of 1926, the Weir scheme was hugely popular. The Daily Mail, the 1920s' version of Fox News, supported it! What's going on here? It would seem that the key motivator was --fears of British decline. The year was replete with warnings, complete with bogus statistics, that various countries ranging from America to Germany to Shanghai and Belgium were all more electrified than Britain, which was clearly declining in all directions everywhere. "On dune and headland sink the pyres," and all that. 

I'm not usually much of a friend to declinism. I find it a frightening example of the way that metaphor becomes argument. But this time it seems to have been a powerful motivator for a valuable public initiative in infrastructural development. Or maybe we can put it all down to Tutmania. It turns that electrical pylons are named after Egyptian temple architectural elements, because that was the cool thing that the kids were down with in the late '20s. (Hannah, 118.)

I did not know that.

Edit: who's got time to edit blog posts? Thing is, though, I kind of buried the lede here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fall of France, 5: The Circus

A few years ago, I decided to read the interwar issues of Army Quarterly looking for smart British army officers saying military-scientific things. I found some.

That's not my point here, though. I've been blithering about military-scientific work and the "lesson learned" variety of primarily official military history for years. What I learned is that, astonishingly enough, the soldiers of the interwar period thought about the First World War. A lot. And they analysed it, and they tried to understand what had gone right, and what had gone wrong. And that they were basically right on the mark. To put it another way, reading Army Quarterly brought back the experience of reading John Terraine and realising that forever after I would need to look at history as a place where people aren't stupid. That, in general, people aren't stupid. Did I have the vague impression that a new history of the First World War was needed, or am I just trying to take credit for someone else's good idea? Probably the last.

In particular, I have a vivid idea of how one went about winning a battle in 1918. More vivid, perhaps, for a morning person because it is an image of an early morning fog in spring, with a bright dawn above, the roads muffled and populated by guns, their steel tyres wrapped in cloth, and silent men move forward, pontoons shouldered. Beautiful Aurora, goddess of the dawn and new possibilities ---and steel sleeting death. They go together, right? Shut up.

If all goes well, the guns will open up on the enemy in complete surprise. Machine guns and mortars will keep the enemy on the front line at the bottom of their trenches, while field-calibre guns will lay down barrages to block reinforcements. Bigger guns will conduct suppressive fire against enemy batteries, while the very longest-ranged guns will interdict crossroads far to the rear. Under cover of fog and fire, the tanks will lurch into no-man's land to occupy the critical terrain, while bullets, shrapnel and fragments deny it to the enemy. As that fire lifts, the infantry go in to assault the enemy's fortifications, while the barrage "creeps" ahead of them, progressively expanding the ground gained until it reaches the limit of the "bite" of ground that this offensive aims to take from the enemy. In a perfect world only imagined by theorists, the "bite" reaches the limits of the enemy's defence in depth, and a new wave of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, horse cavalry and who-knows-what-else is unleashed.

That last part never happened in WWI. It would be pretty foolish for the enemy to deliberately build its whole defensive zone within the range brackets of your field artillery. You have to stretch them pretty thin for that to work. Even then, nature inconveniently interposes a river line roughly every 5 kilometers in Europe. When your way of war depends on truly massive guns, then the pace of your advance is dictated by your bridging equipment. Either get better equipment, or build some fantasy weapon that can wade across rivers.

And while silence and fog are the means of stealth, effective aerial and other reconnaissance is a double-edged sword. If you know the enemy's disposition, how can you guarantee that they don't know yours? Because if they do know yours, they will reinforce their defences with their own guns, tanks and infantry, and you will be sending your troops into a massacre. Maybe the enemy air force attacks the roads, and your troops don't even arrive at the front at all. You have to fool the enemy.

Now, there are stunts and tricks that help you do that, but when you get right down to it, the key is not to assume that the enemy is stupid, but to give them the least possible opportunity. You bring up your guns and tanks and men at the last minute. In a perfect world, your offensive assets are relaxing far in the rear one day, giving the enemy a colossal crack the next.

Offensive assets? Clearly, that includes your average rifleman. Will he march up to the front? Take a train? A truck? When does he start? When does he get there? With hundreds of thousands of men involved, it's no wonder that commanders-in-chief delegate these things to their division commanders. But the crack is pretty much administered by these guys, and, when you get right down to it, by these. To achieve strategic surprise, you need to get all of this stuff to the front at the same time, so they need something like a "division," too. In the cozy world of prewar, there were specialists to take care of such things, but post-1914, it's a different era.

And that's where circusses come in. It's not a very military word, but it stands for the best known warrior of the World War, Major Manfred v. Richthofen, who used to take Jagdgeschwader 1 from one sector of the front to another as needed. When the brightly painted planes of Richthoffen's "flying circus" showed up over a sector of trenches, you knew that the eyes of the German High Command were on it. And reaching for a label for the similar formations of guns and tanks that he imagined would be held in the hands of a future commander, the promising young Canadian officer E. L. M. Burns labelled them "circusses" in 1938.

It's a coinage that has not stuck. Historical amnesia portrays it as a war lesson learned by the artillery branch and an armoured division. The value of Burns' "circus" concept is that it captures the fact that this systematic grouping of military resources has its roots in postwar analysis of the battles of 1918, and was carried over into the British army's planning for war in 1940.

In particular, Lord Gort did have a "circus" of tanks: 1st Army Tank Brigade. And this raises, or ought to raise a question: why did he have a "circus," an innovation of the postwar era, and not the armoured division he was supposed to have, needed to have, had been allocated for his use in 1874?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Electric Santayana

As in, blah learn from history blah.
So, a recent thread at Edge of the American West went in the direction of current proposals for infrastructure investment as a way of getting the American economy going again.
Now, as I much as I have personal reason to seethe about the way that our American connection is holding the Canadian economy back, I'm not sure that infrastructure spending will serve in a timely fashion.
That's not to say that it is a bad idea, and the example that leaped to mind -and no sooner mind than that awful empty comment box-- was the creation of the British National Grid, which was initiated during the 1926 slump and completed in 1938, thereby getting two economic downturns for the price of one.
So, if I have a factilicious take on the creation of the Electrical Grid that might inspire modern-day infrastructural-spending advocates, this would be the place for it, right?

Well, no. First of all, I need to have some pithy postings. Second, all I have right now is an inchoate idea about what will go into the "Industry" section of "I Will Run Away to the Air": Britain, the Air War, and the Industrial History of Strategy, 1919-1945, in the event that I ever get to write it.

Now, I do promise to write such a posting, but it will require a library day, and I'm not keen on making that trip today, on account of having to do laundry and then go to bed early, since it is inventory day at work tomorrow and I will be in awfully early, and anyway there might be someone working tomorrow --not to say more on that score at risk of jinxing myself.

So here's Wikipedia, instead. And further evidence that Lord Weir was a time traveller from a nightmarish, Nazi zombie ruled future, come back to change history.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fall of France, 4: The Armoured Division, I

So let's imagine an infantry division on the march. It's at point A, and has been told off to march to Point B. Intelligence is that the enemy is at Point C, and GHQ has decided that the enemy can't have Point B. They may or may not be planning to march on Point B, but the fact remains that they might. If they reach Point B first, they will most probably advance on Point A. These are the sorts of things that GHQs think about.

So imagine it marching down a road. We can basically assume a typical country road with two lanes and two narrow shoulders between the ditches, because whatever the particulars, the narrowest stretch of road sets the pace. That's enough room for 4 men to march abreast, with one lane left free for other uses. The division will be spread out to allow extra space between each section, platoon, company, battalion and brigade, and, in total, will need about 1000 meters of road per thousand men. In total, then, a 12,000 man division will stretch out over a half-day's combat march. If the enemy is run into along the road, the division will come into battle in a single day.

That's why there are divisions in the first place. So that the army can be divided up by the number of available roads.

Okay, but imagine that the division is marching down, say, from the Ardennes plateau of Belgium towards the river Meuse. The high hills on the French side of the river dominate the scene, and the road follows a long and gentle slope. What's wrong with this picture? Well, in the Bastille Day parade of 1899, the French public was treated to a display of the latest military technology of the army of the Republic: the Soixante-Quinze. This new gun had a hydro-pneumatic recuperator that allowed it to fire without jumping out of position, a rapid-loading mechanism that allowed it to be fired as quickly as it recuperated, up to 20 rounds per minute with a fresh crew, and an automatic calculating sight, so that gun-aimers only needed to keep a telescopic sight laid on the target with a pair of adjusting dials. The new cordite propellant gave a muzzle velocity of 500 m/s, and the 16lb shrapnel shells, made thin-walled of the new high quality steels being made in recuperative, regenerative Siemens-style furnaces and machined by the new generation of powered machine tools, could hold 300 balls. (In the old days, a "shrapnel shell" contained a small amount of high explosive and a large number of musket-style balls that were "fired" out the front of the shell by a timed fuze.)

The result, provided that the initial aim was right, was that a single "75" on the French hills opposite, more than 5 kilometers away, could, without warning, open up on the advancing division with the equivalent firepower of 20 machine guns!

One often hears that the generals of 1914 underestimated the firepower of the machine gun. Bearing in mind that the 75 had been invented since the machine gun, these kinds of numbers tell us why. It didn't hold a candle to the new generation of artillery.

Obviously the solution to a problem like this was not to hope that it didn't happen, but rather to deploy the division in skirmish order at the rim of the valley so as not to give the enemy artillery this kind of target. Now, I've picked this specific example for its relevance to the Fall of France, but we should not get hung up on technology. From longbowmen on a hill facing the road exiting the forest of Crecy down to the a divisional artillery network controlled by a single radio-equipped forward observer in 1945, the tactical problem hasn't changed, only the scale. But scale is important here. If a bunch of longbowmen control 300 yards of road debouching from a forest, you either march your army up that road in a column and try to run the longbowmen over, or you stop and deploy into a long and shallow line that minimises your exposure while threatening the English flanks. If you figure that it will take an hour to shake out your lines in the middle of the woods, it will take an hour to get back into column. So the English can wait until you're deployed, and scamper. They've gained an hour in their retreat. If you need to disperse into skirmish formation and advance forward painfully slowly every time there might be a single enemy gun within 6000 (or, in 1940, 15,000) yards of your road, then all the enemy has to do is send a battery of guns forward, and it will have all the time in the world to get to Point B before you.

So there has to be another component to your solution. You have to make sure that the enemy isn't in that position. Military thinkers talk about "screens," and "security," and "reconnaissance," but it comes down to this. Somebody has to go see if the enemy is out there, and maybe shoot them if they are. And this means something crucial. You have to have a part of your army that is much faster than marching infantry, if the infantry are to march as fast as they can.

It's quite possible that we can name the man who brought this to the world's attention in 1595BC: Mursili I led a Hittite army all the way down to Babylon and sacked the city, ending the Amorite dynasty of Hammurabi and bringing back the temple idol of Marduk and the scribes who inadvertently started Indo-European by adapting the old Sumerian script to the mutable, pre-literate tongues of Anatolia. It's such an extraordinary and unprecedented achievement that it is hard to believe that it was not the war chariot's definitive baptism of fire. (A chariot "invention" event has been proposed for the Eurasian steppe in the late 2000s BC, but without rejecting the location of the event, Russian scholar Elena Kuzmina raises serious doubts about the chronology here.)

It's hard to emphasise more the world-historical importance of the horse, and thus our need to understand its agronomy. Attempts to sidestep the complex details by waves in the direction of compound bows and stirrups as all-explanatory devices not only do a disservice to world history, they help us understand the issues at stake in the Cavalry Division Debate, as I herewith christen it.

The first problem to appreciate is the matter of scale. How many horsemen would a divisional commander want to have under his command before he felt safe in making a pell-mell advance on Point B? Think about 3000 fresh-faced boys looking up in the last second of their lives at the whizzing shells about to bloom, and you realise that it is a trick question. The answer is, "all of them." That said, men on horses spread out more than men on foot. It's safe to say that a 30 year-old infantry officer can command 1--200 men, and a 35 year-old 600--1000, and the "company" and "battalion" organisations cluster around these strengths. Their cavalry equivalent are the squadron of 1--150 men, and the regiment (or "brigade" in the Nineteenth Century "Light Brigade" sense) is 4--600 sabres, as the old-timey military historians liked dto say to distinguish mounted men from foot soldiers ("rifles.") Above that, and you get into the realm of a cavalry division.

So, should a division commander settle for a squadron, which is to say, 150 sabres to screen the front and flanks of a column 15 kilometers long? No. Nor is he going to get a division, so he settles for a regiment. Or, hmm. Does he? The thing is, countries like Britain, France and Germany have huge populations of more than 40 millions and, as 1899 turns into 1900, mass conscription or some thought of imposing it. There's no reason for them to field fewer than 50 divisions, and the ambitious can aim at 100. 100 divisions x 500 horses/division=50,000 horses. Which does not seem so much until you remember that all the guns and wagons have to be drawn by horse as well. In fact, the Soixante-Quinze has set a new bar by requiring 6 horses. (Plus more additional horses to haul all that ammunition.)

And horses do not grow on trees. Great Britain, an unusually rich country with unusually rich farmers and a great deal of excellent stud land, has about 2 million horses. France, by contrast, a country with very little good stud land, has some trouble reaching a ratio of 1 horse/20 inhabitants. Nor can send your breeding stock to war, nor remove too many horses from agriculture. There is, in short, not likely to be enough horses to go round. (Except for Russia and India, which are plugged into the Inner Eurasian horse export market.)

So what are we going to do? For starters, infantry division commanders are not going to be allowed to have more than a squadron of horses or so. Many divisions will have their horses taken away entirely, especially if they aren't marching in the first wave. To provide additional security for the first wave, those horses will be concentrated in cavalry divisions and placed under army commanders. One can even imagine bolder, more sweeping notions. If Attila could ride across Europe and into France with an entire cavalry army, why could a German cavalry army not do the same, when one day in the future the inevitable war broke out between the two countries. (It did finally happen in the late summer of 1914 after the Schlieffen Plan had well and truly failed. And it worked out only a little better for the Germans than it did for Attila.)

The next thing you can try is find an alternative to the horses. Late Nineteenth Century technology was overflowing with possibilities. It is no coincidence that Count Zeppelin was a former cavalry officer, and across the border in France, Clement Adler got money for his experimental aeroplane from the French cavalry authorities. By the time 1914 rolled around, such divisional cavalry squadrons and regiments as were still about were stretched with companies of bicyclists, and armoured cars showed up as soon as war was declared, and promptly demonstrated the obvious problem that wheeled vehicles can't go where cavalry needs to go.

Nor were these visions the only ones. What if modern science could make foot soldiers as fast as horses? There's a great book by Rabinbach that covers these issues in pre-WWI France, and the Fascist-era's jogging soldiers, the celeri, are well known in their own right. In Britain, you have the cult of the Peninsular War-era Light Division, well developed by the middle of the Nineteenth Century and still going strong. It would be a little odd for the British to give up the advantage that their plentiful horseflesh conferred upon them, and so there was also the thought that rifleman+horse might turn out to be a superior form of warrior --a mounted rifleman. We don't really have a history of the idea of the mounted rifleman, although it has fascinated the English-speaking world since the 1840s. (Stephen Badsey is working to fix that.) Why? Well, the cavalry was seen as an aristocratic, Tory/Conservative, arm, while the riflemen were seen as a "middle class," Whig/Liberal arm. So it's all down to partisan politics --but if we take Daniel Szechi seriously, perhaps very consequential party politics.

So, next question. What happens when the horses go away, as they did in Britain during the interwar period, when the number fell to 200,000 by the mid-30s? One answer is that you say good riddance. You could make an absolutely brilliant field gun, far superior to the Soixante-Quinze, if you didn't have to worry about it being pulled by horses. A good tractor could pull a heavier load, faster, and never needed to be put out to grass to recover from a limp or whatnot. Okay, imagine that all of your wagon needs are being replaced by trucks. Wagons don't have to be hauling necessities about all the time. Usually, they end up loaded with footsore stragglers during most of the march to Point B. So systematise that: form the divisions' trucks up into a company, and have them lift --oh, say, an infantry brigade from the rear of the column to the front, then return down and pick up the new rear brigade and move it to the front...

And you get infantry that marches faster than cavalry. It still can't screen itself --but the point is, cavalry can't screen it, because the divisional cavalry falls behind. So that's it. The end of divisional (horse) cavalry. Also, the end of entire armies, as they march blindly into the fire ambush.

No, of course not. You need to put the cavalry in vehicles that are faster than horses. As I've already shown, there were a host of reasons for wanting to do that, anyway. It's just that by the mid-30s, it was inevitable. And if it was inevitable for the divisional cavalry, it was also inevitable for the British Army's Cavalry Division. To do the necessary screening work that the division had always done, it would need to be put into tanks.

Pretty straightforward? Right? Wrong. B. H. Liddell Hart threw a fit at the time, and had not recovered when he sat down to shape the history of World War II. Why? He had a host of arguments, of which the most telling in some people's minds is evidently the army's decision that the Inspector-General of Cavalry should be the commander of the division. Hart argued that the new "Mobile Division" should be under a tank man, who had ridden around on AFVs a lot, and thus understood them, whereas riding around on horses makes your brain freeze into arteriosclerotic stupidity.

The Army didn't make its decision in the dark. The IGC was to be the commander of the Cavalry Division for the same reason that commander of military districts would become GOCs of divisions upon mobilisation. He already had a headquarters and a staff, so he could organise the darn thing! If the particular IGC of 1937 or 1938 was too stupid to command an armoured division (and some proof, or even a name might be forthcoming from Hart), the army could always appoint another IGC. And since Hart's choice to command, Percy Hobart, was a arsehole and petty tyrant utterly unsuited to a field command, whatever his merits as an organiser, he is no-one to be throwing stones.

But in reality, Hart is just throwing up obstacles to obscure the real issues at stake.