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?

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