Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fall of France, V, The French, III: The Emperor's Daughters

(Edit: I'd let this stand, as I have other things to write, but it's just too darn rough to go without a little polishing.)

It's amazing how quickly a day at the library goes. There's a lot of things that I'd like to talk about. Some of the sillier notions of pre-war aviation history got aired again last week in the even sillier context of a call for a lunar colony. I'm still circling the problem of getting a handle on the transatlantic horse trade. (This  book looks like it needs a look.) In the end, though, I went with trying to draw out a picture that I've already formed from books that I've already read.

This is one doesn't start chronologically. Eugenia Kiesling's purpose here is pretty clearly spelled out. How much can you plan for future wars? It's an interesting question, but not a big concern for me. I like her Arming Against Hitler for its explication of the obstacles between planning and implementation. And by that I don't mean all of the debates over periods of service or frequency of cohort uptake or the problems of dealing with politically unreliable conscripts. What I mean begins with a little story about mobilisation centres.

Kiesling (88) notes the ideal of 509th Tank Regiment, whose depot was Mobilisation Centre 509 in Maubeuge, with a backup Mobilization Centre 513 at Rouen, which had no indigenous regiment. So every new conscript inducted at Maubeuge who meets the 509th's requirements (of which more below) goes to that regiment. If that wasn't enough, MC 513 could send along a few more men. The 509 is staffed from a coherent region. At the end of their service, the men go back to Maubeuge or Rouen, ready to be called up to serve in "their" regiment when the balloon goes up. But consider the more common case of Mobilisation Centre 503, which sent men to the 507th, 508th and 510th Tank Regiments, while the 503rd Tank Regiment received men from rear Mobilisation Centres in yet another four regions. How did things get so confused? I'm sure that there is a complicated, amusing bureaucratic story to be told, because we are talking about complicated bureaucracies that do amusing things. I would say that it is no way to run an army, except that pretty much all armies are run this way, which is why my eyes glaze over at so much of Kiesling's heroic research. Prove that things weren't equally screwed up on the German side, and she'd have a case.

That being said, another of her examples is just awesome (89ff). She has looked at the papers for the  Lille Mobilisation Centre. Obviously the old fortress-and-sayettrie centre turned grimy industrial town didn't send men to a single tank regiment. It sent men to the infantry, chasseurs à pied, Zouaves, Tiralleurs algeriens, Tirallieurs tunisiens, armoured units, "mechanical support units" for armour, horse cavalry (again, resident Africans were segregated into the chasseurs d’Afrique), motorised cavalry units, horse-drawn artillery, mechanised artillery, railway artillery, fortress infantry, AA troops, chemical weapons units,* training establishments, engineer units including sappers, mechanics, electromechanical engineers, and telegraphists, supply companies, horse-drawn and motorised, clerical and other administrative units, medical, balloon detachments, the navy and the air force. Clearly the preference for regions of recruitment conflicted heavily with the need for specialists. This is because, to an extent, Lille was just big, but there's more to it. 

For example, armoured regiments didn't take just anyone. They required that 15% of their inductees to be skilled metal workers and 10% to be woodworkers (this is Kiesling's translation, and I suspect that if I were writing about the British army of the period, I would say "fitters and riggers," and be just as mysterious). Twenty percent must have driver’s licenses. 

The tankers go on. They want Radio operators and painters. They also want bootmakers and saddle makers. Now this seems a little strange, but they go on to specify "other suitable candidates for training as drivers." So having a militarily useful trade makes you a better potential candidate driver? Maybe it has something to do with recruiting within pay rates? Meanwhile the cavalry remount depots also wanted the boot and saddle makers, with more reason. More specifically, they accepted only these trades, plus accountants, blacksmiths, tailors, and, once again, woodworkers. Tradesmen with other certificates across a wide range of other skills were certified by their employers and distributed with regard to need (riding, driving, music, mechanics, nursing, piloting, navigation are noted). Bakers, butchers, cooks, masons, painters, and so forth were distributed according to TOEs.
 At the other extreme, there were unwanted men. Les Joyeux, illiterates and non-Francophones were supposed to be sprinkled around to maximum targets. The cavalry wanted no more than 5% illiterates, but when, say,  22.5% of the inductees in the Limoge, for example, were functionally illiterate, this was a challenge. Kiesling notes that some mounted units in western France had 50% illiterates.
Now, the theory of the nation in arms is that each man (parliament argued about conscripting women, and concluded that it, like a  national labour registry was impractical in peace) goes to camp, is trained, and returns to civilian life. Every once in a while, he gets a refresher, and as his cohort ages, it graduates into newer, lower effectiveness reserve units. So 1st Infantry of Ville Ordinaire is backed by the 101st, 201st, 301st and Too-Old-For-This1st that garrisons the citadel. But if a man goes away from town to be a tanker in the 509th, and comes back to Ville Ordinaire. His unit is supposed to be the 1509th, all the way across the country, which is not very practical to start with, and raises the further problem that there have to be tanks for him. If there is no 1509th, for lack of tanks or whatever, the old soldier is sent to the local infantry –with no infantry training! (94). In theory, 20 armoured regiments that train 1000 men every year have encumbered the country with 200,000 veterans with no infantry training after 10 years!

I wouldn't overstress this problem taken in isolation. Maybe if the awesome Nazi war machine crossed the border hours after mobilisation in a vast attaque brusque, it would be important. If it's an  "iron spearhead on a wooden shaft" that does so eight months after the declaration of war, not so much. Yet the same circumstance can apply to anything from the cavalry to the railway service and I do see a more subtle problem.

Consider: how many eighteen year old inductees are skilled mechanics? Bootmakers? Accountants? Butchers? Very few: the system is based on the premise that these eighteen year olds can be turned into riflemen quite as good as anyone's, but the armed forces' are only 39% infantry, a figure that the British Army Council could only look at with envy, hampered as it was by the India garrison) In a shooting war, the riflemen will die a lot, and there will be need of a large cohort of replacements, but that's not the point. The point is to staff the regular units that will train everybody. This is easily accomplished with rifle companies, but not so much with units that are presumably looking for eighteen-year-old mechanics. Not that the army can afford to be the trade school for the nation, even if one can imagine how it might be accomplished. (Are surplus Grande Ecole men going to be kidnapped and forced to study a trade?)

The point of the requirements of the cavalry depot is that this isn't exactly a new problem. There's probably a  transition point where the main issue goes from horses being relatively scarce to war being all new fangled and stuff. But, heck. Let's not sweat the "probably." Let's look at other books.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Plantation of the Atlantic XVI: Nantucket Later: Or, if you have to ask to see it, you probably know the answer

There was a young man from Nantucket/.... It's as though I started with "Nantucket Origins," but the other way round. That's because we're starting with a very famous early American, who kept his cards close to his chest. We've been straining to pretend that he had nothing to hide for two centuries now, because that's kind of what politics does to you. 

It's funny that as I wrote the title of this piece, I had to reflect on the President's birth certificate instead of  the hapless Mormon dude and his tax returns. That's the thing with secrets. They're secrets. Even when we make them up in our head. The proof of the conspiracy is that there's no proof. So what if the scales fall away, and we still pretend that there's a mystery? Sometimes, things have to stay secret even when we know that they're not.

Honestly? I searched Youtube looking for a better clip about secrets than this one, but it's got a guy with a secret identity, a prank, and a mysterious envelope, so it's at least vaguely relevant. The real point of today's audiovisual aid is that I've become a Community fan of late. I have no secrets from you. Well, maybe one.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fall of France, V: The French, II: Why "Manoeuvre" Instead of "Maneuver," apart from me trying to hit you over the head with how Canadian I am?

I'm going to double down on this whole "[Prussian*-]German way of war" thing today. Two contexts, the historiographic being Robert Citino's recent book, The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years War to the Third Reich and the historic one Pappa Joffre kicking Potsdam United's butt  in a test match  held between the 5th and 12th of September, 1914. If you've read Citino, you know that his argument is that Prussia-Germany, as an often weak, central power, sought the rapid resolution of its wars in pre-emptive, decisive battles, an argument not to be rejected solely because it suffers from being advanced by morons (context; more context). This is pretty deep military historiography that could get us talking about Clausewitz (j/k!), even if the immediate callback is to good old Jomini.

Citino, however, takes it at a different level. The pursuit of decisive battle determines the conduct of the "operational" level of war, as well: seeking decisive battle, Prussian-German armies specialised in the war of manoeuvre, Bewegungskrieg, using daringly swift and fluid operations to set up decisive battles that ended wars before they started. Attention to the "operational" level of battle is something else altogether. I would, for the moment, trace it to Mellenthin's Panzer Battles, a 1948/1955 book that celebrated the nimble, outnumbered Germans in their victories over their stolid Russian (and British, if you want to talk about the DAK) enemies.

I've used some links here that suggest that I don't take all of this too seriously. It's true that my sympathies lie with Joffre, and that the whole "I'm more anti-Nazi than you" thing is an easy out when you're talking about the Wehrmacht, but I present these concerns upfront because I think that there are very real problems with the Citino thesis. It's not that the masters of Bewegungskrieg kept losing wars of manoeuvre, or that we really do glamourise Nazis, or that Mellenthin often overstates the Russian numerical superiority in bog-standard callbacks to the worst of Orientalising military history.

It's that things are more complicated, and that by pursuing the complicated, we go delicious places. I see the "German way of war" is a heuristic. It is simply not-self evident that the Prussian-German armies were about manoeuvre. They conducted sieges, fought colonial wars, conducted amphibious operations, and served as corps within larger coalitions, and fought many other kinds of wars, as well. One can findexamples of Prussian-German armies conducting daring manoeuvres, and examples where steady and stolid battle discipline was so much their forte that their Habsburg enemies had to resort to their superiority in ...the war of manoeuvre. (Also.)

You don't however, argue against a heuristic with counter-examples. It is not to be preferred logically. It is an analytical tool that allows us to say something more relevant. Citino wants to explain how the Germans won the battles they did win without making an essentialist argument. I want to explain the same victories with my "substructural history of strategy" approach. So I say that, "on the contrary, it was the French, with their fortresses and their railways and their guns, who were, of the two armies facing each other on the Marne, the true masters of manoeuvre war," So I'm making a claim, too. 

And since this is  my blog, I'm going to go historiographic on Citino, and then get historical on my claim.

 Well, historiographic by a very generous stretch going back to the fall of 1987, and a young man's encounter with

Courtesy of Boardgamegeek

Back in the day, before it dissolved in 1996, after what I am sure was one final, cathartic, soul-satisfying group atomic wedgie,* Game Designer's Workshop was one of the leading  marquees in table top boardgaming, and in 1983, it released Assault, Frank Chadwick's game of platoon-level tactical combat in modern Europe. Like the better-known Squad Leader before it, Assault used isomorphic hex maps, standard orders of battle, and lovingly detailed weapon effect charts to allow players to pit onrushing Soviet Red Army forces against Americans, and latterly German, British and Dutch (whatever) forces in "typical" central German terrain. As long as you could handle autobahns and rivers going in circles, it was a lot of fun. Unlike Squad Leader, Assault is a historical curiosity nowadays, on account of that whole World-War-III-Not-Happening thing. (I know. I'm as disappointed as you are, and I don't think that the Gulf Wars were a satisfactory substitute.) 

On the other hand, the platoon level action allows for less tortuous detailed counters and tables while still giving a good impression of what Frank Chadwick thought a war with Abrams, Challengers, Leopards and T-80s would be like. That's Assault, and we'll leave it be, because I'm talking about Boots & Saddles.

The second module in the series  introduced rules for rotary wing aviation and provided a new set of counters. Division 86, the paradigm ("doctrine," whatever; I'm linking to the 1993 revision, anyway) with which the United States Army entered the 1980s, puts a lot of rotary wing combat aviation into the standard United States Army corps, and that's what this game supplies. The concept overlaps that of providing the "cavalry" formations of the main American army, because there were supposed to be two squadrons of attack helicopters in the divisional cavalry regiment plus two attack aviation regiments to form a full divisional cavalry brigade, plus a corps-level armoured cavalry brigade to screen American mechanised corps, each with an attack aviation regiment as one of its four manouevre elements, plus one full attack aviation brigade allotted per corps, although these units did not  have "cavalry" traditions. That's a lot of attack helicopters --and a lot of "cavalry."

Tradition isn't destiny. These guys don't dig many saps these days. It's some kind of metaphor, but the cover art for the game took the implicit metaphor to town. And so did I. Cavalry, the game and the doctrine suggested, existed for a reason. Cavalry has a mission, or rather, missions. It screens, reconnoiters, and provides flank security. A general may throw masses of cavalry at the decisive point, and, it's a lot more exciting to throw a regiment of AH-64s at a Red Army column on the move than to try to plot an artillery stonk on them. Mobility, perhaps to a jaunty cavalry air, has its appeal. I know that some guys think that Everything Went Wrong with armoured warfare once we start thinking of tanks as "cavalry," but for that Pole, I can always cite another who thinks that the problem with Allied tankers in WWII was that they didn't have enough cavalry spirit. Richard, meet Roman. Fight now! 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fall of France, 5: Yeah. About the French? They were involved, too.

So here's the latest in a continuing series that I was thinking was maybe played out. But away on a blog that I read all the time, by a great, natural teacher from whom I've learned a lot (who, just to get this out of the way, I admit is not without his quirks) chooses to revisit himself (original here, "hoisted from the archives" here:

Ernest May's Strange Victory is an excellent book, a wonderful book. [Link  mine, since you can do that now.] However, I'm not sure that it gets the story of the Fall of France right. I finished it thinking that since Ernest May is a historian of intelligence, he blames the collapse predominantly on intelligence failures--but that another historian who focused on something else could equally well and with equal evidence blame the collapse on other key factors.
Even after the misjudgment that was the French initial deployment. . . .[should not have been fatal.] . . . Meuse was a strong position. And once it was clear that there was a major attack through the Ardennes, the French Army was not that slow to respond.
From Strange Victory and from William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic, we can track the French reaction to the Nazi attack across the Meuse starting on May 10, 1940. The first thing to note is that the Nazi lead elements took up to 70% casualties and kept coming--indicative of extraordinary ideological commitment. In a world in which any "normal" unit breaks at 25% casualties or so, it's hard to beat people who keep coming at you: you can only hope that the enemy doesn't have that many of them. Had the Nazi soldiers been "normal," the initial attack by the seven panzer divisions would probably have failed, and the French would have had time to redeploy. [Itals. mine.]
. . . .[And they did] . . . . three divisions from the general reserve were fed into the southern end of the Ardennees on the 13th of May. The French high command clearly knew it was a trouble spot.
By May 15, the French First Armored division had been switched from the Belgian plain to the Ninth Army Ardennes sector, infantry formations had ben ordered to assemble behind the Ninth Army to form a new Sixth Army, and the Second Armored division as well had been ordered to assemble in the Sixth Army sector. . . . Fourth Armored division [was] . . .told to attack the southern flank of the Nazis as their tanks broke through.
So what happened to all these forces . . . [?]
By May 16, as Shirer puts it:
(689): The three heavy [armored divisions] the French had, all of which in May 10 had been stationed... within 50 miles of the Meuse at Sedan and Mezieres, which they could have reached by road overnight, had thus been squandered.... Not one had been properly deployed.... By now, May 16, they no longer counted. There remained only the newly formed 4th [armored division], commanded by de Gaulle, which was below strength and without divisional training..."
. . . . The French high command of Gamelin and Georges saw the situation developing and threw 800 tanks in four armored divisions plus between six and ten infantry divisions from their strategic reserve in front of the Nazi breakthrough in plenty of time: the Nazis, after all, had only 1000 tanks in their breakthrough seven panzer division. Yet . . . it did no good. 
With such an extremely low level of performance in a running battle, it seems likely that the French in 1940 would have been decisively defeated no matter how good their intelligence and operational leadership had been.. . .
The most important thing to note: the French were not unique. This happened to everybody: to the Poles, to the Dutch, to the Belgians, to the French, to the British, to the Yugoslavs, to the Greeks, to the Russians, and to the Americans at Kasserine Pass. In every case, the initial encounter with the Nazi army is a catastrophe.
It was only those who had enormous strategic depth who had the time to figure out what was going on and how to fight it.

I italicise something I find particularly problematic. It is, of course, wrong to assert that 70% casualties in spearhead units somehow break a law of war. But if it did, could we really comfortably turn to the "ideology" of the fighting men? Even without having a theoretical apparatus to turn to, I am profoundly suspicious of the claim that an ideology makes you a better soldier, while the implicit failure of "democratic" ideology to successfullly oppose "Nazi" leads us to draw unfortunate conclusions. Which is precisely why these claims get made. 

Here's another explanation for what happened on the Meuse that spring of 1940:

That's the Red Army trying to fake being an entire heavy cavalry corps charging at the same time. It's magnificent, but it's not.... Oh, you know the rest. The claim is that it could have worked, if Ney had just given a better speech before he launched the charge:

But he didn't, and that's that.

Having referenced Theoden King's death ride, I find that at the end of this post, I've come back round to it in an unexpected way. It's really unfortunate. This whole "Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors" thing keeps coming back round to haunt us in our latter days, including in LOTR.  That's what makes it so dangerous, and worth committing a blog post to countering, even when it is not being consciously put forward. 

So can we get rid of Nazi Supermen in this argument? We can. There are clues to this mystery that point to another culprit and another solution.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Plantation of the Atlantic, XV: Halfway Where?

It's time to talk about catechism, slavery, identity, and another Seventeenth-Century-New-England-Dog-in-the-Nighttime: the Halfway Covenant. But first, because this is, as far as I can tell so far, a sad story about the imposition of service upon the less powerful,I'm going to meditate on the way that power can be countered by self-invention.