A page featuring selected quotes from this landmark military history book from 1976 on the reality of battle across the centuries, focusing on Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme.
"The most brilliant
evocation of military experience in our time. The book sets out to show
what battles have really looked like. The result is utterly authentic."
- CP Snow, "The Financial Times"
"In this book, which
is so creative, so original, one learns as much about the nature of man
as of battle... Mr Keegan's description of the frightful conditions at
Warerloo is masterly, its realism utterly convincing."
- JH Plumb, "New York Times Book Review"
~ Introduction: Old Unhappy, Far-off Things
~ Agincourt 1415
~ Waterloo 1815
~ The Somme 1916
~ The Future of Battle
~ Beyond The Book
"Will no one tell me
what she sings? Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow for old, unhappy, far-off
things, and Battles long ago."
- Wordsworth, "The Solitary Reaper"
I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath. I have questioned people who have been in battle; have walked over battlefields... I have read about battles, have talked about battles, have been lectured about battles and have watched battles in progress, or apparently in progress, on the television screen... But I have never been in a battle. And I grow increasingly convinced that I have very little idea of what a battle can be like... Very, very few Europeans of my generation — I was born in 1934 — have learned at first hand that knowledge of battle which marked the lives of their fathers and grandfathers.
In Europe's wars of deconolization, the object of 'the other side' has been to avoid facing a decision at any given time of place, rightly presuming the likelihood of its defeat in such circumstances... This experience of soldiering, though often dangerous and sometimes violent, was not an experience in and of battle. For there is a fundamental difference between the sort of sporadic, small-scale fighting which is the small change of soldiering and the sort we characterize as a battle. A battle must obey the dramatic unities of time, place and action.
'Before the war' is, after all, the spiritual state in which the pupils of a military academy exist.
The aim of officer-training, which Western armies have achieved with remarkably consistent success during the 200 years in which formal military education has been carried on, is to reduce the conduct of war to a set of rules and a system of procedures — and thereby to make orderly and rational what is essentially chaotic and instinctive. It is an aim analogous to that — though I would not wish to push the analogy too far — pursued by medical schools in their fostering among students of a detached attitude to pain and distress in their patients, particularly victims of accidents.
The other process of education the student-officer underdoes is the normal, 'academic' one, which aims to offer the student not a single but a variety of angles of vision; which asks him to adopt in his study of war the standpoint not only of an officer, but also of a private soldier, a noncombatant, a neutral observer, a casualty; or of a statesman, a civil servant, an industrialist, a diplomat, a relief worker, a professional pacifist — all valid, all documented points of view.
It is by no means the case that all, or even many, regular officers find it difficult to talk or think about war from an unprofessional point of view. We are most of us capable of compartmenting our minds, would find the living of our lives impossible if we could not, and flee the company of those who can't or won't: zealots, monomaniacs, hypochondriacs, insurance salesman, the love-sick, the compulsively argumentative.
Military history is many things. It is, and for many writers past and present, is not very much more than, the study of generals and generalship, an approach to the subject which can sometimes yield remarkable results but which, by its choice of focus, automatically distorts perspective and too often dissolves into sycophancy or hero-worship. Military history is also the study of weapons and weapon systems, of cavalry, artillery, of castles and fortifications, of the musket, the longbow, the armoured knight, of the ironclad battleship, of the strategic bomber. Military history furthermore is the study of institutions, of regiments, general staffs, staff colleges, of armies and navies in the round, of the strategic doctrines by which they fight and of the ethos by which they are informed... But armies are for fighting. Military history must in the last resort be about battle.
"Fighting is to war,
what cash payment is to trade, for however rarely it may be necessary for
it actually to occur, everything is directed towards it, and eventually
it must take place all the same and must be decisive."
- Karl von Clausewitz
Battle history, or campaign history, deserves a similar primacy over all other branches of military historiography.
"The words we use to
describe intellectual effort are aggressive words. We attack problems,
or get our teeth into them. We master a subject when we have
with and overcome its difficulties."
- Dr Anthony Storr, "Human Aggression"
One school of historians, the compilers of the "British Official History of the First World War", have achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world's greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.
A great pioneer military historian, Hans Delbruck in Germany, demonstrated that it was possible to prove many traditional accounts of military operations pure nonsense by mere intelligent inspection of the terrain, and an English follower of his, Lt-Colonel AH Burne, proposed the applicability of a principle he had tested on every major English battlefield (Inherent Military Probability) and which, used with circumspection, is a rewarding as well as intriguine concept — the solution of an obscurity by an estimate of what a trained soldier would have done in the circumstances.
Sacrifice is a necessary exercise for the historian, who would befuddle himself and his audience if he tried to write down everything he could find out about an episode from the past. But they would probably also seek to justify it on particular grounds... some arguing that the events and character of a battle are subordinate in importance to its outcome; that foe the development of the British army, for the fulfilment of Napoleon's strategy, for the settlement of French and Prussian rivalry over European primacy, it was the results of Balaclava, of Eylau, of Gravelotte-St-Privat which counted, not the experience of those who took part, which becomes, therefore, of marginal relevance.
Why, if a historian is interested only in the outcome of a battle, should he trouble to provide any sort of narrative at all? The answer, at one level, would be that battles are deliberate, not chance happenings; commanders plan battles and must pit their wits against each other to make their plans succeed. Exactly how they maneuver their men around the constricted arena of a battlefield... is of obvious importance to an understanding of the success of one commander and the failure of the other.
But the 'outcome' approach to military history, like the time-honoured but outmoded 'cause and results' approach to general history, pre-judges the terms in which the narrative can be cast. That is so because 'win' or 'lose' — the concepts through which a commander and his chronicler approach a battle — are by no means the same as those through which his men will view their own involvement in it.
The commander, for efficiency's sake, must visualize the events and parties of the battle in fairly abstract terms: of 'attack' and 'counter-attack', of the 'Heavy Brigade', or the 'Guard Corps'... For soldiers, battle takes place in a wildly unstable physical and emotional environment... 'Battle', for the ordinary soldier, is a very small-scale situation which will throw up its own leaders and will be fought by its own rules — alas, often by its own ethics.
Because the decisions and acts of a commander apparently contribute more to the outcome of a battle than the decisions and acts of any single group of subordinates, it does not follow that what he does is more important than what all his subordinates do, nor that his behaviour is a more valid subject of study than theirs.
It is really only in the English-speaking countries, whose land campaigns, with the exception of those of the American Civil War, have all been waged outside the national territory, that military history has been able to acquire the status of a humane study with a wide, general readership among informed minds. The reasons for that are obvious; our defeats have never threatened our national survival, our wars in consequence have never deeply divided our countries (Vietnam may — but probably will not — prove a lasting exception) and we have never therefore demanded scapegoats or Titans. In that vein, it is significant that the only cult general in the English-speaking world — Robert E Lee — was the paladin of its only component community ever to suffer military catastrophe, the Confederacy.
For the privileged majority of our world, land warfare during the last hundred and fifty years — the period which coincides with the emergence of modern historical scholarship — has been in the last resort a spectator activity. Hence our demand for, and pleasure in, well-written and intelligent commentary. Hence too our limited conception of military-historical controversy... It does not comprehend questions about whether or not, by better military judgment, we might still govern ourselves from our national capital — as it does for the Germans; whether or not we might have avoided four years of foreign occupation — as it does for the French; whether or not we might have saved the lives of 20 millions of our fellow countrymen — as it does for the Russians. Had we to face questions like that, were military history not for us a success story, our military historiography would doubtless bear all the marks of circumscription, over-technicality, bombast, personal vilification, narrow xenophobia and inelegant style which, separately or in combination, disfigure — to our eyes — the work of French, German and Russian writers.
In the highly militarized German Second Reich, anything to do with war was so intertwined with national policy and national myth that no study of it could reasonably hope to achieve either the autonomy of an academic discipline or the aesthetic freedom of genuine literature. Military history was too loaded a subject, loaded with questions of national unity, of national survival, of dynastic prestige, for any German to feel ultimate detachment about it; and without a measure of intellectual detachment, of course, any historian is bound to become either an obscurantist or a publicist.
The great 19th century school of French historians fails equally to yield us an example of a seminal mind. In that often defeated country, too, a genuinely objective approach to military history always risked incurring the slur of carrying comfort to the enemy, and its development was further hindered by the endemic national neurosis of Napoleon-worship.
The difference between Roman and Greek historiography, in the words of Professor Michael Grant, is that the former "began with politics and the state", while the latter "sprang from geography and human behaviour". It was appropriate, therefore, that the Greek historians should have begun to make their influence felt on European historiography at the precise moment when an interest in "geography and human behaviour" was replacing a dry-as-dust legalistic conern with "politics and the state" as the motive force of historical inquiry... The foremost practitioner of the new history, Leopold von Ranke, insisted on regarding Thucydides as the greatest of all historians, living or dead... Because of his championship of the Greeks, something of their spirit — practical, realistic, speculative, wotty, humane — made its way through his into the work of lesser, often unacademic historians, some of whom were no doubt quite ignorant of the debt they owed him.
"Fear is general among
men, but men are commonly loath that their fear will be expressed in specific
acts which their comrades will recognize as cowardice. The majority are
unwilling to take extraordinary risks and do not aspire to a hero's role,
but they are equally unwilling that they should be considered the least
worthy among those present."
- General SLA Marshall, "Men Against Fire"
It is therefore, in Marshall's view, vital that an army should foster the closest acquaintance among its soldiers, that it should seek to create groups of friends, centered if possible on someone identified as a 'natural' fighter, since it is their 'mutual acquaintanceship' which will ensure no one flinches or shirks. "When a soldier is known to the men who are around him, he has reason to fear losing the one thing he is likely to value more highly than his life — his reuptation as a man among other men."
The most useful analogy, to my mind, over the question of how one should come to a judgment in writing about battles, is that of the difference bnetween the English and French judicial systems. In England and America, the task of the court in criminal cases. which it devolves upon a jury, is to arrive at a verdict of 'guilty' or 'not guilty' presented by prosecuting and defending counsels in turn. Trials are conflicts and verdicts are decisions. In France, and other countries which observe Roman Law, the task of a court in a criminal case is to arrive at the truth, as far as it can be perceived by human eyes, and the business of establishing the outlines of the truth falls not upon a jury, which is structly asked to enter a judgement, but upon a "juge d'instruction". This officer of the court, unknown to English law, is accorded very wide powers of interrogation and of investigation. Only when the juge is satisfied that a crime has indeed occured and that the suspect is responsible will he allow the case to go forward for prosecution. The character of these two different legal approaches is usually defined as 'accusatorial' (English) and 'inquisitorial' (French) respectively. And it may well be that the dramatic accusatorial element in the English approach had had its effect on the form in which English military historiography has been cast. For British military historians implicitly put someone or thing in the dock, charge him or it with a crime and marshal the evidence to show his or its responsibility... The inquisitorial approch on the other hand confers very much greater freedom of action. It allows the historian to discuss battles not necessarily as conflicts for a decision, but as value-free events.
I do not intend to write about generals and generalship, except to discuss how a commander's physical presence on the field may have influenced his subordinate' will to combat. I do not intend to say anything of logistics or strategy and very little of tactics in the formal sense. And I do not intend to offer a two-sided picture of events, since what happened to one side in any battle will be enough to convey the features I think are salient. On the other hand, I do intend to discuss wounds and their treatment, the mechanics of being taken prisoner, the nature of leadership at the most junior level, the role of compulsion in getting men to stand their ground and above all, the dimensions of the danger which different varieties of weapons offer to the soldier on the battlefield. Crudely, but I think meaningfully, one may distinguish three sorts of battlefield weapons: the hand weapon (sword or lance); the single-missile weapon (musket or rifle); the multiple-missile weapon (machine gun). I have chosen three battles to describe in detail — Agincourt, Waterloo, the Somme — my basis of choice being availability of evidence, and my purpose to demonstrate what the warfare, respectively, of hand, single-missile and multiple-missile weapons was (and is) like, and to suggest how and why the men who have had (and do have) to face these weapons control their fears, staunch their wounds, go to face their deaths. It is a personal attempt to catch a glimpse of the face of battle.
# AGINCOURT 1415
Agincourt is one of the most instantly and vividly visualised of all epic passages in English history, and one of the most satisfactory to contemplate. It is a victory of the weak over the strong, of the common soldier over the mounted knight, of resolution over bombast, of the desperate, cornered and far from home, over the proprietorial and cocksure. Visually, it, is a pre-Raphaelite, perhaps better a Medici Gallery print battle — a composition of strong verticals and horizontals and a conflict of rich dark reds and Lincoln greens against fishscale greys and arctic blues. It is a school outing to the Old Vic, Shakespeare is fun, son-et-lumiere, blank verse, Laurence Olivier in armour battle; it is an episode to quicken the interest of any schoolboy ever bored by a history lesson, a set-piece demonstration of English moral superiority and a cherished ingredient of a fading national myth. It is also a story of slaughter yard behaviour and of outright atrocity.
What military strategy Henry V had in mind for the campaign can only be reconstructed by conjecture... He would embark on mobile operations only after he had secured a firm base, and he would seek to establish that base at the end of the shortest possible sea-route. This decision limited his choice of disembarkment place to the coasts of Normandy, Picardy, Artois or Flanders. Much the same set of considerations would cause the British and American planners of the D-Day landings to plump in their case for Normandy. Henry chose the Bay of the Seine and the port of Harfleur.
We simply cannot visualize, as the eye-witness chroniclers were able to do, what the Agincourt arrow-cloud would have looked, or sounded, like; what the armoured men-at-arms sought to do to each other at the moment of the first clash; at what speed and in what density the French cavalry charged down; how the melee — the densely packed mass of men in hand-to-hand combat — can have appeared to a detached onlooker, say to men in the French third line; what level the noise of the battle can have reached and how the leaders made themselves heard — if they did so — above it. These questions lead on to less tangible inquiries: how did leadership operate once the fighting had been joined: by exhortation or by example? Or did concerted action depend upon previously rehearsed tactics and corporate feeling alone? Or was there, in fact, no leadership, merely every man — or every brave man — for himself? Les tangible still, what did 'bravery' mean in the context of a medieval fight? How did men mentally order the risks which they faced, as they know it is human to do?
The battle resolved itself into 12 main episodes; a period of waiting; an English advance; an English arrow strike; a French cavalry charge; a French infantry advance; a melee between the French and English men-at-arms; an intervention in the melee by the English archers; the flight of the French survivors from the scene of the melee; a second period of waiting, during which the French third line threatened, and a small party delivered, another charge; a French raid on the baggage park; a massacre of the French prisoners; finally, mutual departure from the battlefield.
The English archers hammered a stout double-pointed stake into the ground, at an angle calculated to catch a warhorse in the chest... Henry had ordered these stakes to be cut as a precaution against the army being surprised by cavalry on the line of march. But it was a sensible improvisation to have them planted on the pitched battlefield, even if not a wholly original one. The Scots at Bannockburn, the English themselves at Crecy and the Flemings at Courtrai had narrowed their fronts by digging patterns of holes which would break the lef of a charging horse.
On the arrival of the first English arrows the two large squadrons of French horse on either flank walked their horses clear of the line and broke into a charge. A charge at what? The two chroniclers who are specific about this point make it clear that the two groups of cavalry, each 500 or 600 strong, made the English archers their target... It was a strange and dangerous decision, unless, that is, we work on the supposition that the archers had planted their stakes among their own ranks, so concealing that array of obstacles from the French. We may then visualize the French bearing down on the archers in ignorance of the hedgehog their ranks concealed; and of the English giving ground just before the moment of impact, to reveal it.
The range (of the English arrows) was progressively shorted by the advance, and the arrows, coming in on a flat trajectory in sheets of 5000 at 10-second intervals, must have begun to cause casualties among the French foot. For through they bowed their heads and hunched their shoulders, presenting a continuous front of deflecting surfaces (bascinet top, breastplace, taces and leg-pieces) to the storm, some of the arrows must have found the weak spots in the visor, and at the shoulders and, as the range dropped right down, might even have penetrated the armour itself — which the 'bodkin-point' was designed to do... The archers failed nevertheless to half the French advance. But they succeeded in channelling it on to a narrower front of attack.
No one had overall
authority in this press, nor a chain of command through which to impose
it... The development of an unrelenting pressure from the rear on the backs
of those in the French line of battle, driving them steadily into the weapon-strokes
of the English, or at least denying them that margin of room for individual
maneuver which is essential if men are to defend themselves — or attack
— effectively. This was disastrous, for it is vital to recognize that all
infantry actions, even those fought in the closest of close order, are
not, in the last resort, combats of mass against mass, but the sum of many
combats of individuals — one against one, one against two, three against
At Agincourt, where the man-at-arms bore lance, sword, dagger, mace or battleaxe, his ability to kill or wound was restricted to the circle centered on his own body, within which his reach allowed him to club, slash or stab. Prevented by the throng at their backs from dodging, side-stepping or retreating from the blows and thrusts directed at them by their English opponents, the individual French men-at-arms must shortly have begun to lose their man-to-man fights, collecting blows which were sufficiently bruising ot stunning to make them drop their weapons or lose their balance or footing. Within minutes, perhaps seconds, of fighting being joined, some of them would have fallen, their bodies lying at the feet of their comrades, further impeding the movement of individuals and thus offering an obstacle to the advance of the whole column.
This was the crucial factor in the development of the battle. Had most of the French first line kept their feet, the crowd pressure of their vastly superior numbers, transmitted through their levelled lances, would shortly have forced the English back.
*Seeing the French
falling at the heads of columns, while those of the flanks still flinched
away from the final flights of arrows, the archers seized the chance that
confusion and irresolution offered. Drawing swords, swinging heavier weapons
(axes, bills or mallets) they left their staked-out positions and ran down
to assault the men in armour.
This is very difficult to visualize convincingly... The most likely explanation is that small groups of archers began by attacking individual men-at-arms, infantry isolated by the scattering of the French first line in the 'reverse charge' of their own cavalry or riders unhorsed in the charge itself... There must have been numbers of Frenchmen, prone, supine, half-risen or shakily upright, who were plainly in no state to offer concerted resistance and scarcely able to defend themselves individually.
"Setting about them" probably meant two or three against one, so that while an archer swung or lunged at a man-at-arms' front, another dodged his sword-arm to land him a mallet-blow on the back of the head or an axe-stroke behind the knee. Either would have toppled him, and once sprawling, he would have been helpless; a thrust into the face, into the slits of his visor, or through the mail of his armpit or groin, would have killed him outright or left him to bleed to death. Each act of execution would have taken only a few second; time enough for a flurry of thrusts clumsily parried, a fall, two or three figures to kneel over another on the ground, a few butcher's blows, a cry in extremis... Little scenes of this sort must have been happening all over the two narrow tracts between the woods and the fringes of the French main body within the first minuted of the main battle being joined.
To meet a similarly equipped opponent was the occasion for which the armoured soldier trained perhaps every day of his life from the onset of mahood. To meet and beat him was a triumph, the highest form which self-expression could take in the medieval nobleman's way of life... But there was certainly no honour to be won in killing one's social equal after he had surrendered and been disarmed.
Is it realistic to
imagine proud and warlike men passively awaiting the arrival of a ganf
of their social inferiors to do them to death — standing like cattle in
groups of ten for a single arhcer to break their skulls with an axe?
It does seem very improbably, and all the more because waht we know of 20th century mass-kiloing suggests that it is very difficult for small numbers of executioners, even when armed with machine-guns, to kill people much more defenceless than armoured knights quickly and in large numbers. What seems altogether more likely, therefore, is that Henry's order (to execute the prisoners), rather than bring about the prisoners' massacre, was intended by its threat to terrorize them into abject inactivity... Some Frenchmen would have been killed, and quite deliberately, but we need not reckon their number in thousands, perhaps not even in hundreds.
What sustained men in combat like Agincourt, when the penalty of defeat, or of one's own lack of skill or nimbleness was so final and unpleasant? For the English, the presence of the King would have provided what present-day soldiers call a 'moral factor' of great importance. The personal bond between leader and follower lies at the root of all explanations of what does and does not happen in battle: and that bond is always strongest in martial societie, of which 15th century England is one type and the warrior states of India, which the British harnessed so successfully to their imperial purpose, are another.
Drink and prayer must been seen as last-minute and short-term reinforcements of the medieval's will to combat. For more important, and more important still for the common soldier than the man-at-arms, was the prospect of enrichment. Medieval battle, at the personal level, was about only three things: victory; personal distinction in single combat; and ransom and loot... It is the gold-strike and gold-fever character of medieval battle which we should keep foremost in mind when seeking to understand it.
What went on at Agincourt appals and horrifies the modern imagination which, vicariously accustomed though it is to the idea of violence, rarely encounters it in actuality and is outraged when it does. The sense of outrage was no doubt as keenly felt by the individual victom of violence 500 years ahgo. But the victim of assault, in a world where the rights of lordship were imposed and the quarrels of neighbours settled by sword or knife as a matter of course, was likely to have been a good deal less surprised by it when it occured... The medieval world was one in which the distinction between private, civil and foreign war, though recognized, could only be irregularly enforced. Thus battle, though an extreme on the spectrum of experience, was not something unimaginable, something wholly beyond the peace-loving individual's ken. It offered the soldier risk in a particularly concentrated form, but it was a treatment to which his upbringing and experience would already have partially inured him.
# WATERLOO 1815
The Duke of Wellington strongly disapproved of all attempts to turn the battle of Waterloo either into literature or history... The Duke's wishes were disregardede, as they were bound to be, from the start. Waterloo, it seemed to contemporaries, had reversed the tide of European history and almost anyone who had taken part in the battle and could still hold a pen found a word-hungry readership.
The chronology of the Duke's movements on the day of Waterloo, besides providing an index of the temperature of the battle at any time — for he always managed to be present where the fighting was hottest — also allows us to calculate what he did not see... While junior officers and common soldiers naturally used his comings and goings as points of reference in their memory of the day, his personal chronology of the battle would have turned on quite different events.
It is a fairly safe generalization that the soldiers of most armies, at least before the development of mechanical transport, entered battle tired, if only because they had had to march to the field under the weight of their own eapons and kit. The English army at Agincourt was certainly very tired, and hungry, cold and wet into the bargain. So too were both aries on the morning of Waterloo. Both had been on the march the whole of the previous day, carrying 50 to 60 pounds per man, had fought the day before that, and had been living on rations issued the day before that again.
The soldids of the 4th Regiment were so tired on the morning of the 18th that they could scarcely keep awake; they, brigaded with the Inniskillings and with the same march behind them, also slept through the first four hours of the battle, lying down in the open about a 1000 yards behind the firing line.
At Agincourt there had been, in practice, only three types of encounter: single combat hand-to-hand fighting; missile-firing infantry versus cavalry; and missile-firing infantry versus infantry. At Waterloo there were seven sorts of encounter at least: single combat, cavalry versus cavalry; cavalry versus artillery; cavalry versus infantry; infantry versus infantry; missile-firing infantry versus missile-firing infantry; and artillery versus artillery.
Cavalry could do infantry very great harm, using 'harm' in a military rather than human context. The regiments of the Union Brigade, which charged the flank of d'Erlon's Corps, at a moment when it was under fire and attempting to deploy from column to line, reduced it to a purposeless crowd in a few instants... But neither did many of these infantrymen suffer personal injury.
If the story of Waterloo has a 'leitmotiv' it is that of cavalry charging square and being repulsed. It was not absolutely inevitable that horsemen who attempted to break a square should fail... The feat of breaking a square was tried by French cavalry time and again at Waterloo — there were perhaps 12 main assaults during the great afternoon cavalry effort — and always (though infantry in line or column suffered) with a complete lack of success. Practice against poorer troops had led them to expect a different result: a visible shiver of uncertainty along the ranks of the waiting musketeers which would lend the horsemen nerve for the last 50 yads, a ragged spatter of balls over their heads to signal the volley mistimed, then a sudden collapse of resolution and disappearance of order — regiment become drove, backs turned, heads hunched between shoulders, helot-feet flying before the faster hooves of the lords of battle: this, in theory, should have been the effect of such a charge.
As Jac Weller has shown by careful analysis of formation-widths, the number of cavalrymen in an attacking line was always much lower than the number of infantrymen with whom their onset brought them face to face. If the average strength of a battalion was about 500, it would, formed four deep, present in square a face of about 60 feet across, opposing about 140 men to the approaching French cavalry. They, because of the greater bulk of their horses, could present no more than about 18 men on the same width of front, with another 18 immediately behind, and it was these 36 who would take the brunt of the square's fire... If the cavalry's moral power failed to disarm the infantry — as it always did at Waterloo — then each horseman theoretically became the target for 4 infantrymen. Viewed like this, "Here comes those damnded fools again", seems like an appropriate judgment on the character of the conflict.
Even the best cavalry could normally hope to break good infantry only with the help of artillery. Hence the existence of 'horse artillery' whose task was to accompany cavalry to within charging distance of the infantry, and from just beyond musket-shot, to open gaps in the square... But at Waterloo room for artillery to accompany the cavalry to within charging distance, let alone to unlimber when it got there, could not be found. Furthermore, the near approach of cavalry caused the French gunners bombarding the British line from long distance to cease firing, for their own horsemen obscured the view, and risked becoming the recipients of their shot.
Wherever and whenever he could the Duke positioned his battalions just on the reverse of the crest, in what the soldiers call 'dead ground' often allowing them to lie down, so that most of the balls skimmed their heads. But many battalions had nevertheless to spend some of the day under direct fire... The cannonade came as near as anything suffered by the British at Waterloo to breaking their line.
When artillery of either side found the opportunity to 'cooperate' with other arms, that is, make the attack simultaneous with infantry or cavalry action against the same enemy formation — something difficult to achieve because of the danger it ran of hitting its own men — the effect of its fire was magnified. For the threat offered by the presence of enemy soldiers close at hand forced a defending formation to stand up and stand still... being unable to shelter from artillery fire.
The conflict of infantry versus infantry, though it occupied nearly everywhere at Waterloo a much shorter span of time, continuous or intermittent, than that between artillery and infantry or cavalry and infantry, was, in 'result' terms, the crucial element of the battle — a statement which can be made with fair safety of almost every battle fought in the period between the eclipse of the armoured horseman in the 14th century and the rise of the armoured fighting vehicle in the 20th.
Naturally it behoved a commander to shield his infantry as much as possible from cannonading or cavalry charge. But since infantry was (and is) the only force with which ground could (and can) be held, it could never be simply withdrawn from ground whose possession was held vital simply to avert loss of life. Infantry which refused to yield ground required by the enemy, despite the menaces of his cavalry and the efforts at massacre by his artillery, had ultimately to be attacked by other infantry.
The Queen's Move of black-power warfare is the head-on clash of heavy infantry, at close-range, in close-order, over levelled musket barrels. Discounting the attack which led to the fall of La Haye Sainte, since it really took the form of a skirmish on a gigantic scale, supported by light artillery, there were only two of these Queen's Moves on Wellington's front. The first is known as d'Erlon's attack, the second as the 'Crisis' — the attack of the Imperial Guard near Hougoumont at the very end of the battle. In both, very large and dense masses of French infantry advanced across the whole width of the valley separating the two armies to within a few yards of the British line, exchanged fire with it for a very brief period, then turned summarily about and fled.
Although it was the
men at the head of the French columns who had suffered most from the British
fire, it was also they who did what little was done to counter or return
it effectively. The men at the fear did nothing, or did nothing useful.
Indeed, it seems safe to go further. It was at the back of the columns,
not the front, that the collapse began, and the men in the rear who ran
before those in front. How can we explain it?
...More rewarding is an attempt to visualize the difference in conditions prevailing at the open face and in the closed interior of the French columns. At the front were the officers. If there were officers in the heart of the columns, they were prevented by the press from setting any heartening example to their men, were indeed hidden from them, and like them, deprived of a view of events. The men at the front could see their officers, see the enemy, form some rational estimatee of the danger they were in and of what they ought to do about it. The men in the middle and rear could see nothing of the battle but the debris of earlier attacks which had failed — discarded weapons and the bodies of the dead and wounded lying on the ground. From the front came back to them sudden crashes of musketry, eddies of smoke, unidentifiable shouts, and most important, tremors of movement, edging them rearward and forcing them, crowdlike, in upon each other. Crowdlike too, in their leaderlessness, in their lack of information, in their vulnerability to rumour, they would have needed very little stimulus to transform them from an ordered mass into a suddenly fugitive crowd, and carry them off the battlefield.
As we saw at Agincourt, the men in the front of a stricken formation cannot run away until those behind them have opened the road.
Crowds are implicit in armies. Inside every army is a crowd struggling to get out, and the strongest fear with which every commander lives — stronger than his fear of defeat or even of mutiny — is that of his army reverting to a crowd through some error of his making. For a crowd is the antithesis of an army, a human assembly animated not by discipline but by mood, by the plat of inconstant and infectious emotion which, if it spreads, is fatal to an army's subordination. Hence it is that bitterest of military insults contain the accusations of crowdlike conduct — rabble, riff-raff, scum, canaille, Pobel — and the deepest contempt soldiers can harbour is reserved for leaders whose armies dissolve between their fingers — Cadorna, Kerensky, Gough, Gamelin, Perceval. Many armies begin as crowds, like Lincoln's militia of '90 day volunteers' or the British 'New Armies' of 1914, and the transformation of such a crowd into an army is in itself enough to win a soldier a lasting title to fame. Kitchener, his reputation otherwise demolished, is still accorded respect for his triumphs of army-building in 1914-15.
Many armies, beginning as crowds, remain crowdlike throughout their existence. The great medieval hosts, tenuously bound together by ties of kinship and obligation, were formidable only by reason of their size and because of the very variable military skills of their individual members. Tactically quite unarticulated, they were vulnerable to the attack of any drilled, determined, homogenous force. Clive and Gordon, at the head of quite tiny European, or European-style armies were consistently able to disintegrate the vast oriental armies they met because the latter were really not much more than feudal crowds of retainers and followers who not only outnumbered but actially impeded the quite small nucleus of genuine fighting men they contained.
The replacement of crowd armies by unclear professional armies was one of the most important, if complex, processes in European history... Whatever its origin — whether it was, like the British army, forged by civil war from a bumpkin militia, or, like the Russian, hammered out of a conscripted serfdom by foreign mercenary officers — the standing army which emerged in most European states during the 17th century stood alone and apart, both among the other component's of a state's apparatus and in the experience and imagination of the people it policed. Over no other group of subjects did the state exercise so rigorously, so minutely, so continuously its power; within no other group — except the religious orders, the newest and most 'progressive' of which, the Society of Jesus, was itself deliberately military in organization — were actions and attitudes regulated so scrupulously by code and timetable. Nor would they be, until industrialization and compulsory education came to transform the life of urbanized populations two centuries later... Educated by the steady failure of 'their' crowds to overcome armies in the streets after 1830 the men of revolution, wheter violent or gradualist, made it their ambition to give their followers the same advantages of order, command, pliability, enjoyed by the forces on which their class-enemies regularly called to frustrate their aims. Their transformation of the fickle and spontaneous crowd into the disciplined, mass political party was as important an achievement for the future of states as, in its time, had been the creation of standing armies... The second generation of mass political parties, populist and anti-Marxist, like the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists, would actually adopt the structure and dress of armies.
The evaporation of the Revolution in revolutionary France is one of the most puzzling vanishing tricks in modern European history. A great deal had been done to demystify it, and perhaps too much should not be made of the role of the Armies of thw Republic in absorbing both the wild men and wild ideas of 1792. Nevertheless, the existence of those armies and their continued success abroad was a factor in reconciling the libertarians and perhaps even the radicals to the stultification of the revolutionary movement at home after 1794... Napoleon's appropriation of the army cap-stoned his seizure of power and made possible his inauguration of a regime effectively more repressive than any administered by the king. Yet Napoleonic repression did not appear to be the betrayal it was because the army, which was the Empire's ultimate guarantee, remained in mood and ethos a creature of the Revolution. To the end it was anit-Bourbon, anti-clerical, egalitarian, open to talents. Thousands of young Frenchmen might seek to avoid serving beneath its standards. But as long as the standards were tricoloured, as long as they proclained Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, those who still cared could console themselves with the belief that the Revolution lived... Dressed in blue, it stood for the victories of the Bastille, of the Tuilieres, of the Champ de Mars, and embodied, at however submerged a level, the principle of the sovereignty of the people.
The solidarity of groups and the power of symbols is not inherent or self-made. They derive from the influence of those who lead and those who manipulate; in the case of armies, from the officers. To suggest that their example and the leadership at Waterloo may seem a boringly conventional view to advance. The facts nevertheless seem to bear it out.
The officer had begun to carry weapons of very little lethal value; and the infantry officer at least seems to have looked on himself as a director rather than an agent of violence... It was the receipt of wounds, not the infliction of death, which demonstrated an officer's courage; that demonstration was reinforced by his refusal to leave his post even when wounded, or by his insistence on returning as soon as his wounds had been dressed; and it was by a punctiliousness in obeying orders which made wounds or death inevitable that an officer's honour was consummated. Officers, in short, were most concerned about the figure they cut in their brother officers' eyes. Honour was paramount, and it was by establishing one's honourableness with one's fellows that leadership was exerted indirectly over the common soldiers.
Honour was for the British officer of 1815 an almost wholly abstract ideal, a matter of comportment, of exposure to risk, of acceptance of death if it should come, of private satisfaction — if it should not — at having fulfilled an unwritten code. Hence, in a way, it is that the most perceptive of all the comments about Waterloo is the best known and apparently the most banal; that it was "won on the playing-fields of Eton". The Duke, who was an Etonion, knew very well that few of his officers were schoolfellows and that football bears little relation to war.... He was proposing a much subtler idea: that the French had been beaten not by wiser generalship or better tactics or superior patriotism but the coolness and endurance, the pursuit of excellence and of intangible objectives for their own sake which are learnt in game-playing — that game-playing which was already becoming the most important activity of the English gentleman's life. Napoleon had sent forward each of his formations in turn. They had been well led; many of the British speak with admiration of the French officers' bravery. But they had not been able to carry their men with them at the final step... The British still stood on the line Wellington had marked out for them, planted fast by the old officers had over themselves and so over their men. Honour, in a very peculiar sense, had triumphed.
Speculation on what prompted the wounding of the disabled raises the question of whether it is profitable to apply the concept of 'cruelty' to acts committed in the course of combat at all. Surely it is. For although combat subjects human beings to extreme stress, and although much military procedure compls men to kill, as in the 'load — fire' sequence, neither the strains nor the circumstances of battle completely extinguish free will, or the possibility of recognition between enemies of mutual humanity... The story of Waterloo is full of instances of quite neutral and normal human contact between people who happened to be wearing different uniforms... If neutral behaviour and generous action is possible in the heat of battle, so too are outright acts of cruelty.
That much of this wounding was by mounted men of infantrymen or unhorsed cavalrymen prompts one to speculate if some 'extra-specific' factor were not at work — if men on horseback may not feel superior to and different from men on the ground, and so feel a reduced compunction about killing them out of hand. Certainly there is little evidence from Waterloo of infantrymen killing defenceless fellow infantrymen.
# THE SOMME 1916
The Somme way, in a way true of no other battlefield in the First World War, British territory. Ypres, of course, became during the war almost the corner of a native field; and, with its British church, English-speaking pubs, English school for the children of the Commonwealth War Graves's gardeners and plethora of countless regimental memorials, remains so. But it was always a tiny battlefield... The British, moreover, won no victories at Ypres, except that curious victory of the spirit which, over a half century later, still plucks back the survivors of the Salient to stand in silence beneath the tomblike arches of the Menin Gate and hear the evening last post blown... The Somme, by contrast, offered an immensely long front of attack, and for all the miseries suffered there, it was also a front which brought its triumphs. On it the British drove the first tabks into action, in the ruined village of Flers, on September 15th, 1916. Two years later, they organized before Amiens the first great armoured breakthrough of modern warfare. And earlier in the year of 1918 they had, after the terrifying and almost total collapse of one of their armies, brought to a halt near the city the greater of Hindenburg's "war-winning" offensives. It was the battles of 1916 and 1918 — Bazentin, Pozieres, Morval, Thiepval, Transloy, Villers Bretonneux — which made the Somme 'British'. But none more so than the first battle, the Battle of Albert, and its first day, Jult 1st, 1916.
The British Expeditionary Force of 1916 was one of the most remarkable and admirable military formations ever to have taken the field, and the 4th and 3rd Armies, which were to attack on the Somme, provided a perfect cross-section of the sort of units which composed it. Four of the thirteen attacking divisions were regular, wholly or largely formed, that is, of long-service volunteer soldiers. All then twelve battalions of the 4th Division's fighting infantry were old-sweat units, two Irish, one Scottish, five Midland or North Country, two West Country, one East Anglian, one London... Three of the 'Kitchener' divisions also contained regular battalions, the rest of their infantry, like all that in the 18th, 31st, 34th and 36th Divisions, was 'Kitchener' or 'New Army'. What made these battalions — 97 out of the 143 destined for the attack — so worthy of note? First, that they were formed of volunteers. The regular battalions were also raised by voluntary enlistment, but the impulsion which drove a pre-war civilian to join up was most often that of simple poverty... Almost any sort of employment was thought preferable, for soldiering meant exile, low company, drunkenness of its danger, the surrender of all chance of marriage — the removal, in short, of every gentle or improving influence upon which the Victorian poor had been taught to set such store. It is against this background that we must view the extraordinary enthusiasm to enlist which seized the male population of the British Isles in the autumn of 1914 and provided the army, in a little under six months, with nearly 2 million volunteer soldiers... From the outset, many surrendered well-paid, steady employment to join up, coming forward in such numbers that they overwhelmed the capacity of the army to clothe, arm and train them.
Secretary of State for War, had originally called for a single increment
of a hundred thousand men to the strength of the regular army. He was,
by the spring of 1915, to find himself with six of these 'hundred thousands',
from which he formed five 'New Armies', each of six divisions... The great
reserves of manpower were in the northern and midland cities and in London,
and it was this pattern which began to tell in the third, fourth and subsequent
'hundred thousands'. The men who had come forward in these waves chose
their own titles for their units, in some cases their own officers, in
almost every case their own comrades. These were the men who formed the
Perhaps no story of the First World War is as poignant as that of the Pals. It is a story of a spontaneous and genuinely popular mass movement which has no counterpart in the modern, English-speaking world and perhaps could have none outside its own time and place: a time of intense, almost mystical patriotism, and of the inarticulate elitism of an imperial power's working class: a place of vigorous and buoyant urban life, rich in differences and a sense of belonging — to workplaces, factories, to unins, to churches, chapels, charitable organizations, Boy Scouts, sports clubs — to any one of those hundreds of bodies from which the Edwardian Briton drew his security and sense of identity.
In physique, in subordination, in motivation, in readiness for self-sacrifice, the soldiers of the Kitchener armies, 'citizen soldiers' as the propaganda of the period, for once getting its categories right, called them, were unsurpassed, and were matched in quality only by the magnificient volunteer contingents provided by the white Dominions, and by the Ersatz Corps of German university and high-school students who had paid the price of going untrained to war in the Kindermord ("Massacre of the Innocents") at Ypres in late 1914. The Kindermord, had the Kitchener soldiers grasped its import, offered them an awful warning, for the Ersatz Corps, which outnumbered the tiny B.E.F. of 1914, had been beaten by the superior military technique of war-hardened soldiers. The Kitchener battalions had on formation, and for many months afterwards, no knowledge of military technique whatsoever.
Officers had to be gentlemen. But just as the distribution of manpower failed to mesh with the regimental organization of the British army so too did the social with the human geography of the country. Britain in 1914 was as sharply Two Nations as it had been 70 years before, so that throughout the industrial North, West Midlands, South Wales and Lowland Scotland existed populous and productive communities almost wholly without a professional stratum and so without an officer class. Young men with the necessary qualifications were concentrated in the south and west and in half a dozen major cities. This there came about, during the first two years of the First World War, one of the most curious social confrontations in British history and, in its long-term political implications, one of the most significant. It was almost always a meeting of strangers — it was sometimes a meeting of near foreigners... In the winter of 1914 nicely raised young men from West Country vicarages or South Coast watering-places came face to face with forty Durham miners, Yorkshire furnacemen, Clydeside riveters and the two sides found thatv they could scarcely understand each other's speech. It was only the ardent desire on the one hand to teach, to encourage, to be accepted, on the other to learn and to be led which made intercourse between them possible. In this process of discovery, both of each other and of the military life, many of the amateur officers were to conceive an affection and concern for the disadvantaged which would eventually fuel the transformation of middle-class attitudes to the poor which has been the most important social trend in 20th century British. Many of the Kitchener Tommies were to perceive in their officers' display of fellow-feeling an authenticity which would make attendance of that transformation tolerable.
French small unit tactics, perfected painfully over two years of warfare, laid emphasis on the advance of small groups by rushes, one meanwhile supporting another by fire — the sort of tactics which were to become commonplace in the Second World War. This sophistication of tradtional 'fire and movement' was known to the British but was thought by the staff to be too difficult to be taught to the Kitchener divisions. They may well have been right. But the alternative tactical order they laid down for them was oversimplified: Two battalions each of a thousand men, forming the leading wave of the brigade, would leave their front trenches...extend their soldiers in four lines, a company to each...and advance to the German wire... In the circumstances, it did indeed seem that success would depend upon what the artillery could do for the infantry, both before the advance began and once it was under way.
The machine-gun was to be described by Major-General JFC Fuller as "concentrated essence of infantry", by which he meant his readers to grasp that its invention put into the hands of one man the firepower formerly wielded by forty. A good rifleman could fire only 15 shots a minute to a machine-gunner's 600. But, as Fuller would no doubt have conceded if taxed, a machine-gun team did not simply represent the equivalent of so many infantrymen compressed into a small compass. Infantrymen, however well-trained and well-armed, however resolute, however ready to kill, remain erratic agents of death. Unless centrally directed, they will choose, perhaps badly, their own targets, will open and cease fire individually, will be put off their aim by the enemy's return fire, will be distracted by the wounding of those near them, will yield to fear or excitement, will fire high, low or wide. It was to overcome this that 17th and 18th century armies had put such effort into perfecting volley fire by square, line and column. The result was to make an early 19th century (Waterloo) infantry regiment arguably more dangerous to approach than a late 19th century (Boer War) one. For though the latter had better weapons than the former, and ones which fired to a much greater range, these technical advantages were offset by the dispersion of the soldiers which the very improvement of firearms enjoined — dispersion meaning lack of control. Hence the wonder with which the machine-gun was viewed when Maxim first made it a practicable weapon of war. For it appeared to have put back into the hands of the regimental commander the means to inflict multiple and simultaneous woundings by the giving of a single word of command... The most important thing about the machine gun is that it is a *machine*, and one of a quite advanced type... The machine-gunner is best thought of as a sort of machine-minder, whose principal task was to feed ammunition belts into the breech... The appearance of the machine-gun had not so much disciplined the act of killing — which was what 17th century drill had done — as mechanized or industrialized it.
The most important ingredient in the Germans' scheme for the defence of their strongpoints was the fire of machine-guns. It was to the destruction of their emplacements, or the entombment of their crews in their positions of shelter, that the British heavy artillery was to devote its bombardment during the 6 days of 'preparation'... Unfortunately for the British infantry, the heavy howitzer of 1916 was a piece of technology very much less developed towards perfection, relative to its potential, than was the machine-gun. The desirable characteristics of the machine-gun, besides those of functional efficiency, were portability, concealability and compactness. The Maxim met the first fairly, the other two very well. The desirable characteristics of the heavy howitzer were pin-point precision and intense concussive effect. These neither the 6,8 or 9.2 inch howitzer achieved. Their shells had an aiming erro of at least 25 yeards and an explosive power insufficient to collapse the very deep 'mined' dug-outs in which the machine-gunners sheltered, with their weapons, during a bombardment...
It we look, then, at the preliminaries to the attack of July 1st as a struggle between competing technologies, between the manifest power of the British artillery and the latent power of the German machine-guns, it will be seen clearly as a struggle which the British waged on unequal terms — and terms which they failed to reverse, despite achieving the appearance of terrible devastation.
The output of the howitzers and heavy guns was about half a million shells of 12,000 tons weight... Haig's gunners could not see their target and could not be sure that, even if they hit it, their fire would a lethal effect. That this should be the case was due to the very small propotion of explosive (TNT) contained within the casing of the shell... Out of the 12,000 tons weight of shell delivered only about 900 tons represented high-explosive. Each ten square yards had received a pound of high explosive, or each square mile about 30 tons. Twenty-eight years later, the Allied Air Forces would put down on German positions in Normandy, and in minutes not days, something like 800 tons of bombs to the square mile, most of that tonnage consisting of high-explosive... but still some of the German soldiers survived to man their weapons against the British and American tank columns which emerged through the dust of the bombing.
We can see now, therefore, that the great Somme bombardment, for all its sound and fury, was inadequate to the task those who planned it expected of it. The shells which the British guns had fired at the German trenches, like those which a month earlier had broken up on the armoured skins of the German battleships at Jutland, were the wrong sort of projectile for the job, and often badly made. And while the British naval gunners had been able to see, and knew how to hit, their targets, the British field gunners, many of them amateurs, had largely to guess at where their real targets, the German machine-gun crews, were hidden, and then very often lacked the skill to put a shell where they wanted it to fall.
The long notice of the battle which everyone who was to be in it had been given — a new development in warfare and a function of the complex preparation which battles of the industrial age require — had allowed men the chance to make what personal accomodation with their fears they could. Most had written home, made out their wills, shaken hands with their pals. Many had gone to church.
The Battle of the Somme was to be in many ways a simpler event than Waterloo — not, indeed, in terms of the strains of management it threw on commanders and their staffs, but in the range and nature of encounters between different categories of armed groups which took place on the ground. At Waterloo we counted seven different sorts... There were only three sorts of encounter possible on the field of the Somme: artillery versus artillery, artillery versus infantry; and infantry versus infantry — though if we treat machine-gunners as a separate category, we also get infantry versus machine-gunners and artillery versus machine-gunners.
Perhaps 20 battalaions of the attacking force, out of 60 committed to the first wave, had been disabled in no man's land by machine-gun fire, to which they had been unable to reply and whose source they had generally been unable to identify.
The Germans had enough of their telephone cable network intact sometimes to be able to inform their batteries which trenches were in British hands, and so to be able to call down fire on them. The British had no such link with their artillery, the telephone lines they had trailed across no-man's-land having almost without exception, and to no one's surprise, been cut.
Some battalions, one
should not forget, succeeded. The 7th Division took some, the 18th most,
the 30th all its first objectives, and battalions of the 21st and 34th
secured sizeable sections of the German trenches opposite their own. The
French, better-trained, more experienced and with much more heavy artillery,
had taken all their first-day objectives, and would have gone on if the
plan had provided for unexpected success. The first day of the Somme had
not been a complete military failure.
But it had been a human tragedy. The Germans, out of about 35,000 soldiers, had had killed or wounded about 6,000. Bad enough; but it was in the enormous disparity between their losses and the British that the weight of the tragedy lies. In all the British had lost about 60,000 — of whom 21,000 had been killed — most in the first hour of the attack.
"The trenches," wrote Robert Kee fifty years later, "were the concentration camps of the First World War"; and though the analogy is what an academic reviewer would call unhistorical, there is somethine Treblika-like about almost all accounts of July 1st, about those long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about their necks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination inside the barbed wire. Accounts of the Somme produce in readers and audiences must the same range of emotions as do descriptions of the running of Aushwitz — guilty fascination, incredulity, horror, disgust, pity and anger — and not only from the pacific and tender-hearted; not only from the military historians; but also from professional soldier. Anger is the response which the story of the Somme most commonly evokes among professionals. Why did the commanders not do something about it? Why they did let the attack go on? ...There were reprieves, but the majority of battalions scheduled to attack did so, no matter what had happened to those who had preceded them... The most important reason of all was the simple ignorance of what was happening which prevailed almost everywhere on the British side of no-man's-land throughout most of the day.
Once the troops left
their trenches, as at 730am on July 1st, they passed beyond the carry of
their signals system into the unknown... The cloud of unknowing which descended
on a First World War battlefield at zero hour was accepted as one of its
hazards by contemporary generals. Since the middle of the 19th century,
the width of battlefields had been extending so rapidly that no general
could hope to be present, as Wellington had made himself, at each successive
point of crisis; no general could hope to survey, as Wellington had done,
the line of battle from the front rank. The main work of the general, it
had been accepted, now had to be done in his office, before the battle
began... The spirit which informs the plans laid by the Fourth Army, whether
those of a formation like XII Corps (equivalent in size to Wellington's
Waterloo army) which ran to 31 pages (Wellington issued no written plan
for Waterloo), or of a unit like Queen Victoria's Rifles, a force of under
a thousand men, which run to 20 numbered paragraps... is a spiti not of
providing for eventualities, but rather of attempting to preordain the
Man's attempts at preordination are always risky and require as a minimum precondition for success the co-operation of all concerned. Upon that of the Germans the British could not of course count. Consequently, at every point where the future threatened to resist preordination, Haig and Rawlinson had reinsured themselves — by lengthening the duration of the bombardment, adding to the targets to be destroyed, increasing the ratio of troops to space... If major operations are to be carried through in the teeth of enemy resistance, commanders must at all times be able to talk to their troops, troops to their supporting artillery, and so on. Such conversations were easily arranged while everyone was on the same side of no-man's-land. But once the infantry departed on their journey, conversation stopped, to be carried on, if at all, through the medium of the battalion runners, upon whose messages, Colonel Dickens, for example, had to rely for news, two hours old, of the progress of his fighting companies.
Discontinuities of this order in the receipt of information made the management of a battle, in the instantaneous fashion open to Wellington at Waterloo, impossible.
Commanders could not discover were their soldiers were... Many of the British gunners, whose fire, if properly directed, would have been so effective in saving British lives, remained inactive spectators.
The continuation of the attack throughout the day did not compound the military error. But it did multiple the scale and prolong the duration of the human suffering which the battle brought by a factor difficult to quantify but certainly very large indeed. It caused many more men to be wounded than any sort of necessity required and left those wounded early on to agonize in no-man's-land throughout the day.
Waterloo wounds (cannon
wounds apart) had been in general single and simple: penetratins of perforations
by lances or low-velocity bullets, cuts by swords... The wounds suffered
by the human body on the Somme were of a far greater variety and degree
of severity... Shell wounds were the most to be feared, because of the
multiple effects shell explosion could produce in the human body. At its
worst it could disintegrate a human being so that nothing recognizable
remained... Less spectacular, but sometimes as deadly, shell blast could
create over-pressures or vacuums in the body's organs, rupturing the lungs
and producing harmorrhages... with "no visible mark".
As a killing agent over long as well as short ranges, however, the bullet was champion. Unlike the musket ball which, moving at a slow speed and without rotating, merely drove a clean path for itself through soft tissue, the high-velocity conical bullet, spinning quickly about its long axis, could produce inside the human body a variety of extremely unpleasant results.
July 1st was not the end of the Battle of the Somme. The attack was to be renewed several times during the summer, autumn, and early winter, and only officially to be closed down on November 18th. The official history of the war names eight 'phases' of the battle after July 1st; the first phase was officially designated after the war, by the (British) Battle Nomenclature Committee, the Battle of Albert...a name now used by no one...By the time the battle ended, 419,654 British soldiers had become casualties on the Somme, and nearly 200,000 French.
The principal memorial which the Somme left to the British nation is not one of headstones and inscriptions. It is intellectual and literary, and it turns on the revelation, from which the British had hitherto been shielded by their navy, that war could threaten with death the young manhood on a whole nation. This realization was to have important political after-effects during the Second World War... and to colour British strategic thinking about what sort of wars she should fight.
Impressions of the
Somme might have faded, had it not been that the experience of the Western
Front, of which the Somme marked the opening of the crucial phase, called
forth from the generation which underwent it a literature of immense imaginative
sweep and power. Much of it was poetic in form...
All great wars of modern times have evoked a literary response, but always at a certain remove from the the termination of hostilities themselves... The works of Bluden, Graves, Hemmingway and Sassoon have not only stood up well to the passage of time; everything about them suggests that they will continue to be read, ot as background material for an understanding of the Great War, but as moving and enduring expressions of truth about how man confronts the inevitability of death. It is the eternal quality contained in the best literature of the First World War that invests the experience of the Somme with the important it continues to hold. Nothing which the Second World War evoked stands comparison with it. Indeed the only important category of book which the Second World War established in England was the prisoner-of-war story... Does the public's obsession with what went on behind the barbed wire of 'Stalagluft III' or Colditz imply some unconscious recognition that it was to be in a camp — concentration camp, extermination camp, labour camp, prisoner-of-war camp — to have been the enemy's chattel, not his opponent, that was really dangerous in the Second World War, and that to have been a fighting soldier was to have lived in relative safety?
Or was it rather than the public had recognized that from the literature of the First World War, from the story of the Somme, it had learnt as much as it ever would about what modern war could do to men, and perceived that some limit of what human beings could and could not stand on the battlefield had at last been reached; and that the voice from the trenches spoke for every soldier of the industrial age? If so, Sassoon's, Grave's, Blunden's readership had perceived an important slice of reality.
# THE FUTURE OF BATTLE
The Somme brings the story of the development of battle as a human experience and human ordeal into our own times — those of industrial economies, mass electorates, and conscript armies. This is true even though the Somme may seem, to a late 20th century way of thinking, an old fashioned battle — more of a part with, say Gettysburg than with Kursk or Alamein or Sinai — and this chiefly because of the absence from the field of any 'fighting vehicle' and from the skies above it of ground attack aircraft.
Though it is certainly true that the great battles of the Second World War in France and the Desert were characterized by the employment of tanks and aircraft in abundance, the fighting elsewhere was, for the great majority of combatants and for much of the time, as earthbound, snailpaced and softskinned a business as it had been for the 200 preceding years... The battles in the Pacific Islands and Burma were fought almost wholly without intervention by armour — beneath the jungle canopy almost without intervention by aircraft; the long campaign of Italy was fought by the Germans without aircover and with few tanks; the great opening battles in Russia were conducted, except in the centre of the front, by vast infantry armies; and despite interruptions like Kursk, the campaign remained until the last year, when the Russians had assembled their great tank armies, a war of shoe leather and horseflesh. Stanlingrad, in a sense *the* battle of the war, was almost exclusively a battle between infantrymen (pinned beneath the ruins of the city by their competing artilleries), for the tanks which had carried the German advance thither proved useless within Stalingrad itself.
It is startling, moreover,
when one dissects any of the great tank battles themselves, to discover
how little of the fighting took the form of the tank versus tank combat
commonly thought typical of that particular sort of event... Most of the
fighting between armoured divisions was, in practice, fighting not between
tanks and tanks but between infantry and infantry; and the longer the war
endured, the more was this the case.
The critical phase of the battle of Kursk, July 11th-13th, did see enormous armadas of tanks locked in close-range combat within a comparitively confined arena, which was almost devoid of supporting infantry. In the final stage of the Goodwood offensive east of Caen, the British tanks which arrived at the foot of Borguesbus Ridge, there to be destroyed by the heavier guns of the I SS Panzer Corps, had far outstripped their accompanying infantry by the speed of their advance; and time and again in the Desert the Germans forced the British to throw their fragile Crudasers and Stuarts, unsupported by infantry escorts, on to the nuzzles of their 88mm anti-tank guns (using their own not very superior Panzer Mark IIIs to bait the trap).
Few armies — the Russians never, the British rarely — found themselves able to fit out the infantry battalions of their armoured divisions with such expensive and specialized equipment as the lightly-armoured half-tracks of the German Panzergrenadiere in which to move around the battlefield... As the war progressed, and the vulnerability of tanks to infantry anti-tank weapons emphasized itself, felt obliged to increase the proportion of infantry to tanks within their tank formations... The British, who had begun the war with an armoured division containing 6 tank regiments to a single infantry battalion, ended it with the same division having 5 infantry battalions to 4 tank regiments.
A Second World War armoured division in action, therefore, little resembled the fast-moving fleet of land ironclads, wheeling and shooting in unison, of which the visionaries of blitzkrieg had dreamed.
If many battles of
the Second World War resemble, at the level of human experience, those
of the First, what then was the function and achievement of all those thousands
of tanks — about 250,000 were built in the Second World War as against
less than 10,000 in the First — which ranged the battlefields of 1939-45?
Most tanks had a narrowly specialized function. The Churchill, like the Matilda and the Valentine, was an 'infantry' tank, descending directly from the trench-crosing wire-crushing Mother of the First World War, and designed like it to destroy by fire or intimidation the resistance of enemy infantry in strong points. The Tiger, on the other hand, was, in the last resort, an anti-tank tank, the Super-Dreadnought of the armoured battlefield, able to outgun any opponent and to absorb or deflect its riposte. But in either case, the achivements of tanks of such specialized function could be only limited and local. The Tiger, if at hand when the Churchill appeared, could destroy it and 'restore the front'. But neither could do either of these things at much faster than at walking pace or over any distance.
The Sherman, however, of the T-34 or the Panzer Mark III, though none of them a match in gunpower or armour for the specialized heavies, could, at rare moments of opportunity, transform the character of a whole campaign. They could not do it often, nor could they do it to order, for it required the concurrence of conditions and circumstances beyond the mere concentration of a superiority of armour. But when this transformation occured, the focus of fighting could be shifted a 100 miles in a week — as it was in France in May 1940, or in Poland in July 1944... The 'armoured breakthrough', about which all commanders have, since September 1939, dreamt — or had nightmares — requires considerable preparation.
Usually, if an attacker
is to achieve his breakthrough, the enemy must be made to 'stand': to fight
resolutely, that is, on the ground on which he is attacked, replacing the
troops progressively consumed in its defence with others from his reserve
until he has no more to feed forward. If then the attacker, by better husbandry,
still retains a surplus, and if that surplus contains a sizeable armoured
element, he is in a position to achieve armoured breakthrough.
Yet breakthough will not follow of its own accord... The tanks must get the army to follow them... But there is a very powerful resistance to movement in all modern armies, which is partly material and partly psychological in character, and so strong that it may even be compared in its effect to that offered by the enemy... Something much more than mere means of transport is necessary if an army is to be impelled into rapid forward motion. The army needs a vision, a dream, a nightmare, or some mixture of the three if it is to be electrified into a headlong advance. In 1914, the Germany army, footing itself 20 miles southward day after day, was possessed by a vision — total victory in 6 weeks. But visions like these present themselves rarely.
Tanks should be thought of not so much as weapons but as theatrical devices, dei ex machina, by the maneuvering of which a general is enabled so to manipulate the emotions of his army so that its resistance to movement is overcome... by the imposition of a higher object than that of holding one's ground, driving the enemy off one's front or even registering an incontestable victory. That higher object is the rescue of comrades in danger. It is an object which the use of parachute troops allows a general to impose in an even more imperative form... The French, in operations like 'Lorraine' in Indo-China, where they parachuted battalions into the heart of the Vietminh fastness and challenged their road-bound columns to reach them, elevated this technique to the level of a strategic principle. But it is too risky a technique, as the outcome of Arnhem established, to be employed often. The armoured thrust, on the other hand, offers a general the chance both to titillate his soldiers' sense of solidarity with comrades at risk and to control the degree of risk to which they are exposed. It is possible to miscalculate, of course, as did Rommel in the Crusader battle in November 1941, and then the armoured thrust must withdraw if it is not to wither where it comes to rest. But if its reach is calculated right, as it was by Hitler in May 1940, or by Guderain in the Russian summer of 1941, the infantry, haunted by the nightmare of leaving the tank crews to die alone, will struggle forward somehow across the chasm that yawns between their line of departure and the tanks' foremost point of advance, a chasm which in other circumstances they would rightly think unbridgeable, and by a week or a fortnight of unreasonable effort, as much moral as physical in the demands it makes on them, transforms by their advance the course of a whole campaign.
*Unless soldiers have stood, squared up to each other, exchanged blow for blow and felt the heavier tell, a breakthrough will indeed have no more lasting effect than any other stroke of trickery. Easy victories, between equals, almost never stick. The defeated lick their wounds, nurse their grievances and wait for the odds to even out again. The easiness of Germany's victories in 1870 goes far to explain the bitterness which the French harboured against her for 40 yards and the magnitude of the price they exacted in revenge on the battlefields of 1914-18. Hitler's easy victories of June-August 1941 bought him the agonies of Stalingrad, in the same way and for the same reacon that Pearl Harbor cost Japan the defeat of Leyte Gulf. And we have seen the Arab armies, adamant in their refusal to accept Israel's lightning victories of 1967 as a fair test of their relative worths, return to the struggle and insist on repeating the trial. It is for this reason that it is possible to say that the tank, though it has transformed the pace and appearance of modern campaigning, has not changed the nature of battle. The focus of fighting may be shifted 20 miles in a single day by an armoured thrust but wherever it comes to rest there must take place exactly the same sort of struggle between man and man which battlefields have seen since armies came into being.
*Battle, therefore, is essentially a moral conflict. It requires, if it is to take place, a mutual and sustained act of will by two contending parties and, if it is to result in a decision, the moral collapse of one of them... What battles have in common is not something strategic, nor tactical, nor material, nor technical... it is something human: the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of aoms aim over which other men are ready to kill them. The study of battle is always a study of fear and usually of courage; always of leadership, usually of obedience; always of compulsion, sometimes of insubordinatio; always of anxiety, sometimes of elation; always of violence, sometimes also of cruelty, self-sacrifice, compassion; above all, it is always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration — for it is towards the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed.
Battles belong to finite moments in history, to the societies which raise the armies which fight them, to the economies and technologies which those societies sustain.
What is the trend of battle's development?
What evidence we have suggests that fighting between out-groups is more ferocious than between in-groups. Of American soldiers who had seen Japanese as prisoners, a near majority stated they felt, as a result, "all the more like killing them"; of Americans who had seen German prisoners, more than half felt "it's too bad we have to be fighting them, they are men just like us."
The predicament of the individual on the battlefield has, at whatever moment we choose to examine, still to be measured on one quite short scale: that of the physical and mental endurance of himself and his group. Men can stand only so much of anything, so what needs to be established for our purposes is not the factor by which the mechanization of battle has multiplied the cost of waging war to the states involved but the degree to which it has increased the strain thrown on the human participants.
One statement can be safely made, battle have been getting longer... but it is a perfectly tenable view that much of the fighting of the First and Second World War was not 'battle' as that concept has generally been understood, but 'siege', something much more limited and concrete in its aim and almost always much more protracted in its conduct.
The longbows of the
Agincourt archers, the muskets of the Waterloo infantrymen were very effective
agents for the temporary transformation of an airspace of modest dimensions
into an atmosphere of high lethality. But 'modest' and 'temporary' are
the important qualifications. By the beginning of the First World War,
soldiers possessed the means to maintain a lethal environment over wide
areas for sustained periods... It was as if the arms-manufacturers had
succeeded in introducing a new element into the atmosphere, compounded
of fire and steel, whose presence rendered battlefields uninhabitable —
giving them that eerily empty look which, to an experienced 20th century
soldier, is aprime indicator that danger lies all about... So abundant
have killing agents (mines, grenades, shells, automatic weapons) carried
by infantrymen become — to say nothing of those fired from larger, more
distant weapons or launched from the air — that the underlying aim of weapon-training
has now in many armies been changed: for the traditional object, that of
teaching the soldier to hit a selected target, has been substituted to
that of teaching a group to create an impenetrable zone... virtually unapproachable
by anyone lacking armoured protection.
The Italian infantry platoon is equipped almost exclusively with sub-machine guns, effective only for spraying the immediate neighbourhood with bullets, and requiring no greater skill to use than a housewife needs to spray her kitchen with insecticide from an aerosol can... The Russian, German and American infantry companies are each armed with automatic weapons only... Wasting ammunition, for decades the cardinal military sin, has in consequence become a military virtue; Hitting the target, for centuries the principal military skill, is henceforth left to the law of averages. Perhaps only in the British army, traditionally the guild of sharp-shooters, and in Northern Ireland in the 1970s embroiled in a campaign which requires its soldiers to fire back at terrorist hunmen without touching the bystanders whom the gunmen use as cover, is marksmanship still lauded and taught.
Danger buried beneath the soil of the battlefield, wafted by its breezes, suffusing in solid form its air space — mines, gas, projectiles — have, through a superabundance of supply... brought about the transformation of the battlefield into one almost wholly — and indiscriminately — hostile to man.
The very size of modern battlefields invests them with peril for the individual soldier. For it is now almost impossible to run away from a battle... The 'right to flight' is naturally not one which generals are willing to concede. But its availability is one of the things which in the past have made battle bearable, by allowing the soldier to believe that his presence on the battlefield was ultimately voluntary, and it has been frequently exercised by armies of all nations, not always with results fatal either to individuals or the greater cause: First Bull Run, the Second Battle of the Somme, and Kasserine provide the most obvious verifications of the half-truth that he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. Indeed, for an army to run away can be to inflict a very serious frustration to its enemy's plans.
It would be perverse to suggest that the modern front-line soldier is less skilled than the musketeer or cannoneer at Waterloo, for it was the purpose of the drill each of them was taught to make him an automaton, and that the modern soldier is not. And it is certainly the case that the man behind the soldier — the armourer, radio mechanic, gunnery computer operator, helicopter pilot — practices skills of an order of difficulty beyond the comprehension of most soldiers outside this century. Nevertheless, it can be argued, and argued forcibly, that the archer at Agincourt exercised a greater range and depth of skills than the modern rifleman, and the mounted man-at-arms more so. Archery, 'epee', and horsemanship are athletic feats, demanding poise, timing, and judgment which few modern military functions require and which correspondingly few soldiers, stronger and healthier though the majority certainly are than the soldiers of the age of edged weapons, can emulate.
Warfare in the age of edged weapons required yet another vanished military quality, perhaps even more crucial to skill-at-arms than agility or good reflexes: a sort of empathy with one's adversary, lending the ability to anticipate his actions and forestall his blows, combined with a physical brazenness which would allow a man to look a stranger in the face and strike to fell him without provocation or compunction... Direct, face-to-face, knock-down and drag-out violence is something which modern, middle-class Western man encounters rarely if at all in his everyday life.
For all the elaborate explanations used by civilized societiues to exculpate the soldier who kills in battle from the taint of personal guilty or social disapproval — that he undergoes the same risk of death as his opponent, that he kills to overcome a greater evil than killing — it is worthy of note that the one sort of front-line soldier who has some choice over whether to kill or not — the officer — has, throughout the period at which we have been looking, consistently and steadily withdrawn himself from the act itself.
The climate of family, school and cultural life, for all the respect we accord to the military virtues (without so naming them), has in the aftermath of two world wars become suffused with a deep antipathy to violence and to conflict. The abolition of capital punishmen in almost all Western countries is but the most striking example of this distaste... But moods are also fickle, and the very absurdity of much of the propaganda of social pacifisim ss calculated to hurry forward a turn of the tide. We ought, therefore, to be prepared for a dialectical swing away from fraternalism back towards the doctrines of self-reliance and self-defence 'coute que coute' (of which the Israelis and Palestinians are each purveying a highly exportable version). Yet, were such a swing to complete its travel, I very much doubt whether the thereby changed outlook of western youth would fit them for service on the battlefield of the future. For, despite the congruence of civilian and military technology which is such an arresting feature of the modern world... the divergence between the facts of everyday and of battlefield existence is not only greater than ever before but is widening year by year.
Medieval soldiers not
only saw their opponents at very close hand but fought them face to face.
The rhythm of the fighting and its duration were in consequence dictated
by human limitations... Because medieval armies were small, these rhythms
determined the length of combat. In brief, the terror and brutality of
battles could yet be comprehended on a human timescale and in a human way.
Gunpowder battles, fought during the daylight hours of a single series of 24, at short ranges, over the span of a few fields, whose farmers might watch the carnage from the safety of a neighbouring hilltop or wood, were events which belonged demonstrably to the world of men.
Of the battles of the 20th century, that is something of which it was increasingly difficult to say... What almost all the soldiers of the First World War and many of the Second, even from the victor armies, testify to is their sense of littleness, almost of nothingness, of their abandonment in a physical wilderness, dominated by vast impersonal forces, from which even such normalities as the passage of time had been eliminated. The dimensions of the battlefield, extending far beyond the boundaries of the individual's perception, the events supervening upon it — endless artillery bombardments, sudden and shatteringly powerful aerial bombings, mass irruptions of armoured vehicles — reduced his subjective role, objectively vital though it was, to that of a mere victim.
It must be counted one of the particular cruelties of modern warfare that, by inducing even in the fit and willing soldier a sense of his unimportance, it encouraged his treating the lives of disarmed ot demoralized opponents as equally unimportant.
The fostering and infliction
of deliberate cruelty marks a second major divergence between the facts
of everyday and battlefield existence in the 20th century. Weapons have
never been kind to human flesh, but the directing principle behind their
design has usually not been that of maximizing the pain and damage they
can cause... But the rise of "thing-killing" as opposed to man-killing
weapons which by their side-effects inflicted gross suffering and disfigurement,
invalidated any restraints... And it is not the desired effect of many
man-killing weapins that they inflict wounds as terrible as possible. The
HEAT and HESH rounds fired by anti-tank guns are designed to fill the interior
of armoured vehicles with showers of metal splinters or streams of molten
metal, so disabling the tank by killing its crew.
These intentional inhumanities seem worthy of notice because the societies which sanction them are dedicated, in their treatment of human beings away from the battlefield, to standards of consideration, compassion even, higher than those adopted by any others of which we have knowledge. The modern Western state accepts the responsibility not merely to protect the individual's life and property, traditionally the legal minima, but to educate and heal him, support him in old age and when unemployed. Might the modern conscript not well think, at first acquaintance with the weapons the state foists on him, that its humanitarian code is evidence either of a nauseating hypocrisy or of a psychotic inability to connect actions with their results?
The third and in its fashion perhaps most disturbin divergence between life on and off the battlefield is seen in the role coercion plays in keeping men in the killing zone... All armies, whether of democracies or dictatorships, depend on the coercive principle that it is a vital element in making battles work. Coercion was indeed direct and personal on the gunpowder battlefield, that the officer who flogged too hard risked a bullet should he turn his back, set limits to its scope. It is a function of the impersonality of modern war that the soldier is coerced, certainly at times by people whom he can identify, but more frequently, more continuously and more harshly by vast, unlocalized forces against which he may rail, but at which he cannot strike back and to which he must ultimately submit: the fire which nails him to the ground or drives him beneath it, the great distance which yawns between him and safety... The dynamic of modern battle impels more effectively than any system of discipline of which Frederick the Great could have dreamt.
deliberate cruelty, all deployed on a rising scale, make the fitness of
modern man to sustain the stress of battle increasingly doubtful. And this
to me true even though... we must take account of the undoubted willingness
of some men at all times to risk, even apparently to enjoy, extremen danger
and arbitrary cruelty.
Battle is to the strong; Battle is to the young. Its physical ordeals — discomfort, loss of sleep, hunger, thirst, burdens — are not only better borne by men under 30; so too are its terrors, its anxieties, its separations, its bereavements. And young men are also moved more deeply than older men by the moeal consolations with which battle compensates the soldier — it would be foolish to deny that there are compensations — for its cruelties: the thrill of comradeship, the excitements of the chase, the exhilarations of surprise, deception and the 'ruse du guerre', the exaltations of success, the sheer fun of prankish irresponsibility... In times past battle had fulfilled the energies and imaginations of the European upper class to the exclusion of almost all else.
Yet the prospect of battle, excepting perhaps the first battle of a war or a green unit's first blooding, seems always to alarm men's anxieties, however young or vigorous they may be, rather than excite their anticipation... Hence the drinking... Hence too, it would seem, the stirring or rekindling of a desire for spiritual fortifications before battle... Indeed wherever the light of religion has not died out from armies, men seem to hunger for its consolations on the eve of action.
During the 'active' phase of the Battle of France in 1940, 10 to 25% of all battle casualties were psychiatric, 10 to 20% during the first 10 days of the Normandy battle and 20% during the two latter months. Many of these, perhaps as many as 90%, were eventually returned to some form of duty, more or less demanding... As time dragged on, almost all soldiers exposed to continuous or semi-continuous combat broke down... The fighting of the Second World War led to an infantryman's breakdown in a little under a year.
Incompetent generals had always become casualties (of stress). The Second World War broke competent generals also... Rommel, Guderain, Reichenau, Ridgway... Mere hardness of character of the sort demonstrated by Zhukov or Model, rather than any particular strategic or tactical flair, increasingly became the principal military virtue as the Second World War dragged on. Other commanders who appeared to stand the strain did so only by cultviating a curious detachment from the conduct of battles themselves. The three most admired generals of the British, American and German armies — Alexander, Eisenhower, and Runstedt — were each, in their different ways, not really generals at all, non-generals, almost anti-generals.
The concept of "continuous operations" which it is proposed to conduct in an armoured battle in Europe, and for which the most elaborate night-fighting equipment is provided the armies, requires soldiers to remain continuously in action for periods of a 100 or a 150 hours. There is even talk of attempting to keep them awake for 80 hours at a stretch, using if necessary doses of amphetamines as the agent; ironic if official condemnation of the private use of hallucinogens and transquilizers in battle is to partner an official administration of stimulants.
We are now faced with a prospect of a battle which through the physical and nervous strain, the "multiple stress pattern" it will impose on the combatants, threatens to break them down whether or not they come into direct contact with the enemy... by the immersion of an army in a situation which would prove psychologically intolerable.
By 'decisive battle' military historians can mean simply a battle which has a result, which ends in the clear-cut victory of one side over the other; but by it also a battle whose result caused some real shift in the direction of human affairs far away from the battlefield, bringing about the downfall of a heretofore dominant power, setting the term to a hitherto irresistible tide of imperial expansion, toppling a political system, cutting short the career of a conquering hero... Yet as I have tried to argue, the most important, the really 'decisive' effects of a battle are more immediate and personal than those belonging to these other categories. It is armies which fight battles, and armies which contain the men who, in any society, can and will and know how to fight. Battles, or more precisely defeats, are immediately decisive because they kill some of these men and dissuade the rest, for a longer or shorter period, from wanting to fight any more.
The very scale of the First and Second World Wars has determined that... the experience of violent and sudden death has been brought through battle into many, perhaps a majority of families, that fear of the suffering — arbitrary and accidental as well as deliberate and purposive — battle can cause to human societies is profound and almost universal, and that the usefulness of future battle is widely doubted.
The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscripts in armies they see as ornamental... It remains for armies to admit that the battles of the future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armoured hosts face each other across the boundary between east and west, no soldier on either side will concede that he does not believe in the function for which he plans and trains. As long as states put weapons in their hands, they will show each other the iron face of war. But the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself.
Quotes from other works
by John Keegan:
Warpaths * Intelligence In War * Soldiers * First World War * History of Warfare
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