A blog by Patrick Crozier

July 30, 2004

Footnotes to "How competent were Britain's First World War Generals?"
Patrick Crozier

I appreciate that to those not immersed in the history of the First World War some of the events I referred to in my "How competent were Britain's First World War Generals?" posting may be something of a mystery. Let's see if we can clarify a few things here:

The Blockade was the Allied naval blockade of Germany that prevented any seaborne trade beyond the North Sea. As a consequence (along with internal German policy) the German people started to starve.

1 July 1916. The beginning of the Battle of the Somme and the greatest disaster in British military history with some 20,000 dead and 60,000 casualties. In some places (though, as I understand it, not all) British troops did, indeed, walk slowly towards the enemy. Further reading.

1st Battle of Ypres. October (or was it November?) 1914. Germans and the British met in Western Belgium. Stalemate. At one point German boy soldiers advanced singing and (I assume) walking. They were cut down in their hundreds. Further reading.

Serbia. In 1914, the Serbians managed to eject the far more powerful Austrian army.

Tanganiyka. Despite 4 years cut off from home, the Germans managed to run rings round the far more powerful British forces.

Palestine. British forces under Allenby (who had previously commanded British forces at Arras on the Western Front) defeated the Turks and captured Jerusalem. Further Reading.

The Middle East. Well, we won.

Ludendorff Offensive. Germany's final, 1918 attempt to win the war. The initial assault, against Britain's Fifth Army, gained an enormous amount of ground. Further reading.

German attack on Verdun. 1916. If memory serves the Germans took 330,000 casualties, the French 370,000. Further reading

Vimy Ridge. April(?) 1917. Canadians took a key piece of high ground. First use of a creeping barrage. Further reading.

Messines Ridge. Using over 20 mines (one of which is still there) tunnelled under German positions, British managed to dislodge Germans from key piece of high ground. As one officer said before the battle: "Gentlemen, I am not sure if we will change history tomorrow, but we will certainly change the geography." Further reading.

Storming of the Hindenburg Line. The Hindenburg Line was a well-fortified stretch of trenches, wire and other fortifications. The British stormed it in September 1918.

Nivelle Offensive. April 1917. French offensive. French army mutinied after the initial stages. Further reading.

Amiens. August 1918. Using over 400 tanks the British inflict massive damage on the Germans taking something like 10,000 prisoners and advancing some 6 miles. Ludendorff described it as: "the Black Day of the German Army". Further reading.

Georgette. German assault on British and Portuguese positions near Ypres. Regained Messines. Further reading.

14 July 1916. Successful British attack following equally successful night-time forming up in No Man's Land. Further reading.

Cambrai (initially). November 1917. First use of both massed tanks and a predicted barrage. Huge British success. Government ordered church bells to be rung for the first time in four years. Unfortunately, three weeks later the Germans counter-attacked and took back almost all the ground they had lost. Further reading.

Le Hamel. 4 July 1918. Australians along with some Americans under Australian general, Monash, and using such innovations as "peaceful penetration" and airborne resupply, do well. Further reading.

The French half of 1 July 1916. Yup, the French were there too.

Passchendaele. Despite the appalling conditions and being the attacking side, the British still managed to inflict about the same number of casualties (about 250,000) on the Germans as the Germans managed to inflict on them. Further reading.

"...the French spent an awful lot of time waiting for the British to get up to speed". At the outbreak of the First World War, the British were able to field an army only one sixth the size of the French and one eighth the size of the German. Despite an enormous recruitment drive it took another two years before the British became a significant fighting force.

All of the above on an "as I understand it" basis.

July 28, 2004

How competent were Britain's First World War Generals?
Patrick Crozier

"Not very" is the standard response. "Haven't you seen Blackadder?" Case closed.

Well, I would beg to differ. I am going to open up the question. Because that's the kind of guy I am.

First question: what do you mean by competence? Winning the war? Ah, that was the Blockade - nothing to do with the Western Front. Well, let's - just for the sake of argument - assume that's true. What, now, does competence mean in terms of the Western Front?

"Not ordering your men to walk slowly towards the enemy?" Yes, but that (as I understand it) only happened once: 1 July 1916 at the beginning of the battle of the Somme. And, anyway, in that case the Germans were just as guilty eg 1st Battle of Ypres.

Perhaps, then, they were all incompetent - every man jack of them. But how likely is that? Are we really to say that not a single one of the armies of Europe was able to produce a competent general? And it seems clear that away from the Western Front: Serbia, Tanganiyka, Palestine and the Middle East, there was no lack of competence. We even have examples, eg Allenby, of generals who were supposedly very mediocre on the Western Front but became tactical geniuses when they arrived in the Middle East.

No, it doesn't stack up. You can't have it both ways. Either there were competent generals on the Western Front or there were no competent generals anywhere. And as Palestine and Serbia rather tend to suggest that there were some competent types somewhere we have to conclude that there were some competents on the Western Front.

But that still doesn't give us a measure. Let's try this one: being able to capture heavily fortified positions, inflicting heavier casualties on the enemy than he inflicts on you.

There are quite a few operations that don't really fit the bill: Ludendorff Offensive - defences not well fortified, 1914 German advance - ditto.

So what do fit these criteria:

  • German attack on Verdun
  • Vimy Ridge
  • Messines Ridge
  • Storming of the Hindenburg Line

I am pretty sure about those. There are some might bes:

  • Nivelle Offensive (not the disaster everyone thinks it was)
  • Amiens
  • Georgette
  • 14 July 1916
  • Cambrai (initially)
  • Le Hamel
  • The French half of 1 July 1916
  • Passchendaele

Now, if you accept my criteria then it tends to suggest that the British were really rather good. However, you could just as easily argue that the Germans weren't really attacking and that the Allies weren't really defending. And you could argue that the Germans couldn't afford to lose as many men as the Allies. And you could argue that the French spent an awful lot of time waiting for the British to get up to speed.

Whatever it is, it is not a simple question.

Update 30/07/04

I've added some footnotes to this here.

Croziervision quote of the day
Patrick Crozier

I'll take a leaf out of the great Kelvin MacKenzie's book. A reader who rang The Sun to compain about something or other was told 'you're banned from reading The Sun'.

Stephen Pollard finds inspiration.

July 26, 2004

New blog: Antoine Clarke's Election Watch
Patrick Crozier

Just in case you are interested in that sort of thing...link

If libertarian ideas are so good how come they keep on getting rejected?
Patrick Crozier

This was a question I found myself posing in a comment to a posting put up by Andy Wood over on Transport Blog.

The point is that (what with us living in a democracy and all) I see no reason why libertarian ideas should fail. After all, at least one of my claims for a libertarian world is that it would make everyone better off. Or, at least, almost everyone (he says calling to mind some of the more useless recent public appointments).

I know there were a whole bunch of economists in the 1970s who came up with public choice theory to explain just this. And perhaps it's about time I got round to finding out what they actually said. But in the absence of such effort-based knowledge here are a few ideas of my own.

Maybe it's because libertarian ideas are abstract ones and people aren't very good at abstracts. Maybe statist ideas are easier to understand. Well, if that is true and libertarian ideas are best seen rather than heard then maybe we should be seeking to massively increase the amount of devolution in this country. Maybe if local councils and other institutions had much more autonomy they would be prepared to experiment and, if they did so, maybe some of the ideas they would experiment with would be libertarian ones leading to a better world.

Maybe I shouldn't be so gloomy. Maybe we are winning the battle, it's just that it takes a long time. The Thatcher/Reagan (hell, you could even add in Lange/Mulroney/Hawke) Revolution put a broken rail in the path of the Socialist express. It was only partly successful - sure, people stopped believing in state ownership but they started to believe in state regulation with a vengeance - but it was a start.

Maybe it is just a case of keeping going.

Maybe it's that our arguments aren't that good. I often find it deeply disappointing (even in the area of debate, transport, I know well) that bad ideas so often go unchallenged or only challenged half-heartedly. Maybe, we just have to up our game a bit.

Of course, it could be that we are wrong. Surely not.

Nah, it's got to be those shape-shifting reptiles.

July 21, 2004

Examples of freedom working
Patrick Crozier

Or, perhaps that should read "Examples of freer situations working better than less free situations" - though I accept that that is a bit clumsy.

Whatever the case may be it's actually easier said than done. It is not possible to create true scientific comparisons in the political and economic spheres. There's always something (geography, demographics, external factors) to skew the comparison.

So, we have to settle for close (though not exact) comparisons. The closest I can think of are: the West v the Soviet Bloc; South Korea v North Korea; Taiwan v China. I hope those are fairly uncontroversial but then again there is always the black-is-white tendency to contend with.

Other examples closer to home? Well, there's BT. Older readers will remember all too well how long it used to take to get a phone installed in the days of nationalised monopoly. Nowadays it is possible to go into a store and walk away with a fully working phone 20 minutes later.

"Oh, but that is all to do with technology." Well, that may be true. But then again similar technological advances have appeared in the health and education sectors.

"Oh, but they were underfunded." Well, maybe. But if that is the case isn't that just another example of state failure?

July 16, 2004

New Labour Dictionary
Patrick Crozier

devolve centralise on the sly
insensitive the truth
insulting the truth
invest money waste money
looking at a range of options working out what we can get away with
modernise make worse
reform change the words but do nothing
shake up see reform
target miss but hit someone else hard. As in "We will target crime"
tighten up invent some more forms to fill in
tsar someone with all the responsibility but none of the power. Takes the blame when things (inevitably) go wrong (thanks to Brian for this one)
we will create a tsar we haven't a clue

Readers are invited to think up a few of their own