Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Myths of War

I've been working on the Dragoons...

Cue photo...

History is in part the study of believable myth making.

For instance, I was unaware until recently that at the end of the First World War the British army practically mutinied, during one of the subsequent riots soldiers burned down Luton town hall.

Indeed the First World War, as a whole, is a good example of the mythological reworking of history.

The mother-in-law is a teacher and takes parties of school kids to the battlefields of France. There, they read Owen and Sassoon, and tick various boxes about emotional learning by imagining what it would have been like to be in the trenches; and no doubt conclude the whole thing was a futile waste, with Lions Led by Donkey's, that was fought in a fashion that was totally irrational.

This was certainly the version of history that I was taught at school.

Yet I was struck by a couple of things after The First Day of the the Somme by Martin Middlebrook.

The first being that far from the war being a dreadful ordeal for large numbers of the men involved it was rather a lark; fresh air and regular food being an added bonus. And secondly I am always struck by the story of a young lad from Bradford who tried to join up aged 14, who was initially rejected not becausse of his age, but becuase he had a 24" chest. (Bradford might still be a shithole today ("Bradford's role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well." Bill Bryson) , but it was far worse at the turn of the last century)

Which brings me to Battle Tactics of the Western Front by Paddy Griffith.

There are two facts that need to be considered when thinking about the tactical and strategic problems faced by the generals.

The first is that the there were around 5000 men per mile of frontline. Obviously these were not uniformly spread, or even in the frontline, but this density can not be ignored particularly when considered alongside the pattern of railway tracks, that were in many cases deliberately built for the military purpose of moving reserves.

The second thing to consider is that far from the Western Front being akin to hell, with constant shelling, for long periods of the conflict, large section of the front were entirely inactive.

Oh and it didn't help in matters of command and control that it took six hours to pass a message from a Corps HQ to the frontline, and vice versa - something greatly compounded by the necessity of any orders having to be issued to other units and support companies in order to make them effective.

I was reading Mr Griffiths excellent book in part due to the rules I have been writing.

However, to pass the time painting I was watching All Quiet on the Western Front - the version with John Boy Walton - and found myself being rather annoyed by the depiction of the fighting, in which a wave of French troops ran across no man's land, got repelled and then the German's ran across no man's land - all in broad daylight.

All of which was completely at odds with the tactics outlined in Mr Griffiths' book. And while it is a nice metaphor, makes absolutely no sense - for instance where was the support troops to carry the ammo and the engineering equipment? or the signallers to lay the telephone wires for the co-ordination of the artillery? the reserves to exploit the capturing of the enemy trenches?

Maybe they couldn't afford the extras....


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