Category Archives: Warfare

Book Review: Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I does for the Germany and Austria-Hungary what Niall Ferguson’s The Pity Of War did for the Allies in WWI.  It explains the war through the lens of the people that participated both at home and at the front and explores the ways in which the experience of war shaped the perception of the war and led to the dissolution of both empires.

The book itself is a hefty tome at first glance, it actually looks like it could serve as a doorstop in an emergency.  All told it is 788 pages and a good 2 ½ inches thick.  Much of that thickness comes from the notes and bibliography.  There are 120 pages of notes and the bibliography alone is 68 pages long.  That testifies to the depth of scholarship that went into the book.  Everything is meticulously sourced, often using primary as opposed to secondary sources.  The meat of the book is 567 pages of text consisting of an introduction, 13 chronological chapters, and an epilogue detailing the experience of war on Germany and Austria-Hungary from 1914-1918.

This is a story that to my knowledge has never been told in detail in English outside of academic journals and even there has only been told episodically covering narrow subjects.  This is the first holistic overview of the experience of war in Central Powers in World War I that am aware of, and I have been studying World War I for almost 25 years.  This is a study akin to Ferguson’s The Pity Of War in the quality of it analysis and description of life on the homefront.

One thing that is common to most World War I historiography is that homefront of the Entente powers is discussed in detail, such as things as wartime rationing, women war-workers, propaganda, and public opinion while this has been largely ignored in Germany and Austria-Hungary or at best caricatured.  This work tells that story in one place for the first time and puts a human face on the civilian population of the Central Powers.

One thing that comes out clearly is the huge difference in the ways in which Germany and Austria-Hungary responded to the stresses of war.  Watson makes an excellent point that the greater ethnic homogeneity of Germany was a large factor in German support for the war as well as the more liberal policies of the Reich in controlling information and in trying to implement a fair and equitable ration system for food.  The discussion of how the policies of the Third OHL of Hindenburg and Ludendorff backfired and led to public resentment and eventual loss of support for the war effort is very informative and confirms a suspicion that I have had for long while.  Namely, that the attempt at total coercive mobilization by the third OHL was counter-productive and that Hindenburg and Ludendorff only realized this at the eleventh hour when the only thing they could and did do was advise the Kaiser’s abdication and sue for peace.

The discussion of the myriad and various policies tried in Austria-Hungary to raise support for the war that were flawed in both conception and execution is illuminating.  The surprising thing is not that Austria managed to fight on but that they did not collapse in the first year of the war in the face of both military incompetence at the front and blatantly unfair and discriminatory policies among the multitude of ethnic communities that made up the empire.  The lack of will and basic incompetence of Emperor Franz Joseph is largely responsible for this as he did not have the strength of character to rein in the various power blocs within the empire that eventually tore it apart.  The story of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is both sad and comical at the same time.  Public support was squandered throughout the war and even activity discouraged at times.  It is almost as though Austria-Hungary was just as much at war with itself and its identity from 1914-1918 as it was with any external power and it is his internal conflict that ultimately undermined the empire and the Central Powers by sapping and wasting all the strengths of Austria and preventing the nation from gelling and prosecuting the war with anything but the basest competence and energy.

Another tale that has not been fully told until now is the way in which Germany and Austria-Hungary administered areas they conquered.  It is by turns a tale of brutality and lenience.  The one thing lacking in large part in both countries administration of occupied territory was consistency as the treatment of conquered lands and peoples changed with time and location.  Westerners were generally treated better than those in Eastern Europe but there was violence and compassion all over and much depended on the temperament and inclinations of the military governor as most governors administered their areas as independent fiefdoms to do with as they wished and mostly paid lip service to central authority.

This is an illuminating volume that tells a history that has largely been either ignored or caricatured in English historiography.  It is an outstanding book that has been scrupulously researched.  It is also surprisingly easy to read given the potential dryness of the subject.  The narrative flows and draws the reader along.  I highly recommend this book to students of World War I and indeed anyone who wants to see how the Central Powers dealt with the stresses of war on the homefront.  They will not find a better, fairer history because it has not yet been written.

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

There have been hundreds of books written about the battle of Waterloo in the last two centuries.  Most acknowledge that the defense of the two farms at La Haye Saint and Hougemont were decisive in the allied victory.  Curiously, to my knowledge there has not been a microhistory written of the actions in and around the farmhouse of La Haye Saint.  Brendan Simms has rectified that era in his new work The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo.

This slim volume packs an amazing amount of detail between the covers.  The book itself is less than 200 pages in overall length.  The narrative is separated into eight short chapters and appendix, ten page bibliography, and 27 pages of notes.

The story of the defense of La Haye Saint is often remarked upon but seldom recounted.  Simms corrects this with his detailed history of the defense of the farm and even more interestingly the men of the King’s German Legion (KGL) that defended it.  The KGL is one of those strange units that only appears in wartime and does not long survive the war that called it into existence.  It was made up mostly of Hanoverians who fled French occupied Hanover to fight for the English and their German king to liberate their homeland.  They both were and were not considered elite troops but it was mostly an accident of history that the 2nd Light Battalion (rifles) of the KGL was detailed to defend La Haye Saint on the day of battle.

The thing that makes this book so good is the depth of scholarship that went into it.  Simms is able to reconstruct an hour by hour, and in places almost minute by minute account of the battle in and around the farm.  He can do this because he managed to discover several unpublished memoirs by members of the KGL, including one written by an enlisted man.  This allows him to not only name names but to describe somewhat the personalities of the characters involved in the fight.

The defense of La Haye Saint invokes other famous British defensive stands such as Rorke’s Drift and Le Cateau.  That the soldiers were mostly not British is irrelevant as the Hanoverians were just as determined in service of George III as any native English soldiers.  The KGL was eventually driven from the farmhouse late in the day after they depleted their ammunition and could not be resupplied.  There defeat was not really a defeat though as they had managed to tie up the French in the center of the battlefield long enough for Blücher and his Prussian army to arrive on napoleons flank and bought the time necessary to stave off defeat.  It was only shortly after the farm was surrendered that Wellington ordered a general advance as it became clear that the French had shot their bolt and were defeated.

The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo is narrative and microhistory at its best. For anyone seeking to understand the reasons for napoleons defeat at Waterloo this book is indispensable. I highly recommend this book. 

Gallipoli, 1915: Analysis of a Glorious Failure

The Allied invasion of Gallipoli and its subsequent failure represented perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of the First World War.  There is every reason to expect that if the invasion of Turkey had been successful then much the same results would have accrued to the Allies then as were to accrue twenty-eight years later when the Allies successfully invaded Italy in the Second World War.  The tangible results of the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 was the capitulation of the government of Mussolini, and the diversion of up to sixteen German divisions in Italy that could have been more profitably used in France.  Additionally, one of Germany’s most capable generals, Albert Kesselring was also tied down in Italy.  If Kesselring had instead been in France it is conceivable that his operational creativity and flexibility could have made a crucial difference after Rommel was wounded in August 1944.

Anzac Cove shortly after the Start of the Dardanelles Operation
Anzac Cove shortly after the Start of the Dardanelles Operation

The Allies hoped that by successfully knocking Turkey out of the war they would open up a warm water route to Russia, divert German strength from the Western Front, and quickly conquer the Middle East thus freeing up western troops for service in France.  The Germans had been supplying and advising the Turkish army and navy since before the war in hopes of completing the Berlin-Baghdad railway and thus simplifying their access to Middle East oil.  The Allied invasion of Gallipoli in 1915 was a bold strategic move that if successfully executed could have changed the course of World War I.  The assault only became a disaster through poor, unrealistic planning and operational mismanagement.

The Allied assault at Gallipoli could have been as successful an operation as the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943-1944 if only the Allied planners had appreciated the real possibilities of a realistically planned operation.  The basic premise of both the Gallipoli and Italian campaigns was the same, namely to tie down enemy forces so that the war-winning blow could be landed elsewhere.  The vastly different outcomes in similar wars almost demand a comparison of the factors that led one operation to success and the other to failure.  There are many similarities between the concepts of the campaigns.  Both Gallipoli and the Italian campaign were considered secondary, both were very much ad hoc, both were fit into the larger Allied war-plans as off the cuff operations, and lastly neither were seen as potentially war-winning from the outset.

The origins of the Gallipoli campaign lie in the combination of stalemate on the Western Front and the Russian reverses after their disastrous defeat at Tannenberg in the fall of 1914 and the entry of the Turks into the war in December 1914.  The Western Front was seemingly locked in a stalemate without some innovation and it was felt that the Russians were on the verge of collapse after their massive losses at Tannenberg.  The thought was that if the Dardanelles could be forced and a warm water route to Russia opened the Russians could be assisted and the danger of their collapse could be averted.

The idea of forcing the Dardanelles was initially put forth by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in response to a request for a demonstration against the Turks to relieve pressure against the Russians.  Thus the initial concept of the operation was as a simple demonstration by the Royal Navy to force the Dardanelles there was no thought of a troop landing in support of naval forces, it was only later that an assault by land forces was added to the plan.  The Gallipoli campaign is one of the glaring examples in recent military history of what has become known as “mission creep” or the inevitable addition of tasks to what was originally a simple and straightforward assignment.

Planning initially began only for a naval attack to force the narrows at Gallipoli as Lord Kitchener, the British War Minister, said troops were not available for a land assault.  The initial plan called for the Mediterranean fleet to force the narrows and break out into the Black Sea where they could harass and interdict Turkish coastal shipping in support of the Russian army.  It was only after the Royal Navy’s failure in February 1915 with the loss of two capital ships that the idea of landing troops on the Gallipoli peninsula was batted around.  After the idea’s approval, only two months of planning went into the operation and the assault occurred in April 1915, with troops hurriedly collected from the Middle East and the diversion of the ANZAC corps that was stopped en route to the Western Front and assigned to the operation.

CSA PRL Book Review: The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was released in the Summer of 2014 and I was relieved in the extreme to see that there was only one novel on the list, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.  The list is different than earlier lists because it is organized topically instead of by position as earlier lists were.  I have read many of the books on the list already and decided to read the ones I have not and post my thoughts on the books on the list.  This review is the third in that series.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World is an intriguing book, to say the least.  I will admit that after finding out a little more about the author, a retired British General, I was somewhat biased going into reading it as I then expected it to be a book advocating more soft power approaches to hard power problems.  As I got into the text itself that turns out to not be the case.

The book itself is 415 pages of text with an index.  It is separated into an introduction, three, topical three chapter parts, and a conclusion.  The topics of the parts are Industrial Warfare, Cold War Confrontation, and War Among the People.

The essential argument of the book is that the paradigm of war has changed in the past century and the dividing line is 1945 and the employment of nuclear weapons.  The premise goes that nuclear weapons changed the dynamic of war by making it realistically impossible for two nuclear armed states to fight each other out of fear of societal annihilation.  That is all well and good as far as it goes and actually makes sense within the context of historical occurrence since 21945 and the prevailing Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the east-west standoff we call the Cold War. He further goes on to explain the paradigm change in terms of war moving from a conflict between recognized forces belonging to sovereign states to one between sovereign forces and non-state forces that live among the people on whose behalf they are ostensibly fighting for.  It is this movement of war from being between defined forces to between undefined forces that makes for the paradigm shift by changing the way wars are to be fought.  That is the essence of the argument as I read it.

He makes several very good points within the narrative.  The first is he continually asserts the primacy of politics in the decision to use force.  In this he is absolutely correct.  In addition he makes clear that policy makers should not make the decision to use force without discussing the use of said force with their military commanders to find out if force is an appropriate tool. That is, can the use of force achieve the desired objective?  This is a point that is often lost or ignored by political leadership in many countries.

The Clausewitzean notion that rue generalship is the ability to impose your will on your enemy is discussed at length.  More importantly, he discusses how that concept has been applied in the era of non-state, non-centralized warfare in which we now find ourselves.  He correctly points out that decapitating the supposed leadership of what we think of as insurgent groups does not have a very stellar record as there seems to be an endless supply of leaders waiting in the wings when one leader gets killed or captured.  The resilience of non-state, non-centralized groups is one of their defining characteristics.

His discussion of the Darwinian nature of modern combat is revealing.  I remember having the same discussion among the NCOs and Officers of my Cavalry Troop in 2004-2005.  As we killed or captured insurgents the ones who remained got ever more competent and able to pull off their operations better.  The end result of such Darwinian, endless war is the creation of groups such as IS/ISIS/ISIL composed of men who have been trained by surviving the best we could throw at them.  They are a hard core of survivors and that much more capable and dangerous because of it.  I am reminded of the phenomenon that occurred in the World Wars where veteran units could accomplish missions that fresh units half their size could not because the men in those veteran units were the hard core of soldiers who just did not quit and had learned how to survive in the crucible of combat.

Lastly, Smith has a very useful discussion in his conclusion about how force should be used.  This is probably the only part of the book that is prescriptive in nature.  I agree with most of this and disagree with parts. Mainly I disagree with how thinks we should deal with the media.  Personally, I think the media should be treated as potential enemies and barred from the area of active operations.  I realize that is not really feasible though and some method of managing the media must be devised.  I suppose Smith’s prescription is as good as anybody else’s since it involves making certain the media understands what the military is doing and providing the context of military operations. More important is his discussion and prescription for deciding when, where, and how force should be used and why it is vitally important that all decision makers be on the same page.  Perhaps most vitally, he is correct in pointing out that an inflexible strategic end-state must be decided upon before force is used because an incoherent strategy leads to incoherent operations.  More importantly, flexible strategic goals almost ensure ultimate mission failure by precluding the proper planning and execution of military operations because it leaves commanders in the dark as to what their purpose really is.

This is an outstanding treatise on the use of military force in the modern world.  I may not agree completely that paradigm of warfare has shifted but Smith has undoubtedly correctly diagnosed why military interventions since World War II have been at best costly successes and more often even costlier failures.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in contemporary military theory.  Smith’s book is hopefully the opening of a conversation among generals and policymakers about the utility of using force in the modern world.


Reading and Military Service

There is an interesting piece on recently about basic training and encouraging new soldiers to read.  I read, and read a lot, and have always tried to encourage others to read, not only my fellow soldiers when I was in the Army, but people in general.

I find that the idea of having a reading list and free copies of said books available to basic trainees to read in their less-than-copious free time is an awesome idea and I am chagrined that I did not do it when I was a Drill Sergeant at Fort Knox many years ago.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the titles on the list, I would remove some and add a few others, mot notably Storm of Steel, The Face of Battle, and Helmet for My Pillow.  That being said, the idea is an excellent one and I would hope the Army would pick up on it and actually sponsor it so that Drill Sergeants do not have to finance such a worthy idea themselves.

The original article is linked below.  KNUCKLE-DRAGGERS NEED TO READ TOO: