Tag Archives: France

Happy Veterans Day

Veterans Day POster

Today is Veteran’s Day in the US and Armistice Day in Britain and France. It is a day to remember the end of the fighting in World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. It is also the day set aside in the US to remember all veterans, not just those of World War I but also those that served in our nation’s other wars and those that served during peacetime. It takes something special to serve your country and a little bit more to do so voluntarily. There is always the possibility of going to war and giving your life for your country while in the military. I hope that everyone takes a moment today and remembers the sacrifices of all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who have served and fought for the United States. If you meet a vet today, shake his hand and thank him for his service. Remember, less than 1% of the US public serves, yet they do so to protect that other 99%.

US Department of Veterans Affairs site about Veterans Day

Battle Analysis-Sedan, 1870

The Battle of Sedan, fought on 1 September 1870 displayed the superiority the Prussian Army had attained over the French in the nearly sixty years since their devastating defeat at Jena in the Napoleonic wars. The battle was notable for several developments in warfare, which were showcased by the Prussian and French army’s different abilities to effectively utilize the new technologies and methods existing. The most dominant military technologies of the time were railroads, repeating rifles, and modern cannon.

Map of Battle of Sedan - Image Courtesy: http://www.marxists.org/glossary/events/f/pics/sedan.gif

While the French had at their disposal the Chassepot rifle which was superior to the Prussian needle-gun, their artillery was inferior in both quantity and quality to the Krupp guns deployed by the Prussians. The Prussians made superior use of the railroad in the deployment of their armies but that had little to do with their successful encirclement of the French army at Sedan, as the Prussians had largely been road bound and foot marching since crossing the French frontier at the beginning of August. The French failures of command and poor planning prevented them from retreating from Sedan thus forcing them to stand and fight the numerically superior Prussian army.

The Germans under Moltke proved to be energetic in their attacks and ruthless in the use of their superior artillery to bottle up the French and prevent their movements within the Sedan pocket. As the German armies approached Sedan, Moltke ordered his corps to probe the French and begin to march to encircle the French in the city. The Prussian armies quickly attacked to force crossings of the Meuse at Bazailles and Donchery. After the Prussians forced the crossing of the Meuse on 31 August, they moved rapidly to complete the encirclement of the French Army of Chalons and by that evening, the French were surrounded.

Like many battles of the war, the Prussians joined battle on the next morning not through any plan but through the actions of a lone commander acting on his initiative. At around 0430 on the first, the I Bavarian Corps mounted an attack to retake the bridge at Bazailes. As the Saxons moved up on the Bavarians flank in the early morning, they emplaced their artillery and began to attack also. The engagement rapidly spread from there to become a general attack on the surrounded French Army.

The Prussians made excellent use of their artillery to force the French to halt movement within the pocket. The effectiveness of Prussian artillery was a foretaste of what modern quick-firing artillery could accomplish. The Prussian army continued to make frontal infantry assaults even in the face of the tremendous casualties inflicted by the French using their superior rifles. The Prussians could have just as easily dominated the pocket with their artillery and thus saved themselves many of the 9,000 casualties they suffered during the battle.

Strategically the Battle of Sedan was a masterstroke for the Prussians as it removed the last trained French field army from the war. There were operational errors committed by Prussian generals who ignored or imperfectly followed orders but overall The Elder Moltke was shown to have a superior grasp of strategy than his French opponents. The major errors on the part of the Prussians were in their tactical use of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. They suffered needless casualties by not using their larger gun-line equipped with superior weapons to dominate the French before committing their infantry to battle. They were saved by their larger numbers and the yeoman’s effort put forth by the better-trained gunners of the Prussian army.

The battle could have been won more cheaply if Moltke had had better control of his subordinates and thus better control of the timing for beginning the battle, the impulsiveness of the Prussians cost them needless lives. The Prussian army did not use true combined arms tactics but with a larger and more disciplined army, their mistakes were not as detrimental to success as were the mistakes of the French.

The Fronts of World War I in 1917 & 1918

The tactical and strategic situation at the beginning of 1917 was little changed from that at the beginning of 1916.  All that the offensives on the Western Front had managed to accomplish the previous year were minor changes in the trace of the trenches and massive loss of life.  Both the British and French planned further offensives in the west during the years but events would intervene to ensure that only the British committed themselves to large-scale offensives on the Western Front in 1917.

The spring and summer saw the French army undergo a crisis of confidence that has come to be known as the French mutinies, thought they were not mutinies, as the term is generally understood.  After the abortive assault on the Chemin des Dames ridge in April 1917, a large part of the French army refused to go on the offensive.  Although the mutineers continually made it plain that they would defend, what they would not do, was attack.

German shell bursting between advancing French troops: Image Courtesy www.firstworldwar.com

Keegan theorizes that at that point in the war the infantry collectively decided their chances of survival were less than even and that this precipitated the mutinies.[1] This theory holds that French had suffered as many dead in battle as their pre-war infantry strength and somehow the infantry sensed this, it led to their refusal to fight.  This glosses over many of the grievances the French infantry had, which included the pay, rations, and leave policy of the French army.  These last reasons are enough on their own to account for the low French morale; there are numerous examples of sacrifice in history, but few examples of an army that subsisted entirely on horrible rations or low pay with little chance of leave.  Even Alexander the Great’s army finally demanded to return home after an unbroken string of victories and the carving of an empire, the French army of 1917 hardly had a string of victories to show for its exertions.

The British however, did launch a series of attacks on the Western front during the year, at Arras, Messines Ridge, and a major effort in Flanders, the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.  The British attacks were launched largely because General Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had the feeling that while the French would not fight, something must be done.  This led to the launching of Third Ypres between June and August 1917.  This attack was designed to sweep all the way to the channel coast and liberate a large parcel of Belgian territory south of Brussels.  Passchendaele ended in failure, with the British suffering 70,000 dead and 170,000 wounded for marginal gains in the Ypres salient.

The year of 1917 would be one of crisis for the Allies, not only did the French suffer a moral collapse, but the Italians and Russians experienced their own crises as well.  The Russian collapse began in the rear of the armies and spread forward.  In late February 1917, the civilians in Petrograd rioted due to food shortages and the Petrograd garrison refused to put down the demonstrations.  The people set themselves up in local councils or Soviets, under many different political groups among them the radical Marxist Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, who agitated for an end to the monarchy.  The Tsar abdicated on 2 March and his handpicked successor refused the crown while the Duma refused to accept the Tsarevitch thus leaving Russia without a head of state.[2]

A leader of the Provisional Government emerged in the person of Alexander Kerensky who attempted to continue the war.  Kerensky launched an offensive in June but it failed and the army rapidly began to disintegrate in the face of German and Austrian counter-attacks.  Kerensky barely managed to suppress a revolt at Petrograd in July but his days were numbered, as the political currents in the country were unpredictable.  Throughout the summer, the Bolsheviks were constantly working to undermine the Provisional Government and planning a revolution of their own.

In September, the Bolsheviks made their bid for power and the country descended into chaos.  Initially they were successful with Bolshevik units using the nation’s rail network to rapidly gain control of Russian population centers.  Simultaneously, the Russians declared an armistice and began to negotiate with the Germans at the fortress town of Brest-Litovsk in Poland for an end to hostilities.  The Germans presented their demands and set a time limit and when the Russians prevaricated, the Germans attacked all along the front in February 1918, and in a panic the Bolsheviks let the Germans dictate terms and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918, ceding a huge amount of Russian territory in return for peace.[3] The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended Russia’s role in the First World War, though the Russian Civil War would drag on until the 1920’s.

The collapse of the Italian army was of a different nature entirely than that of either the French or the Russian armies.  The Italians had been pounding along the Isonzo front in the Alps since 1915, mounting 12 offensives, an average of one every three months for the gain of only sixty miles.[4] The Italians had driven up the valley floor but failed to adequately secure the peaks on their flanks.  There was also a systemic failure and societal failure in the Italian army; the officers were mainly northern Italians, while the lower ranks and especially the infantry were largely made up of poor peasants from the agricultural south.  This, along with the draconian discipline imposed on the peasant infantry, made for poor cohesion in the Italian army.

The German and Austrian armies attacked at Caporetto on 25 October 1917, and rapidly achieved a breakthrough.  The Italian units in the front lines cracked by the third day and what had been a retreat quickly turned into a rout.  Entire units surrendered enmasse to the advancing Austrian and German troops.  The Italian retreat did not end until 3 November, when they reached the river Piave, a distance of eighty miles from their initial positions.[5]

The year was not all bad for the allies though as 1917 was the year in which America entered the war on the Allied side.  America had maintained a policy of neutrality despite several provocations, including the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915, after which the Germans ceased unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman affair with Mexico.  The final straw that ended American neutrality was the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, the U.S. formally declared war with Germany on 6 April 1917.  The Germans had calculated that they could bring England to the brink of starvation and end the war before the American presence made itself felt on the continent, unfortunately for them, they were wrong.  Soon after declaring war the Americans began shipping soldiers to France and enacted universal conscription, 318,000 American troops had arrived by March 1918 in Europe without the loss of a single soldier while crossing the Atlantic.[6] The American Army would not become a decisive factor until later in 1918, though individual American units were used in stopping the German offensives in the spring of 1918.

The Germans had hoped to starve the English out of the war, but with the intervention of America and the addition of her navy, transatlantic shipping was finally rationalized and a convoy system was worked out which prevented a collapse on the English home front.  After the failure of the submarine offensive, the Germans once again turned to their army.  The fall of Russia had released almost a million veteran troops for use in the West.  Ludendorff planned a great spring offensive to cut the British off in Flanders and finally rupture the front separating Britain from her allies.

The first German offensive opened in March 1918, and caused a crisis at the front, the allies retreated over forty miles, and the Germans were only seventy-five miles from Paris when they were stopped.  Ludendorff tried several more assaults that were tactically successful, but failed to break the front.  After the final offensive in July, all the Germans had managed to accomplish was the loss of over 1,000,000 irreplaceable casualties, and extension of the German lines, which stretched the army thin in trying to defend.

The allies counterattacked in August and were spectacularly successful, driving the Germans all the way back to the start line of the spring offensives and beyond.  In October, a new civilian government was formed to seek an armistice and the Kaiser abdicated on 9 November and went into exile in Holland.  The allied attacks continued and they were within fifty miles of the German border when the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.  The First World War was over but its effects would be felt for the next 30 years and the problems it created would cause a new, more destructive war, while some of the problems remain unresolved to the present.

[1] Keegan, John, The First World War, pp. 329-332

[2] Ibid, p. 336

[3] Ibid, p. 342

[4] Ibid. pp. 344-345

[5] Ibid, p. 349

[6] Ibid, p. 372

Medieval Armor was heavy; Is this a Surprise?

I ran across this article on discovery news today: Heavy Armor Led to French Knights’ Loss.The article immediately irritated me. Perhaps it was the way the article was written or perhaps it was the content of the interviews with the guys who did the study. The gist of the story is that some English researchers had some medieval reenactor volunteers don period medieval armor and do various exercises on a treadmill while their various bodily functions were measured such as breathing, heart rate, etc. The article makes out as if it is a surprise that one, medieval suits of plate mail were heavy and two, that knights tire rapidly while walking in them. Does not common sense say that both things are true? Anyone who has ever had to carry a heavy backpack knows that carrying something heavy tires you out faster. That medieval plat armor was heavy is not a new discovery either. Keegan points this out in The Face of Battle and it is widely remarked in many books on medieval warfare.

This is the standout quote from the article for me:

“Together with numbers and condition of soldiers, equipment availability, battle strategy, and terrain, the high energetic cost of movement in armor could have contributed to the outcome of medieval battles,” the researchers concluded.”

Those are the concluding lines from the article. All I could say to that was wow.

I suppose it is good to have experimental confirmation of inductive reasoning but I have to wonder if this knowledge or proof actually changes the conclusions of the reasons for victory and defeat in medieval battles. I cannot think of any off the top of my head where fatigue would have played a part that it is not already accounted for in the standard analysis of the battle including at the Battle of Agincourt. I have to wonder about what is the usefulness of this “new” knowledge then?

Germany’s Current Strategic Position

At the present time, Germany is in a strategic position unparalleled in its history.  The German state shares no borders with any potential enemies in the near future.  Historically Germany has had to contend with one or more enemies sharing contiguous borders with it and rarely has Germany been able to count on outside help in combating these enemies.  As a continental as opposed to maritime power this situation is unprecedented for Germany with her short coastline and long land borders.  Historically Germany has always shared a border with at least one enemy whether at peace with them or not.

The list of historical enemies is short, Poland, Russia, and France, but these enemies have long historical grievances that have not all been completely resolved.  There are other more recent enemies, the Czech and Slovak republics, Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark for starters.  All these countries were occupied or partially occupied by Germany little more than sixty years ago.  The occupation and tyranny of the Nazis is not forgotten and is not soon to be forgotten; it is a constant bargaining chip used by these countries when disputes arise with Germany.

Poland currently occupies the former East Prussia, even though most of the ethnic Germans were expelled after World War II the fact remains that there are many families in Germany that lost property at the end of the war.  Some of the lost properties had been in families for centuries and it is unrealistic to think that some of these families do not want their lands returned.  The repeated German recognition of the Oder-Neisse Line as being the German frontier seems to have gone far to quell polish suspicions that a unified Germany wants a return of the lands of East Prussia.  The Russian retention of Historical Konigsberg is a potential source of friction tough.

Russia has been a historical enemy as far back as the Middle Ages when both Germans and Russians contended for control of the Baltic coast.  More recently, Russia has been invaded twice in the last hundred years by German armies.  In World War II, the Russians were within a hairsbreadth of defeat before they managed to stop the Germans before Moscow in 1941.  Even then, the war in the East was not decided until the German defeat at Berlin in 1945.

The French are traditional enemies of Germany, both countries have contended for control of the ethnically mixed provinces of Alsace and Lorraine as well as struggling for dominance in Europe since the rise of Prussia.  These two provinces have changed hands repeatedly, most recently at the end of World War II when they were returned to France.

Since the end of World War II, Germany has reentered the community of nations in Europe and has become allies with many of its former enemies.  How deep these ties of alliance are was shown in the early 1990’s when West Germany sought union with East Germany, which had been under communist domination since the end of the war.  Although there was some talk of a resurgent Germany and perhaps a resurrection of their former continental aspirations that fear has so far proved groundless.

However, while Germany has no immediate military enemies, historical grievances have a way of returning as the Balkan wars of the 1990’s show.  Ancient hatreds do not just go away and Germany’s wars of conquest in the last century will remain near the surface of contemporary thought for the foreseeable future.  Germany is certainly vulnerable in other areas than strictly military conflict and actions against these interests could conceivably lead to military action on Germany’s part though Germany is unlikely to initiate conflict on their own.

Perhaps Germany’s largest vulnerability in the short-term is its economic position, particularly with respect to energy supply.  Germany imports over 97% of the fuel required to fulfill its energy needs and Russia is by far the largest supplier of fossil fuels to Germany.  Germany imports almost ten times as much from Russia as from Saudi Arabia.  Historically Russia has been an enemy of Germany, in fact; the last two major wars Germany fought were against Russia.  German weakness in this area was shown in the winter of 2008-2009 when Russia cut of the supply of natural gas to the Ukraine and most of western Europe imperiling heating supplies and causing deaths in some countries such as Bulgaria and Romania.  Germany had enough stockpiles to last the winter but a prolonged dispute would have highlighted how dependent Germany and the rest of Western Europe is on Russia for energy supplies.

With German opposition to the Iranian Nuclear program and Russian support of their nuclear ambitions, Germany is certainly vulnerable to Russian pressure given their reliance on Russia for energy supplies.  Russia is also suspicious of NATO’s enlargement in Eastern Europe and the fact that Germany is a founding member of NATO puts them at risk if Russia chooses the military option to resolve their dispute with NATO if diplomacy fails.

The Baltic Sea lanes and its associated trade routes are another area of potential conflict for Germany.  Germany, with its advanced economy and industrial edge is a major trading partner with the Baltic States and has an interest in seeing free trade in the region.  The Baltic port of St. Petersburg is one of Russia’s few seaports that are south of the Arctic Circle and it is thus a vital link in Russian foreign trade.  Germany has the potential to close this route to Russia in any future conflict as they did during World War II

Given the current political situation in the world and Germans support for the United States’ global war on terrorism, lukewarm though it has been, Germany certainly faces threats from Islamic terrorism along with the rest of Western Europe.  While terrorism is a potential threat that cannot truly be evaluated, world events in the past twenty years have shown that it is not going away and is a threat that must be dealt with.  This is not a threat Germany faces alone though.

As stated before, Germany is currently in one of the best strategic positions it could be in.  It seems that all territorial disputes with Germany’s neighbors are settled though they could arise in the future again.  Germany along with all her neighbors are members of NATO and pledged to each other’s defense.  As a member of the EU Germany has staked its future on those of its neighbors and has committed to ever-greater integration in Europe.  Whether this arrangement will work as Germany and others hope remain to be seen, so far the EU seems to be a success, but the EU, like NATO has never faced a serious challenge, one that threatens its very existence.  Germany seems to be poised for future peace and prosperity; however, old enmities could arise at any time and destroy these alliances.  It remains to be seen whether Germany will continue down the path to greater success and security that she currently seems to be going down.  With Germany’s recent history her strategic position looks to only be enhanced, not degraded in the near future.