Tag Archives: Tactics

Book Review: Battle Tactics of the Western Front by Paddy Griffith

Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army`s Art of Attack, 1916-18 by Paddy Griffith is a very interesting book. The premise is that despite what many historians have said about the inertia of the British Army in WWI and it’s resistance to tactical change, that is not true and the British were committed to innovation throughout the war in an effort to break the deadlock of the trenches.

The book itself is not long, 219 pages of text including appendices. There are extensive endnotes and the bibliography is fairly extensive as well. The book is organized topically and though it purports to only deal with the developments of the last two years of the war that is not strictly true. It is divided into 4 parts and with 11 chapters and 3 appendices.

The 4 parts cover an extended introduction, infantry, heavy weapons, and the conclusion. Of particular note to me was his appendix decrying the lack of battle history in recent scholarship in preference for social military histories. That is a topic that speaks volumes to me.

His analysis of the evolution of infantry tactics during the war is incisive and he is wholly correct in saying that the infantry and their commanders were not the static cannon fodder often portrayed in the history books. I particularly found his discussion of the actual impact that machine guns, artillery, and tanks had on battlefield success interesting. He correctly stresses that despite the claimed effects of these wonder weapons, particularly the tank, they were not the war winning weapons that most histories paint them to be. While the tank is dramatic, it played a decidedly secondary role in WWI. Any good history of the methods that won the war should instead focus on the role of artillery and infantry because it is that combination that developed and executed the ground warfare tactics that led to victory and the breaking of the trench stalemate.

This is an interesting study and while it is by no means the final word on WWI tactics, it is a breath of fresh air into a topic that many historians have considered closed for many years. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is dissatisfied with current WWI tactical historical interpretations.

Update on SFC Walter Taylor

Saw this update on SFC Taylor’s case yesterday and decided to add it to my page as well.  From the LA Times: Court-martial decision postponed for soldier in Afghan shooting.  His Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a Grand Jury, was held last week and now the case in in the hands of the reviewing officer.  She will review the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing and then make a recommendation to Taylor’s Brigade commander who will endorse that recommendation or not and then send it to the JMTC commander in Graf who is the General Court Martial Convening Authority.  The JMTC commander makes the final decision on whether this case should go to trial or if Taylor should face, a lesser Court Martial, administrative punishment, or even no further action.

All that being said, I would guess that at a minimum Taylor faces a Special Court Martial, probably a Special BCD.  The nature of what has been reported so far makes it clear that Taylor is being prosecute as an example to others.  Whether that is good military policy is besides the point, the army does stuff like this sometimes.  I will say that in my experience, if it does go to a Court Martial Taylor will get a fairer hearing than he would in a civilian court.  His CM Panel, the military version of a jury, will consist of people his grade or higher both officer and enlisted if he opts that, and he would be stupid not to.  The panel are people that understand the military and the pressures in combat.

I have no worries that if it goes to trial he will win.  The problem I have is that even if he wins, his career is now damaged because of the massive publicity surrounding the case.  That is something he cannot get away from.  It will also haunt him as he goes in front of a selection board for promotion.  The perception could be that he hurt the army and he could therefor later be denied promotion or even selected for elimination and the case could have nothing overt to do with it but it will always be there.  The army is a small place and institutional memory is long, especially about people who are perceived as tarnishing the Army Reputation.

Book Review: The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle by Michael Stephenson

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

Michael Stephenson’s work The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle follows somewhat in the tradition of classics such a Keegan’s The Face of Battle and Victor David Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Where it differs from these two works as that while Keegan and Hanson focus on specific battles or time periods this book aims to be a more general description of the experience of combat throughout recorded history.  In that, the book is amazingly successful.  The author has produced a volume that does the job of bringing home te reality of warfare to those who have never experienced it.  What I finds even more refreshing is that he does without weighing the book down with moral judgements on the rightness or wrongness of war itself, instead he accepts the objective reality that war happens and goes about the business of explaining what it is like.

It is written in an easy free-flowing style that is almost a pleasure to read and the text is organized in such a way that it is also compelling to read.  I found myself making excuses to my wife to keep reading to the end of the chapter before I did something else.  The descriptions of combat and death, ultimately this book is about violent death, ring true.  I was struck in particular by the realism of the combat descriptions in the section on the Iraq war.  On page 361 he talks about the US Marines “Pine Box Rule” in which if someone has to go home in a pine box, it is not going to be Marines. In my own experience in Iraq in 2004 my unit had a similar rule except we called it doing the “Death Blossom” when we came under enemy fire.  If his descriptions of combat and death hold as true to reality throughout the rest of the book as they do for modern war, and I have no reason, to think they don’t, then Mr. Stephenson has produced what should be an instant classic.  It should also make its way to the official reading lists of all the services, especially the US Army and Marines.

At 406 pages of text the book is not too long for the interested layman and includes an index, extensive notes, and a truly impressive bibliography that together amount to 54 pages alone.  The book is organized into eight thematic, chronological chapters that cover warfare from the Ancient World to the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an appendix discussing the state of military medicine through time.  The only very minor criticism I could have for this book is that it is Western Centric in focus, that is true of much western scholarship though  and this book makes no claim to universal history.

As a combat veteran myself, I have said for years in private conversation and on some public forums that no one who has not been in combat can possibly grasp what it is like, this work goes a long way to roving me wrong.  Michael Stephenson comes as close to describing the reality of combat as I have ever read from a non-combat vet.  This objective and fair description of death in battle should be on the shelf of every military historian, whether they are a veteran or not.  Anyone who wants to know what combat is like without putting their own skin on the line should read this book.  If nothing else, they will gain a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who don the uniform of their country and go forth to do battle.  This is a good description of what George Orwell’s “rough men” go through to allow their countrymen to sleep safe at home.An outstanding book that is sure to remain the standard in its niche for years to come.

 

A Travesty Calling for Action

In today’s edition of Stars and Stripes and the LA Times is an article about a combat engineer facing charges for actions he took in combat in Afghanistan last year.  The gist of the story is that the soldier involved shot an unarmed female in the middle of a firefight who was moving towards the rear of her vehicle.  The description of the incident from the article is here:

His convoy was reeling from a roadside bomb, his fellow soldiers were engaged in combat with insurgents and a mysterious black car had just screeched to a stop in the middle of the firefight. Some nine minutes later, a black door opens.
Second 1: A figure dressed in dark, bulky clothing emerges.
Second 2: The figure begins walking toward the trunk.
Second 3: Taylor, with five wounded comrades behind him, sees a thin trigger wire seeming to snake directly toward the black car. Could there be a second bomb in the trunk?
Second 4: Taylor squeezes the trigger on his M-4 carbine. The figure crumples to the dirt.
The figure was not an insurgent, but Dr. Aqilah Hikmat, a 49-year-old mother of four who headed the obstetrics department at the nearby Ghazni provincial hospital. Also dead inside the car were Hikmat’s 18-year-old son and her 16-year-old niece. Hikmat’s husband, in the front seat, was wounded.

SFC Taylor now faces charges of negligent homicide in the woman’s death.  If the facts as presented in the article are correct then I got out of the army just in time.  This is an example of the worst kind of second guessing of combat decisions.  Prosecutions such as this are likely to lead to more of our soldiers hesitating in combat and will probably lead to more GIs getting killed because of hesitation in combat.  It would be one thing if he had just shot the woman out of hand but to prosecute him for a combat decision is unconscionable, something I never thought I would see coming out of the US military.  Apparently I was wrong, the forces of idiocy are getting stronger every day.  Policies like this will go far towards making the US military just as toothless as are most European militaries.

Being a combat vet myself I think it is a crying shame that they are making an example out of SFC Taylor.  Based on the circumstances in the article, I would have killed her too.  The bottom line is that in the middle of a firefight you don’t always have the luxury of waiting to find out if someone is hostile or not.  If she had a weapon, should he wait until she starts firing before engaging, I think not.  He made the right cal and now he is getting the shaft.  Shame on the Army for even bringing charges.

Hopefully the panel at his court-martial sees sense and rightfully acquits him.  Something like this just calls out for our support of the soldier.  I highly encourage everybody reading this article to write the secretary of the Army directly and protest this armchair quarterbacking of a combat leaders decision made in the heat of battle.

The Honorable John McHugh
Secretary of the Army
101 Army Pentagon
Washington, DC 20310-0101

 

Book Review: Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe by Steven D. Mercatante

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

At first glance Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe is another of the rehashing’s of WWII in the East and West that have become so popular since the fall of communism in the 1990’s and the opening of previously closed Russian archives.  That first glance would be wrong.  Steven Mercatante has produced a very well written history of the war in the East that goes to the heart of why the Eastern Front is so important to World War II historiography. This reviewer has some issues with the work but overall it is an exhaustively researched book that presents an intriguing point of view.

The details first.  The book is fairly long at 408 pages and includes a fairly extensive bibliography although it appears that only secondary sources were used which disappoints me somewhat.  It is broken down into three parts which essentially cover Germany before the war, the war until D-Day, and the war after D-Day.  The book includes copious footnotes throughout that this reviewer, for one, appreciates.  The author has also posted a very extensive bibliography online at his personal website  Globe at War. The chapters flow logically from one to the other and are ordered chronologically making it easier to follow the progress of the war.

The book is written fairly well if a little overexcited at times.  I found the book difficult to read as the narrative was a little too breathless for my taste.  I would say that if every third adjective were removed the text would be much clearer and easier to read.  There is extensive use of hyperbole and the author brings the point up again and again of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, often it seems only because he can, not because it contributes to the narrative.  I find it difficult to believe that any reasonably informed individual can be unaware of the Holocaust and it is redundant to continually pound the point home.  This is somewhat of a stylistic complaint though and if these instances can be ignored he does bring out some salient points. Those complaints aside, it is clear that the author has an almost encyclopedic grasp of the history of the war.  That is clear from the depth of his knowledge on the war’s conduct.  It is obvious that some deep research went into the preparation of the work.

Mr. Mercatante seems to be trying to claim that Germany could have won if Hitler had gone after strategic economic goals rather than attempting to annihilate the armies of his opponents.  His main argument is that the quality of the German army trumped the quantity of his opponents and he squandered his advantages by not solidifying Germany’s economic position in Europe soon enough, which allowed his enemies to improve the quality of their own militaries.  I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that thesis.

One of the points Mercatante makes again and again, which he seems to think supports his thesis, is the massive amount of punishment the Red Army continually took throughout the war and indeed, right up until the last days.  Total Soviet losses during the war amounted to roughly 29 million dead, wounded, and missing compared to Wehrmacht losses of roughly 14.5 million including their Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian Allies.  The Soviets lost approximately 14 times their pre-war strength during the course of the conflict while the Germans lost 4 times theirs.  Much is also made of production numbers for tanks, aircraft, and artillery/mortars.  Again, once the Soviets recovered from the evacuation of the Donetz Basin factories to the Urals in 1942 they out produced the Germans and had the additional advantage of copious Lend-Lease aid from the Western Allies.  It is the disparity in both human and machine capital and the consequent scale of losses on both sides that make the brute force argument for why Germany lost so appealing.  It is simple to make thew argument that German troops were qualitatively superior to their opponents and it is also true.  It is also true that despite this qualitative superiority, the Germans were never able to kill, wound, or capture enough of their enemy’s soldiers to drive them from the war.  Thus size was a deciding factor in the war’s outcome.  Not just size of the combat theater, but also size of the material and human resources available for the combatants to draw upon.

There is no doubt that the Germans were tactically and operationally superior to the Soviets almost throughout the war.  There is also no doubt that German equipment was generally of higher quality with some tank models being notable exceptions.  What is equally remarkable is that even when the Germans were equipped with inferior tanks, they still managed to inflict an uneven casualty ratio on the Soviets because of their tactical acumen.  This tactical superiority does not mean the Germans could have won.  The sheer vastness of the Eastern Front coupled with the seeming inexhaustibility of the Russian Armies meant that the Germans were indeed swallowed in Russia.

Mercatante rightly points out that the harshness of German occupation policy added up to a net minus in German combat efficiency by requiring the deployment of some German units behind the front.  This is especially so in the Ukraine where the Germans were initially greeted as liberators.  There are also several decision points that could be argued the Germans chose poorly.  Mercatante posits that the Germans should have sought to carve southern Russia away from the Soviets so that it could be exploited economically.  His contention is that the Northern portion of the front could have been held while southern Russia was consolidated giving Germany economic mastery that they could translate into physical and military dominance.

There are several factual errors in the book but two in particular that jumped out at me.  The first  error I noticed does not concern World War II except peripherally and it is his contention that Germany had an AFV program in World War I.  While that is strictly true, Germany did build twelve tanks during the war, they did not do so with any seriousness instead concentrating on infantry/artillery training and doctrine to break the stalemate of trench warfare.  The German tank program of WWI was a footnote rather than a building block for the future German development of armored doctrine.  Lastly, and this speaks to the effectiveness of German tanks in WWII.  In his conclusion he mentions that the Panther Ausf. D had an underpowered final drive.  The recently retired soldier in me that spent over twenty years on armored vehicles was left scratching his head wondering what an underpowered final drive is.  The final drive of a tank or AFV is the part that physically turns the track assembly.  It has no organic power, it is the mechanism by which the power from the engine is applied to the tracks through the transmission.  I think he meant that the final drive was poorly or even over-engineered leading to overheating and sheared drive sprocket teeth.  However, someone with little to no knowledge of AFVs might draw a different conclusion.  Problems like these were not uncommon with German tanks, which had more complex designs than did either Russian or American tanks.

In all, Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe is  an intriguing book and worth reading for the detailed description of the various campaigns of the war.  This reviewer has not read such a good campaign history in a long time and that alone was refreshing.  The thesis that the Germans almost won interesting and worth discussing.  In my opinion, Mercatante did not make his case but the individual reader should decide for himself.  I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this work on the merits of its thesis.  That being said, as an operational and strategic level history, the book is almost unmatched and that alone makes it a worthwhile purchase.

 

Given that this is the first somewhat negative review I have written and I like just about every history book I read, I gave the author the opportunity to rebut my review.  I have adjusted my review somewhat in response to his comments but my recommendation remains the same.  His rebuttal is below:

Patrick,
Thank you for the thoughtful review. I am flattered by the kind things you had to say about my work – particularly that it contributes to the scholarship on this subject as that was one of my primary goals in writing the book. In addition, thank you for the opportunity to respond. In deference to your much appreciated time I will keep my response brief.
First, it is quite alright that you do not agree with my conclusions as I welcome a healthy debate. In fact, that would be the one thing I would like to see more in your review in lieu of two issues you spend some time upon.
The first such issue, and my only real criticism with the review, is the time spent on discussing minor technical/factual errors that are not really germane to my thesis. There is no question that all errors should be expunged from the work, and sometimes it is the minor one’s that are so galling in that they undermine the credibility of the author. Unfortunately, ABC-CLIO (Praeger’s parent company) has refused to allow me to make such changes as they consider it not worth the expense (they would not even let me remove the title Field Marshal from Milch’s name when I was discussing his mid-1930’s era work in building up the Luftwaffe – as he was not as of that time a Field Marshal in rank so obviously I would love to excise that little oversight right out!). This is even more frustrating in as much as the first print run was small and I prepared a list of errors that I had found in the text that had escaped the initial review process – all in hopes that they would be corrected for the second print run. Instead, and with ABC-CLIO’s current stance, a well-scrubbed and hopefully error free edition of the book won’t be available until the UK publisher that just bought the rights to publish the book in the UK releases its hardcover version later this fall (as they were thrilled to see the more thoroughly edited version I had prepared following my first print run). Ironically, I know of several other authors who have battled the same process (including Robert Kirchubel who had similar problems with Osprey – though they allowed corrections for follow up print runs – and it seems that in general if an author does not get an entirely clean copy right the first time that the resources are not there for a second try; a whole another issue regarding the ever exciting publishing world). It is likely that you have run into similar issues with works you have published, and that most other historians who have published extensively will recognize these issues – hence their relatively minor status.
Accordingly, and though the majority of your readers are likely non-historians, I feel that the parts of your review where you debate the actual merits of my thesis are far more interesting. For instance, perhaps you could replace the paragraph spent on such errors with a more in-depth discussion regarding why you feel the war’s quantitative factors, such as your reference to the “the seeming inexhaustibility of the Russian Armies” was more determinative in deciding the war than the qualitative elements I focus upon. There are no doubt readers who think I have built a persuasive argument (as evidenced by the reader reviews posted on Amazon.com’s US site – no less the endorsements from the professional historians who state as such). On the other hand, there are readers who disagree and think that brute force won the war. You seem to side more with the brute force side and by expunging the minor quibbles with my book so that you can develop your brute force position further I think you build a stronger review for your own readers (some of whom may fall on one side, while others take the opposite position, and others yet remain undecided and are open to argument).
Finally, my only other criticism would be in response to this point you make: “There is extensive use of hyperbole and the author brings the point up again and again of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, often it seems only because he cannot because it contributes to the narrative.  This is somewhat of a stylistic complaint though and if these instances can be ignored he does bring out some salient points.” I am not sure what you mean by this. However, my use of the word “criminal” or other such phrases to assist in describing various German military leaders is important and I think helps contribute to the scholarship on the war. This is for a number of reasons. One, is that the men whom I describe as “criminals” were just that – convicted as war criminals for their actions during the war. Thus, we lose something when we don’t point out this fact and only focus on their attributes. For instance, Manstein is an operational genius, almost nobody would dispute this, and few ever do. Instead this genius is often what is focused upon while ignoring the fact that, for example, during his command of the German 11th Army some of the war’s most heinous war crimes were committed either by his men or facilitated by his men in support of the local Einsatzgruppen and their ilk. Both Manstein’s leadership in the field and what happened behind the lines are germane to a complete understanding of the man, the Wehrmacht, and the regime whose crimes the Wehrmacht at best enabled and at worst participated in on a regular basis. But this may still not answer why it is important for me to remind the reader that for all their accolades many of Germany’s top military leaders were morally suspect at best. To that point I make the effort to better link the holocaust and military operations not only because the quest for Lebensraum driving Barbarossa was inherently genocidal in intent (and therefore that it is historically accurate to link the two), but because all too often casual WWII enthusiasts are not exposed to the horrific crimes of the Third Reich. Instead they read about, or look at pictures of, the cool-looking supposedly technically superior German equipment, or are entranced by the romantic notion of a brave band of men fighting to their death against hordes of enemy soldiers (as is so often the presentation of the Germans vs. Soviets), and take these ideas with them as they play their computer or board war games, build their models, and consume their WWII related media. As a result they end up romanticizing the Wehrmacht and that is something that I would very much like to see the casual military history enthusiast move away from. I hope you understand what I mean by all of this?
Once again, thank you for your time and the opportunity to respond. I hope my response was not too lengthy and has helped clarify some of the issues you were concerned about in your review – enough that you are able to more “wholeheartedly” recommend it? Otherwise I love engaging with “the other side of the hill” vis a vis the quantitative vs. qualitative adherents in explaining the Second World War’s outcome, and appreciate your intellectual honesty in granting the strength of my work where appropriate. After all it is debates such as these that continue to bring life to our understanding of what I consider to be the most important events in modern history.
All best,
Steven