Tag Archives: world war one

“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874 – 1932” by William Manchester

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First off an appropriate quote on the value of history from Winston himself: “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”

Listened to this book on CD – 32 of them if I remember correctly.  The narrator, Frederick Davidson, initially cracked me up but I ended up really enjoying him – British accent, and he gave all the “characters” different voices.  High pitched for the ladies, a whiny child’s voice for young Winston and a decent Churchill impression for his later years.  He even sang songs a capella when they were quoted in the text.

This monstrous book is undoubtedly a biography, but as Winston was inextricably tied up in the general history of the times it was also a pretty good history of the Victorian British Empire and on into World War One.  I was surprised to learn of the selfishness and neglect from both of Winston’s parents.  His mother was a flapper before it became popular, and his father despised him and seemed generally to be a disagreeable individual.  Winston was basically raised by his nanny, “Woom.”  Despite the neglect, his father was his hero and a life in politics, following in his father’s footsteps, was never a question for Winston.

Winston, nurtured by Macaulay and Gibbon, was a gifted writer from early on.  After graduating from Sandhurst, he became what we would today call a war correspondent.  Although a cavalry officer himself (and gifted polo player), he didn’t really care much for military life, but was fascinated by its potential to make him famous and therefore able to win elections.  He used his mother’s flirtatious connections with the rich and powerful to obtain opportunities to “be there” at various hot spots: Cuba (observer of Spain putting down a native rebellion), Afghanistan, Egypt/Sudan.  (One of his early postings was to India; when the ship was approaching the docks he wrenched his shoulder climbing an iron ring.  This gave him shoulder troubles the rest of his life.  He resolved to carry a pistol since he was not confident he could adequately wield a cavalry saber.  He says this unconventional decision to carry a pistol likely saved his life at Omdurman.)

During the Second Boer War, Winston was captured by the Boers but later escaped from prison camp alone, hopped a train and was eventually smuggled out to Portuguese Africa by British sympathizers.  On this adventure and in other battles he was always daring, fearless, and didn’t regard his own safety.  I got the impression of some calculated bravery on his part — he either thought he was invincible, or maybe was just fatalistic “if it happens, it happens” and chose to live the brave life because that was what would win votes.  Makes me think if he and other similar “war heros” were just lucky winners of survivor bias — I wonder how many others were like him, but not so lucky.

In politics, Winston was one-of-a-kind.  He started out with the Conservative party like his father, then opportunistically jumped to the Liberals.  Then when their star faded, he jumped back to the Conservatives.  “Anybody can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”  I don’t think he was ever really solid Conservative or Liberal; he was always just Winston.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston took the fall for Gallipoli, even though all agreed it was a good plan at the beginning.  It just suffered from a botched execution, starting with the Czar’s insistence on laying claim to Constantinople when allowing Greece to take it would have pulled them in to the Allied side, and continuing with the timidity of de Robeck and incompetence of Hamilton.  After being forced out of the Admiralty, Winston re-joined the army and spent five months commanding a battalion on Western Front.  Here he exhibited the same disregard for his personal safety as did before.

Winston presciently saw the potentials of new military technology.  He was an early proponent of airplanes; he even took flying lessons himself.  During the War he saw great benefit to the tank at breaking the trench stalemate when no one did.  He oversaw the introduction of the tank as Minister of Munitions, and claimed success after the battle of Cambrai.  (The Germans took note too, and would come back with their own Panzers in 1939!)

As written in the book, World War One was nearly lost before the Americans arrived just in the knick of time.  Maybe the Germans were pressing hard precisely because they knew time was short before the arrival of the American hordes?  In any case, there was almost a silly perception in Britain that “we won the war” when their whole strategy of attrition failed miserably (British losses were almost always proportionally greater than German losses).  Once the Russians were out, I think to anyone it’s clear that Britain was saved only by American involvement.  Winston said something to the effect that “if all we get out of this war is lasting friendship with the Americans, it will be well worth it”  That’s about all they did get out of it; the near term gains of Versailles were not lasting, Britain lost an entire generation of its bravest men and the Empire was poised for dismemberment.

Two other random WWI events that I found fascinating:

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“The Face of Naval Battle” by John Reeve and David Stevens

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I selected this book thinking it would be like the similar-sounding title from Keegan, but I was sorely disappointed.  This is really a collection of essays, all from different authors.  The first essay – by the lead editor, I presume – does acknowledge the link to Keegan and states that they are trying to produce a similar picture from the naval point of view, but I don’t think many of the other authors got the message.  Only about 5 out of 17 seemingly randomly selected essays in the book are even remotely close to the desired theme — a look at what naval battle is/was like for the common sailor.

Even these 5 essays are mostly memoirs of some captain or another – interesting and informative, but perhaps one-sided and definitely not from the common sailor’s perspective.  Anyway, some of the essays were interesting and there were assuredly some recurring themes.  Mainly, life in the Navy at war is one of long periods of boredom and anticipation, followed by intense, relatively brief periods of extreme action, danger, and consequence.

Perhaps more so than in the land army, sailors can develop very close bonds with each other in times of war.  (And they typically empathize more with the enemy navy that they do with their own landed counterparts!)  Perhaps this is illustrated best by the crew members of the SMS Emden, detached from von Spee‘s squadron for a remarkable career of independent raiding in the Indian Ocean at the outset of WWI.  This is a cool story in and of itself, but the thing that blew me away was that the majority of the survivors after the war changed their name to include the suffix “Emden” — they were a family.

“The Face of Battle” by John Keegan

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Keegan spends the first hundred pages or so going into various methods of military historiography, in particular the writings thereof.  His purpose of doing so is to point out that everyone has missed a key point of view: that of the common man on the battlefield, the guys literally “in the trenches,” doing the dirty work.  Much traditional military history focuses on the decisions of generals and the big picture, which is important, but frequently it is difficult to grasp a true understanding of what occurred and why unless one digs deeper and examines what the individual soldiers actually saw and felt.

Keegan then goes into three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme.  The choice is purposeful; each was a major English/British engagement which took place in roughly the same geographical area, but are separated in time by some 500 years; so we get three snapshots of what warfare was like during these vastly different periods.

A few main points stood out to me.  One was that cavalry, those knights in shining armor or the “medieval tanks,” as they are sometimes depicted, were actually quite ineffective against foot soldiers.  At Agincourt, each longbowman counted a long, sharpened stake as part of his battle equipment.  When they got in position to await the attack, they pounded these stakes into the ground, forming a formidable forest of pokey sticks, more or less randomly spaced and very difficult for the attacking horsemen to navigate at speed.  A slow moving guy on a horse is kind of easy to pick off with a longbow, go figure.  Again during Waterloo, the cavalry attacks were tried again and again but were uniformly ineffective against the infantry square.  And during trench warfare in WWI, no one even attempted cavalry maneuvers against enemy machine gun emplacements, or at least they didn’t attempt them for very long.

Second interesting point is the crux of the matter, why do soldiers fight?  They face deprivation, starvation, exhaustion, discomfort and disease, and that’s even before the actual fighting starts!  Once in battle, of course, they face death or grievous wounds.  So why would any rational human being face such risks?  The answer is probably different for each soldier, but in general a few themes seem evident.  First, before the fighting begins, there is some motivation to join up.  Medieval soldiers could become wealthy with ransom monies obtained after a successful battle in which prisoners were taken.  Throughout history, cutthroats facing prison were pardoned to serve in the military.  And closer to our day, recruiting efforts focus on pride and honor, both individual and national.

Ok, so the boys join up and head off to war.  Then the real battle comes.  Suddenly faced with the all-to-real risks of battle, the envisioned rewards don’t seem quite as enticing anymore.  Now what rules is, ultimately, fear.  Fear of death certainly, but also fear of seeming a coward or fear of the risks wartime buddies will face if one shirks from fighting.  There is also fear from the fate of a deserter; in Waterloo there were some units whose job was to push others back towards the front line, and during the Somme more than one deserter was summarily shot when discovered.  Another kind of fear that propelled the men forward was that sometimes it was perceived to be safer — during the assault on German trenches, the Brits who made it past no-man’s land were better off pressing on, following the rolling artillery barrage rather than retreating back through the maze of barbed wire they had just traversed.

But even still, there is an almost built-in abhorrence in man to taking a life.  There’s an oft-quoted (but sometimes disputed) assertion that only 25% of Western soldiers during WWII actually took a shot towards the enemy.  This is presented as evidence that the common soldier really doesn’t want to fight; he recognizes that the “enemy” on the other side are really just guys like him.  A lot of what generals and armies try to do is overcome this innate respect for human life; look at human silhouettes used for target practice, or man-shaped practice dummies which are stabbed with bayonets in training.  But maybe times are a’changing?  Are violent “shooter” video games inoculating future soldiers against a reluctance to take the enemy’s life?  What about unmanned systems?  When taking a life is accomplished through clicking your mouse 6000 miles away, ….. whoa.

“A Peace to End All Peace” by David Fromkin

Certainly today and periodically for several decades, the one spot on the globe experiencing seemingly constant turmoil is the Middle East.  Part of the reason for the unrest is the power vacuum left in the region upon the collapse of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One.  Britain was the main force before, during, and after the war which tried to come up with a workable post-war system of governance for the area; but infighting and disagreement between different British government bureaus, contradictory promises and programs made by successive waves of politicians, and post-war backstabbing among the Entente doomed the result.  (Not just for the Middle East … the “war to end all war” was anything but, as the next generation’s outbreak of hostilities in 1939 attests.)

To be fair, it isn’t really clear if the British could have done anything to completely avoid future unrest in the fractured region.  The Middle East was not and is not totally similar to the Western concept of nation-states.  This quote from the book is in reference to Mesopotamia, but it also could apply to the region as a whole:

“It was evident that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix, … the antipathy between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the rivalries of tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions…  <This> made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective, and widely supported.”

A prime example of the British bungling is actually a pretty funny misunderstanding.  Early on, the British intention was to install Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, as Caliph — they thought that “Caliph” was more or less like  the Pope of Islam; the thinking was that the British could pacify all the Arabs through a Caliph under their control.  However, the British didn’t understand that “Caliph” is a secular title as well as a spiritual one (and not really equivalent to the Pope at all); the Emir thought he was going to greatly expand his domain with British help, and the other Arab tribes were duly alarmed at the possibility.  Also, there are a multitude of factions within Islam; many were diametrically opposed to Hussein on religious grounds.  (After the war Britain found itself funding both sides of another armed conflict between Hussein and Ibn Saud.  Doh!)

According to Fromkin, America also deserves some of the blame for the fate of the Middle East.  At the post-war peace conference(s), Woodrow Wilson came full of lofty ideals (League of Nations, anti-imperialism/local rule) but with no practical plans for implementation and (as it later became clear) without the support of the isolationist-leaning Congress and American public.  The awkward League of Nations Mandates throughout the Middle East took time to set up and negotiate and ended up not working very well; plus the US left Britain high and dry by refusing to accept Mandates itself.  Once Wilson left office, the Harding administration’s concern for the area was solely to protect America’s economic interests, namely oil.

By the early 1920s, a few years after the armistice, the peace treaties were finally settled (in the end, the important decisions were made bilaterally by just Britain and France, although literally thousands of groups sent delegates to the conferences), but the treaties didn’t really matter much because things were already spiraling out of control and had developed an unstoppable momentum of their own (ie Kemal in Turkey).  The British had been forced to demobilize most of the occupying army in the years since the armistice; it was essentially powerless to stop the Middle East from falling apart everywhere by 1922 or so.

So complete was the disarray in the region by 1922, with rebellions in virtually every spot the British were trying to maintain order in the Middle East, that officials thought there must be some Bolshevik or French or Jewish plot afoot.

In fact there was an outside force linked to every one of the outbreaks of violence in the Middle East, but it was the one force whose presence remained invisible to British officialdom.  It was Britain herself.  In a region of the globe whose inhabitants were known especially to dislike foreigners, and in a predominantly Moslem world which could abide being ruled by almost anybody except non-Moslems, a foreign Christian country ought to have expected to encounter hostility when it attempted to impose its own rule.  The shadows that accompanied the British rulers wherever they went in the Middle East were in fact their own.

(I wonder if some historian in 50 years will write something like that about Iraq and Afghanistan, but with “America” instead of “Britain”??)

In almost the final page, Fromkin draws an analogy of the Middle East after the Ottomans to Dark Ages Europe after the Romans.  It took over 1000 years for Europe to stabilize into today’s stable system of nations, and a lot of blood was spilled along the way.  Hopefully the Middle East can sort things out sooner than that….

Just a couple more fascinating items about Churchill and the beginning of the Ottoman war:

  • On the eve of war, Churchill confiscated two Ottoman battleships under construction in British naval yards.  When the Ottomans later allied with Germany, Churchill got the blame for pushing them into German arms.  However, Fromkin points out that Turkey long wanted an alliance with some Great Power but none would accept them; it is speculated that Turkey promised the battleships to pre-war battleship-obsessed Germany (remember the British-German Dreadnought-gap?), knowing that they were probably lost anyway.  Germany entered into a secret alliance, which stuck despite the loss of the ships.
  • After Germany and Britain went to war, the Ottomans stayed neutral for months.  Germany wanted the Ottomans to honor the secret alliance and declare war too, but the Ottomans hesitated.  Germany didn’t want to publicize the secret alliance, so it attempted to draw them into the war by sending Admiral Souchon and with two ships to Constantinople.  To give these ships safe harbor would break their neutrality, so the quick-thinking Ottomans announced that they had purchased the ships from Germany to make up for those confiscated by Britain.  Souchon and his men were given fezes (yes, really) and inducted into the Ottoman Navy.  One can only imagine the reaction back at German Naval HQ.  Souchon was pretty clever though and he had the last laugh; he took his “fleet” into the Black Sea and started bombarding Russia.  The Ottomans were in the war.
  • The British Navy invaded the Dardanelles in March 1915, but Admiral de Robeck backed off after just a day.  Intelligence knew that Turks were out of ammo, but still he chickened out, afraid of naval mines.  The Turks had all but given orders to surrender.  The British instead regrouped and attacked later in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, by which time the Turks had regrouped and strengthened their defenses.  The Navy’s timidity maddened Churchill – many still think that war in the East could have ended right there in early 1915 and thus hastened Germany’s defeat.