A LESSON OF WAR: Iraq, Afghanistan and from a century past

The Battle of the Somme was a meat grinder. The centenary of this battle, fought mid-way through World War I, will be commemorated on July 1 in Great Britain, France and other countries that lost men in one of the largest and bloodiest battles in the history of human warfare.

Between July 1 and Nov. 18, 1916, the British suffered about 420,000 casualties, the French about 200,000 and the Germans about 465,000. All told, 300,000 soldiers died and little was achieved. Somme was like America’s recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan writ large.

After two years of relative stalemate, allied forces decided to make a big push to break through the German lines and hopefully achieve a quick and decisive victory on the Western Front, much like politicians and generals assumed quick victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. The offensive was designed to relieve pressure on the French as a result of the German offensive against French forces at Verdun, and take control of a 20-mile stretch of the meandering River Somme.

The first day of that battle was the bloodiest in the history of the British army . Of the 120,000 troops who went into battle, the British suffered about 60,000 casualties, as many as 20,000 of whom died before the day was over.

The plan drawn up by generals in their chateau headquarters miles behind the battlefield was for an artillery barrage to pound the German defenses to an extent that the attacking British could just walk in and occupy the opposing trenches with minimal opposition. Cavalry units would then gloriously pour through the German lines, pursue the fleeing Germans and turn the tide of a war that had been in a deadly stalemate for the better part of two years.

Before the battle started, the British fired over a million and a half shells at the German soldiers, many of which either did not explode or completely missed their targets.

During seven days and nights of bombardment that removed the element of surprise, German troops simply moved into their deep underground concrete bunkers and waited. When the artillery pounding stopped, scores of British soldiers walked in a row uphill in successive waves across no-man’s-land and were mowed down, easy targets for swarms of German machine gun nests. By nightfall, few of the objectives had been taken despite massive loss of life.

The offensive would continue for another 4 1/2 months in a similar vein. After July 1, a long stalemate settled in as the British employed the same hopeless method of attack conforming to a prefabricated interpretation of events on the ground, despite assault after assault turning into a killing ground. Somme became a bloody battle of attrition.

By the end of the battle, a massive loss of human life had netted the allies roughly six miles of GermanĀ­ held territory.

The battle helped cement the reputation of World War I as a war of terrible slaughter caused by poor decisions on the part of high commanders. The troubled British offensive resulted in the epithet “lions led by donkeys.”

Today, revisionist historians contend that the battle, while costly and flawed, put an end to German hopes at Verdun, badly weakened the German army and helped the British learn new tactics for successfully prosecuting future offensives.

Traditionalists believe this interpretation airbrushes reality. They say the battle achieved nothing but untold misery and loss. It was an unjustified bloodbath and evidence of the British high command’s incompetence. They argue that British military leaders failed in the fashion of Pyrrhus, who lamented after the battle at Asculum: “another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.”

Having just lived through two conflicts, Americans can relate to this quote. Iraq and Afghanistan, which is ongoing, both created more problems than they solved. Optimistic miscalculations led to unintended consequences and bloody inconclusiveness. And so it goes.

Originally Published: Jun 25, 2016

How myths shaped reality in World War I

Myths have an unfortunate tendency to cripple imaginations. This can lead to the worst kind of unintended consequences, especially when such myths are based on assumptions about how the world ought to be rather than how it actually is.

The bloodiest day in the history of the British Army is a real world example of what this can mean:

Shortly after 7:30 on the morning on July 1, 1916, some 100,000 British soldiers climbed out of their trenches in France’s Somme Valley, arrayed themselves in long lines against the morning sunlight, and began moving forward across No Man ‘s  Land towards the German trenches. They were fully confident they would achieve the long-sought breakthrough in the German lines that their officers assured them would be a piece of cake.

The commanding general of the British army in France was Sir Douglas Haig. He was a long-standing military professional, a member of a Scottish distilling family, and a Presbyterian fundamentalist who believed that he was in direct communication with God (an illusion that he shared with a surprising number of top military commanders throughout history).

In theory, Haig’s strategy should have worked. But there were problems.

Only 40 percent of the British artillery consisted of heavy guns. The rest were lightweight field pieces that could do little damage to trenches and barbed wire. Nearly one-third of the shells fired by the British heavy guns failed to explode because the British munitions industry had not yet come to terms with the need for quality control in shell production. In any case, the Germans housed most of their soldiers 30 feet below the trenches in elaborate dugouts that were impervious to even the heaviest artillery shells.

So when the largely ineffective artillery barrage finally ended at 7:20 that morning, German defenders emerged from the dugouts with ears ringing, but otherwise ready to withstand the British attack that the barrage had told them was coming. They quickly set up their machine guns, which fired .30-caliber bullets at the rate of 600 per minute for hours on end.

By the end of the day, the British army had suffered the greatest single-day calamity in its history. More than 19,000 of its men lay dead in No Man’s Land; over 38,000 had been wounded. Nearly three out of every five British soldiers who had gone over the top that morning had fallen victim to the myths on which Haig based his strategy (presumably after long conversations with God), with little to show for it in the way of captured German territory.

Today, the idea of deadlock sounds pretty good in Iraq. Sunni Muslim radicals who make the Taliban look tolerant are sweeping toward Baghdad in a way that reminds those of us of a certain age of the lightning-fast North Vietnamese drive toward Saigon in the spring of 1975.

We made the wrong call about invading Iraq in 2003 because of flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and because we assumed the Iraqi people would treat U.S. troops as liberators, rise up against their government and welcome us with open arms.

It may have been nearly a century later, but just as in the Battle of the Somme Valley, failure to raise basic questions about the assumptions underlying our decision to invade Iraq are once again yielding tragic results.

originally published: June 28, 2014