28 March 2008

The War Watching Room

RealMilitaryFlix.com is a place to go to watch real films of soldiers in training or during operations. Beware, though, if you're at work. The video starts up automatically.

27 March 2008

Ambitious Project

The Gallipoli campaign threw together men from Germany, France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Turkey, among others, which suggests that tourists from them all might find a trip to the Dardanelles of interest. The growth of tourism in Turkey (which during my brief phase of employment in the tourism industry in 1982-4 amounted to 'small potatoes') means that people are more likely to want to make the trip there.

The Turks have ambitious plans to create an interactive museum on the site of their Çannakkale Martyrs' Monument. Having made a trip to damp Belgium in October, the prospect of spring in the Mediterranenan seems more promising for a family holiday.

26 March 2008

1918 90

A visitor to this blog, Charles, draws my attention to this article that appeared in The Times, written by Field Marshal Lord Bramall, even before I wrote my entry on Gough.

The article can be placed in the "John Terraine School" of Western Front history, which is kind of what I grew up with. Terraine challenged the predominant view of Haig from when I was a boy which is basically that the British commander, and most of his colleagues, verged on being stupid, if they weren't actually idiots.

Journalist John Terraine made himself into an historian (a suitable role model for me!), largely on the strength of his interest in the First World War. His biography of Haig came out in 1963, some years after the memoirs of people who actually knew the Scottish field marshal (eg, politicians Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George) put the boot into the victorious commander. The battle to rescue Haig's reputation raged throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but I think the Terraine School could more or less proclaim a tactical victory by the middle of the latter decade. (We then moved on to Montgomery.)

For me, I don't have a dog in this fight at the moment. I could argue that Haig was too slow to learn from his mistakes. I could argue that Haig did as well as anyone could have done at The Somme in 1916 and during the German offensives toward Amiens and in Flanders in 1918. However, the case of Passchendaele weighs heavily on those who wish to rehabilitate the man. This mismanaged offensive may be a model of military incompetence, but at least gave Canada's Arthur Currie a chance to show he knew his business.

Mapping and the Web

A map, used in conjunction with a lecture, to describe the events of the American Civil War battle of Gettysburg, has become the subject of a minor controversy.

My father and I made at least two visits to the battlefield, so there's a good possibility I've seen it. Even if I haven't, I can well imagine what it's like. The map will show the terrain contours and key buildings, and small electric lights come on and off at various points during a short lecture. There used to be something similar showing Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign in 1862 during the same conflict at a museum in the Shenandoah valley. These sorts of things were staples of growing up in a military-history-loving American household in the 1960s and 1970s.

That said, I'm not sure it's worth preserving. It would be far more effective, as the comment about the boy downloading a game off the Internet makes clear, to use some computer game engine and accompanying maps, stuck on the Internet, for people to view. Or at least one could have an audio-visual installation showing them in the visitor's centre. The case for preservation rests entirely on whether these kind of 'electric maps' represent a significant cultural stage. In which case it belongs in a museum of museum technology, and not as part of a battlefield monument. In an age when the dates of Gettysburg might be unknown to more than half of secondary school students, information must be provided in a way that will grab their attention, and not that of their grandparents.

17 March 2008

Gough in command

Hmm, a month away. I've been involved in selling a house, which has meant going through my books, finding some to discard. While looking at some of them, I came across an account of General Sir Hubert Gough's activities on the first day of the German Operation Michael, March 21, 1918. It appeared in Martin Middlebrook's The Kaiser's Battle, published in 1978 by Allen Lane. Since we are so close to a round-number anniversary (the 90th), it seems worth looking at it.

I'll quote the key points.
At his headquarters at Nesle, fifteen miles behind the front, Gough had been woken by the distant roar of the German bombardment [which began at 0440]and he realised that 'it was so sustained and steady that it at once gave me the impression of some crushing, smashing power'....Gough went back to sleep for an hour, then got up, had breakfast and prepared to handle the greatest battle of his career. He had brought all of his own reserves well forward before the battle...To Gough's relief, GHQ immediately released [two nearby reserve divisions] for use.

When Gough had rung GHQ to ask for these two reserve divisions, he had spoken not to Haig, who was being briefed by Lawrence, but to Major-General J. H. Davidson, head of the Operations Section. Gough pointed out that even with the two reserve divisions would still be extremely vulnerable and he asked when he might receive further reinforcements...

Gough fretted at his headquarters for the rest of the morning. He nearly set out for a tour of his four corps headquarters but it was too early for this so he stayed put, working with his staff to scrape up makeshift fighting units from reinforcement camps and administrative units of the Fifth Army. Reports came in from corps commanders telling of heavy fighting in the Forward Zone....

Air reconnaissance during the early afternoon had confirmed that the roads and tracs behind the German lines were full of reserve divisions marching towards the battle. This information told Gough that the battle which had started that morning would be a prolonged one....

General Humbert, commander of the French Third Army, had arrived just before lunch to discuss the help that could be given by French units....

After lunch, Gough left Nesle by motor car to pay quick calls on his four corps commanders....Gough met [Lieutenant-General Sir Richard] Butler at a hastily-arranged rendezvous in the village of Beaumong-en-Beine to save driving the full distance to Butler's headquarters....

Leaving Butler, Gough continued his tour and met the remaining corps commanders....By the time he retured to his own headquarters, late in the afternoon, Gough had decided on his policy....it was more important to keep together what was left of his battered divisions in the south than to hold ground....Gough's staff sent out the orders...This was the last move that Gough was called upon to make in theis first day of the battle. After dinner that night, he spoke again to GHQ about the prospects for the next days' fighting. Again it was Lawrence, the Chief of Staff, to whom Gough spoke.

The contrast with what we read of General Joseph E Johnston's Bull Run experience is quite marked, highlighting the effect of industrialized warfare's much larger armies. Where Johnston personally engaged with officers who were ordered to the 'front line', and appears to have issued orders himself, Gough's job is much more managerial, much less directly involved in a combat. He is mainly a collector and transmitter of information.

A. He discusses the situation at the start and end of the day with GHQ, apparently to describe the resources he needs and the overall situation and to get approval for his intended course of action.

B. He collects and analyses information from his neighbour (the French general Humbert), and from his subordinates, as well as receiving reports passed up the chain of command by the aerial units. However, he does not intervene directly (at least from the information in Middlebrook's book) with commanders below the corps level.

C. He works with his staff to redistribute forces available in his rear areas to support combat operations.

D. He decides on an overall policy, but does not engage in more detailed prescription of what needs to be done.

A lot of my analysis is dependent on Middlebrook not omitting anything, but Gough does not appear to engage in any micromanagement during this crisis. It's also of interest that his corps commanders are based close enough to the army headquarters for all four of their headquarters to be within a motor car journey between the end of lunch and later afternoon. Presumably Gough had the right of way over other road traffic.