If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Bite and Hold

The end of the month has arrived, and I find myself having maintained my status quo, but I am still very church mouse-like in the liquidity department.  So, all is not lost, and I can focus on the things that will go towards bettering myself.  Over the past week, two things have happened.  First, the solid support I received from my readers concerned about my work and urging me to come back to it as soon as I could.  The other thing was that despite not writing or promoting this page over the course of the last week, I've still managed to gain new followers on Twitter, always a pleasant feeling, made somewhat lacking by my not being able to offer any new content to them.

We then are getting back on track.  In all honesty I was frustrated with a string of missed opportunities as well as having to deal with a narrow bottom line.  Giving myself time to think I realised how my reaction was not in accordance with the values I admire in the people to whom this site is dedicated.  They too had their share of frustrations and reversals, especially in the early years of the war.  The problem was that so much was new in the technical sense that the lapse of tactical innovation helped to develop and maintain the spirit of stalemate along the Western Front.  Differing expedients were tried to make possible the mutually sought after "breakthrough", to redevelop the conflict in open country and thus return to familiar elements.  The irony is, of course having to think in terms of a new solution in order to be able to return to doing things as they've been done before.

Larger concentrations of artillery, both in number of guns on the line and length of bombardment in order to root out the defenders and destroy his works; poison gas to set the enemy on the run; digging under the trenches to explode mines beneath the enemy; taking the war to entirely different theatres were all things that both sides worked with some degree of success and failure.  There was nothing, though, to replace the necessity of sending infantry in to claim sought after ground, and at the same time no way of preventing the method of that deployment having to rely on simple tactics and broad planning.

The difficulty was on two fronts.  The men coming into the war after it had been brought to a standstill of trenches were not the professionals their predecessors of 1914 had been, and had everything to learn, notwithstanding emerging new aspects of warfare.  By the time they were deemed fit to take the field, the pressure of time meant that their tactical ability was so much less than was demonstrated by the destroyed regulars on both sides, so could only be relied upon to operate with tactical simplicity.  On the other end, the Generals were coping with hosts unimagined a generation before, and thus had a similar time of adjustment to circumstance.  During the course of this phase of the war, many errors and losses occurred in result of failure to adapt.

These lessons were absorbed, and from them, solutions were enacted.  For the Germans, this meant both strengthening their defences as they did with the Hindenburg Line, a fortified position the German army fell back to in 1917.  They had the luxury of doing this as they only had to give ground that they had taken from their enemy in the first place.  The Allies had no option of voluntarily retiring to better prepared works.  Offensively, the idea of "Strosstruppen", or "Storm Troopers" was developed.  Their ranks filled with experienced and motivated men, these troops would be used to hit the enemy quickly along weak portions of the line, thus pushing into his reserve and rear areas, disrupting command and communication.  Areas of stronger resistance were bypassed and handled by following "mopping up" units.  The ingenuity of these shock tactics added to the manpower gained from troops returned from the closed Eastern Front is what nearly split the Allied line in the spring of 1918.

The British first required the men they had expanded the army with be trained to the exacting standards of the regulars they were replacing.  This also required the officers above them to educate themselves to the level required of them.  Reorganisation of the Army, from the section level up helped to incorporate new weapons and tools, but also enabled the introduction of new tactics.  By far the most familiar of those would be the notion of "Bite and Hold."

Before "Bite and Hold" became a tactical choice, objectives for attacks were usually the broad final goal of the offensive.  The new idea worked along the lines of setting specific, smaller objectives, delineated to smaller units.  Once these objectives were taken, the men holding them would be bypassed by following waves en route to their own goals further along.  The leapfrog nature of these tactics enabled the artillery to at least come close to keeping pace with the infantry, and allowed for fresh men to continually put pressure on the enemy, while having established points along the axis of advance to absorb counter attacks from.  General Plumer, commander of Second Amy, brought attention to the benefit of "Bite and Hold" with his successes during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917.  It has been argued that Plumer's background in the infantry was an essential element to the implementation and development of these new ideas.

What this means for me is that when I myself am facing obstacles while also working with things and concepts which are new to me, I have two choices to make.  I can call the situation hopeless and retire from the field, or I can fall back, re-evaluate and adapt.  This is especially important if I wish to continue believing that we as individuals can learn from the trials of the past.  If I wish to honour those whom I admire, I should be thinking more about incorporating what their lives can teach me.

"If Ye Break Faith", therefore, will be returning to the regular posting schedule of Mondays and Thursdays beginning 3 October.  Keep posted on new developments by following on Facebook and Twitter.  Questions, comments and suggestion can be directed here.  If you wish to make a contribution to help this project meet its goals, donations can be made through PayPal.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Leading From The Front

Things here are moving ahead, but it is, as is often the case of having to be patient with regards to returns on submissions; while at the same time put into action what I can and develop new ideas.  Just as last week, I feel very close to the point where "If Ye Break Faith" is really gong to pick up steam and use this potential to make the project's goals possible.  Once again, it is to all of you who've taken the time to read this column I  owe the thanks of getting this far, so I hope you all stay with me and see the rewards of your support as they occur.  Se, the one little pet goal I've set for myself is to in short order receive something in return for being published.  I've never been published before, so it is quite a big thing for me.  At least I'd feel a bit of credibility when I tell people I'm a writer.  Since "If Ye Break Faith's" direction has grown to be so much more than the memorial project it is built upon, I have some up with a brief by-line to state the aims of this work:
"Making military history accessible and engaging in order to forever preserve the memory of sacrifice."
What do you think?  Send thoughts, comments and questions here.  To keep up with the latest news and developments, follow "If Ye Break Faith" on Twitter and Facebook.

There are two very basic things an army needs.  First, it requires men, and then it requires leaders.  Without appropriate leadership and discipline, an army is nothing more than an armed mob.  The difficulty with this is that while there are inherent personality traits that may give one aptitude towards leadership, the concept is as much skill to be taught as talent to be born to.  With peace time armies it is simple enough to run adequate courses for NCO's and have the appropriate number of candidates in officer academies to ensure that billets are kept full.  In the event of war, particularly one on the scale of the First World War, as armies expand, vacancies multiply and must be filled.  France and Germany has a relatively easier time at this. With both of their policies of long term and universal military service there was always a large cadre of officers and NCO's from both regular and reserve forces to pull from.  Britain in contrast had preferred to keep a small professional army whose ranks were filled by volunteers as opposed to conscripts, with limited reserves in the nature of the Territorial Army and the Yeomanry (volunteer cavalry).  Canada had much the same system in effect on the outbreak of war, except on a much smaller scale with both the regular force and its reserves, known as the Militia.

When calls came for men in the tens and hundreds of thousands went out, there was no shortage of volunteers, but there was a dearth of those able to lead them.  Retired officers and NCO's were brought back into uniform, if only to get training underway.  In the UK, with the so called "Pal's Battalions" of the New Armies selecting leaders could be easy.  Often these "Pals" units were made up of volunteers from the same employer, sport of social club and developed their military hierarchy based on the structure of the civil body they came from.

Failing any ready made structures, both newly raised and expanded to full strength reserve battalions were required to take men directly from their previous livelyhood to one of higher duty and responsibility.  Prerequisites with regards to education and experience determined standards for commissioned officers, and schedules to rapidly train newly made officers went in to effect quickly.

Armies typically have a two-tier organisation of leadership.  The first group, the officers, are purposed to carrying out the military will of their government.  Such is their tie to the state that the derive their authority to lead from their commission; a warrant that grants the ability to the officer to command in the absence of the Sovereign.  Traditionally it was from the aristocracy that officers were selected, often able to purchase a commission without any military training.  These practices had not been long out of date in Britain by the turn of the century, and specialised schools to educate officers did so reflective to the size and nature of the army at the time, one set for colonial garrison.

The second group, non-commissioned officers gain their rank through experience and length of service.  Promoted on merit and ability, the NCO is tasked with ensuring that the officer's orders are carried out.  In a Pal's Battalion, a lead hand or factory floor supervisor could be given a couple of chevrons and set to lead in a pinch.  In other regiments, established junior NCO's could find themselves jumped through the ranks and a new arrival who was a little more switched on than the rest could find himself a stripe quickly.

Of course, the expanding of the army had a huge effect on leadership at the top end.  Not used to units the size of Corps and Armies (for a primer on unit organisation see Order of Battle) the British had to groom senior officers, some of them also recalled retirees to the notion of being charge of numbers never before directed at one time.  These larger formations also called for particularly specialised leadership- the positions known as "Staff."  These officers aid the general by taking charge of elements involving Intelligence, Supply and Operations so that the senior officer can better direct the battle.  The difficulty again was that there were just not enough officers with the level of knowledge and experienced these higher organisations demanded.

The underlying problem with all this is that hardly anybody was in a position in which they really knew what they were doing.  Something has to be said about the determination and doggedness these newly made leaders exhibited in the task set before them.  Later in the war "battle schools" to train NCOs and officers behind the lines were established, even including a quick learning version of the Staff College.  At the onset, officers and men had to rely more on the second part of the nature of leadership: talent.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Those Magnificent Men

I have had that anticipatory feeling that the efforts I've been putting forward in both this column and the network I've been establishing are about to give back.  I was hoping to be able to give news on some submissions and proposals I've made, but I think the lesson here is to not submit a five-thousand word article on somebody's late Friday afternoon and expect a quick reply.  Every once in a while I might let it show that I'm really quite entres nous to the whole publication business.  Main thing is that I've made incredible headway and feel on the cusp of being able to have my efforts begin to be self-supporting.  What this becomes at a certain point is bearing witness to a man who has taken a chance to live his dream and it's never seen him happier than to apply his passions to a lively-hood.  Once again, I have all of you to thank for that.  For watching this column and encouraging me to continue you have all contributed in immeasurable ways to what I've set myself forward on.  While doling out specific thanks in my last post, I realise that I overlooked Curtis, who not only sent me a complimentary note, but pointed out a typographical error for my correction.  Yours is the right kind of help I need, thank you.  I'll also mention Ken Reynolds (Milhistorian) once again for dutifully retweeting my updates to his followers.  You can also follow "If Ye Break Faith" on Twitter and Facebook to keep current on the project and its development, and get the newest updates once they go to press.

A few weeks ago I called out for topic suggestions.  I'm still open to that, by the way, so if you have any comments, questions or topic ideas, please post them here.  As it turns out, I was generating some notes over the weekend for Monday's post when a friend made mention on an aspect of the war I had only vaguely touched upon last month in Necessity and Invention.  It's here that my bias lies wide open.  I was in the infantry and so have a deep and passionate lean towards that branch of service.  Never mind (ahem) it is the most important arm and all other trades in the military are for the express purpose of supporting the infantry, I should try perhaps to be more balanced in my approach.  If there is anything in the perception of the First World War that lay in more opposite spectrum of popular thought is that of the mud and struggle of the Poor Bloody Infantry held against the dash and daring of the Knights of the Air.

To say that airpower was discounted, misunderstood or misused at the onset of war is a fair statement.  Powered flight was little over a decade old when war broke out in Europe.  Early planes being simple underpowered machines it is easy to see how moving war into the third dimension could be dismissed if the nature of flight was not seen as much more than a novelty.  There were those among the belligerent forces who were innovative and progressive, and each nation did have some limited air assets even if their potential was certainly not entirely fathomed.

When the war ground down into entrenched stalemate, the need to spot and observe the enemy didn't diminish, but the best ways of doing so were impeded by the nature of how the ground was being defended.  Cavalry sorties to find and report enemy movement lost their effectiveness and infantry patrols could only give information particular to the area they were directly responsible for.  To get a better picture on the entire situation, the commanders needed to "zoom out" as it were.  Observation balloons allowed a wider panorama of the battlefield, but the mobility of aircraft in a similar role was far more advantageous.  Troop movement, defensive preparedness and artillery positions could be reported and be prepared for in a more timely fashion than ever before.  Then, there is a desire not to be seen and have your disposition given to the enemy.  From this instinct of preservation came the idea to arm pilots and then the aircraft themselves.  At first, it was a desire for the observation planes to be able to provide some form of defence, the idea took hold to have machines with the express purpose of interdicting the enemy's reconnaissance.  In short order, the notion of air superiority as a crucial component to successful land operations came to be as it remains today.  When that point was reached, the race to outdo one another was joined.

The men on the ground developed rudimentary anti-aircraft weapons by remounting artillery and machine guns to fire in a more vertical arc.  Soon though, planes attacking other planes became a common feature of the front line.  Fighters would attempt to bring down spotter planes, while escorts in turn protected their observers by engaging the fighters.  The need to have the better machine than the enemy, to keep ahead on the technology curve enabled the development and potential of larger and more powerful planes to take the air.  Some of these were now able to deliver offensively to targets on the ground, giving birth to tactical bombing; that is engaging the enemy's ability to make war in the field and this in turn gave way to strategic bombing-destroying the means and morale to continue war beyond the front line.  These operations further pushed developments as now better faster and more heavily armed fighters were required to both escort and destroy bombers and airships determined to bring war to the homefront.

Their work was dangerous and daring, many pilots and aircrew were killed in accidents, collisions and mechanical failures as with enemy action.  It was the modern notion of technology, of mobility and of separation from the grinding war at ground level which spawned a following and fame for the most successful pilots.  Each country had their best ace, men with high scores of aircraft downed, and names such as Richtofen, Bishop, R A Little, Mannock, Fonck and Rickenbacker became celebrity not only to their own countries, but across the lines as well.

These pioneering men and machines changed the face of war forever.  Nowadays, the presence or lack of air power can define the feasibility of an operation.  Once the technology arc swung as far to produce the ability for better coordination between land and air assets, along with vehicles capable of travelling overland with speed, range and adequate firepower, the complete notion of AirLand War could be realised.  In a future war, the side that first invested in combined arms operations would have a distinct advantage and hold the world in awe of "Lightning War."  This would have to wait a further twenty-five years, but those of the First World War who took to the air set in motion events and ideas that would help to wrench the world away from the Nineteenth Century and into the modern era.

Monday, 12 September 2011

A True Global War

When I had begun this project a little over three months ago, I had a general idea of what I was setting out to accomplish.  There was no way for me to determine how this work would grow and which avenues would open for me to promote and support my goals.  The one thing that thrills me most is the development of an emerging international audience.  Most of the thanks for this expansion is due both to Warfare Magazine in the UK and Regimental Books in Australia.  Their support of my work has so far resulted in "If Ye Break Faith" gaining much wider recognition than I could have managed in such a short time on my own.  Along with the two I mentioned, there are so many more followers and supporters on both Twitter and Facebook who honour me by taking the time to read and discus my work.  In the last seven days I've been fortified by such positive feedback from friends in person and online it inspires me to continue to try to outdo my previous efforts and make every successive post the best one yet.

To my new neighbours, who not only enjoy my writing but graciously feed me when I've worked too long in the day to put a meal together, I owe a debt of gratitude.  My mentor Robert helped to supply me with the hardware I need to do this work and the encouragement to continue.  Not to forget Laura, whose compliments last week recharged my mental batteries.  Perhaps I could buy her a coffee sometime.  The upshot of all this is that I will no longer be posting blog updates on Reddit.  While that site serves to drive my traffic, there is no real quantifiable numbers.  I'd much rather have less visits to this space if only it means that those visitors I do have are taking my writing on board.  Watch this space as there is movement afoot, I'm shopping a few articles and hoping to gain a handling publisher for "Iron Spirits."  All of this work will of course be reflective of the aims of "If Ye Break Faith" and will help support the cost involved of completing the memorial work.  Interesting times are ahead, so if you're just joining us now, welcome.  You couldn't have come at a better time.

 Thinking on the emergent international audience I'm growing couldn't help but lead me towards thinking about the use of the term "world" in describing the war.  The main concentration of the war's effort and study, particularly from a Britannic point of view is of the Western Front, the line of conflict that scythed through Belgium and France from North Sea to Swiss Border.  Often, even the Eastern Front is discounted but due to its nature and resolution can not be as Germany's war against Russia was so fundamentally linked politically and materially to the west.  What occurred on one front would dictate the situation on the other.  No more was this evident than after the Russian revolution and separate peace with Germany which allowed the latter to move huge amounts of men to the west in a gamble to force a conclusion before the United States could take the field in force.  The balance of obligations between France Britain and Russia to support one another would rise to create some of the bloodiest contests of the war.

Other parts of Europe were similarly contested.  The Balkans (collectively), Greece and Italy were all countries incorporating a new centralisation of government but containing peoples of diverse national backgrounds.  These countries fell into conflicts intended to either support or divide these emergent states.  What came to be in each of those cases was a necessity of committing allied support to these areas, from both power blocs which in turn had an effect on the other theatres.

Beyond Europe, the objective was to ensure the safety of colonial possessions.  In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, the building of a German High Seas Fleet had been a serious threat to Britain's supremacy abroad.  Entering the war in defence of Belgian neutrality enabled the Royal Navy to attempt control of the sea lanes and thereby keep the Imperial possessions secure.  There was fighting throughout Africa, although in a more limited fashion than in Europe to keep sovereignty over these areas of distant British, French, Belgian and German control.

The Ottoman Empire declaring for Germany and Austro-Hungary threatened interests in the Middle East.  Despite efforts against the Turks being described as "sideshows" the question of power balance in the area and beyond it necessitated a response.  The actions in the Dardanelles was an attempt to alleviate Turkish pressure on Russia and secure shipping lanes between the UK and its ally.  At the same time, Britain had opportunity in the Middle East to push Ottoman interests out and increase their influence there.  The error is in thinking that diverting forces from the main theatre to challenge subordinate partners in Germany's alliance would weaken the principle belligerent, and thus force a conclusion without a direct confrontation of the Kaiser's armies.  It was a duality where hard choices had to be made.  The only way to defeat Germany would be through destruction of her forces in Europe to bring a military solution there, but the only way to prosecute all war aims was to meet Germany's allies and colonial forces where they threatened.  No doubt this division of resources led to the European theatre developing as it did, as much as the efforts in particular to Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans would set a chain of events to work that would have repercussions on the rest of the century and beyond.

All in all some one hundred thirty countries were involved in the First World War.  It's true that many of these nations declared war late in the conflict and didn't participate in the actual prosecution, but the Great War held influence and sway in daily events across the globe for over four years.  That we today can see political and geographic events linked to such a large conflict is really no surprise.

AS A LATE ADDITION:  Someone came to my site via a web search for a particular name of a CEF member who had died during the war.  I hope they come back to read this.  I attempted to find a photograph of Pte Percival Beake, but only came up with his grave marker in the Veteran's Affairs Virtual War Memorial.  It may stand that no such photograph exists, perhaps in a digital record at least.  Following your family's lineage is a great pursuit.  With his records, and the diaries of the 42nd Battalion we could gain some inference to what his life was like.  In recompense, while searching for your name, a record came up for one of the initial sixty-two from Oakville, Ontario.  I give you my word that Pte Beake's story is there to be told as well.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Blighty

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"The thing is," Dundas said, in between sips from his battered tin cup, "I don't mind tea, like.  But what I'd give for a cup of coffee."  The others in the bay agreed.  The Brits were mad for tea, but a good coffee was hard to come by.  Dundas' simple observation was the last thing he did as the world turned inside out.  Earth, steel, heat and bodies flung together, the small traverse in the trench collapsing under a shell from a minenwerfer.  Shrapnel from the shell flung upward and out, chewing into the wire in front and the high ground between bays.  Then silence.  The dirt shifted, dust and smoke settling.  Men from the next sections frantically move towards the scene. The Sergeant, Elm, posts riflemen to observe for enemy movement while the rest claw at the loose soil, spilled sandbags and split timber with hands, helmets, shovels, anything close to hand.  The call for stretcher bearers is shouted back down the line.  Dundas is the first to be pulled free, but there's nothing to be done for him.  Kennedy is a fortunate one, he's brushed off with little more than a few scratches.  Woodbine has an iron splinter right the way through him.  He's breathing in a raspy, bubbling way but seems to be out and senseless.  Sgt. Elm knows all too well the poor fellow won't last long and tells the stretcher bearers to take Strachan first.  The shell has torn into his right leg, shredding his puttees and peppering his calf with dirt and debris.

"You're a lucky one, mate" one of the bearers tells him as they lift him onto the canvas to carry him back.  "Seems you've got the perfect blighty."

Short of the war ending, the best possible circumstance to be shut of the war otherwise was for a soldier at the front to receive a "blighty."  The word indicates the favourable type of wound that would excuse one from service but not be permanently disabling.  The French called such a thing "Un Petite Blesse" literally "a little wound" but co-opted in English as "A little blessing."

Strachan is also lucky in that he was hit in the trenches and was immediately attended to.  As battles progressed, those wounded in no-man's land or among enemy lines could only do their best to make their own way back or wait for stretcher parties to fetch them in.  When there were heavy casualties, this sometimes could take days.

The wounded's first port of call was the Battalion Aid Station, a post set up in the trenches itself or as close to the advance as possible, staffed by the Regimental Medical Officer with his orderlies and stretcher bearers.  Light wounds could be treated quickly, more severe cases made stable for further attention down the line, and those too bad to move comforted.  Strachan's leg requires surgery so he is bandaged up and carried back to the Advance Dressing Station.  Here his dressing is checked, treatment logged on a card affixed to his uniform and preparations are made to move him further out of the line to the Casualty Clearing Station and thence to a Field Hospital; where despite the care he's been given he may very well loose the leg below the knee.

The volume of casualties caused by this new type of industrial warfare were unexpected, but an efficient system for allowing treatment at different levels moving from front to rear ensured that the best care per case could be given.  This meant that the wounded would receive quick and appropriate treatment and this approach, once perfected and working well saved lives.  Modern battlefield medicine is based on this system.  Practice and technological advances mean that the soldier who finds themselves in a similar situation today has a very high survival rate indeed.

Medical personnel didn't just make extreme efforts in the face of battlefield wounds.  The responsibility of the Regimental Medical Officer was the health and well-being of the officers and men of his battalion.  He would do what he could to prevent disease and treat sickness, as each soldier who is unwell is a detriment to the effort of the whole.  Preventing illness, particularly in less than ideal trench conditions had a high priority.  This effort is often overlooked by the dedication shown by putting themselves at great risk to get wounded men out of the line of fire, perhaps less glamorous but equally important.  The First World War shocked all by the sheer numbers of those who died during the conflict, but it was certain that number would have been more inflated if not for the work of those committed to the medical care of their comrades.