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.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Not Quite the Ticket

Boy howdy was I feeling rough last week.  After a fantastic weekend parading with the RCAF Commemorative Squadron, by Wednesday I was coming down with a painful sore throat.  This excuses my lack of an update last Thursday, while at the same time providing me with a topic I have yet to look over, that of disease during the war.  I'm on the mend, after the doctor actually recoiled upon examining my irritated uvula and gave me an issue of antibiotics.  Thankfully, my Twitter and Facebook feeds came in handy to inform about my inability to post; and it is my extraordinary pleasure that my suggested topic appeal to Oxford University's WWI Centenary Project enough for them to invite me to submit the following essay to their site.

 I had gone over the treatment of battle casualties some time ago in my piece "The Blighty", which overlooked cases of illness or corresponding mortality rates.  Communicable disease has always followed armies, were its spread has been encouraged by living communally in close quarters in dubious hygiene.  We understand today more properly the relationship between physical hygiene and the spread of viruses and bacteria; and largely that understanding began to take root with the medical advances of the mid-nineteenth century, unironically expedited through the military conflicts of the time.  Four times as many British soldiers died as a result of illness than did in battle during the Crimean War.  Figures from the U.S. Civil War cite 224 000 deaths by disease and accident for the two million who served in that conflict.  Each of these wars have their histories of diligent health care professionals who championed the cause of sanitation.

The popular notion of men on the Western Front being subject to terribly unsanitary conditions belie that the First World War is the first major conflict in which more service personnel were killed in action than by disease.  Improvement in medicine and an enforced hygienic discipline in the trenches is one half of the reasoning behind this.  The other has to do with a like advance in the technological methods of war which, cooly speaking, made inflicting casualties more efficient.  For the British Empire, found in the "Casualties and Medical Statistics" volume of the Official History of the War, of 876 084 total deaths in WWI, some 113 173 were the result of "Disease or Injury", a ratio of 1/3 that of death in combat.  Even then, the numbers for disease fatalities are eclipsed by both "Died of Wounds" (167 172) and, poignantly for the war, "Missing, Presumed Dead" (161 046).

The static nature of trench warfare actually allowed for a great attention to detail for preventative factors which helped curb the spread of disease.  Prevention can only do so much against an extreme situation.  Fortunately, with considerations in regards to both discipline and morale, the military system was well capable to administer to health concerns.  From the timely removal of the dead for burial, a properly effective casualty clearing system, staunch rules for the construction and maintenance of trench latrines to a daily routine of policing up rubbish and wastage, life at the front was as healthy as could be under the duress of being the leading edge of battle.

The statistics listed above do not accurately encompass illness which did not become terminal.  While sanitation at the front was better than supposed, the trenches were hardly pristine and our modern knowledge to how psychological stress effects the immune system gives rise that many hundreds of thousands of men suffered illness not quite serious enough to be excused from the line, or were stalwart enough to continue their duty when they should have sought treatment.  Based upon the nature of moral and legal repercussions it can also be supposed that many more were suffering from venereal disease than reported.  Even then, the records indicate 153 531 admissions for VD on the Western Front alone, accounting on average from year to year 24 cases per 1 000 men in theatre.

The rate of disease in armies during WWI was often predicated by locale.  For the British, by far the worst theatre was that of East Africa where unfamiliar heat and a range of tropic ailments felled thirty one men for each soldier killed in action.

Not to be overlooked is the devastating influenza pandemic which first appeared on the Western Front via Spain by mid 1918.  It caused for the British between October and November of that year 45 000 patient admissions at a mortality rate of six per cent.  The flu began to spread perniciously at the unfortunately co-incidental advent of the Armistice.  The diaspora of demobilized soldiers back to homes around the world communicated the virus to untold millions.  Exact figures on how fatal the Spanish Flu was are still uncertain, though from what we do know it is one of the most disastrous plagues in modern history.

Because of the incidences of disease amongst soldiers, medical improvements which occurred as a result of necessity in the war do not solely reflect treatment of combat wounds.  They also inspired practices in treatment and, more importantly, prevention of spreadable diseases.  Despite the horror and loss of the years 1914-18, one of the positive results was a general increase in standard of health which prepared the way for many national systems of public healthcare.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

By the Left, Quick March!

 In an effort to expand my professional network to include as much of my potential market as possible, I called upon an old college friend to help supply some contact information. As it turns out, this friend is heavily involved in a living history group: The Royal Canadian Air Force Commemorative Squadron.  In the past, I've been keen on living history and interpretation groups but have had little opportunity to participate.  That will change this Saturday when I shall join the RCAFCS for a goodwill parade in Kingston, Ontario.

What this raises is an interesting problem.  I haven't had to do any parade drill in well over a decade.  Notwithstanding, of course, the subtle differences between air force and army drill, there is also the changes to the movements made between the era I will be representing and the era in which I served.  Primarily among these discrepancies is the order "slope arms", the act of resting the rifle on the left shoulder, which went out of style half a century ago.  Lacking a rifle to practice with prior to the parade, I am, unironically, teaching myself these movements with a broom.

It was thinking on this which led me to think about drill on the whole, especially its development and purpose.  When foot drill was developed centuries ago, it had a direct and practical purpose. The need was to be able to manoeuvre large bodies of men, precisely, into the most advantageous position on the field of battle.  To do this quickly, and more important, impressively might even be enough to inspire the opposing force to quit the field without fighting.  Should battle be joined, the discipline instilled by repeated practice of responding immediately to words of command could be enough to hold the line when the chaos of combat descended.

By the turn of the last century, the use of foot drill as battle craft had gone out of practical fashion.  It had become, by and large, a ceremonial practice, but it was still taught at the very basic level of military indoctrination.  On the surface it appears as if soldiers are being instructed at great length and effort to perform movements which might look grand on the parade square, but of no actual tactical value.

This attitude persists today in the grumbling of recruits struggling with the unfamiliar and sometimes complex movements which drill requires.  "Why are we learning this?" is something I've heard quite often, usually coupled with the assertion that the new soldier is destined to be up at the sharp end and has no intention of fulfilling any ceremonial function for which drill would be necessary.

Fact is, that although the need to march men stiff-backed and high stepping upon a battlefield has long since passed, the other purpose remains, and remains integral to the function of an armed force: That of discipline.

This is first apparent physically, mainly for the need to be completely aware of one's entire body and the execution of isolated movement.  Learning in groups with the goal of precise unison gives a standard to achieve among equals and is the first instillation of the military truism of team above individual.

The method by which drill is taught seeks to create an automatic response to short cues.  A difficult concept in a free thinking society, it is crucial and life-saving in the field.

It is not only physical discipline, or indoctrination to military authority; based on orienting terms such as "advance", "retire", "left" and "right" where it's possible to move to the right by means of a left turn, candidates must think in what at first seems the contrary.  Drill then becomes a mental discipline which requires the student to think quickly to initially unfamiliar prepositions.  Through first an impeccable example in the instructor, repetition and constant correction one learns to yearn for achievement, help comrades, inspire confidence, and take pride in appearance.

On today's modern battlefield, some of the same aesthetic similarities in condition exist in parallel with the entire history of warfare: Fear, confusion, the necessity to make the right decision and follow through faster than one's enemy.  All of what drill inspires counters the former two and gives ability for the last.

Monday, 7 May 2012

No Man's Land

It's been just about a year since "If Ye Break Faith" debuted.  At first, all I thought I required was some space to share my passion of military history and showcase my writing for publishers entertaining proposals of the printed work which was to be generated.  Success at this didn't immediately matter to me, the real value "If Ye Break Faith" gave to me was the opportunity to focus on something I was passionate about while all around me was chaos.

As time went on and this space began to pick up momentum, and even more fantastic, an audience, it was apparent to me that I had, almost by accident, created something that had value; and validation.  What remained for me was to find the fight direction and method to the project and see that it got there.  There's been several models for IYBF as a business, and none of them have been quite right, or I've lacked the know-how to actualize.  I've come close to, up to announcing it at times, giving up.  The frustration being that I'm so full of effort and energy with the study of history and its perpetuation, but I kept falling short of my goals.

Here we are, a year later, and things are on the move.  I've had some very pleasant conversations with a business dedicated to the same purpose of promoting remembrance.  I can't describe how exciting the idea of collaborating with them would be.  Nothing is set in stone, yet, but details will be coming hard and fast once the go-ahead is given.  It's very thrilling stuff, I promise.  Keep up to date with us on Twitter and Facebook to make sure you don't miss a beat.

Weeks ago, I was stuck for a topic to expound on.  Nothing quickly came to mind, and I worried about running out of momentum.  I've solicited for suggestions in the past, with minimal success (you can submit ideas questions or comments here, by the way).  The fortunate thing is that I have at my disposal the statistics for search terms which have resulted in a site hit.  Based on many of the highest scoring terms, I can posit that I've been helping students with their homework, but in a way that I don't like.

For all time the search term most used in finding this site is "No Man's Land."  No term could be more ubiquitous to the First World War.  It is so commonly understood that the term itself is indexed only once in a dozen selected histories (ie: the books on WWI that I own.)  It is evocative not just because the term defines what it does, but mainly by the way the words "No Man" conjure up sparsity, vacancy, death.

The use of the phrase pre-dates the war, defining the ground between two properties that belonged to neither land holder.  It was a fitting transfer from that to its better known usage; the land between two contesting armies after they had assumed mutually defensive positions.

When the momentum of open war and manoeuvre faltered and stalled, creating through France and Belgium the trenchlines and fortifications known as the Western Front, the land over which the infantry would have to cross to bring the fight to the enemy took on its nom-de-guerre.  Distance varied with the disposition of the lines, from hundreds of meters at its widest; narrower points measured tens of meters.

Despite its depth, or lack of, moving openly on this ground was to court death.  No defensive position is sited or occupied without the defenders prepared to bring fire down on all the approaches.  In a set battle, the risk was offset by covering artillery meant to keep the opposing force from resisting an advance and there are four years of example as to how well this process worked in an extended exercise of trial and error bought and paid for in human lives.

No Man's Land was so closely watched that a moment's exposure above the trench line could invite a sniper's bullet or give a trench mortar team something to aim at.  May as well, then, stay down and unseen until going over the top was no longer optional.

If only it were that simple.  Trenches need a lot of maintenance, particularly if they've been subject to shelling; the wire obstacles fronting the firing lines needed to be checked and repaired daily; and it is of crucial importance to know that the enemy is up to, even if he's only a few yards away.  Like the unnatural reverse of living below ground which trench warfare created, the nature of No-Man's Land insisted that work be done at night.

At last light, there would be a "stand to" where everyone on the firing line was standing ready at arms to repel an attack.  After sunset, and stand down, the real work began.  Fatigue parties would move forward to make repairs of trench and wire, working as quietly as possible, their efforts slowed by standing still each time a flare was sent to illuminate the ground.  Patrols would also slip out, to close the distance and view the enemy's capabilities, grab a prisoner for questioning or to cause a little mayhem before returning to friendly lines.  Some patrols would find the right lay of ground, camouflage it and remain as an observation post in No-Man's Land for days.

As the war went on, and the same land was contested, the area between the trenches became more un-worldly:  no buildings stood, no trees grew, only mile upon mile of churned earth and the wastage of war.  This vision, the black and white landscape of shell-holes and mud is the one usually playing in the cinema of the mind; a place foreign, forbidding and deadly.  Yet it still has to be gotten across.

I can empathize a bit with the spirits of the war, standing dry-throated and unblinking at a wide, bare land.  "If I stay here," is the shared thought, "I may be safe.  If I move forward, the risk of harm is great."  As things develop for me, I face my own No-Man's Land, represented in the steps I have to take to reach my goal; there's every possibility in which I can falter or fail.

If these men I admire had not made their crossing to engage the enemy, the war could not have been won.  To "win" my struggle, I too must set off over unknown and potentially dangerous ground.  If only I had half their courage.