Friday


Going “over the top” at the Somme.

Going “over the top” at the Somme.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme (also called the Somme Offensive), which began on 01 July 1916. The Somme has become symbolic in regard to the military mistakes of the First World War, especially in its wastefulness of human life. On the first day of the battle alone the British lost almost 20,000 killed in action out of a total of 57,470 casualties. This went on for months, with the total casualties for all armies numbering about a million on this one battlefield — the exact number will never be known.

When I first began reading about the First World War I can remember that I was confused about “battles” that went on for months at a time. Verdun, like the Somme, was another “battle” that went on for months. Earlier in history, a battle was a conflict that was usually decided in one day, between sunrise and sunset — a battle possessed the Aristotelian dramatic unities of space, time, and action — and at the most in a few days. The Battle of Gettysburg went on for four days. One can easily make the shift from single day battles of classical antiquity to multi-day battles of the nineteenth century, when the confrontation was more complex, not least because the societies upon which the battle supervened were larger and more complex. But from four days to four months is more of a stretch, and the Battle of the Somme went on for four and half months.

Today we would call military engagements like the Somme or Verdun operations rather than battles, as in The Somme Operation or Operation Verdun. Understanding the Somme (or Verdun) as operations rather than battles places these conflicts on the strategico-tactical continuum, i.e., operational thinking lies between tactical exigencies and strategic thinking, and different talents and a different kind of mind is required for operational planning in contradistinction to tactical action or strategic planning. The fact that we still call The Somme and Verdun “battles” — a usage preserved from the era of the conflict — shows how little these engagements were understood at the time.

As the First Global Industrialized War, World War One involved many new elements unprecedented in warfare, primarily technological innovations. How these technological innovations came together tactically, operationally, or strategically was not understood, and it was not understood for the simple reason that no one had any experience of these technologies on the battlefield. World War One provided this experience, while the interwar period provided time to reflect, and resulted in definitive treatises like Heinz Guderian‘s Achtung – Panzer! and Giulio Douhet‘s Il dominio dell’aria. With the advent of World War Two, military thinking had caught up with industrialized military technology, and the Second Global Industrialized War was very different from the first.

I am sure that memorials will be held on this hundredth anniversary, and speeches will be made. For the most part, the Somme has passed out of living memory and into historical memory. What is the historical memory of the Somme? Today we primarily remember the bloodletting — not any nobility of sacrifice or military glory, not any technological innovation or bold idea. What we remember is the human toll.

Recently I learned a term for the human toll of conflict, “hemoclysm,” used by Matthew White to describe the mass bloodletting that was characteristic of the twentieth century — “A violent and bloody conflict, a bloodbath; specifically (chiefly with capital initial), the period of the mid-twentieth century encompassing both world wars” — and which specially marks the Somme. Unfortunately, the Somme no longer stands out for its human toll. During the Second World War there were far higher casualty totals for single days, mostly civilians killed when entire cities were destroyed in a single day or a single night, which is something like a return to the paradigm of warfare according to the Aristotelian unities — although we can no longer call these slaughters “battles” in good conscience, so, in this sense, they diverge from the classical warfare paradigm, as they also diverge in primarily resulting in the deaths of civilians.

Total numbers of casualties increased until World War Two, after which they began to decline — something I identified in an early blog post as the “lethality peak.” However, this steady decline in lethality — partly a result of improving technology and precision weapons, but also partly a result of changing human attitudes to industrialized slaughter — took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, i.e., the possibility of nuclear war, with its ever-present possibility of a greater number of casualties in a shorter period of time than any possible conflict with conventional weapons. If humanity every fights a full scale nuclear war, the casualties will be orders of magnitude greater than our conventional wars.

We call nuclear weapons “strategic weapons” as a concession to their limited utility in actual warfighting. The few examples of tactical nuclear weapons that have been built were considered controversial, because they lowered the threshold for nuclear conflict — notwithstanding the fact that the first use of nuclear weapons was as just another weapon of war — the latest innovation from the conveyor belt of new technologies served up by wartime industries pushed to the limit of their capacity. The attempts to “think the unthinkable,” i.e., to think clearly about nuclear weapons, most famously made by Herman Kahn, were primarily strategic reflections. However, we know that NATO would not pledge “no first use” of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, as the last line of defense for a massive Warsaw Pact tank invasion of western Europe would have been the use of battlefield nuclear weapons, so some tactical doctrine for nuclear weapons would have been worked out, but it is not likely to come to light for some decades.

Nuclear weapons today, like machine guns and barbwire, airplanes and mobile armor a hundred years ago in 1916, remain a technology not yet assimilated to warfighting, and for good reason. The possibilities of nuclear weapons have lain fallow because the powers possessing nuclear weapons have recognized that their use must not be allowed while their escalation would result in our extinction as a species. In other words, our planetary endemism made nuclear war suicidal. This may change eventually.

If I am right that the native range of an intelligent species is not the single world of planetary endemism, but to be distributed across many worlds, the weapons systems that we can today imagine but choose not to build in the interest of our survival may be seen to have a military utility that they do not possess today. When we have a full tactical, operational, and strategic doctrine worked out for nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, we may see a conflict played out on a scale that dwarfs twentieth century world wars as twentieth century world wars dwarfed all previous conflicts.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize

6. Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized

8. The August Madness

9. The Battle of Coronel

10. The Somme after One Hundred Years

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Christmas Truce

25 December 2014

Thursday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.

A Spontaneous Truce on Christmas Day 1914


In a summer war that was supposed to be over in a month or two, the fact that the war had persisted and even grown in scale over the intervening months meant that this was not the war that was expected, it was something entirely different. And it was. It was the first global industrialized war. Entire societies were mobilized for warfare; costs in lives and materiel spiraled far beyond anything anticipated. And the war drug on. The war had not stopped in the fall for harvest, as wars did during agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. The war had not stopped when the weather turned bad. And the war had not stopped when winter began. There were to be no winter’s quarters, only continued fighting.

Perhaps the most familiar images of the First World are those of trench warfare. The machine gun increased lethality while barbed wire slowed troop movements, leading to slaughter and stagnation on an unprecedented scale — an industrial scale. Even before machines guns, rifled small arms were beginning to make frontal assaults suicidal, as in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. No longer could soldiers stand shoulder-to-shoulder and wait to fire until they saw the whites of their enemy’s eyes. The contest of the battlefield would be settled long before ranks had closed at such a proximity. Instead, soldiers dug in, and only peeked above their trenches at the enemy, also dug in and peering from their trenches.

Many popular English idioms date from the trench warfare of the First World War, and we use them without thinking twice about their origins: in the trenches, over the top, no man’s land, and so on. Between the trenches was no man’s land, an area cratered by continuous shelling, and strung with barbed wire to prevent surprise trench raids. When the weather turned bad, the churned up soil of no man’s land turned into mud.

By Christmas 1914 the war had been stalemated for four months. The violence and misery had settled into a routine. The violence became so routine, in fact, that there are stories of soldiers on both sides warning the other side when then would begin firing. It is in this context that the Christmas truce (Weihnachtsfrieden in German, Trêve de Noël in French) occurred.

Here is part of an account of the Christmas truce by Frank Richards:

On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours’ rest – it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit — and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.

Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.

A longer account of the same can be found at Christmas in the Trenches, 1914.

What stands out about the spontaneous Christmas Day truce of 1914 is the humanity of the individual soldier. The conditions of the war had been inhumane one a scale not previously experienced in wartime. And yet soldiers were not so brutalized by the brutal war they had endured up to that time that they could not recognize the common humanity of fellow soldiers on the other side of the trenches, i.e., the humanity of their enemy. Common humanity is typically among the first casualties of war.

There was anger at the Christmas Truce at the highest levels of military leadership on both sides, where it was styled “fraternization with the enemy.” The generals knew very well that it would be all the more difficult to work their troops up into a homicidal fury if those troops identified more with the soldiers on the other side than with their officers and leaders. They need not have been concerned. The feeling of shared humanity among the soldiers at the front was not sufficient to bridge the gap between the warring powers, though it did provide relief for a day.

While the leadership was dismayed by the fraternization, there were others for whom it would not have been a surprise. Jean Jaurès, like Einstein and Russell, was among the few Europeans not moved by the August Madness. The French socialist leader had predicted that the next great war would mean that the working classes would slaughter each other on the battlefields of Europe, and this is exactly what happened. Jaurès was assassinated on 31 July 1914, as the war was breaking out in earnest, shot to death at a café in Paris, Le Croissant, by a young French nationalist angered by Jaurès’ pacifism.

Jaurès’ pacificism and international socialism died with him, but the essential solidarity of the soldiering masses was revealed in the Christmas Truce as in few other episodes in the war. Idealists — perhaps we should call them utopians — like Einstein, Russell, and Jaurès imagined that this solidarity might demonstrate the futility of the war to the working classes, who would do the greater part of the fighting and the dying, but that time had not yet arrived. Popular expressions of the futility of the war did not fully come to a head until the French mutinies in the spring of 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the fall of 1917.

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1914 Christmas Truce

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize

6. Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized

8. The August Madness

9. The Battle of Coronel

10. The Christmas Truce

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sunday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

Assassination may lead to war

Headlines around the World


The day after Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, the event was headline news all over the world, reaching all the way to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where The Evening Herald, a local newspaper that published from 1906 to 1942, boldly proclaimed that the assassination may lead to war. They were right — more right than they knew.

The role of telecommunications and the media in the first global industrialized war was central, and this was revealed hard on the heels of the role of terrorism in the actual assassination. Still in our time, the role of the mass media in breathlessly reporting terrorism plays a central role in the 24/7 news cycle, shaping both public policy and public opinion, which latter, in mass societies, plays a driving role in events. Mass man and mass media feed off each other and escalate events, sometimes in destructive ways.

In an earlier age, it might have taken weeks for the news to travel around Europe, and months to make it around the world, but the technologies of newsprint (invented by Charles Fenerty in 1844), Linotype machines (invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1884, the same year the Maxim gun was invented), the telegraph (first demonstrated by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, the same year newsprint was invented), transoceanic telegraph cables (the first completed in 1858, which failed shortly thereafter, but after several attempts regular transatlantic telegraphy was established in 1866), and the wireless telegraph (patented by Marconi in 1896, but preceded by a long train of antecedent science and technology), a nearly instantaneous global communications network was established and continually improved from that time to the present day.

With a global communications network in place, news of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was known around the world within hours of its occurrence, and global industrial-technological civilization responded as quickly with headlines and official responses to the assassination. Belgrade wired its official condolences for the killing to Vienna on the 29th, in England King George V decreed seven days of mourning, and then in Russia Czar Nicholas II, in a kind of grief one-upmanship, ordered twelve days of mourning.

Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić publicly renounced the Black Hand terrorist organization that was behind the assassination, even while Milan Ciganovich, a Serbian state railway employee who was also spying on the Black Hand for Pašić, was smuggled out of Belgrade by Pašić and sent to Montenegro. Despite official condolences wired to Vienna, when several days later the Austro-Hungarian government asked whether the Serbian government had opened a judicial inquiry into the assassination, the response was that, “nothing has been done so far and the matter is of no concern to the Serbian government.”

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

sarajevo postcard

Assassination in Sarajevo


There is something horrifically appropriate in the fact that the trigger for the First World War exactly one hundred years ago today was an act of terrorism. By the end of the twentieth century terrorism would again be a trigger for global events, but in the meantime the largest wars in planetary history were fought as symmetrical contests between peer or near-peer nation-states, and then the non-war, non-peace of the Cold War involved an ongoing contest between two power blocs that dominated the international system. Terrorism kicked off global industrialized war, and now since peer-to-peer global conflict has all but disappeared, terrorism is once again a power in the world, after being submerged by much larger and more systematic forms of violence. Terrorism has come into its own again, so that the assassination in Sarajevo appears not only as the momentous trigger of the first global industrialized war, but also has a foreshadowing of the world that would follow the long sequence of global wars of the twentieth century. We could, with some justification, call the twentieth century the Second Hundred Years’ War.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with an elephant he shot in Ceylon. The Archduke was an avid hunter, so there is something of poetic justice in himself becoming the hunted.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with an elephant he shot in Ceylon. The Archduke was an avid hunter, so there is something of poetic justice in himself becoming the hunted.

Before the First World War there had been smaller, regional industrialized wars. The American Civil War, with its use of rifled guns and artillery, the Gatling gun, and ironclads was an early glimpse of what was to come. The War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was another prescient conflict, as it may be thought of as the first “resource” war — it was also called the “Saltpetre War,” and demonstrated that nation-states would go to war to secure essential resources for their industries. Most demonstrative of all was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Its use of machine guns (the Maxim gun was invented in 1884) and the Battle of Tsushima between steel battleships, in which wireless telegraphy played an important role, foreshadowed the kind of warfare that would typify the twentieth century. (American President Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth, which brought the war to an end.)

Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

Despite these earlier intimations of industrialized warfare, the First World War was unprecedented in scope, scale, and catastrophic consequences. Millions died; empires fell; and a new way of war became inescapable. Any belligerent who persisted with outdated weaponry or tactics was not merely defeated in battle, but his social and political institutions were likely to be annihilated. Imperial Germany, Tsarist Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were all annihilated in a war they made possible. Global colonial empires were activated both to open new and distant fronts, as well as to bring colonial troops to Europe to witness the civilized Europeans at their most savage. After a long period of relative stability, the world was rapidly turned upside down, and in four years’ time the decisive break with the past had been made. Everyone knew that there was no going back. How could the assassination of one marginal man by another marginal man in a marginal provincial city be the trigger for the first global industrialized war?

Minutes before the assassination...

Minutes before the assassination…

In a relatively stable international system, wars almost by definition erupt only on the margins of the most advanced political institutions, and the more stable these institutions, and the longer lived, the further outward the margins are pushed, until the margins of the most advanced political powers are pushed into a region that has never benefited from the stability. The Balkans, always on the periphery of Europe but never one of the great centers of European civilization (at least, not since Periclean Athens), met this condition almost perfectly. Still largely rural, poor, and undeveloped, the peoples of the Balkans were nevertheless exposed to the most advanced ideas of Europe, and nationalism was one of the most powerful of these ideas. The idea of nationalism, and of a nation-state as the political expression of nationalism, was inflammatory in the ethnic mixture of the Balkans. The quotes that can be cited in relation to the Balkans are all so perfect that it is difficult to choose among them. Otto von Bismarck predicted, “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And, in explanation of why this should be so, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” Sarajevo was, in a sense, at the center of this periphery, and we should, like Bismarck, expect an incident in such a place to be the source of instability in an otherwise stable international system.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in state

Aged Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph had already lost his son and heir to a spectacular and scandalous suicide, and had to turn to the unpromising Franz Ferdinand as his heir. Though not the first choice in the succession to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand took to the role as well as anyone might be expected to step into such a role. Although often described as something of a dullard (similar things were said of the last Russian Tsar, also soon to be shot), Franz Ferdinand was in fact a reformer, and it is impossible to imagine how different the twentieth century would have been if there had been no First World War, if Franz Ferdinand has ascended to the Dual Monarchy, and had been in a position to put his reforms into practice, dragging the reluctant Hapsburg Empire into the modern world without requiring the sacrifice of millions (starting with the heir to the throne himself) for this to happen. Precisely because Franz Ferdinand was in a position to influence the fate of the Hapsburg Empire, a strike at the Archduke was an existential threat to everything that empire represented — as it turned out, a successful existential threat, which, by striking the monarchy itself, decapitated the empire. Thus while authors have competed with each other to describe Franz Ferdinand in unflattering terms, he was the crucial man in the Hapsburg Empire, and not the marginal figure he is sometimes made out to be.

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding at the time of their assassination on 28 June 1914.

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding at the time of their assassination on 28 June 1914.

Gavrilo Princip was a committed terrorist, i.e., a man who was prepared to kill and to die for ideological reasons. In other words, Gavrilo Princip was the prototype, the progenitor, and the model of a type of figure that would become increasingly common in the twentieth century, and who is still common in our time. Ideologically motivated terrorism requires an inscrutable synthesis of individualism and self-sacrifice that could not have been produced before the industrial revolution, and the conditions for producing the type in any number only came to full fruition in the twentieth century, with its mass societies of millions and its rising living standards that encouraged even the lowliest to think that they could leave their mark upon history. History was no longer beyond the reach of the ordinary man: history had become personal. A similar sentiment was expressed by a very different spirit, Rupert Brooke, in his poem Peace: “Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour.” Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand, and Gavrilo Princip were all together matched to their hour, and the confluence of these three meant that the global industrial-technological civilization taking shape at that time should be crucially shaped by global industrialized warfare.

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1914 to 2014

. . . . .

A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

. . . . .

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signature

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Grand Strategy Annex

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