Brigadier Hastings marches on

I had been ruminating about Sir Max Hastings’s piece, Oh, What a Lovely War, featured in the Sunday Times News Review section this week.

My first concern was: this is “news”?

It took a thread (rapidly spinning out of control) on to bring me to the utterance.

I must give full credit to persons of greater patience and tolerance than I clearly possess, who diligently pursued Max Hastings through his three-thousand words. Only when I skimmed to the end did I realise this was a puff for the republication of CS Forster’s The General. There can be, I am sure, no connection between:

  • the prominence the Sunday Times gave Sir Max here;
  • the publisher of The General, Harper-Collins, being another Murdoch company, and this essay being Sir Max’s preface thereto, recycled;
  • the paperback reissue of Sir Max’s Catastrophe, just three days earlier.

Why I found Hastings unconvincing

My first qualms came with Sir Max’s second paragraph:

Two generations later [i.e. after Siegfried Sassoon] the generals were caricatured by Alan Clark in his influential though wildly unscholarly 1961 polemic The Donkeys, for which the author belatedly admitted that he had invented the quotation attributed to the Kaiser, describing British troops as “lions led by donkeys”.

Well, Sir Max, there are only a couple of things wrong there:

1. Clark didn’t “invent” the quotation. A quick look at wikipedia gives a thorough history of the remark. In this precise context the attribution is to Evelyn, Fürstin Blücher, who heard it from General der Infanterie Erich Ludendorff:

We hear universally that the pluck shown by the English was almost superhuman when they were taken by surprise, and when through the failure of the Portuguese they were left to fare such great odds alone. Even Ludendorff, hard stern man that he is, confessed that he would take off his hat to the English for their absolutely undaunted bravery. He said they never lose their heads, and never appear desperate; thev are always cool and courageous until the very moment of death and capture. I will put it exactly as I heard it straight from the Grosse Hauptquartier: “The English Generals are wanting in strategy. We should have no chance if they possessed as much science as their officers and men had of courage and bravery. They are lions led by donkeys.”

I wonder how much of this criticism is true. It is, of course, difficult for me to judge, but it is nevertheless interesting to hear, coming from such a quarter.

2. Clark doesn’t attribute the quotation to the Kaiser. He does attribute it to a conversation between Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann. As to whether Clark “invented” that conversation, the main source is Ion Trewin’s biography of Clark, from a “friend”, and second-hand at that.

Sniping at a dead duck

Then Sir Max’s self-exculpation became, for me, bogged down in his efforts to denigrate Basil Liddell Hart. Admittedly Liddell Hart has been out-of-fashion for some time. Even so, his critique of Clausewitz has validity. It was Clausewitz who was the authority for throwing numbers at the enemy in the crude hope of bashing through. That, surely, is the accusation against the Great Minds who engineered one blood-bath after another on the Western Front. Liddell Hart’s counterproposal to Clausewitz’s “centre of gravity” thesis was to rely on socio-economic-political factors to reduce the enemy — I think Sir Max does Liddell Hart little justice in reducing this to:

an “indirect approach”, the possibility of attaining victory by manoeuvre rather than attrition [which is]proved justified only where defenders suffered a moral collapse, as the French did in 1940 and the British in Malaya in 1942.

Where Sir Max gets it aright, and to some extent confounds his own argument, is here:

The western front’s dominant reality was that the available means of defence proved more effectual than those of attack…

Between 1914 and 1918, British and French commanders were imprisoned by strategic realities, foremost among which was that if the allied armies remained supine in their trenches, they thus acquiesced in enemy occupation of a large swathe of France and Belgium, where 5m people lived under brutal subjection. Herein lay the answer to the oft-asked modern layman’s question: “Why did the allies keep attacking?”

Moreover, the Germans enjoyed another considerable advantage: they could concede a few yards or even miles of occupied territory wherever it seemed expedient to do so — to entrench on higher ground, for instance — while it was politically unacceptable for allied formations voluntarily to yield French or Belgian soil, even if doing so would save lives. The only ready means of escape from the horrors of the western front was to concede victory to the Kaiser.

That is an attempt to justify throwing armies, on foot, uphill, through mud, at deeply-entrenched and fortified positions, when the Germans had equally-well prepared second and third lines of defence.

Was there an alternative?

For the post I tried to sum up:

Churchill was wrong in assuming that the Dardanelles would be a soft option. The Great Military Minds mismanaged the whole operation. That doesn’t eliminate all possibilities of a Second Front, or successfully managed economic war against the Central Powers.

That is a way of suggesting that Liddell Hart was correct in assuming that Clausewitz was disproved by the strategies of the Western Front — at least until the arrival of the American doughboys gave the Allies new resources of haemoglobin and hardware to expend. I’d also suggest that it was economic warfare, Liddell Hart’s indirect approach that contributed to the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918.

On to Gallipoli?

In a while, with the centenary, we shall doubtless be invited to reconsider what the Dardanelles campaign was all about.

For the record: over Christmas 1914 three major considerations of the War were presented to Primne Minister Asquith, from:

  • Colonel Maurice Hankey, who had created and presided over the Cabinet secretariat for two decades;
  • Lloyd George, who was not usually given to putting his thoughts into written form;
  • Fpirst Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who never missed an opportunity to explicate his views.

All agreed that the war had become static, and — in particular — that in France the two sides were entrenched so firmly there were no flanks to turn, and frontal assaults would be bloody and short of results.

Which prompted Churchill to anticipate Liddell Hart and look for options.

He put up two:

  • The bolder was to use the Royal Navy’s command of the sea for an invasion of Schleswig-Holstein, threatening the Kiel Canal, liberate Denmark to join the Western Allies, and open up a Baltic Front. This “big idea” was refined into a proposal to seize the island of Borkum, just north of the Dutch frontier.
  • The alternative was to force the Dardanelles, with the option of a Gallipoli landing, blockade Constantinople, and bring Greece and the Balkans into the Western Alliance. Meanwhile Russians would march across Pomerania and lay siege to Berlin itself. A major obstacle was the coolness the old Admiral Fisher and the young tyro Churchill.

While we all now now why and how the Gallipoli venture failed, what cannot be totally faulted is that Churchill was one of the few who were prepared to consider ways of lubricating the seized strategies.


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Filed under History, politics,, Sunday Times

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