Friday, December 25, 2015

An interlude of human decency and reason when slaughter was the crown jewel of European statecraft.

A golden opportunity to die in
service to stupidity and arrogance.
During a House of Commons debate on March 31, 1930, Sir H. Kingsley Wood, a Cabinet Minister during the next war, and a Major “In the front trenches” at Christmas 1914, recalled that he “took part in what was well known at the time as a truce. We went over in front of the trenches and shook hands with many of our German enemies. A great number of people [now] think we did something that was degrading.” Refusing to presume that, he went on, “The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight the truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again.” He blamed the resumption of the war on “the grip of the political system which was bad, and I and others who were there at the time determined there and then never to rest. ... Until we had seen whether we could change it.” But they could not.
"Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce," by Stanley Weintraub, excerpted in "A Will To Peace." By John V. Denson, Mises Institute, 12/25/15.

6 comments:

  1. If what I have read is accurate, in many ways WWI was a more horrendous war than WWII (leaving out the Holocaust, of course). Trench warfare threw millions of soldiers at each other to die, simply because their commanding officers ordered them to take the opposing trench, for no real gains other than the slaughter of each other in extremely large numbers on both sides. (I've tried to filter out anti-war writers when coming to this conclusion.)

    Those who hesitated, or refused to attempt to attack the other side's soldiers over the piled-up dead of their own side, were shot by their own officers. Makes you wonder why "fragging" didn't originate in WWI instead of Vietnam (I'm sure there were instances prior to VN, but as a very rare occurrence, IIRC).

    If a better student of history than I can refute this, I'd be truly happy to learn I am wrong, but I don't think that is likely. Trench warfare was a whole new world of ugly. I understand the Swiss have been re-discovering some of this from frozen remains located in the Alps, secondary to melting or other forms of exposure of remains in areas where fighting took place in WWI.

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  2. It was an unspeakable war. I read Guy Chapman's _A Passionate Prodigality_ when I was in army basic training in '68. He was one of two survivors of his regiment. A novel _The General_ by someone whose name I can remember was severely critical of Haig as failing to grasp that cavalry were a thing of the past. He also failed to appreciate the significance of the machine gun. British regiments two while German companies or platoons had as many. Not sure of the ratio but it was clear that the Germans did appreciate its power. He also failed to appreciate the importance of artillery. Haig also demonstrated an incredible sang froid in criticizing troops for not showing sufficient spirit and hence faltering in the face of the horrific slaughter of the war. Fussell writes of the strange British refusal to build livable trenches and survivable shelters because of the strange belief that they would soon be moving forward and such an investment was unnecessary. In contrast, the Germans worked hard to make the trenches as livable as possible.

    Haig has his defenders and perhaps it can be fairly said that static warfare was what it was. Better use of artillery would have been great but Fussell indicates that the Germans just rode out what artillery was used and emerged relatively unscathed because of their overhead protection.

    If any of this is unfair to Haig I'll leave that to more knowledgeable to correct. The bottom line is that the life of the individual infantryman was an unholy hell in which he knew that as soon as he went over the top his chances of death or receiving horrific wounds were superb. That had to be a mental hell unlike any other. Youtube videos of victims of shell shock attest to the mental effects of this horror.

    The entire British standing army of 1914 was wiped out in the first year of the war suggesting that the real failure of the war was a political one. Not one thing suggested that the war would end by other than attrition. The warring powers simply could not summon the wit to end it. Perhaps that is the tragedy of America's intervention -- that it prevented exactly the kind of negotiated peace that had to, would have, or might have taken place.

    Even after the end of the slaughter, Lincoln Steffen's colleague reported at the Versailles Conference that all of the delegates wanted peace "but none of them was willing to give up those things that could not be had without war." The freshness of the experience of war, by then known to all, did not compel a different result than what was obtained. This itself was a massive failure of human intellect as punitive as the settlement was. And as contemptible as the war itself. Horrific slaughter due to military incompetence and political stupidity followed by a settlement that made the suffering and death a total waste.

    And here we are today with a freak for a president playing at war and diplomacy in the M.E. and oblivious to the danger. The neocons' love of war and the left's love of concentrating political power in the hands of fallible humans are taking us far, far away from what Mr. Wood hoped, a change in the political system. We have a constitutional requirement that war be preceded by a congressional declaration of war. That was the "system" established by the Founders and Ratifiers and it looked to give the people's representatives a say over the decision to go to war. They failed, as in many matters of constitutional law, to appreciate how politicians would betray their oaths and discover that their true political interest lies in cooperating with the opposing party.

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  3. PS -- The quote from Steffens is not exact. From my memory of reading his autobiography.

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  4. World War I was my war. No, I didn’t fight in it. (I’d have to be at least 115 years old.) But I made a special study of it: the last war in which everything was determined by modes of transportation and rate-of-fire.

    Yes, it was uniquely horrible. Yes, the generals tended to spend the lives of their men profligately. But the very worst thing about the Great War was that it began over nothing. A Serbian boy who hardly had a brain in his head was placed perfectly to assassinate an Austrian Archduke who had no chance at the throne and whose marriage was agreed to be morganatic: his children were forever barred from the line of succession. So the assassination of Franz Ferdinand came as close to being without political significance as a high-profile assassination could possibly be.

    The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s military supremo Conrad von Hotzendorff, who’d been looking for a casus belli under which he could decimate King Peter Karageorgevich’s Serbia, had finally found one – and Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was itching to invade France for no good reason at all, agreed to back him, even knowing that the Russian Empire would back Serbia and the French, allied to Russia by treaty since 1895, would back Russia.

    Britain, France, Germany, and Russia had agreed by treaty to preserve the neutrality of Belgium – which Germany planned to use as its invasion corridor. That forced Britain into the war, under the command of the least competent general ever to lead a British army: Field Marshal Sir John French, who remained in command from the outset through the end of 1915. To be fair, his successors Sir Douglas Haig and Field Marshal William Robertson were hardly better.

    The German war plan was essentially a copy of Hannibal’s battle strategy at Cannae: an enticement of the French through Alsace and Lorraine, which they’d lost to Germany in the Franco-German War of 1870, while a force of two million man and guns swept down through Belgium to take the French forces in the rear. Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of the plan, died in 1913, leaving it to Helmuth von Moltke. But Moltke was about as incompetent as Sir John French: he allowed the armies commanded by Prince Rupprecht to attack the French forces and push them back, ruining the plan’s strategic foundation.

    (continued on next rock)

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  5. (continued from above)

    While all that was going on, Alexander von Kluck, commanding the German First Army, foolishly directed his forces eastward into France, away from the right-wing sweep, which exposed that army to the assault from Paris assembled at the last minute by semi-competent Generals Joffre, d’Esperet and Gallieni. The resulting clash along the Marne River created the impasse of trench warfare that lasted four years and claimed nearly six million lives on the Western Front alone.

    On the Eastern Front, the Russian First and Second Armies met German “holding” forces commanded by General von Francois in a three-pronged engagement around the Masurian Lakes. The Russian First Army was stopped in its tracks after heavy casualties and forced to withdraw. The Second Army was so poorly commanded and so disorganized that it was utterly destroyed; its commander, Samsonov, committed suicide rather than admit his disgrace to the Tsar. Though the Eastern Front remained mobile, there would be no enduring gains there for either side until revolution swept through Russia, crippling the Russian war effort, forcing submission to Germany’s demands, and ejecting it from the war.

    The stage was set for the Western Front “war of attrition” that would decide the fate of Europe. Attack after attack went nowhere. Somme. Verdun. First and Second Ypres. Passchendaele. Tens of thousands died in futile attempts to cross the no-man’s-land between the trenches. The medium machine gun ruled the field until late 1917, when the British introduced the first tanks. Until then, few and far between were the decisive victories for either side.

    In 1918, strengthened by a million-plus American soldiers and America’s untapped credit resources, the combined forces of Britain, France, and the United States finally shattered Germany’s resolve. Britain’s naval blockade of Germany was steadily reducing the country to penury, while the 160 active divisions of the Entente Powers slowly but steadily forced the Germans to fall back through their “defense in depth” prepared positions.

    Yet, in one of the great ironies of warfare, not one Entente soldier entered Germany itself until well after the armistice of November 11, 1918. The German lines stood on foreign soil exclusively when she surrendered. Germany wasn’t so much defeated in the field as she was drained of interior resources and exterior will to fight.

    Estimates of the total casualties from the war vary widely, as the death totals were compounded by the virulent influenza epidemic of 1918. However, it’s been established that at least six million men died in the fighting on the Western Front alone. The spirit of Europe itself was mortally wounded. Socialism was spreading, seemingly unstoppable, as Europeans lost faith in the mind and heart of the individual and turned to collectivist fantasy as an anodyne.

    And all over the death of an insignificant noble and his wife.

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  6. A fascinating aspect of this is the thinking of Woodrow Wilson. His bizarre ideas of the preeminence of the executive and associated "progressive" ideas and his megalomania about a new world order cost America dearly and set the stage for a tragic elaboration of his "works" domestically. He was complicit in the advancement of the Bolshevik cause by aiding Trotsky's return to Russia with an American passport. The possibility of a negotiated peace evaporated in the face of Wilson's determination to involve the U.S. and thereby prolong the war.

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