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Old December 13th, 2012, 07:53 AM   #1
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The Somme: 1916


I have read a history of the Somme campaign recently, and the Australian authors make Haig sound like one of the true monsters of history. This book I am reading now, by John Mosier, makes him sound even worse.

But William Philpott is more forgiving. Haig was indeed creepy person - excerpts from his correspondence and memoirs show that. But that doesn't mean that he was an incompetent commander. Should he have listened to the French a little more? Could he have avoided British casualties by embracing the tactics and strategies of Pétain and Fayolle? Of course. But these problems are to be expected when two nations cooperate in war. Additionally, the nature of the war was fundamentally new, and everybody was learning the rules for the first time. The Germans may have picked it up quicker, but they had a less liberal, less democratic, more militaristic society. And the Allies got the hang of it in time.

I lean toward Philpott's analysis, versus Mosier's. Mosier thinks the decisive turning point was the battle of Belleau Wood. In other words, the Central Powers had been consistently winning for the previous four years, and they were on right on the verge of complete victory, but the AEF saved the day. As an American, I would like to think so. But Mosier is an American too, and so I am skeptical of his assertions. Has patriotic enthusiasm upset his objectivity? A good historian must maintain some level of detachment.

I tend to agree with Philpott: the Somme, and its evil twin Verdun, were the decisive battles in WWI. The turning point was in 1916, not '18. I suspect that, while Mosier has studied WWI extensively, he is largely unfamiliar with the history of warfare in general. His academic background is primarily in literature and film; he only turned to military history later. I think he fails to understand the concept of a war of attrition.

He seems to take some enjoyment in quoting the casualty and fatality statistics. The numbers from each battle and campaign puts the lie to Allied propaganda. The French and British almost always suffered more casualties than the Germans.

The basic idea of attrition is simple, of course. The idea is not to gain ground, but to kill as many enemy troops as possible. However, those with no background in military history hear this and they then reason, in such a war, the side that inflicts more casualties must be the winner.

Mosier seems to delight in quoting the casualty figures. Official estimates from the time are grossly exaggerated, and in reality, the number of wounded and killed among the Allies was higher than the enemy's after almost every single battle. I don't doubt his numbers.

The communists traded 1.1 million NVA and VC fatalities for 58 thousand American. That is a ratio of almost 20 to 1. And yet we were the ones who broke down first. The point of the war of attrition is not what the absolute number is, but what each side is willing to accept. The communists were willing to accept these numbers; we were not. And in the end, the Germans could not tolerate the toll of the war either. The battles of 1916 marked the turning point.

Mosier makes a number of errors, in my opinion. It is suspicious that he quotes this tired old cliche:

Quote:
Clearly, advancing in long rows at a walk was a suicidal, but that was the plan. On 1 Jul 1916, the British infantry - all one hundred thousand of them - climbed out of their trenches in four distinct waves, and began to advance to the other side.
That is highly deceptive. Robin and Prior (the two Australians mentioned above) blow this myth to shreds. The tactics of advance were left up to the battalion command, and different battalions used different tactics. It is ironic that Mosier would perpetuate this myth in a book that, according to its own title, is attempting to deconstruct The Myth of the Great War. But, in 2001, Mosier did not have access to the work of Robin and Prior, so perhaps I should cut him some slack.

There is one thing that gives me pause. Philpott seems to downplay the contributions of the AEF a little. But, his ambitious work cannot cover every single detail. He spends a lot of time on the Somme itself, and then he tries to situate this in the overall narrative of the entire war. He cannot discuss everything.

I agree with Mosier that the Allies would not have won without the decisive contribution of America. Our material and financial support was critical, and our military helped deliver the killing blows. But, this war was won by four grueling years of industrial attrition, and even if the French and English were losing the war of numbers, even if they suffered 3 or 4 fatalities for every German fatality, they still inflicted these fatalities on the enemy, however inefficient and ugly the process might have been. That weakened the enemy, allowing the AEF to deliver the killing blows. Without the Somme, that would not have been possible.

I am interested in anyone's opinions on these matters.
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Old December 13th, 2012, 07:55 AM   #2

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If 1916 was the turning point then what was the 1918 Spring Offensive?
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Old December 13th, 2012, 08:11 AM   #3

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...That weakened the enemy, allowing the AEF to deliver the killing blows. Without the Somme, that would not have been possible.

I am interested in anyone's opinions on these matters.
Meuse-Argonne was hardly a killing "blow dealt by the AEF" which was one of five army groups involved, it was more of a diversion. Had the war continued into 1919 the AEF would have doubtless played a more leading role.
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Old December 13th, 2012, 09:42 AM   #4

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I agree with Mosier that the Allies would not have won without the decisive contribution of America. Our material and financial support was critical, and our military helped deliver the killing blows. But, this war was won by four grueling years of industrial attrition, and even if the French and English were losing the war of numbers, even if they suffered 3 or 4 fatalities for every German fatality, they still inflicted these fatalities on the enemy, however inefficient and ugly the process might have been. That weakened the enemy, allowing the AEF to deliver the killing blows. Without the Somme, that would not have been possible.

I am interested in anyone's opinions on these matters.
America's only major contribution to winning WWI militarily was from the potential to move massive amounts of troops.

Germany did not ask for an armistice because of American prowess on the battlefield. Far from it. In the beginning, because they were so green, many American doughboys were captured by the Germans with the Americans having no clue where they even were on the battlefield.

The concept of the US Marine Corps stopping a German attack toward Paris is also a complete fabrication. Ludendorf's objective in the Spring Offensive was the destruction of the BEF near Amiens. However, Allied units from the main reserve formations, almost entirely French were sent by Foch to reinforce the Amiens sector. When that sector's offensive was blunted, Ludendorf turned to other sectors of the line to try and remove the Allied reserves, which ultimately turned to an advance south. However, this advance was never intended to be toward Paris. Ludendorf's intention was to make it LOOK like they were moving on Paris to get Foch to remove the French troops from Amiens. And even if it was intended to go toward Paris, the main axis of advance taken by the Germans wasn't actually going toward Paris, but to positions east of the city, and since the Germans also failed to take two key supply and rail links, any gains they made in the sector wouldn't last long because they couldn't supply it. In that, Paris was in no real danger, and while the Marines at Belleau Wood could claim a victory, it was not a major blow against Germany's best troops blocking a major offensive. At best, it was a victory against secondary German troops attempting to make a distraction.

And after the Spring Offensive failed, the German army was largely a spent force. The offensive was an act of desperation, hoping to defeat Britain in one swift action, which would make France crumble without its British allies and leaving America alone and without a major supply base. It was only possible because of the surrender of Russian forces and was being carried out with the last ounces of Germany's strength. Because in reality, it was the Germans who were on the losing end of the attritional battle. While they may have been inflicting heavier casualties on the Allies, when one considers the massive French and British colonial Empires being funneled into the war effort, the French and the British in pure theory could afford the casualties. Germany, however, could not. It had an Empire, but it lacked the naval strength to bring its colonials to the theater that mattered most, the Western Front. And because of this naval weakness, Germany spent four years under British blockade. By 1918, Germany was tearing up its own streets and melting church bells to get the raw materials needed to give their armies the supplies needed to fight the Spring Offensive...

And once it failed, Germany was at the end of its rope. It's army was exhausted, and its last desperate effort had failed. It's people were starving and there were many circles within Germany that were turning to revolutionary movements that were confident after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. As the last days of the war arrived, the German Navy mutinied against suicidal orders to challenge the Royal Navy in direct combat and other groups launched uprisings against the German government, while the Allies launched the 100 Days Offensive against the defeated and exhausted German army...

The American fight as part of the Meuse Argonne offensive was part of the Hundred Days Offensive which included large numbers of British and French and their respective colonial troops as well. It was not a solely American victory and was against troops that were exhausted. And with more Americans coming, Germany then asked for an armistice, knowing that while France and Britain may be tiring, America likely wasn't, and while they hadn't unilaterally won WWI for the Allies, it was clear that they would play a more decisive role if the war went on. And to prevent the war from being fought on the soil of the Reich, they asked for an armistice.
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Old December 14th, 2012, 02:26 AM   #5
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If 1916 was the turning point then what was the 1918 Spring Offensive?
A desperate last effort more like.
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Old December 14th, 2012, 02:49 AM   #6

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The presence of the Americans on the western front in 1918 was crucial. Their very appearance was a huge boost to the morale of the allied armies and a crippling blow to the morale of the Germans. Both the Germans and the allies had bled at battles like Passendale, Somme and Verdun, daily loses on the Western Front on a quiet day were some 2000 casualties a day on each side. The situation for the French, British and German armies was grim.
But even as the allies reeled from the German offensives of the spring 1918 the allied soldiers knew help was on the way. And as the attacks ground to a halt, the remaining German troops realised their day was done. The ever increasing number of enthusiastic, fresh faced Americans brought dismay ro the Germans for whom defeat was now inevitable.
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Old December 14th, 2012, 03:43 AM   #7

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The presence of the Americans on the western front in 1918 was crucial. Their very appearance was a huge boost to the morale of the allied armies and a crippling blow to the morale of the Germans. Both the Germans and the allies had bled at battles like Passendale, Somme and Verdun, daily loses on the Western Front on a quiet day were some 2000 casualties a day on each side. The situation for the French, British and German armies was grim.
But even as the allies reeled from the German offensives of the spring 1918 the allied soldiers knew help was on the way. And as the attacks ground to a halt, the remaining German troops realised their day was done. The ever increasing number of enthusiastic, fresh faced Americans brought dismay ro the Germans for whom defeat was now inevitable.
A morale boost certainly, but hardly crucial.
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Old December 14th, 2012, 03:52 AM   #8

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A morale boost certainly, but hardly crucial.
It's always interesting to speculate. Do you think the year would have gone differently, esp. the Spring Offensive, had the US not come over?
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Old December 14th, 2012, 04:27 AM   #9

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A morale boost certainly, but hardly crucial.

Its not so much how it boosted allied morale but rather how it damaged German morale. By the end of the spring offensive the cream of German arny (stormtroopers) had been laregely destroyed and what was left were troops of lower calibre. Troops that knew that the Americans were coming, not in their hundreds or even their thousands but in their tens of thousands.
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Old December 14th, 2012, 05:33 AM   #10

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It's always interesting to speculate. Do you think the year would have gone differently, esp. the Spring Offensive, had the US not come over?
Its the arrival of the Americans that prompted the Germans into taking their winnings from the eastern front and gambling it all on the offensive in the west.

They were losing the battle of attrition, they were outresourced and while the British and French were improving their equipment the German guns were becoming worn out, there was starvation at home as the blockade bit and their allies were wavering.

If it had only been the British and French they might well have kept on the defensive and hoped to wear the opposition down, they had new farmland and resources available in the east after the collapse of Russia to exploit so there was hope for food supplies.

The arrival of new fresh American troops suggested in 1919 a pool of manpower with high morale that would overwhelm their defences, so their chooice was to double up and risk everything or on one throw of the dice or do nothing and guarantee a slow defeat.

They gambled and lost.
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