Thinking about generals

Yesterday on TMP, a poll suggestion arose about people’s favourite generals.  It was nice to get something like this rather than who is the ‘best’ which inevitably leads to pointless unwinnable arguments.  The answer for me was instantly Marlborough, as anyone who has read this blog would probably guess.

File:John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt.jpg

Marlborough – instant favourite on the NDC top ten list of historical personages.

But then I thought through my second and third places.  It took very little time to come to the conclusion that Hannibal was next on the list, but then there seemed to be a bit of a gap before a gaggle load of competitors vied for attention.

Hannibal – second because of Zama – and cruelty to elephants…

Until I refocussed on the question – favourite does not have to mean the most successful or egotistical all-singing all-dancing conqueror of all-time.  And my thoughts were drawn to a name few would probably think of – Mikhail Tuckhachevskii.

Micky T –  Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Darth Vader and Karl Marx all rolled into one.

I first read about Mikhail in the writings of JFC Fuller.  Fuller wrote of a wild-eyed nihilist, a man who wanted to emulate Genghis Khan in wiping out Western Civilisation.  I was very attracted to this character.  Not that I wanted to see the end of civilisation mind you.  Like Kenneth Clark in his famous television series of the same name, I have to admit that I am quite fond of being civilised and not at all certain that Barbarism is my cup of tea.  But I had to admit there was something rather primal and magnetic in this description of the man.  

A few years later when I had a bit more of a critical academic eye than that of a 16 year old war buff, I realised that Fuller had written for effect.  That what he had meant to say was that he hated Communism and he would make this general a symbol of all the things he feared Communism would bring.  Old Micky lost a little of his mystique.  But this was replaced by a whole new appreciation for him as a general.  Yes, he had lost the Battle of Warsaw (well, Budyenny and Stalin had lost it for him…), but what he would later do as head of the Soviet armed forces and his concept of deep battle marks him as one of the greatest military minds of the Twentieth Century.  Even though Stalin had him killed in 1937, it was the ghost of Tuckhacheveskii that won the Second World War.  I firmly believe that had the Cold War gone hot in Europe then Mikhail’s ghost would have led to the Soviet conquest of Europe.

So Tuckhachevskii came third – although I still like to think of him as Fuller’s dark angel of the apocalypse now and then, and this little bit of nostalgic whimsy has a strong bearing on the ‘favourite’ tag.

Interestingly, none of these men was ultimately loved by his country.  Marlborough fell from favour and was replaced by the Queen he had served so loyally (kind of… long story); Hannibal was exiled and eventually committed suicide; And Tuckhachevskii ended up with a bullet in the head to remind him of all the great things he had done for the Soviet Union.  Admittedly Marlborough was restored by George I in 1715, but by then the war was over, France had won the peace and the Duke was left with a home his wife wouldn’t stop complaining about for the last couple of years of his life.

Anyways, I have a Soviet WWII Flames of War army I am in the process of finishing off, and DBA armies for the Punic Wars, but I have no Marlburians, having sold them off in order to buy more toys.  Never fear, though!  I have a cunning plan…  Using the Foundry 1644 rules and Wargames Factory plastics I am going to build up 28mm British and French Marlburian armies!  Huzzah!  Now I just need to buy them.  And paint them. Sigh.



Myths of the Great War pt. 3

Here is the final installment of my musings on the First World War.  After  this, it will be back to little toy soldiers for a while.  I painted the camo green on all of my Egyptian vehicles today. Will try to get the tracks painted tomorrow and then a little weathering and they are finished.  First painting that I have done in a while, and with a week to go until the holidays, time to step up the production process.

The worst Possible Outcome

  • The British Empire was fundamentally weakened by the effects of the war.  World financial leadership passed to the USA.
  • France cemented its decline with irreparable losses in manpower and national treasure.  In return it was unable to dismantle Germany and assure its own security.
  • The US gained a voice at the peace conference leading to the triumphant realisation of Wison’s idealist views with no understanding of the realities of Europe.  The result of national self-determination was a power vacuum in Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR.  The sponsorship of ‘democracy’ as the best form of government in unstable environments led to the great crisis of democracy in the 1930s.
  • Disillusionment with democratic governments dominated by traditional elites would lead to polarisation in politics between the left and the rights that would end in civil war, dictatorship or defeat.
  • Russia remained essentially intact with an aggressive totalitarian communist regime that would seduce intellectuals and workers in the west and undermine liberalism from the left.  It would go on to conquer Eastern Europe, creating an environment for cold war. Ironically the same outcome would have occurred had the allies been quickly victorious in WWI.  The only difference (and it is an important one) would have been that Russia would have been even stronger under a capitalist system that supported another noxious philosophy of government – absolute autocracy.  And in this case, Russia may have been victorious in the Cold War.
  • A League of Nations was formed that consisted of every nation except the most powerful – the USA; the defeated – Germany; and the largest nation on earth – the USSR.  It was doomed to failure from the beginning.
  • Versailles was a peace of victor over vanquished, but the victors were not draconian enough to make this work. Either Germany had to be partitioned and weakened so that it was no longer any possible threat. or it should have been accepted as an equal at a Congress like  that at Vienna in 1815.  The mobilistaion of hatred by the Allied propaganda machines would never allow the latter; the lack of realism amongst the US delegation prevented the former.

SO in summary, I believe that Russia was chiefly responsible for starting the global war in 1914, that Britain should not have intervened, that Germany did not represent evil, nor even a threat to democracy.  That  for the continental powers, the war was not pointless until around 1916 when sanity could no longer prevail due to the strength of the propaganda machines of which the politicians had lost control.  That the generals were unable to prevent high casualties no matter how good they were (and some were very good… and some were very bad).  That the peace settlement was the worst possible outcome in that it did not create security and indeed made a second war likely, and that the influence of Woodrow Wilson was largely to blame.

And that is all I have for now.  I would like to expand on a few of these points at some stage, but for now I am just happy to have put them in a place where they can be read and either scoffed at or thought deeply about.

Next… Egyptian Army 1973.


Great War Myths part 2

Following on from my central thesis that the Great War was the direct result of Russian expansionism and that the British Empire effectively fought on the wrong side, are several other observations which are not quite so contentious but are nonetheless removed from accepted ideas.

The Modern Age of Warfare

This section is not as inflammatory as it may once have been, due to the rise in the academic community of a more balanced assessment of military capabilities in 1914.

  • The first point to make is that industrialised warfare is expensive in terms of human life when both sides have the same levels of technology and a will to win.  John Terraine made this very clear in his book ‘The Smoke and the Fire’ where he compared British losses on the Western Front in 1914-18 each year with the per annum averages in 1944-45.  The results actually favoured the First World War generals.
  • The technology simply did not exist to effect breakthroughs followed by sweeping advances.  The Generals cannot be castigated for failing to do the impossible.
  • The generals on all sides were asked to win the war.  That requires attacks.  By and large they did this competently, and where they did not new learning and techniques were incorporated into doctrine, or experience in general improved command.  The worst commanders were removed.  Again, the generals cannot be held accountable for things they di not know in advance,or experiences that no-one had ever encountered to the same degree.  Even in Virginia in the American Civil War and Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War, there were open flanks and numerical imbalances to exploit.
  • The generals ( particularly Allied) jumped at new technology and tactics when they were developed.  There was nothing moribund about the commanders in their quest to achieve victory.
  • By the end of the war the German army was exhausted and defeated – Germany had expended too many resources fighting on too many fronts.

Propaganda prevents peace

Probably my next most contentious point, and one that seems to escape those so ready to condemn the generals as butchers, is the degree to which they couldn’t stop attacking.  This was the result of the greatest propaganda campaign ever waged up to that point in history.

  • The mobilistaion of media to justify the war and vilify the enemy made it harder to call an armistice and hold a peace conference.  The longer the war went the more difficult it was for politicians to propose peace talks. ‘People’s War’ had prevented rational discretion when it came to the cost of modern war.
  • The first two and a half years of the war were not in any sense futile.  They represented a collection of struggles that as far as people at the time could see, might have brought victory – e.g. Germany’s semi-successful Eastern strategy or the Dardanelles option.  1916 was the year of Western confrontation and the failure at huge cost in terms of lives and treasure of all the offensive options.  Verdun for the Germans and the Chantilly strategy for the Allies were total failures.  At this point it would have been rational and acceptable for armistice overtures from both sides and for peace talks to have taken place.  The belligerents were faced with massive debts and huge casualty tolls. A continuation of war would likely see social breakdown and political anarchy.  Yet, the sensible was impossible.  Politicians had painted themselves into a corner – the patriotism used to weld together differing political viewpoints had taken the power to make peace away from the politicians.  It is art this point  that the war became futile – the benefits of victory by any side would never be able to outweigh the costs.

The enduring myths to justify the war

  • That the war stopped a global German hegemony that would have been brutal.  The evidence given for this is the treatment of Belgian civilians by occupying forces in 1914.  Yet these were actions taken in fear of the rising incidences of guerrilla warfare (francs-tireurs) in the Early Twentieth century and were not in any way comparable to later Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing.  They seem nowhere near as outrageous when compared with the British actions in South Africa during the Boer War, or for that matter, (in a more parochial example) New Zealand activities in Palestine.  Germany was neither evil, nor uncommonly brutal.
  • The war was against militarism.  Germany was in the process of cultural and institutional development.  It already possessed a more advanced level of suffrage and highly developed social welfare state than the UK in 1914.  The army was certainly prominent in society, and was made even more so by the Kaiser himself.  Yet the Navy was forming a focus for German (as opposed to Prussian) national pride, and the Reichstag was on the road to constitutional change in an evolutionary process.  The importance of the army in Russia, France and Austria-Hungary and the Navy in Britain were just as ingrained even if not as politically pronounced.  Even the ultra-nationalist and racist groups that historians (with far more concern over events 20 year in the future) like to point too had mirrors in Russia, Austria, France and even Britain.
  • The war was to make the world safe for democracy.  If democracy was the aim of the war then Britain and France has a strange bedfellow in Russia.  If by democracy we mean national self-determination (and there is no way that Britain and France did), then Sykes-Picot is hypocritical at best.
  • Germany was to blame for the war.  It was easy to justify this given the Kaiser’s aggressive attitude towards diplomacy in the Moroccan crises and Germany’s invasion of Belgium.  But it belied the role of Russia and its French ally in antagonising the situation in the Balkans.  The war guilt cause simply justified a victor’s peace.
  • The war was a moral crusade.  It was fought, like most wars, for reasons of power politics. This is a valid reason for war.  But the stakes were not as high as the belligerents – particularly the politicians and media – made out. A compromise peace WAS a rational alternative – there were no great evils on either side that could not be tolerated.   The war actually became immoral when the costs outweighed any political benefits.
  • Finally, from a more insular perspective, the common currency that New Zealand was born as a nation in a baptism of blood at Gallipoli.  The truth is that NZ continued to identify as part of the British Empire, refusing to accept the Convention of Westminster which effectively granted independence.  New Zealand’s sacrifice was as part of the British Empire, not as a new nation.  Unlike Australia, which only federated in 1901, New Zealand had participated in the Boer War as a recognisable entity, and had already noted the differences between their own outlook and that of the Britons and various Australians.  It is possible that this is the first moment in the development of our national identity – it may even have had a bearing on our refusal to accept federation with Australia.  Nevertheless, New Zealanders did not really stop seeing themselves as little Britons until the entry of the UK into the EEC in the 1970s.

One more section to come on the outcomes of the war and then I will be back to regular updates of small painted bits of anthropomorphic lead.


Myths of the Great War

In the wake of Armistice Day I thought I would make a brief divergence from pure wargaming and give an insight into some of the conclusions that I have come to regarding the first great conflagration of the Twentieth Century.

I have mentioned on earlier blogposts that the First World War is the conflict that drew me towards military history and indeed my defining image of war.  I have spent more time thinking and reading about this war than any other, canvassing the pro and anti war literature, the defenders and attackers of the generals, the perspectives of the British Empire, France and Germany, the influence of the media machines – even the influence of the war on art.  So I have not come to any conclusions lightly, changing my opinion on certain matters several times, and indeed there is no guarantee that I won’t recant my current positions as well one day. I’ve called this myths of the Great War because I believe that we have mythologised this war to overcome the absolute horror of the conflict.  It is becoming more noticeable in New Zealand that the image of ANZAC has distorted and indeed subverted the historical record in rather concerning ways.  At any rate, outlined are my main trains of thought which will be disagreed with vehemently by some, cause others to rethink their own ideas, and may even confirm some views  that others have held.

The Wrong Alliance

In this section I will look at the decision of the British Empire to enter the war against Germany and argue that it would actually have been in their best interests to align themselves against France and Russia.

  • Germany was under a ‘siege’ mentality, allied solely to a deteriorating power in Austria-Hungary.  In a sense it had been isolated – not just by its own mismanagement of foreign affairs but also by skillful French diplomacy.
  • Britain joining France and Russia did not create a balance of power – it destroyed it.
  • Britain’s fears of Germany were based on its growing economy and navy. Yet by 1914 Britain has clearly won the naval race and Russia’s economy was the nascent ‘tiger’ of Europe.  it would have made sense for Britain to ally with a strong naval power as it had done with Japan in the east, neutralising any threat of conflict with Germany and effectively warning off any other potential rivals, notably France, Russia and the United States. The two strongest economies in Europe could have created free trade agreements that further stimulated their economic growth, again focused on staying ahead of Russia and competing more effectively with the United States.  The acquistion of the Portuguese colonies by Germany would have placated much of the German colonial jealousy with no threat to the British Empire.  For those that say this was impossible, the thaw in Anglo-German relations after 1911 needs to be re-examined.
  • Even had Germany attacked and defeated France in 1914, this had happened 43 years before and France had survived. European civilisation had not ended.  In fact, as Niall Ferguson argues in his book The Pity of War this would have been the perfect opportunity to create a customs union along the lines of the EEC, but at a much earlier period in history. But this is Niall’s arguments, and if you want to know more I suggest reading his book.  I don’t agree with everything he writes, but we do converge on this point.
  • Russia posed a far more serious threat to Britain than Germany did.  Russia was an unrepentant autocracy and a massive nation of incredible potential power. If allowed access to the Mediterranean by way of Constantinople it threatened the British Empire’s communications through the Suez canal.  It bordered Afghanistan and threatened British interests in India and the Middle East.  An Allied victory would see any future Anglo-Russian confrontation with Britain at a serious disadvantage.  Yet having poured cold water on notions of an obvious German menace to the British Empire, at what point do I believe that Russia would be any more dangerous?
  • Russia was pursuing a reckless and aggressive foreign policy by proxy in the Balkans.  Unlike the Kaiser’s posturing that was often lamented by the German public and was more to sooth his bruised and fragile ego than anything else, Russia had real issues at home that needed to be refocused by expansion.  Just ask George Kennan, the architect of containment. His central thesis was that if Russia does not expand it collapses internally. This worked in regards to the Cold War, and was evident in 1905 where the defeat by Japan rocked the Russian establishment.  Denied the chance to expand eastwards, blocked by the British Empire to the south, Russia could only look west. And here was a situation that was perfect for them. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were in trouble from the growth of nationalism. Russia could pose as the leader of the Pan-Slavic movement, the Big Brother of the little Balkan states, and use the situation to its territorial advantage.  With the Triple Entente Russia knew that the odds were moving in its favour.  had Britain clearly aligned itself with Germany, France would never have allowed Russia to go to war over Serbia – peace would have been preserved.  An Austrian victory over Serbia (by no means a guaranteed outcome given the record in 1914) would not have been detrimental to any power except Russia – and even then only because Russian prestige would have been dented again.  A better outcome than millions of dead.

The next blogpost on this topic will look at Modern warfare and the devastating effect of mass-media and propaganda.

Incidentally, I went to Cambridge yesterday for the annual commemoration event there which includes militaria and reenactments. It was great to see a working T-34/85 close up, and I appreciated the reenactors’ efforts – especially for the Second World War.  So here’s a couple of pictures:

Me and a T-34/85. A real treat, and it even had a bottle of vodka by the driver’s seat!

The Kiwi’s camp – I missed the demonstration by the 5.5″ the day before.

The Germans killing all of the American reenactors (pretend) only to be defeated by the NZers.  Who said that we’re parochial?!

The Germans had a real sense of ‘cool’ about them and their uniforms and equipment.  They go to lengths to emphasise that they are not Nazis, and I guess someone has to be the ‘baddies’.  Certainly I’m considering reenacting, and would quite like to do something WWI – either German or New Zealander (I’d be a lonely soul being French I think).  But I don’t think I could ever bring myself to go anywhere near dressing up as anything associated with Nazi Germany in any way.  The only reason I have German wargames troops is because it is really unsatisfying playing WWII in Europe games without them…