At 0520 British Summer Time on the morning of 15 September 1916, a new epoch in the history of warfare began, as forty-nine “machine gun destroyers” belonging to a battalion of the British Army’s Machine Gun Corps (Heavy Branch) left their assembly areas opposite Courcelette, Martinpuich, and Flers. Or so the story has gone ever since, and doubtless will during the current centennial. Granting that mechanized warfare had to start somewhere, any useful assessment must include proportions, and if we include those proportions — especially the number of tanks involved and the degree of success achieved, the birth of what my former instructors at the Armor School called “The Combat Arm of Decision” does not look all that auspicious. Indeed, what we commonly see as a precursor of Guderian’s Sichelschnitt, Rybalko’s Kutuzov, Patton’s breakout, Sharon’s Gazelle and Schwarzkopf’s Desert Storm provides us with textbook examples of how not to prepare and execute any military operation let alone how not to employ armor. In the tank’s Great War baptism of fire, 16 of the 49 did not make it from the assembly area to their attack positions, becoming lost, ditched, or having thrown a track before joining the battle that they had been expected to decide. Of the 33 that crossed the line of departure, 17 either ditched or suffered mechanical failure before making contact, 6 were knocked out or damaged by enemy fire without reaching their objectives, 1 ran low on fuel in no man’s land and returned to British lines, and 1 got so lost that it wandered into another division’s sector. Rumbling forward at three and a half miles per hour, the remaining eight suppressed enough Bavarian infantry during the advance to make an impression; one tank caused enough panic among defenders of a strongpointed factory to aid in a significant haul of prisoners and another shot up an enemy battery. While the maximum gain of two miles with a haul of 400 prisoners came as a welcome tactical success to the division commanders involved, it was no more a strategically significant breakthrough than the bloodbath of 1 July had been.
This morning I commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Big Push on the Somme by listening to a rendition of Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire [https://youtu.be/B28BWhdnfx0]. Perhaps because accounts of such colossal human suffering are likely to dredge up a volatile mixture of emotions, there were second thoughts, but once fully alert and as intellectually detached as a scholar should be, I nevertheless embraced my choice. That sublimely irreverent ditty, now in its umpteenth version, captures the worst day in British military history in a way that disinterested analysis cannot. Never mind that most mainstream historians of the past 40 years have at least partly rehabilitated the song’s villains — the chateau generals and Colonel Blimps so derided by Liddell Hart, Fuller and, of course, Alan Clark, who probably fabricated that “lions led by donkeys” trope in the first place. While we’re at it, let’s also ignore the opposite end of the historiographical spectrum — the seemingly steadfast determination of amateurs and professionals alike to find some unduly transcendent meaning in what so many Tommies simply referred to as “The Great Fuck-up.”
Thoughts on Teaching World War I: Some Frames of Reference for 21st Century Kansans
This past semester, I offered a World War I colloquium (see below reading list) for the first time. After two weeks of historiography, I chose to focus on the Western Front, emphasizing the British Expeditionary Force’s role. Rather than a war-wide survey, I opted for a narrower focus that would reveal multiple and sometimes conflicting impressions of the same people and events, yet one that covered the war’s full duration. As English language sources and criticism thereof have most often informed U.S. awareness of those events, the BEF thus seemed like the place to start. That the most important American critique of World War I literature, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, focuses on the British — rather than the American — experience speaks to the relative belatedness and brevity of the latter.