Battlefields, Interpretation, and Memories.

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This week, I was lucky enough to take three days away from work to take part in a battlefield recce of First World War sites around Amiens in France. Battlefield guiding has become a passion for me in recent years and has brought significant benefits. I want to use this week’s blog to both promote those benefits and the organisation with which I travelled, highlighting the benefits military organisations can gain through involvement with battlefield study and co-operation with civilian tour operators.

In 2010, the late Professor Richard Holmes described the benefits of battlefield study thus: ‘There is a merit to visiting historical battlefields that no amount of theoretical study can replace. Educationalists recognise that participation is the key to learning, and field study – with its unique and unutterably poignant mix of battlefield, cemetery, and memorial – talks to both intellect and emotion. This is not an optional extra; this, surely, is core business‘. It is easy to pay lip service to such virtuous language, but it was only this week that I truly understood what the great man meant. I have been reading and writing about the Battle of Le Hamel since 2014 and have visited the site of the battle on a handful of occasions since then. I never really understood the battle until Tuesday but now feel significantly more qualified to describe it and to interpret it for those I guide. Let me explain.

The village of Le Hamel sits on the edge of the floodplain of the River Somme, at the foot of a curve of low hills, not far from the French city of Amiens. The hills encompass the village like a question mark, with the village hard against the top curve and a spur of ground poking towards it from the high ground at the base. Famously, General Sir John Monash’s Australian infantry, supported by British and French artillery, British tanks and aeroplanes, and a detachment of American troops, captured the village and the all-important high ground in a little over 90 minutes on the 4th of July 1918.  Although the battlefield is not large, being perhaps only a couple of miles long from the Australian start line to the final objective at the top of the low hill above the village, known as the Wolfsburg, it would have been no mean feat to have taken all objectives in so little time. Only by walking the ground and thinking about the writing on the subject in combination was it possible to understand it.

The key to the position, and the answer to the collapse of German resistance, were the two entrenched redoubts at the bottom of the ‘Question Mark’. The Australians stood on the high ground looking down into Le Hamel. Unfortunately for them the slope of the spur down which they had to proceed to attack the village was so gradual that the heavily defended ‘Pear Redoubt’ could not be seen. The only other route to the village passed between two small woods and into the gap between the German’s had inserted another redoubt, ‘Kidney Trench’. These positions were mutually supporting, with ‘Pear Trench’ clearly being positioned more for the support it could give ‘Kidney’ than for the perfection of its own position. This could only be gauged by walking the ground, when observed from the highest vantage point around, the Wolfsburg neither the distance nor the full effect of topography could be appreciated.

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The German position was strong, but it was clearly little developed, the ground chosen took advantage of agricultural landscaping rather than military engineering to achieve an adequate defence. The 2,500 Germans who occupied the two redoubts would not have been the elite stormtroopers of the Spring Offensive, rather they would be the remains of those units supported by fresh drafts and older soldiers. The Australians would have been far more motivated and it was easy to see how they would quickly have overcome German resistance. In fact, as I considered the position I recalled how I had witnessed Bravo Company, the 1st Bn The King’s Own Scottish Borderers with their aggression, fitness, and determination clear enemy forces from a purpose built position in short order during an exercise on Salisbury Plain in 2002. Behind the two redoubts was a wide open area of ground in front of the village, once ejected from their positions, the German defenders must have streamed back to the smashed village in absolute disarray closely followed by their assailants.

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The 2,500 Germans defending the obliterated remains of the village had clearly put up little resistance, the ruins presented a considerable obstacle, and would have taken the Australians days or weeks to clear in 1916 0r 1917. In addition to infantry, of course, the Australians were supported by a fleet of British Mark V tanks to which the defenders had little answer and terrifying aircraft providing close air support harrying their routed comrades. Until I walked the ground, I would have been sceptical of the claims made for Le Hamel, but having seen it, understood the human element, and the advantages of the Australians in terms of materiel and manpower the claims made for the battle looked eminently feasible. In short, by walking the battlefield I was able to understand it and whatismore I was empowered to teach in an authoritative manner.

But what of the organisation with which I travelled? I have worked with Simon Bendry’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme (FWWCBTP) since February 2015, and have acted both as a guide and in support as part of an embedded British Army contingent. These tours offer a unique opportunity for schools to take two children to the battlefields of the War and gain an in depth and relevant conception of the War itself, the nature of remembrance, and the effect of conflict on ordinary people. The Programme is government funded and received a grant of £5 million in 2014, it is run professionally and to an incredibly high academic standard and has taken thousands of children to the battlefields over the last 5 years. Those children have, in turn, completed community projects which have reached in excess of 15 million people across England. But perhaps the biggest winners in the programme have been the British Army; for very little cost, they have been party to this project and found engagement opportunities in communities into which the Army would have found it difficult to reach. The Army, I believe, should exploit the relationship more fully and invest in the Programme and I’d be interested to hear opinions from you all, particularly those involved in engagement.

Thank you for reading this little article, I would ask that next time you hear ‘Bottlefield Tours’ being criticised, you think back to this blog and challenge that view. Richard Holmes was right, we can understand warfare better by immersing ourselves in the shadows of its physical experience. We can also use it to our advantage in a military sense, by using it as an engagement media, using the values of those who served to educate the citizenry of the future.

Back next week with more concepts,

All the very best,

Barney

Strength in Numbers? Mass and Precision

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This week we return to the subject of clouded concepts with a look at ‘Mass’ and ‘Precision’. Let me take you back to the cold winter of 1983. The scene is a Rugby pitch on a frigid Saturday afternoon, the ground is just beginning to unfreeze, but the hard mud will feel like concrete to a mis-timed tackle.  Parents in warm coats eye their progeny with pride, this is Yorkshire, and I am the ‘Pack Leader’ of the Glenhow Preparatory School First XV. The whole team is huddled by the posts, legs like corned beef in the icy chill and there is only one topic of conversation, ‘How big are they, are they bigger than us, how much will it hurt!’. Size matters, as the moments tick by, nonchalance turns to interest, turns to anxiety, turns to terror; then the changing room door opens we behold the Orc army that has been sent to teach us the meaning of pain. These ‘humans’ are huge, at 5′ 8″ I am Lilliputian in comparison, as they come closer the smell of ‘Deep Heat’ and stale sweat assails the nostrils, they are not of this Earth.

When encountering an adversary, whether on a Rugby pitch, battlefield, or in a bar-room we make an assessment of his capabilities. Let us consider meeting our opponent in the context of a bar-room, he is alone and we are with a group of friends, we might feel buoyed by this advantage and in the ensuing fight, all things being equal, we might expect to win. We have done so by employing ‘Mass’, that is defeating him using sheer weight of force. If we want to find a military example, we need look no further than Allied victory in the Second World War: In simple terms Allied advantage in manpower and materiel was so preponderant that neither Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan could match it. In the case of Nazi Germany, even superior warfighting ability in some areas and technologically advanced weaponry could not counteract Allied industrial production and populations. In that example Mass was highly effective.

Now let’s go back to the fight, this time we are alone and our opponent has a pair of friends with him, but we are armed with a knife, are trained in its effective use, and recognise that our opponent is the key protagonist.  We use the weapon to neutralise our main opponent and his support, keen to avoid further loss, picks up their friend and exits stage left. ‘Mass’ has been defeated by ‘Precision’. The weapon utilised against the opponent’s critical vulnerability has overbalanced his mass. As an military example we might use the Six Day War of 1967 in which a smaller but better equipped and educated Israeli force brushed aside its Arab opponents with precision strikes against Arab airpower and armoured formations, leading to military collapse. Clearly both examples are rather simplistic, but they are used here to give a basic understanding of the concept. The important factor to remember is that even David made an assessment of Goliath before pulling out his sling and choosing his stones.

‘Mass’ and ‘Precision’ are described as sitting at either end of a spectrum. The conceptual choice of which end of the spectrum ones force is most appropriately configured on, or whereabouts on the spectrum is most realistic for one’s force, is usually made according to the amount of materials and resources available, access to technology, and the culture of the force itself but, and this is vital, it is possible to have a large quantity of ‘Precision’ and not be a ‘Mass’ force. As an example, US military doctrine is predicated on precision, but lots of it; it does not depend on ‘Mass’. The Western way of fighting, at least since the adoption of AirLand Battle in the 1980s, heavily favours ‘Precision’ and, it is argued, this is correct given Western advantages, even in post-modern warfare. The problem for the West is that faced with a ‘Mass’ opponent, it is difficult for many soldiers to make the intellectual leap away from ‘Mass’: that being outnumbered might not be disadvantageous.  There is a comfort in numbers; emotionally and cognitively size matters. Soldiers will always crave ‘Mass’ because they equate it with safety.

The inability to make that leap is almost ingrained in soldiers. At a RUSI roundtable discussion on the future use of the Army Reserve last year, Army policy makers were confident that they could create ‘Mass’ by the mobilisation of retired soldiers, it was estimated that this number was around 40,000.  The problem is that they cannot be armed and equipped and neither can the platforms which they operate be regenerated.  The British Army, it is true, is less exposed than say the RAF or Royal Navy to ‘Precision’, but if 3rd UK Division was left burning on the Steppe, no amount of volunteers could replace it, because the platforms and equipment which enable the fighting doctrine could not be replaced. The critical vulnerability for the UK and most European countries pursuing ‘Precision’ is that they have both failed to retain sufficient war stores to re-equip, and have insufficient reserves to regenerate a force trained to use them.  It is not that ‘Precision’ is wrong, rather it is that it requires greater resource than governments are prepared to give and a good deal more cognitive room than most armies are prepared to make.  

Back to Yorkshire in 1983. You may not be surprised to know that we beat the Orcs, yes they were bigger, but far more immobile, added to that we took a decision to keep the ball away from the scrum and use our speed and agility to our own advantage.  We recognised that their scrum was their critical vulnerability, and so by denying it room to act, we essentially defeated their ‘Mass’ with our ‘Precision’. Even back in the Cold War it was possible to think asymmetrically, even in Yorkshire! Bloody cold though!!

I hope you enjoyed my boyhood memories, yes I am that old!

Speak to you soon, all the best,

Barney