Friday, October 8, 2010

Bizarre Footnotes to History

Did you know that the Federal Republic of Germany settled the last of its WW1 reparation debt last Sunday?

Seriously. That's what happened.Well.

There's that done.

Completely aside from the utter oddity in the final payment of the Kaiser's punishment coming from the post-reunification, post-denazified, post-a-whole-'nother-world-war Germany, the thing that this strange little news item makes me think of is the almost unencompassable effects that dismal war has had on human history. When you think of what might have been had the European Great Powers not hurled themselves into war through a combination of hubris, stupidity, patriotism, ignorance, and animosity, of the impact the War had on people's lives, and in some ways is affecting them even now...well, perhaps the final payment may even have been a little precipitate.

In human history there have been many great hinges of Fate. But I honestly can't think of one greater or more terrible than the First World War.And as a soldier, I always think about the First World War whenever someone quotes to me Bobby Lee saying "It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it." Now, I'm a military history buff and I understand the pre-industrial context and the tradition of Heroic war that Lee's statement embodies. But I can't imagine anyone but a fool or a madman saying that after the Somme, or Verdun, or Passchaendale, or Chemin des Dames. He was fifty years ahead of his time, but it was 1914 that finally killed off Lee's notions of war and replaced them with Bill Sherman's;

"You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out."


  1. That payment was wrongly characterized in some media. It wasn't a final direct payment, but a final payment on a kind of loan or bond which existed because money was loaned in the 20's to pay the actual reparations.

    Germany got almost about as many foreign loans as it paid reparations in the late 20's and stopped paying reparations in the 30's. The payments post-WW2 were rather small.

    For comparison; the UK is still paying back debt from the Seven-Years-War (1756-1763) because it issued some eternal bonds back then and never had an inflation which reduced the annual repayment (a pound) below a meaningful level.

  2. Looking down the page at the article linked in the post, I note that they do correctly identify this payment as for bonds issued by the Weimar government in the Twenties to cover debts incurred paying off the reparations/indemnities from Versailles.

    But the main point here is that, like the debts themselves, the effects of the Great War are still with us in many ways, often in ways we don't understand or observe directly.

  3. "More than three-fifths of the entire French forces were ground in the mill of the Meuse area before August, 1916. That they were able, in spite of this, to take part in the operations on the Somme, must be attributed as regards 'personnel' to the unexpectedly extensive use of colonial troops, as regards 'material' entirely American support. The part played by America in this way was also important, in that she alone made it possible for the English to carry on the Somme struggle as long as they did. The participation did not indeed violate the letter of international law, but it meant a slap in the face for real neutrality. On the one hand, America was seeking to prevent Germany from using weapon against her deadly enemies, partly by appeals to international law coupled with veiled threats of war, party by protestations of her peaceful intentions. On the other hand, the Great Republic not only shut her eyes to the grossest violations of this same international law by these same enemies, but even supplied them on a large scale with the weapons for Germany's destruction. We may think what we like about America's attitude towards the war. The shame which such conduct has brought upon her will never be wiped out."

    Erich von Falkenhayn, "General Headquarters, 1914-1916", 1920, pp 268-69.

  4. The thing that makes WWI the "Great War" in so many respects is that it was a war of assumptions using past battlefield theories with "modern" equipment.
    The Machine gun pretty much rendered the infantry charge ineffective, the mass volley of the rifles and machine guns rendered ineffective by the tank, the tank rendered ineffective by artillery, artillery rendered ineffective by aeroplanes.
    It was a war of change, but the assumptions of the war's execution is what made it a bloody mess.
    Hence, if you look at the development of the pre-WWII strategic thinkers...they all were involved in, and took their experience of WWI and learned the lessons well.

    Which is why WWII was such a bloody wreckage of life and limb, worse ever than WWI could ever hope to be...we had gotten better at war.

  5. Machine guns were few in 1914 and infantry charges were still extremely bloody. Infantry attacks were actually always extremely bloody if they didn't break the defender's will before impact - for thousands of years.

    There had been no really modern great power war in Europe for more than a generation (a generation of rapid technological and economical change).
    There were so many novelties in the war that it's really difficult to tell which contributed how much to the mess. Machine guns are typically overrated, though.

  6. Oh, machine guns were a plenty in was the new hotness...every army wanted some, and every man who slapped bolts really dug the lead output.
    Nothing says, "mine is bigger than yours!" than toting a Lewis.
    Just as tanks later on became the new hotness, of which planes, though still novel...were still creatively employed...but not against the tanks.
    Tanks had thin skins, and break downs in the middle of a fight...yeah, that had to be a thing to be in when the lead was flying and the commander says, "uh oh" as the big pile of metal stops cold in the middle of no mans land.
    And nothing says, "hi!" like a plane dropping 10lb grenade-like bombs on people...of course, I think that was more annoyance than effective harassment, but still, a dozen planes coming in and saying "Hi!" has to have a certain degree of annoyance that can't be discounted.
    Not sure about strafing...haven't read to much about that...not discounting it...just don't have much info if it was employed or not effectively.

    Artillery though...still...the queen of the the charts of obnoxiousness to infantry.

    But my main thesis is that WWI was a clumsy sausage grinder in comparison to WWII, which, imo, was a top of the line cuisinart for human life.

  7. Ah, artillery is the King of battle, the great killing machine that it is. Infantry is the queen of battle, quick, mobile and deadly, like the chess piece.

  8. "'As the sun set on 8th of August on the battlefield', writes the author of the German official monograph on the battle, 'the greatest defeat which the German Army suffered since the beginning of the war was an accomplished fact.' It was the terror the tanks instilled, more so than their killing power, which led him to entitle his monograph 'Die Katastrophe des 8 August, 1918'. It precipitated, not the final retirement after a ding-dong battle, but an initial rout without fighting - this was the unexpected novelty. Without the tank there would have been no surprise commensurate with the one achieved, and it was the suddenness of the assault which detonated the panic. Added to this, the feeling of utter powerlessness of the soldier on foot, when faced with an antagonist no rifle or machine gun bullet could halt, instinctively led him to exaggerate the danger in order to mitigate the ignominy of immediate surrender or flight - the tank was a psychological, more so than a material weapon."

    JFC Fuller, "The Conduct of War, 1789-1961", 1961, p 176.

  9. "Machine guns were few in 1914..."
    "Oh, machine guns were a plenty in WWI..."

    No conflict here. My point was that the trench war with the characteristics of 1915-1916 begun long before machineguns became plenty. Battalions of 1914 had only about half a dozen each.

  10. "Battalions of 1914 had only about half a dozen each. "

    Six machine guns can cover quite a bit of ground. And a firing rate of a couple hundred rounds per minute each compares with a lot of rifleman, particularly if the commander makes sure that the most competant and reliable guys are on the machinegunes.

  11. Excuse me, it was half a dozen per regiment.

    The German army had in the battle of Tanennberg (Eastern Front) in late August 1914:
    153 infantry battalions, 52 cavalry squadrons,
    728 guns and only 296 machine guns.

    144,000 infantrymen, only 296 machine guns. That's a ratio of 487:1 without even looking at the cavalry.

  12. I think we're straining at gnats here.

    Military technology had been allowing the defense to gain on the offense since, what, probably the middle of the 19th Century. The trenches around Petersburg wouldn't have (shy a little barbed wire) looked all that out of place along the Somme.

    But it was between 1915 and 1917 that the defense pretty much played the offense a dead stymie. It took the innovations of the stosstrupp tactics and the technical advances of the tank, the radio, and the modern aircraft to break the defensive gridlock.

    And in the meantime the incredible, apparently pointless, slaughter made an impact on people's attitudes, especially in Europe, that, I think, still has influence today.

    Not that the number of machineguns per foot of frontage isn't important; it's just a tactical detail that forms part of the bigger political picture. Let's try not to get all Abu Muquwama here, 'K?