Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Élan in The Guns of August

Why, thou owest God a death.

Exit Prince Henry.

'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him
before his day. What need I be so forward with him
that calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or
an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is
honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What
is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He
that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he
hear it? No. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But
will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will
not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a
mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

- Henry IV, part 1 , 5.1, 126-140.

One of the best books on World War I I've read is Barbara W. Tuchman's The Guns of August, about the war's outbreak. I'm going to quote from several sections to highlight the madness surrounding the start of the war, because Tuchman does a superb job at this. I've always been particulary struck by how many people in the major nations were eager for war, and wanted it, not knowing what was to come. This post is mainly to give background for later posts today, but I'd recommend picking up a copy of the actual book.

From Chapter 3, "The Shadow of Sedan," before the war has started, as the nations plan:

French strategy did not ignore the threat of envelopment by a German right wing. On the contrary, the French General Staff believed that the stronger the Germans made their right wing, the corresponding weaker they would leave their center and left where the French Army planned to break through. French strategy turned its back to the Belgian frontier and its face to the Rhine. While the Germans were taking the long way around to fall upon the French flank, the French planned a two-pronged offensive that would smash through the German center and left on either side of the German fortified area at Metz and by victory there, sever the German right wing from its base, rendering it harmless. It was a bold plan born an idea- an idea inherent in the recovery of France from the humiliation of Sedan.

Under the peace terms dictated by Germany at Versailles in 1871, France had suffered amputation, indemnity, and occupation. Even a triumphal march by the German Army down the Champs Elysées was among the terms imposed. It took place along a silent, black-draped avenue empty of onlookers. At Bordeaux, when the French Assembly ratified the peace terms, the deputies of Alsace-Lorraine walked from the hall in tears, leaving behind their protest: "We proclaim forever the right of Alsatians and Lorrainers to remain members of the French nation." We swear for ourselves, our constituents, our children and our children's children to claim that right for all time, by every means, in the force of the usurper."

The annexation, though opposed by Bismark, who said it would be the Achilles' heel of the new German Empire, was required by the elder Moltke and his Staff. They insisted, and convinced the Emperor, that the border provinces with Metz, Strasbourg, and the crest of the Vosges must be sliced off in order to put France geographically forever on the defensive. They added a crushing indemnity of five billion francs intended to hobble France for a generation, and lodged an army of occupation until it should be paid. With one enormous effort the French raised and paid off the sum within three years, and their recovery began.

The memory of Sedan remained, a stationary dark shadow on the French consciousness. "N'en parlez jamias; pensez-y toujours" (Never speak of it; think of it always) had counseled Gambatta. For more than forty years the thought of "Again" was the single most fundamental factor of French policy. In the early years after 1870, instinct and military weakness dictated a fortress strategy. France walled herself in behind a system of entrenched camps connected by forts. Two fortified lines, Belfort-Epinal and Toul-Verdun, guarded the eastern frontier, and one, Maubeuge-Valenciennes-Lille, guarded the western half of the Belgian frontier, the gaps between were intended to canalize the invasion forces.

Behind her wall, as Victor Hugo urged at his most vibrant: "France will have but one thought: to reconstitute her forces, gather her energy, nourish her sacred anger, raise her young generation to form an army of the whole people, to work without cease, to study the methods and skills of our enemies, to become again a great France, the France of 1792, the France of an idea with a sword. Then one day she will be irresistible. Then she take back Alsace-Lorraine."

[pp. 28-30]

The entire chapter centers on this great psychic wound among the French and its profound effect on their plans. They developed a war strategy that satisfied this need, but was at great odds with geography and their forces.

Later on:

Living in the shadow of that unfinished business, France, reviving in spirit and strength, grew weary of being eternally on guard, eternally exhorted by her leaders to defend herself. As the century turned, her spirit rebelled against thirty years of the defensive with its implied avowal of inferiority. France knew herself to be physically weaker than Germany. Her population was less, her birth rate lower. She needed some weapon that Germany lacked to give herself confidence in her survival. The "idea with a sword" fulfilled the need. Expressed by Bergson it was called élan vital, the all-conquering will. Belief in its power convinced France that the human spirit, need not, after all, bow to the presdestined forces of evolution which Schopenhauer and Hegel had declared to be irresistible. The spirit of France would be the equalizing factor. Her will to win, her élan, would enable France to defeat her enemy. Her genius was in her spirit, the spirit of la glorie, of 1792, of the incomparable "Maseillaise," the spirit of General Margueritte's heroic cavalry charge before Sedan when even Wilhelm I, watching the battle, could not forbear the cry, "Oh, les braves gens!"

Belief in the fervor of France, in the furor Gallicae, revived France's faith in herself in the generation after 1870. It was that fervor, unfurling her banners, sounding her bugles, arming her soldiers, that would lead France to victory if the day of "Again" should come.

Translated into military terms Bergson's élan vital became the doctrine of the offensive. In proportion as a defensive gave way to an offensive strategy, the attention paid to the Belgian frontier gradually gave way in favor of a progressive shift of gravity eastward toward the point where the French offensive could be launched to break through to the Rhine. For the Germans the roundabout road through Flanders led to Paris; for the French it led nowhere. They could only get to Berlin by the shortest way. The more the thinking of the French General Staff approached the offensive, the greater the forces it concentrated at the attacking point and the fewer it left to defend the Belgain frontier.

The doctrine of the offensive had its fount in the Ecole-Supérieuse de la Guerre, or War College, the ark of the army's intellectual elite, whose director, General Ferdinand Foch, was the molder of French military theory of his time. Foch's mind, like a heart, contained two valves: one pumped spirit into strategy; the other circulated common sense. On the one hand Foch preached a mystique of will expressed in his famous aphorisms, "The will to conquer is the first condition of victory," or more succinctly, "Victoire c'est la volonté" and, "A battle won is a battle in which one will not confess one is beaten."

In practice this was to become the famous order at the Marne to attack when the situation called for retreat. His officers of those days remember him bellowing, "Attack! Attack!" with furious, sweeping gestures while he dashed about in short rushes as if charged by an electric battery. Why, he was later asked, did he advance at the Marne when he was technically beaten? "Why? I don't know. Because of my men, because I had a will. And then – God was there."

[pp. 31-32]

This attitude of the daring offensive was extremely fashionable, and influential:

[Director of the Bureau of Military Operations] Colonel Grandmaison grasped only the head and not the feet of Foch's principles. Expounding their élan without their sureté, he expressed a military philosophy that electrified his audience. He waved before their dazzled eyes an "idea with a sword" which showed them how France could win. Its essence was the offense à outrance, offense to the limit. Only this could achieve Clausewitz' decisive battle which "exploited to the finish is the essential act of war" and "once engaged, must be pushed to the end, with no second thoughts, up to the extremes of human endurance." Seizure of the initiative is the sine qua non. Preconceived arrangements based on a dogmatic judgment of what the enemy will do are premature. Liberty of action is achieved only by imposing one's will upon the enemy. "All command decisions must be inspired by the will to seize and retain the initiative." The defensive is forgotten, abandoned, discarded; its only possible justification is an occasional "economizing of forces at certain points with a view to adding them to the attack."

The effect on the General Staff was profound, and during the next two years was embodied in new Field Regulations for the conduct of the war and in a new plan of campaign called Plan 17, which was adopted in May, 1913. With a few months of Grandmaison's lectures, the President of the Republic, M. Fallières, announced: "The offensive alone is suited to the temperament of French soldiers... We are determined to march straight against the enemy without hesitation."...

"The offensive alone... leads to positive results."...

Nowhere in the eight commandments [of the new Field Regulations] was there mention of matérial or firepower or what Foch called sureté. The teaching of the Regulations became epitomized in the favorite word of the French officer corps, le cran, nerve, or, less politely, guts. Like the youth who set out for the mountaintop under the banner marked "Excelsior!" the French Army marched to war in 1914 under a banner marked "Cran."

[pp. 33-34]

I simply can't include everything, but Tuchman provides a wealth of further details. Personally, I see plenty of parallels with today's war rhetoric.

These were fateful decisions. Not all of the ideas were necessarily bad, but there wasn't much thought given to negative consequences or other alternatives. The French also completely misjudged the strength, numbers and composition of the German forces, despite some early warnings and reports. Psychologically, they just could not accept these assessments, because they were certain of their own assumptions (on reserves mixing with regular troops, on the proper weight of artillery, on the sheer size of the German Army, etc.).

The most glaring disconnect may be with the battle over the French uniform. It's a wonder that after past disasters, impractical battle uniforms were still so popular anywhere going into the 20th Century:

[French Minister of War] Messimy having fervently stamped out [General] Michel's heresy of the defensive [battle plan], did his best, as War Minister, to equip the army to fight a successful offensive but was in his turn frustrated in his most cherished prospect – the need to reform the French uniform. The British had adopted khaki after the Boer War, and the Germans were about to make the change from Prussian blue to field-gray. But in 1912 French soldiers still wore the same blue coats, red kepi, and red trousers they had worn in 1830 when rifle fire carried only two hundred paces and when armies, fighting at these close quarters, had no need for concealment. Visiting the Balkan front in 1912, Messimy saw the advantages gained by the dull-colored Bulgarians and came home determined to make the French soldier less visible. His project to clothe him in gray-blue or gray-green raised a howl of protest. Army pride was as intransigent about giving up its red trousers as it was about adopting heavy guns. Army prestige was once again felt to be at stake. To clothe the French soldier in some muddly, inglorious color, declared the army's champions, would be to realize the fondest hopes of Dreyfusards and Freemasons. To banish "all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect," wrote the Echo de Paris, "is to go contrary bother to French taste and military function." Messimy pointed out that the two might no longer be synonymous, but his opponents proved immovable. At a parliamentary hearing, a former War Minister, M. Etienne, spoke for France.

"Eliminate the red trousers?" he cried. "Never! Le pantalon rouge c'est la France!"

"That blind and imbecile attachment to the most visible of all colors," wrote Messimy afteward, "was to have cruel consequences."

[pp. 37-38]

The idea of keeping the dress uniforms snazzy and the field uniforms practical was apparently too radical.

There's plenty more in that chapter alone. Again, I'd recommend picking up a copy. But reading these sections reminds me again of how much psychology, or the zeitgeist, or consensus among the powerful, shapes war policy more than reality or any practical assessment of the situation. Or rather, it reminds me that our Beltway dolts are nothing new. (I don't think most of the stay-the-course-in-Afghanistan crowd are very realistic or honest, for instance, but that's a subject that deserves its own post.)

In the run-up to World War I, madness was not limited to one country. I deal with Britain more in other posts today, but Tuchman's descriptions of Russia would be comic if not for the dread consequences of these attitudes:

Insofar as readiness for war was concerned, the regime was personified by its Minister for War, General Sukhomlinov, an artful, indolent pleasure-loving, chubby little man in his sixties of whom his colleague, Foreign Minister Sazanov, said, "It was difficult to make him work but to get him to tell the truth was well-night impossible." Having won the Cross of St. George as a dashing young cavalry officer in the war of 1877 against the Turks, Sukhomlinov believed that military knowledge acquired in that campaign was permanent truth. As Minister of War he scolded a meeting of Staff College instructors for interest in such "innovations" as the factor of firepower against the saber, lance and the bayonet charge. He could not hear the phrase "modern war," he said, without a sense of annoyance. "As war was, so it has remained... all these things are merely vicious innovations. Look at me, for instance; I have not read a military manual for the last twenty-five years." In 1913 he dismissed five instructors of the College who persisted in preaching the vicious heresy of "fire tactics."

[p. 61]

Sukhomlinov thrived by ingratiating himself at court. While it's a truism that generals are always fighting the last war, Sukhomlinov's Luddite, incurious habits are particularly alarming to read:

While Sukhomlinov left work to others, he allowed no freedom of ideas. Clinging stubbornly to obsolete theories and ancient glories, he claimed that Russia's past defeats had been due to mistakes of commanding officers rather than to any inadequacy of training, preparation, or supply. With invincible belief in the bayonet's supremacy over the bullet, he made no effort to build up factories for increased production of shells, rifles and cartridges. No country, its military critics invariably discover afterward, is ever adequately prepared in munitions. Britain's shell shortage was to become a national scandal; the French shortage of everything from heavy artillery to boots was a scandal before the war began; in Russia, Sukhomlinov did not even use up the funds the government appropriated for munitions. Russia began the war with 850 shells per gun compared to a reserve of 2,000 to 3,000 shells per gun used by the Western armies, although Sukhomlinov himself had agreed in 1912 to a compromise of 1,500 per gun. The Russian infantry division had 7 field-gun batteries compared with 14 in the German division. The whole Russian army had 60 batteries compared with 381 in the German Army. Warnings that war would be largely a duel of firepower Sukhomlinov treated with contempt.

[pp. 63-64]

Let's return to the French. From chapter 13, "Sambre et Meuse," the French advance:

The Germans had prepared the region against expected French attack with barbed wire, trenches, and gun emplacements. At both Sarrebourg and Morhange they had well-fortified positions from which they could only be dislodged by an attack of irresistible élan or bombardment by heavy artillery. The French counted on the first and scorned the second.

"Thank God we don't have any!" replied a General Staff artillery officer in 1909 when questioned about 105 mm. heavy field artillery. "What gives the French Army its force is the lightness of its cannon."

[pp. 206-207]

Shockingly, this was not the best of approaches. Psychological need does not make for good strategy, nor tactics, in a reality-based war.

From the end of the chapter "Debacle," after the battle of Namur:

The news shocked an incredulous world. The Times of London had said Namur would withstand a siege of six months; it had fallen in four days. In accents of stunned understatement it was said in England that the fall of Namur 'is recognized as a distinct disadvantage... and the chance of the war being brought to a speedy conclusion are considerably reduced."

How far reduced, how distant the end, no one yet knew. No one could realize that for numbers engaged and for rate and number of losses suffered over a comparable period of combat, the greatest battle of the war had already been fought. No one could yet foresee its consequences: how the ultimate occupation of all Belgium and northern France would put the Germans in possession of the industrial power of both countries, of the manufactures of Liège, the coal of the Borinage, the iron ore of Lorraine, the factories of Lille, the rivers and railroads and agriculture, and this occupation, feeding German ambition and fastening upon France the fixed resolve to fight to the last drop of recovery and reparation, would block all later attempts at compromise peace or "peace without victory" and would prolong the war for four more years.

All this is hindsight. On August 24 the Germans felt an immense surge of confidence. They saw only beaten armies ahead; the genius of Schlieffen had been proved; decisive victory seemed within German grasp. In France, President Poincaré wrote in his diary: We must make up our minds both to retreat and to invasion. So much for the illusions of the last fortnight. Now the future of France depends on her powers of resistance."

Élan had not been enough.

[p. 262]

No, it was enough, and these nations did not know what was to come. Nor did they adjust to war on a scale more horrific than any known before. In the slim collection of essays, World War I: A Turning Point in Modern History, editor Jack J. Roth writes in the introduction:

...World War I possibly played a unique role in this convulsion – it may have "stacked the cards for the future." The war was in many ways without precedent: never had so many nations been involved; never had a war absorbed so much of the resources of the combatants or left them so exhausted; and never had the slaughter been of such magnitude or so senseless. In the Battle of Verdun, for example, casualties on both sides numbered over 750,000; at the Somme it was over 1,200,000 and the battle lines hardly changed. One out of every two French males who were between the ages of twenty and thirty-two in 1914 was killed during the war. If Europeans could accept casualties on such a scale, they could accept almost anything in the way of slaughter. The greatest tragedy of our time – its monstrous violence – begins in the trenches of World War I. Verdun and the Somme opened the way to Auschwitz and Hiroshima...

[pp. 5-6]

The casualties in World War I were staggering, and the descriptions of many of the battles, and trench warfare in general, are chilling. And there was far more to come.

(Minor revisions for typos and clarity. This post is part of a series on war, and a smaller set of posts for Armistice Day 2009.)

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