On the EU Army Nonsense.

The UK military has operated independently twice in the past 400 years with a 1-1 scoreline. The treasonous war of American so-called “independence”, and the Falklands conflict. Otherwise we always operate in an alphabet soup of foreign alliances.

The EU Military staff doesn’t directly command troops, who usually (but not always) operate under the auspices of NATO.  Most military co-operation in Europe is bi-lateral such as Anglo-French missions to Mali, or multi-lateral and Ad Hoc, like EuroFor. Eurofor, which has deployed several times, isn’t an EU army but multi-lateral co-operation between Italy, France, Portugal and Spain, and has mainly operated in the francophone Africa.

The EU battlegroup training on salisbury plain recently isn’t a nascent EU army, just one of the alphabet soup of foreign co-operative organisations of which the UK military is part, one which hasn’t deployed anywhere, and is a bit like the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps of which the UK has long been the core.

The French, long suspicious of NATO and who want to make the EU a counterweight to EU power, have accepted that while the UK is a member of the EU, an EU army isn’t going to happen and rejoined NATO’s command in 2009. They pulled out in 1966 arguing (no, seriously…) that NATO (get this, right…) undermined their sovereignty. (Lol).

The EU army isn’t going to happen, because the UK has consistently vetoed the formation of an independent EU military command.

Of course were we to leave the EU, then the French would be free to get their way, leaving NATO’s command again and possibly taking the Germans with them in time. We must remain to prevent the French using the EU to undermine NATO.

On the “Patriotism” of UKIP

Patriotism, wrote Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In the election TV debate UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed the UK couldn’t adequately defend the Falklands. As well as being demonstrably untrue, this demonstrates several mental tics of the UKIPper and it’s worth going through them.

First, it reveals a determination to re-fight battles already lost and won. This attitude comes from the same place as hankering after “A Leader Like Thatcher” who “Took on the Trades Unions”. This is why the thatcherite ultra wing of UKIP cannot see Cameron’s cut spending faster than their blessed St. Margaret Ever did. 45% top rate of tax? Wasn’t cut to 40% by Nigel Lawson until 1988, 9 years into the great lady’s time in office. UKIPpers are stupid, and lack the imagination or understanding to see what battles need to be fought today. Past glories like the re-taking of the Falklands, or the Miners’ strike happened when most ‘KIPpers were in their youth, and they’re hankering after a better yesterday. The world’s a bit different now, and the UKIPper wishes it wasn’t.

Second it’s revealing of a determination to see weakness in yourself, and strength elsewhere. This is behind the UKIPish “admiration” of Vladimir Putin. This is also behind the belief that all the bluster from the Eurocrats like JC Juncker that the UK cannot alter treaties, is truth; while anything David Cameron might say on the subject is merely self-serving bluster. Of course the Eurocrats aren’t going to negotiate before the Election, because with Ed Miliband, they won’t have to. But Cameron has a much stronger hand in EU negotiations than any ‘KIPper will ever admit.

UKIPpers are paranoid. There is simply no indication the Argentines are even thinking about a military solution to the “Malvinas Question”.

Farage might have been musing on the fall in the British Army’s manpower. But even this reveals the party’s ignorance and superficiality. UKIP is obsessed by symbols and totems, not effectiveness. Cap-badges are more important than effective 3-battalion regiments. It should be remembered that the UK recently ran two significant long-term deployments simultaneously AND had spare ISTAR and lift to get the French to Mali and tell them which doors to kick in. “Front Line First” which keeps combat infantry at the expense of support services ignores the fact that it requires a huge number of logistic, signals, intelligence and engineering “enablers” to keep one infantryman in action. 100,000 men kicking undeployable heels in Germany is better in the UKIP mind than 82,000 men who can be picked up, and put down to do a job anywhere on earth.  Would you rather have a platoon of men in battle dress armed with Lee Enfields, or a Section of Modern Infantry with all the logistic tail they need?

UKIP is guilty of hull-counting in the Royal navy too: The Type 45 air defence destroyers can track far, far more targets than the 1960’s vintage Type 42s they replace, so fewer are needed. One Type 45 can do the air-defence job of 6 type 42s. Yes, the Navy is smaller, but an Astute class attack sub can hear a ship leaving New York Harbour. From the English Channel.

And lastly but most importantly the idea the Falklands cannot be defended is simply wrong. For a party that claims to be “patriotic” they don’t seem to have much faith in the UK or her people. Let’s be charitable and say he’s talking about an operation to retake the Falklands in the absence of an Aircraft  Carrier. Fair enough – but HMS Queen Elizabeth will be operation by 2020 by which time the UK will be able to dominate the south Atlantic against any nation bar the USA.

In the mean time, there is simply not a credible threat to the Falkland islands. where there are at present 1,200 soldiers which, being British contain a large number of hardened veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, plus a company of Falkland islands defence force who’re integrated into the defence plan. This, compared to 57 Royal Marines and no plan in 1982. There is an augmentation force on standby, and a plan to rapidly reinforce the islands from the UK, and an air-bridge to enable it now. There wasn’t any of this in 1982. Meanwhile Argentina has no landing ships, no carriers, and and their army has been shrunk to bare-bones, and has no combat experience and little money to undertake serious exercise.

The RAF has 4 Typhoon a 4.5 generation multi-role fighter on the Falklands, which is arguably the finest dogfighter on earth. Whether it’s a match for the F22’s over the horizon capability is moot, but the RAF isn’t up against F22s. The Argentines are flying 6 (if they’re lucky) Mirage 3 interceptors, some Mirage 5 multi-role fighters, all purchased in the 1970s, and a handful of assorted multi-role, light fighter-bombers, most of which are probably not airworthy.

As well as the Typhoons, there are air-defence missiles on the islands, and the Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyers are the finest air-defence platforms afloat. Meanwhile an Argentine Naval ship goes to sea about 12 days a year due to lack of funds. One Argentine naval vessel sank in port in 2013 due to disrepair. Oh, and there’s usually a Royal Navy Nuclear attack submarine there, or therabouts, to which the Argentines will be completely blind until a torpedo slams into the hull. The Argentines couldn’t get there, have no capability to land forces, couldn’t supply any forces they did manage to land, which wouldn’t be a match for the forces on the island even if they did. If anything the Falklands are grotesquely over-defended.

UKIP aren’t patriots, they’re the people who’d have caved in and done a deal with Hitler, as it was all too scary as his victory was “inevitable”. UKIP have the paranoid certainty of the mediocre mind, always fearing the worst, but lacking imagination to envision the best; as a result, they’re wrong about everything, all the time.

Women in the Front Line

Women do a fantastic job throughout the Army. On the operations the Army has undertaken over the past twenty years, women have been vital. There are things a woman can do – dealing with survivors of rape for example – where a man would be inappropriate. And they are in harm’s way while they have been doing their jobs; nearly every job in the military is open to women, and rightly so. An army should reflect the society it protects. But I don’t think women should be allowed  to serve in the infantry or Royal Armoured Corps.

This is certainly not a slur on the female soldiers’ courage, or desire to fight. But it is a simple fact that women are not as strong as men. The job of a combat infantryman involves carrying weight, fast, over rough ground. The loads are enormous, especially in these days of Osprey body-armour.

Despite the TV fantasy of 8-stone martial arts-trained women hurting fit 16-stone men, in a fight, a good big-un beats a good little-un. I am nearly 18 stone. I know of no woman who could lift me out of a fire-trench, let alone carry me, were I wounded, to a Company Aid Post. A woman in the platoon would always be the weakest link, because she would always be the weakest.

Women’s bodies do not respond to training in the same way as men’s. Women lay down muscle slower, and never get as strong. I went through basic training when “gender neutral” tests were in force. Less than 10% of the intake were women, yet they made up well over half of those back-squadded through injury. The vast majority of women strong enough, will not be fast enough over the ground when carrying kit. The vast majority of women fast enough over the ground will not be strong enough to carry the kit. There will be a tiny number, both fit and strong enough to keep up with the boys, but too few to make it worthwhile building the barracks and facilities to house them separately.

Do women’s rights trump those of the big boys to have comrades capable of lifting them when they catch a bullet for queen and country?

There is a reason adult women don’t play rugby with adult men. Combat is tougher than rugby.

No, Abi, the Poppy Is Not associated with Racism, Nationalism and Islamophobia.

Abi Wilkinson, a generally thoughtful breed of lefty, has nevertheless, in this article, succumbed to the temptation of projecting her prejudices onto something she doesn’t understand and in doing so caused some offence. I said I would explain why thought she had written a bad article.

The fact is, poppies have become less a symbol of genuine grief and recognition of the soldiers who have fallen fighting in our country’s armed forces, and more a compulsory signifier that a person is on ‘our side’.

The phrase “The fact is” rarely comes before a fact. But it is easy to see why people could think the Poppy divisive. The men in uniform, the pageantry, the national unity, are redolent to the triumphalism of empire which makes much of the left uncomfortable. They’re wrong.

British history has its shameful moments, something the right is often guilty of ignoring, however Remembrance is not the season to dwell on these. Broadly, the British Empire was a force for good, trying to leave Cricket, the Rule of Law, democracy and Railways behind. That this was a stated aim of the British Empire is something the left is loathe to admit. Historians should not be seeking to impose a narrative based on today’s values or seek to “prove” something for the benefit of one political view today; rather we should learn the lessons of history, so the horrors can be avoided, and the triumphs learned from. That requires admissions of failure as well as a celebration of successes.

The armed forces who have for four hundred years fought in support of one of the most stable and prosperous democracies on earth, have every right to take pride in the successes, and remember that our freedom is bought with a heavy price. This country took part in, but then dismantled the Global Slave trade, fought European dictators from Napoleon to Hitler, offered a parliamentary model of democracy which has proved itself far more stable than the presidential  model exported by France or the USA. A British soldier has died overseas in the service of his country every year since 1666, with one exception: 1968.

I grew up with the Cold War raging. We, as part of the Alliance of democracies beat international communism, as we defeated European Fascism. The Army I joined was trying to put the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone together. And the Army I have served has been in Far off Dusty places for the last decade and a half. The world is undoubtedly a better place for it, taken as a whole, though the merits of each campaign can be debated. Recently the mother lode of bad ideas making people miserable round the world stems from the creed of Radical Islamism. Abi’s political ideas were formed when ‘the enemy our boys are fighting’ were mostly Muslims.

So from there it’s a simple mental jump to regard the British Armed Forces are mostly a tool to fight Muslims, conveniently forgetting previous decades, and centuries of idealogies and enemies defeated. And to a limited extent, amongst some people, the poppy has become a ‘them and us’ symbol. If you don’t wear the poppy you are one of “them”. This was as true, and to the same extent, for the leftists and communists and Irish, as it is for  Muslims now. It has never been significant.

Propaganda images pitting our soldiers (deserving of state support) and ‘immigrants’ (greedy, reviled and a drain on state resources) are the bread and butter of this [Britain First].

Britain first are capable of putting together emotive Internet memes, but little more. But theirs is not, and will not be the majority or even significant view, though they are tapping into genuine if misinformed hostility to immigration. Most soldiers I know find Britain First’s mawkish parasitism on their profession faintly ridiculous. The real experience of remembrance can instead be found at war memorials up and down the country you will see proud men and women, many wearing medal ribbons, remembering those they fought alongside who didn’t come home.

Remembrance isn’t about the  political posturing at the Cenotaph or people sharing memes on Facebook; and certainly not a Newspapers encouragement of a Poppy hijab. Instead it is about the smaller, more personal ceremonies at village memorials, regimental parade grounds and churches up and down the country. I think of the village on Skye where my Grandfather grew up. There are five houses and a pub. There are eight names on the war memorial. And five more from World War 2. You will not see any hostility there to anyone there. Just bow your head and reflect why we have the freedom to speak freely to our rulers and how dearly it has been bought.

Last year saw my Unit’s wreath laid at Westminster Abby. The year before that, I was on an Army base. The year before that, with my Brother in Yorkshire. So my experience of Remembrance is likely to be very different to Abi’s, who I suspect is not moved as I am by the sacrifices of our Soldiers, nor as proud of what they have achieved.

Wear a Poppy. Don’t wear a poppy. Wear a  white poppy if you think such private pride and grief is really something you feel needs challenging. Thousands of men died in Normandy 70 years ago in part for your right to do so. Abi’s journalistic mistake is to imagine her experience of Remembrance, filtered through a miasma of political beliefs, and distorted by selection bias and availability heuristic, and imagine it to be universal. I would invite her to Remembrance ceremony with me next year to see for herself.

Politics as Self-Identification: Cuts, Fracking and the Military.

There are two tribes of politics, the left and right, who are almost impossible to define in policy terms. They correlate imperfectly with Labour and Tory in the UK who, yes, in the short-run do look similar (though in the long run, very different). Whether you self-identify as left or right will define mostly what you’re angry about.
It’s the anger of these tribes, amplified in the echo-chamber of social media, with nuance and facts drowned out in the cacophony of 140 character soundbites which so distorts political debate.
Any attempt to explain detail and facts will be met with the charge that you’re one of the ‘other’ and so can be ignored.
I’ve been arguing on twitter with people on the right, whose assumptions I broadly share, who’ve persuaded themselves that the UK has cut its military to a point of irrelevance. They’re basing this view on the endless diet of “cuts” stories in the Daily Mailograph.
The fact remains the UK is a major military power, with the 4th largest Defence budget on earth, dwarfed by the USA, about half that of China, 2/3rds that of Russia and equivalent to Japan’s. From that defence budget, we maintain full-scale war-fighting competence, unlike many other mid-ranking powers (*cough* France *cough*) who maintain formations and kit which cannot be deployed for want of support formations, logistics and intelligence capability.
Britain maintains a Brigade-level deployment in Afghanistan. While this was being maintained, we are able to operate in 30 counties, maintain out-of area contingencies; and were yet able to help the French with their operation in Mali, who were unable to deploy their (significantly larger) army to their own doorstep.
The reason for the French failure in Mali is their politicians have been unwilling to cut the number of infantry batallions for political reasons, and have instead cut logistics capabilities. The UK, thanks to a continuous cycle of operations going back centuries do not have the luxury of seeing the military as a national willy to be waved at other nations, as this would leave it incapable of achieving tumescence and firing naught but blanks.
British politicians asked “what additional capabilities does a small carrier with a handful of harriers bring that couldn’t be achieved with typhoon and air to air tankers?” The answer came “nothing”. The French have not asked that question of the Charles de Gaulle, which they maintain at great expense, but to little purpose. A bit like Brazil whose flat-top carries an air-wing of… 4 jets to… nowhere in particular.
Likewise, the left, who’ve persuaded themselves that Hydrolytic Fracturing (Fracking) is poisoning groundwater, creating earthquakes and putting methane into people’s taps, and done so against all the evidence because like the right, talking to themselves about the military, they are willing to be lied to by people with axes to grind, whose assumptions they share.
I used to be angry about military cuts, until I saw dispationate discussion (at the highest level) about WHY the cuts were taken. I was forced to challenge my assumptions. I suggest you all do.
The great risk of social media is the tribes of left and right divide into mutually deaf echo-chambers who don’t challenge assumptions, instead reinforce idiocies by then endless pointing to “evidence” (in practice newspaper articles or dubious “reports”) that supports and reinforces priors.
Question everything. And in doing so accept the Government is sometimes right. Brown’s handling of the credit crunch was OK (it was his management of the economy for the decade beforehand which was criminal). The British military is effective, and enormously so for its size, and we have Labour’s willingness to slay military vested interests to thank for that. The cuts to wasteful public spending are the right policy thanks to Tory willingness to slay vested public-sector interests.
Fracking is safe and should go ahead.
The Tories are delivering cuts to that which can be cut, whatever right-wing morons who think the cuts aren’t happening may think. The cuts aren’t leaving people dead in the street, whatever left-wing morons think.
Ignore the idiots, who spout meaningless soundbites. Listen to those who force you to challenge assumptions. Some of them come from the other tribe.


I’ve just finished Afghansty by Sir Roderick Braithwaite. The parallels between what the Soviets tried to do, and what ISAF is trying to do, are striking.

Like American and British forces, the Soviets lost no tactical engagements, and left with a compliant regime in place. Like the Soviets, we’ve been there for a decade, nominally at the request of the Government in Kabul. Like the Soviets, we’re actually taking part (again) in a 300-year-old inter Pashtun civil war between Kabul and Kandahar/Quetta, for control of Afghanistan.

Like the Soviets, most of our kit is heading North when we leave.

If they’ve any sense, the Americans’ll avoid the Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya into Uzbekistan where the picture above was taken. Nevertheless There will be a picture of American troops and vehicles crossing the same border, over a bridge, somewhere. Whether Karzai and democracy survive in Afghanistan for 5 years or 500, that picture will be the legacy of a decade-long adventure, that the media narrative will decide was lost. Like the Soviets, that will not be entirely fair.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

The US Army has finally abandoned the rather silly policy of preventing out homosexuals serving in the Armed forces. I was serving in the regular British army when the Ban on homosexuals was ended in the UK.

The platoon was formed up on the morning of the lifting of the ban, and the statement “…It is no longer acceptable to discriminate on the grounds of Race, Religion, or SEXUALITY…” was read out by the colour Serjeant. He then numbered the men off from the right in twos


…And so on

“Number ones turn to your left, twos to your right… LEFT and RIGHT TURN!…”

…Pause for effect…

“…Now give the man in front of you a nice big kiss…”.

Homosexuals in the British military is now a complete non-issue. As, I hope it will be for the USA.

Tarok Kolace, Ben Tre, all over again?

Whatever the logistical and military reasons for destroying something, the costs of doing so run wider than the immediate operation. In this case a commander decided upon using 25 tons of explosives to flatten an Afghan village as it was so thourougly laced with IEDs that to clear it would have taken longer and cost lives. This is, on its own terms a reasonable tactic, given the local circumstances. It also demonstrates why we cannot “win” in any meaningful way.

The Taliban chased locals out of Tarok Kolache, in Kandahar province to the west of Helmand (which is synonymous with ‘Afghanistan’ to the UK media). The village was destroyed without civilian casualties, but it resulted in significant damage to the orchards – harder to replace than the mud huts. The US commander, rather than risk his troops fighting house to house, flattened the village with 25 tons of bombs and artillery and the local civilian population appear to be unhappy (y’ think?) about having their homes flattened. Whilst rebuilding has been discussed at Shuras, meetings with local people, this is not the way to win hearts and minds and secure the loyalty of the people to the Afghan government, nor has any reconstruction yet started, so many of the displaced will disperse to other villages with tales about what happened.

Just as Vietnam was lost, not because of any military victory by the NVA, but by the steady erosion of the peasant’s loyalty, we are at risk, by “destroying villages in order to save it“, of making the same mistakes all over again. I am NOT suggesting that such actions are thoughtless, nor am I suggesting that the US forces in Afghanistan are suffering the same fate as their fathers in Vietnam. Just that there are parallells. There comes a time when the presence in this type of opertaion of Western forces becomes the reason the war is continuing. Too many flattened villages and you have a sullen and hostile population who are ready to support the Taleban.

“Victroy” in Afghanistan will be when western forces leave in 4 years, leaving a stable Government more or less in control of most of the country and a big US base in perpetuity. That’s the best we can hope for. Democracy? And uncorrupt Government – under Karzai? You’re joking right? The problem is that our political masters schooled in stories of VICTORIES! like WW2, the Falklands, Gulf war 1, and so on expect, egged on by a more or less ignorant electorate, the same thing from Afghanistan, and as a result forces will stay in theatre expending blood and treasure long after a rational cost benefit analysis would suggest it’s time to go, in chasing a chimeric victory which remains forever on the horizon. I’m starting to think the Afghan campaign is almost getting to that stage.

On Armistice day…

…Don’t mythologise the guys who did and are still doing the fighting. Treat soldiers fairly instead. Remember it’s tough young men who are bearing the brunt of war, and they “don’t grow into plaster saints”. If you’re of a left-wing, pacifist bent, remember soldiers don’t have much say in where they get sent, and they’re (at the moment) enduring the dust of Afghanistan, in part so that we have the freedom to bitch and whine about whatever is the ‘ishoo du jour’. Protect our freedoms at home, make it worth fighting for abroad.

Roll call for the ‘Glorious Glosters’ after the battle of Imjin River 22-25 April, 1951

Sunday’s the day we say “thank you” to those who paid the ultimate price, and think about those maimed in body and sprirt, from all Wars, not just the great conflagrations of the 20th Century, and there are a lot of them from sixty-five years of the savage wars of “peace”. A British soldier has died overseas in almost every year since the Army was founded in 1666. With no WWI veterans at the cenotaph, and WWII providing a dwindling band there remain a lot of veterans. Perhaps it’s time for politicians to ponder the true cost of their discretionary wars, and for the boys to come home for a bit?

Above all remember them at other times of the year, an Army is for life, not just a few days in November. Unfortunately, Kipling’s ‘Tommy’ is as true now as it was in 1890.

I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ‘We serve no erd-coats ‘ere.’
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed and giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again, an’ to myself sez I:
Oh, it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’:
But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play –
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
Oh, it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, wait outside’;
But it’s ‘Special train for Atkins’ when the trooper’s on the tide –
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
Oh, it’s ‘Special train for Atkins’ when the trooper’s on the tide.

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?’
But it’s ‘Thin red line of ‘eroes’ when the drums begin to roll –
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
Oh, it’s ‘Thin red line of ‘eroes when the drums begin to roll.

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that , an’ ‘Tommy, fall be’ind,’
But it’s ‘Please to walk in front, sir,’ when there’s trouble in the wind –
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
Oh, it’s ‘Please to walk in front, sir,’ when there’s trouble in the wind.

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

The Somme offensive 1916 and ‘Pointlessness’

The Somme offensive, “a gargantuan effort by Field Marshall Haig to move his drinks cabinet 6″ closer to Berlin” and with 1.5 million casualties over the 3 months of fighting vies with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Verdun as the bloodiest battles in history, and is consistently held up as an example of the futility of war. What was the point, people ask, of throwing all those men, thoughtlessly over the top, which achieved nothing. To which I always reply, it wasn’t thoughtless, nor did it achieve nothing. The image of men marching into machine guns an inaccurate caricature of the first day, not the whole battle. Indeed contrary to popular imagination of thoughtless Generals piling ever more men into ever more murderous offensives, enormous thought was put into the battle as many approaches to end the stalemate which had existed since 1914, were tried. That many failed should not reflect badly on the men desperately seeking solutions. Whether the objective was worth the cost, you decide. Those making the decisions, and those obeying the orders which flowed from them at the time clearly thought the cost was ‘worth it’, and thought it ‘worth it’ for a further two and a half years.

First, the strategic point of the battle was a little more sophisticated than that parodied in ‘Blackadder’. It was to relieve the French on the Meuse, who were at that point being bled white by a massive German offensive at the fort of Verdun. The French Army was close to collapse which if it occurred would see the British Army surrounded, cut off from the channel ports, and nearly a million men would have been captured. The war would have been lost, and the British Empire would probably have been carved up between Germany and Austria-Hungary, to the detriment of, I think, every citizen of the Empire. France would have been over-run. The light of democracy in Europe would have been snuffed out. The British Army HAD to relieve the French and the only way to do it was to launch an offencive themselves. In this ultimate strategic goal, the battle was a success, despite hasty preparations. The German army immediately ended its offensive at the Meuse to concentrate on reinforcing the Somme front to the North-West. The French stayed in the war.

Second: the tactics. This was the first major offensive involving Kitchener’s citizen soldiers, many of whom were hastily trained. They were not the “Old Contemptibles” who so surprised the German Army on the Marne two years earlier with accurate rifle fire of such a rate that the Germans thought every man was armed with a machine-gun. Complex small-unit tactics such as section and platoon fire & manoever were just not possible with such raw troops. So the army tried a new tactic, one still in use today the Creeping, or Walking Barrage. Prior to this, the enemy were to be annihilated by a massive bombardment lasting several days, that it was hoped, nothing could survive. And if they did, the still new mine warfare led to detonations under the German Lines 2 minutes prior to the men going ‘over the top’ would finish off the survivors. The attacking British wore full kit, because they were expected to occupy positions they took, perhaps without resupply. These were new tactics: The troops following on day one were too far behind their own gunfire (to protect from self inflicted casualties) allowing the Germans to come out from their dug outs and man the Guns before the British troops got into the German lines. The mines weren’t numerous or big enough.

Blackadder, set in 1917 has the guns fall silent before they go “over the top”, because it’s “more sporting” to let the Germans do the killing. A gag, but telling about the world-view of the writer, and ultimately inaccurate. The heavy guns would have switched to depth postions o prevent reinforcement and still be firing, and the ligther guns would be raining fire down ahead of the advancing troops, who would, by 1917, be taking more casualties from “dropshorts” than enemy action: 10% casualties from your own guns was thought better than 15% casualties from the enemies’. It still is.

The German defences were hard, and well-constructed. And the German soldier is always tough. And this has led to the idea that the pre-bombardment didn’t work. It did, in places: the Germans who faced the French to the south of the British, for example faced an army much better equipped with really heavy artillery (and with the right shells, see comments). As a result, the French bombardment of the Germans worked. The Somme is not seared into the french consiousness as it is the British because they achieved all their day one objectives, and more and at much lower cost. The popular image of the futility of the pre-attack bombardment is false. The British guns were just not big or numerous enough. Lessons were learned.

There were examples of inflexible behaviour from officers, as there are in any war, sticking to the plan at all costs, but there were also examples of excellent leadership successfully exploiting local successes. You only need to look at the survival rates of officers compared to their men to see that the British officer led from the front. These were not “lions led by donkeys”, but brave men doing their best in all ranks. The myths of the first world war do disservice to the men who fought.

The first day of the Somme was Britain’s bloodiest day, seared into the folk memory of the communities who were ripped apart by the losses suffered by the pals battalions which went over the top. Newfoundlanders, Ulstermen and men from the New Army formations, mainly from the Midlands and The North were shattered in a way hopefully never to be repeated.

As the battle wore on new tactics were tried, new technologies rushed into service, such as Landships (codenamed ‘tanks’ to fool the Germans that they were mobile water supply vehicles). This was not an organisation which was throwing men’s lives away lightly. Nor was it without point.The citizen-soldiers facing each other across the Somme in 1916 were not victims of stupidity. They were soldiers fighting a total war of a sort that perhaps, if we are lucky, the likes of which the world has seen the end.

Those men died so France would remain in the war, eventually so that the Democracies of Britain, France, the Dominions, and later the USA would triumph over the totalitarian monarchies of Central Europe. Their legacy, and that of their Children who fought for the same goals 23 years later, is the basic human freedom we still enjoy to this day. Our freedom to say what we will to those who would rule us did not come free.

Wear your poppy with pride, and protect dearly that for which they fought. For that is the best memorial to the young men who died 94 years ago.