Field Marshal Haig and WW1 casualties

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  • Field Marshal Haig and WW1 casualties
  • pondo
    Member

    Does anyone know much about the chap? As a child of the seventies, my impression was always that of the Blackadder Goes Fourth image, Geoffrey Palmer symbolically sweeping up soldiers from a model battlefield with a dust pan and brush and tossing them casually over his shoulder, and I had a conversation with a mate recently along the same lines – how, at the Somme, Haig had KNOWN that the barrage hadn’t cut through the wire, and he ordered his men over the top nevertheless. Heartless, vicious and pointless slaughter.

    But I’ve just started reading a book about the Somme with a slightly different stance – on both sides it was accepted that the war was attritional, whoever ran out of resources last would win, so the plan was to bleed the opposition dry whilst trying to lose less men and materials than the enemy. On the Somme the plan had been for the British to support a major French offensive, but when the French had to defend and relieve Verdun, the onus on the Somme shifted to the British to lead with French support, and the decision to go over the top at that time in many places, had been made days before – there was no option NOT to attack, because it would jeopardise allied forces elsewhere. What’s more, although the casuarty figures are truly horrifying, the scale of the attack distorts them – British casualties on the Somme were about the same per unit per week as those suffered by British forces during the Normandy landings. And the thought that occurs from that is, how come we think of the Somme (and other “going over the top” battles; Ypres, Mons, Cambrai, etc) as sensless slaughter, while Normandy was a heroic and necessary action?

    So, err… Discuss, really. 🙂

    frazchops
    Member
    hora
    Member

    Which book is it? I’m always interested in new books on WWI.

    how come we think of the Somme (and other “going over the top” battles; Ypres, Mons, Cambrai, etc) as sensless slaughter

    Zero thought, zero strategy ultimately. Plus we are still finding bits of WWI soldiers in the fields today. How many must have been vaporised/pulverized into dust.

    One story bothers me- where over 1,000 German soldiers were wiped out by an accident in a redoubt in WWI. Literally in a few seconds they were vaporised by a mistake. Will try and find a link.

    Says it all to me. How senseless.

    Mr Woppit
    Member

    Your Country Bleeds You.

    ninfan
    Member

    if you’ve not read a copy of ‘Mud, Blood and Poppycock’ – get it, its a fantastic insight into the way that the great war has been subject to a huge amount of revisionist propaganda thanks to war poetry and films like ‘oh what a lovely war’ and blackadder .

    Junkyard
    Member

    how come we think of the Somme (and other “going over the top” battles; Ypres, Mons, Cambrai, etc) as sensless slaughter, while Normandy was a heroic and necessary action?

    because going over the top achieved nothing but death and slaughter
    Normandy liberated a continent and defeated the Nazis

    the outcomes were completely different

    If we had failed to land at Normandy and we tried every week then they would be the same

    Mr Woppit
    Member

    20th Century War fought with 19th century strategy, innit.

    ninfan
    Member

    Don’t forget – the Somme was a tactical, but costly, victory – it certainly did not achieve ‘nothing but death and slaughter’

    The key tactical objectives were achieved, and more importantly, a collapse of the French line at Verdun was prevented – which would likely have been catastrophic to the entire allied war effort and cost many more lives.

    konabunny
    Member

    Which book is it? I’m always interested in new books on WWI.

    I hate it when they give away the ending though.

    5thElefant
    Member

    We didn’t seem to have ‘won’ anything. That’s the main difference between WW1 and WW2.

    In practice the Germans had the same objectives in WW1 as WW2.

    b r
    Member

    The Germans attacked at Verdun because they knew that the French would defend to the last man – so working on that very theory. And it wasn’t just a theory, because the French did.

    It pretty much broke the French, and took the fighting spirit out of a couple of generations.

    What’s more, although the casuarty figures are truly horrifying, the scale of the attack distorts them – British casualties on the Somme were about the same per unit per week as those suffered by British forces during the Normandy landings. And the thought that occurs from that is, how come we think of the Somme (and other “going over the top” battles; Ypres, Mons, Cambrai, etc) as sensless slaughter, while Normandy was a heroic and necessary action?

    Yes, but Normandy lasted days/weeks, not months/years.

    pondo
    Member

    Which book is it? I’m always interested in new books on WWI.

    Not sure if it’s new – I picked it up from a secondhand bookshop, I guess they didn’t choose to release it there. 🙂 It’s Bloody Victoy, by William Philpott – first book I’ve read on the First World War, and it’s an easy read for such an indepth look at a heavy subject.

    Zero thought, zero strategy ultimately.

    I think (and I’ve not long started it, so maybe it’ll all turn out different 🙂 ) that one of the things I’m getting from it so far is that they didn’t really have any other tactical options once they got bogged into the trenches.

    Mr Woppit
    Member

    Bet someone will be along in a minute with some bloody poetry. Oh, wait…

    What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
    Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
    Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
    Can patter out their hasty orisons.
    No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
    Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
    The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
    And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
    What candles may be held to speed them all?
    Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
    Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
    The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
    Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
    And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

    pondo
    Member

    because going over the top achieved nothing but death and slaughter
    Normandy liberated a continent and defeated the Nazis

    the outcomes were completely different

    If we had failed to land at Normandy and we tried every week then they would be the same
    Well… the battle of the Somme was one of the many battles that the allies fought that DID defeat Germany, much as the Normanday landings were part of what defeated them in WWII. The continent wasn’t libereated by Normandy, it was just a step on the road (which sounds dismissive, but isn’t meant to be – a very big step, of course, but in it’s own right it wouldn’t have won the war any more than, say, the landings at Salerno).

    5thElefant
    Member

    Far more died in WW2 and nobody pays any attention to what poets have to say.

    winston_dog
    Member

    20th Century War fought with 19th century strategy, innit.

    Mr Woppit sums it up really.

    They didn’t understand the technology they were using and were up against. WW1 turned into trench warfare because they tried to fight a traditional war of manoeuvre against modern weapons. The attrition rate at the Battle of the Marne was the highest of WW1.

    Read Mud, Blood and Poppycock as ninfan says, it gives a very interesting viewpoint, I don’t agree with it all of it but it certainly puts the whole thing in a different light.

    You must remember Haig was considered a hero at the end of the war, he wasn’t seen as a bumbling idiot like he is now. He got his statue.

    I have just finished “Britain’s Great War” by Paxman, surprisingly good. He puts the whole war in it’s social context at the time.

    the outcomes were completely different

    Ultimately though they weren’t were they? The UK, USA and France defeated Germany, at the time they had no other way to do it. By the end of the war the Germans had developed Blitzkreig and came close to winning but they were ultimately stopped by weight of numbers AND the new technology and tactics which were developed largely by the British Army.

    Premier Icon totalshell
    Subscriber

    have to take these historical issues in context. they are history we can learn from them or repeat them. we havent repeated them and have fought battles/wars differently since.

    ww1 was the first and only conflict between groups of nations who both possessed the means to kill very large numbers simply and effectively and both sides gave it thier best shot suffering many thousands of casulaties.

    Premier Icon ransos
    Subscriber

    In practice the Germans had the same objectives in WW1 as WW2.

    Invade the whole of Europe and north Africa, and wipe out an entire race while you’re at it?

    Premier Icon jambalaya
    Subscriber

    Like any event people can and do write “history” different ways from different perspectives and for different reasons.

    Thanks for the reference, with 2014 anniversary coming it will be an interesting read.

    Yes @pondo, WW1 was a cross over point in terms of equipment and thus strategy. WW1 didn’t start out in the trenches.

    As for Normandy I read an interesting statistic whilst looking into “friendly fire” the whole Normandy Offensive resulted in some 40,000 Allied casualties with the number killed in the landings a portion of that. Over 15,000 French Civilians where killed by Allied “friendly fire bombing” in the landings phase.

    pondo
    Member

    The Germans attacked at Verdun because they knew that the French would defend to the last man – so working on that very theory. And it wasn’t just a theory, because the French did.

    It pretty much broke the French, and took the fighting spirit out of a couple of generations.
    But it wasn’t a one-way thing – the Germans suffered heavy casulaties at Verdun just as the French did, same with the Somme.

    Yes, but Normandy lasted days/weeks, not months/years.

    Hmm, can’t remember where I saw the stats. I’ll keep looking!

    Premier Icon jambalaya
    Subscriber

    @5thelement – re: poets, one factor in WW1 was it was largely a volunteer army, there was still this perception of glory in war. Many young writers got caught up in the romance element and signed up and thus we have the poetry. In WW2 it was much more about conscription and conciensious objectors and the visual arts so we have more photos and film.

    globalti
    Member

    I’ve read that WW1 was the event that discredited Europe’s aristocracy so badly that they never recovered. They are now so thoroughly unfashionable that they have all but gone into hiding and we only get glimpses of them on rare ocasions, such as when a government minister calls Police officers “plebs” for example.

    pondo
    Member

    Cheers for the shouts on “Mud, Blood and Poppycock”, folks – I shall look it up.

    Premier Icon Sandwich
    Subscriber

    Far more died in WW2 and nobody pays any attention to what poets have to say.

    A vast majority of the deaths were (in no particular order) Russians, Japanese, Americans and European Jews. UK got off relatively lightly compared to those listed. Of those listed a majority were probably civilians due to the total nature of the warfare (bombing cities) and liquidation/genocide. It would be interesting to see how many of the Russian casualties were due to NKVD punishment rather than killed by the Wehrmacht/SS (not that we’ll ever know).
    The lack of knowledge and the sheer scale of the genocide makes it easier to ignore as it was so “unreal” to the average person of the time.

    atlaz
    Member

    5thElefant wrote:

    Far more died in WW2 and nobody pays any attention to what poets have to say.

    I think the shock factor of WW1 was the newly mechanised way of warfare. Where most European powers had fought colonial wars and only against the Boers had the British had much of a fight, this was a number of ineptly managed but “proper” European armies fighting each other for the first time since the Germans and French went at it 40 years before.

    To a certain extent, WW1 battles were more about trying not to win yourself to death as an army moreso than merely winning. Over 22% of the French population were killed or wounded in the war and if you were a male of an age to serve, those percentages were not looking terribly healthy for you.

    Haig was, by all accounts, in the upper level of abilities for commanders of the era but has been maligned since the wars to the point where he’s seen as a heartless butcher. To some extent, he HAD to be callous as it can’t be possible to plan such epic battles if you agonise over every death.

    hora
    Member

    We will never know how many died in total in the Russian Civil war or the purges that followed upto and including WWII behind their lines. Some estimates say 20million Russian dead. Who knows though with a country so vast and with areas previously hardly even visted before the war. In some forests in Russia you can still find complete figher aircraft etc etc etc.

    ninfan
    Member

    20th Century War fought with 19th century strategy, innit.

    To be fair, a portion of the reason for this was that the communications were still essentially 19th Century – once the order to attack was given, without radios etc, it would have been spectacularly difficult to get a message to or from the troops who had gone over the top, so the coordination of complex fire patterns, rolling artillery barrages and fire support was just not possible, the running of the battle relied on a pre-formed plan that was difficult to alter, particularly where an attack stretched across a wide area and troops relied upon other elements for support and reinforcement – once you had committed to an attack it would have been very difficult to change that, so the only option for a commander was to continue to send troops to reinforce the attack and push home the advantage or shore up the weaknesses.

    Strategy is one thing but the tactics of walking across no mans land or sending officers over the top effectively unarmed is rather questionable… I read recently, german soldiers felt that if the British had only run they would have overwhelmed the German line on the first morning of the Somme.

    So while the strategic objectives may have been achieved, tactical objectives and methods were absolute suicidal faliures. I think that is why Haig is viewed so poorly.

    hora
    Member

    Officers leading from the front- One definite way of cutting down the leadership/head of the force. Madness.

    winston_dog
    Member

    sending officers over the top effectively unarmed is rather questionable.

    This is another myth. Some of the “Upper Class” Officers chose to go over the top without even pistols. It was supposed to inspire their men. The majority carried pistols and wore riding breeches etc. However, by 1917, especially as a large percentage came form the ranks, they dressed like the others and carried rifles. This was to prevent the Germans picking them off immediately.

    german soldiers felt that if the British had only run they would have overwhelmed the German line on the first morning of the Somme

    The British Army at the Somme were (relatively) very poorly trained. They were volunteers who had been rushed into the front. Rightly or wrongly, it was considered impossible to do anything more complicated. Their German counterparts had been through compulsory reservist training for several years before the war, which gave them a bit of a head start on the British.

    pondo
    Member

    But that was just part of the learning curve, wasn’t it? That was how it had been traditionally done, and they didn’t know any better? The French turned up for early battles in scarlet and blue, for heaven’s sake!?!

    Tell you what keeps springing to mind about all this – Captain Scott. There’s a lot of stuff floating around about what an eedjit he was for leading the expedition as he did – but when you look at it, most of the stuff that he did was done to the best standards of the day. Not all of it, of course, there were mistakes, but it wasn’t like they had better knowledge or skills and decided not to use em. Same with WW1 tactics, mebbe?

    winston_dog
    Member

    Officers leading from the front-

    Junior officers and senior NCO’s always have the highest attrition rate, relative to their numbers.

    Premier Icon ononeorange
    Subscriber

    I have not really read much on Haig, but do subscribe to the orthodox view of him – a small-minded man incapable of adapting his thinking to the occasion. I don’t think he ever grasped at all that the stalemate was caused by a lack of movement from Winter 1914 onwards, until the Germans did get it in March / April 1918 and very nearly won by their three fluid attacks by well-trained storm troops. The only reason they couldn’t win by then was that they were so drained, and in fact their discoveries of how well equipped the British Army was thoroughly demoralised them. Arguably that discovery didn’t cause them to lose as the army was indeed not technically defeated on the battlefield, but I don’t subscribe to the Nazi stab-in-the-back theory – they were in reality all-in by then.

    If Haig had worked out that strategy in say 1916 and converted the British Army into a flexible, mobile, adaptable well-trained fighting force, the Somme could have been avoided and the war over relatively quickly. But he wasn’t that sort of man, and had he and the Germans had limitless resources, he’d still be going at it!

    pondo
    Member

    I might be over-simplifying, but I thought the German offensive in 1918 only came about because the Russian surrender in 1917 freed up a whole sh!tload of troops, and was a last big push to try and win the war? If it was just a matter of superior tactics, why didn’t they do that in the preceding years?

    Premier Icon mogrim
    Subscriber

    I don’t think he ever grasped at all that the stalemate was caused by a lack of movement from Winter 1914 onwards, until the Germans did get it in March / April 1918 and very nearly won by their three fluid attacks by well-trained storm troops. The only reason they couldn’t win by then was that they were so drained, and in fact their discoveries of how well equipped the British Army was thoroughly demoralised them. Arguably that discovery didn’t cause them to lose as the army was indeed not technically defeated on the battlefield, but I don’t subscribe to the Nazi stab-in-the-back theory – they were in reality all-in by then.

    Both sides had, by the end of the war, developed superior tactics – the rolling artillery barrage, tanks, defense in depth… arguing that the Germans lost the war rather than the Allies winning is unfair to the Edit: British Army Allied armies and its leaders.

    winston_dog
    Member

    If Haig had worked out that strategy in say 1916 and converted the British Army into a flexible, mobile, adaptable well-trained fighting force,

    Not asking a lot are you?

    1) By “that strategy” I take it you mean basically Blitzkreig? It took the German army 4 years to work that one out and they were a land based military.
    2) The British Army was tiny, the original BeF was 100,000 men. Very good but very small. Covert what? The Army didn’t start recruiting until 1914. They had to go into the front to relieve the pressure on the French as soon as possible.
    3) The equipment didn’t exist in 1916 to fight like they did in 1918. The artillery wasn’t accurate and reliable enough for one thing.

    By 1918 the British were using very advanced creeping barrages with accurate guns, and combined air power working with the infantry. It beat the Germans then and it was basically what the allies did in 44 45.

    The war was brutal and savage. With hindsight anyone could do it better but it needs to be considered in the context of its time.

    toppers3933
    Member

    The first world war was very much a transitional war. 19th century tactics with 20th century technology. A major problem was that the generals were almost all 19th century soldiers and were massively sceptical of the new technology that they were both up against and that they were playing catch up with.
    on the Somme, a series of bad decisions and a total lack of any ability to adapt to the changing conditions on the ground was compounded by the commanders who started out overseeing the battle on a hillside had no means of telling the commanders on the front line what they could see was happening. they then went into command centres and were kept abreast of the battle by runners which led to a massive delay in any commands that were given.
    The barrage the precluded the battle proper was laid down on the assumption that it was actually doing what it was intended to do. To all intents and purposes they might as well have sent the germans a letter informing them of the forthcoming attack. They also massively underestimated the german defences which were damaged by the barrage but not destroyed as they had assumed. they also had no way of noting that the wire had been cut and very little in the way of contingency should they not have been cut sufficiently.
    The thing that always beggars belief to me was that they were under strict instructions not to run.

    Ranulph fiennes wrote quite a good book about Scott. Well worth a read.

    b r
    Member

    But it wasn’t a one-way thing – the Germans suffered heavy casulaties at Verdun just as the French did, same with the Somme.

    I didn’t say it was, just agreeing that they were working on the “we’ve a larger population than one” method of ‘warfare’.

    By 1918 both sides had worked out the need for ‘Blitzkreig’, and were successful – the Allies more so. It’s just the 1918 technology and the general state of the German Army/State meant they couldn’t take advantage of the advances.

    British casualties…

    1914 892 Officers 25,013 other ranks
    1915 5,558 Officers 121,006 other ranks
    1916 12,818 Officers 219,539 other ranks
    1917 15,311 Officers 321,628 other ranks
    1918 15,311 Officers 265,730 other ranks

    Likelihood of death of injury:
    http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html

    pondo
    Member

    Found it – lifted in one big, trimmed (in the hope of brevity, hopefully without changing the meaning), chunk from Haig’s wiki;

    When British forces engaged in a major battle in Normandy in 1944, total losses were fewer than on the Somme in 1916 as Normandy was around half the length and less than half the size, but casualties per unit per week were broadly similar. Another historian observes that British daily loss rates at Normandy – a battle in which divisions lost up to three quarters of their combat infantry – were similar to those of Third Ypres in 1917, while average battalion casualty rates in 1944-5 (100 men per week) were similar to those of the First World War.

    John Terraine wrote:

    It is important to remember that in 1939-45 the world losses were probably over four times as many – the British task was entirely different, which is why the (British) loss of life was so different: about 350,000 in 1939-45 and about 750,000 (British deaths, 1 million including the Empire) in 1914-18. The casualty statistics tell us nothing about the quality of British generals. The statistics show that the British losses in great battles were generally about the same as anyone else’s.

    In the same article he argued that British perceptions were coloured by the terrible losses of 1 July 1916 (57,000 in one day), but that it should also be remembered that the British never suffered anything like the losses of June 1916, when the Austro-Hungarian Army had 280,000 casualties in a week, or of August 1914 when the French Army lost 211,000 in 16 days, or of March and April 1918 when the Germans lost nearly 350,000 in six weeks (8,600 per day), or 1915 when Russia suffered 2 million casualties in a year.[214]

    Total British WW1 deaths seemed especially severe as they fell among certain groups such as Pals Battalions or the alleged “Lost Generation” of public school and university educated junior officers. In fact British deaths, although heavy compared to other British wars, were only around half those of France or Germany as a proportion of population
    Which is not to say that the losses were sensible, or acceptable, or anything less than horrifying. But when you look at it in context, they were not proportionally greater than other British battles in the 20th century.

    mrmoofo
    Member

    Mud, Blood and Poppycock is worth reading – even though it is from a very army historian POV.
    TBH a lot of the imagary of WW 1 is now as a result of films – and particularly Blackadder.
    I would guess that most who have posted very emotive postings on this subject haven’t actually read up on the subject, just reacted to what they think they know.

    I certainly did in the past – but have been investing some time in actually finding out what went on.
    For a start, the assumption that troops spend weeks / months at the front line was incorrect …

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