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Robin Prior (1) (1942–)

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Robin Prior is head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

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It’s hard to stay decent while trying to pick out nouns and adjectives appropriate to describe the Somme. It more of a campaign than a battle, starting with a bang in July 1916 and ending with a whimper that November. This is something of a debunking book; the conventional wisdom is that stolid British soldiers carrying 66 pound packs went over the top in dressed lines and were cut down in rows by German machine gun fire. The authors contend that many of the attacking units used novel and imaginative infantry tactics, including Lewis gun teams and “bomber” squads, and made as much use as possible of cover, but no imaginable infantry tactics could have worked. The fatal flaw (according to Prior and Wilson) was artillery preparation; the British high command, hoping for a breakthrough with the cavalry corps pouring through “to the green fields beyond”, devoted almost all their artillery to attempts to cut lanes in barbed wire and practically none to counter battery work. The untouched German artillery ignored the front lines and concentrated on approaches and assembly areas (helped by the fact that they held local high ground and therefore had superior observation); as a result some units had 70% casualties before they even reached the front line trenches. It’s contended that this is the origin of the “rows of dead soldiers carrying packs” myth; these were not troops “going over the top” but in the rear on approach marches. The German machine guns may have contributed even so, since they sometimes used them as “indirect fire” weapons.

It didn’t get much better with time, as British generals Haig and Rawlinson learned practically nothing from their mistakes. A few new tactics were introduced: first the barrage in “lifts”, then the “creeping” barrage, then the “bite and hold” tactic (adopted more by default than deliberate planning), but the Germans used new tactics, too: moving their machine teams to shell holes rather than trenches. There were plenty of these to go around; it’s estimated that one shell of 75mm or greater for every square yard of the front. This caused a least one event vaguely similar to astronomers interpreting random Martian craters as “canals”; British aerial photographs misinterpreted a line of water-filled shell holes as a road, resulting in a British artillery team attempting to use it and drowning their mules.

So the bloody carnage just went on and on. Some British units lost 300% casualties (i.e. the entire unit was replaced three times during the battle). Total British killed were about 150000, with another 100000 hurt too badly to fight again. The British always overestimated German casualties, figuring them at 1.25M (!); the actual German casualties were probably about 200000. One of the telling statistics is that of the British casualties, 71 were cavalry.

One flaw in the book is little information about the German side. Analysis on the British side goes all the way from cabinet meetings down to stirring accounts of small unit actions, but there’s nothing for the Germans other than descriptions of defensive positions. The authors also don’t discuss any general history of the war (what happened to get the armies there and what happened afterward) but it’s already a pretty long book.

I wonder if there’s anybody left? If you lied about your age joined the army at 16, you would be 106 now. If you were there and still around all honor you; if not, all honor to your memory, whether you wore khaki or feldgrau.
… (mere)
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setnahkt | 1 anden anmeldelse | Dec 29, 2017 |
The unspoken question raised by the title of Prior and Wilson’s Passchendaele: the Untold Story is “Why would you want to tell it?” This is yet another First World War account of lions lead by donkeys, although calling Douglas Haig and Hubert Gough donkeys is kind of insulting to donkeys. Australian historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson are apparently making a career out of deconstructing World War One battles, especially ones where Australian unit participated; I’ve read their The Somme and have Gallipoli in the waiting stack.

The battle was preceded by what Prior and Wilson call a “false dawn”: Messines Ridge. This was more or less a victory, mostly accomplished by detonating a million pounds of ammonal in 21 mines under the German lines. (Nineteen of the mines went off. Mine 20 detonated in 1955, reportedly by a lightning strike. Mine 21 is still waiting). Even Messines Ridge didn’t go all that well; the initial advance was a cakewalk with an estimated 10000 German defenders dying in the explosions but counterattacks quickly brought things to a standstill.

At any rate, Passchendaele (aka Third Ypres) was back to the same old tried and failed tactics: British artillery would destroy the German wire, British infantry would bravely advance and seize the German trenches, and then British cavalry would sweep through the gap to the green fields beyond, all the way to the coast, surround the German army, and win the war. Of course, what happened was more of the same too; the preparatory artillery fire let the Germans know what was coming, the wire may have been cut but in the process the landscape was turned into an impassable morass; the artillery spent so much time cutting wire that they failed to suppress enemy batteries and machine guns, because the Germans had mastered getting them out from under incoming shells; British infantry bravely advanced and just as bravely died, without getting within seizing distance of any trenches; and the cavalry sat in the rear. It could have been First Ypres or Second Ypres or the Somme all over again. The British generals sat even farther in the rear complaining about the poor behavior of their troops; Haig noted that the Irish 16th and 36th divisions “went forward but failed to keep what they had won… The men are Irish and apparently did not like the enemy’s shelling.” The 36th Division had been in the front line for 13 days before the attack; fatigue parties required 1000 men per day to bring forward supplies; and they had 50% (!) casualties during the attack, with the leading battalion of the 36th having two offices and three other ranks surviving out of 330. One of the truly amazing things about the British army (and I apologize for including Irish, Scots, Welsh, Manx, Newfoundlanders, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders as “British”) is that with this kind of treatment they never mutinied like the French, Italians, Russians and eventually Germans did. I’m also a little surprised the Douglas Haig’s statue is still standing in Whitehall.

Worth reading for the heroic and tragic individual stories interspersed through the narrative, and for the narrative itself. The more I read about WWI history the more amazed I am. We’ll be in the centennial years fairly soon; I think every last veteran has now answered the Last Post.
… (mere)
setnahkt | 2 andre anmeldelser | Dec 16, 2017 |
Australian military historian Robin Prior has taken on the task of “mythbusting” WWI battles: the Somme, Passchendaele (with coauthor Trevor Wilson), and now Gallipoli.

The “conventional wisdom” about Gallipoli is Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, was casting around for something for the Royal Navy to do while waiting for the Imperial German Navy to come out of Kiel and fight. (Apocryphally a colleague is supposed to have remarked “Well, the Navy isn’t breaking much crockery, is it, Winston?”). Churchill, always a fan of the soft underbelly, thereby got the idea to send the Navy to the Mediterranean, land troops on the European side of the Dardanelles, capture the Turkish forts, sail a bunch of obsolete battleships into the Sea of Marmara, bombard Constantinople (the Allies always called it that despite the fact that the natives had named it Istanbul in 1453), force Ottoman surrender, open a sea route to Russia, bring Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania into the war on the side of the Allies, march triumphantly into the guts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and end the war in 1915. However, this brilliant plan went awry when incompetent British generals swanned around offshore on yachts while Aussie troops were first left directionless with victory in their grasp, then squandered in frontal assaults on Turkish trenches that inaction had given them time to build.

As is usually the case, it’s a little more complicated.

The politics are interesting. Churchill really did want to give the Navy something to do, and had a number of schemes. These were:

*Sailing the Royal Navy along the Belgian Coast while the BEF marched under the protection of their guns. This had the disadvantage that the occupied part of the Belgian coast was covered by German minefields and small craft, and even a successful march would bring the BEF to the Netherlands border. There were various mumblings about how Holland could be persuaded to enter the war on the Allied side, but nobody could give a good reason why a neutral nation surrounded by the Imperial German Army on three sides would suddenly join the Allies for the privilege of getting itself invaded and crushed.

*Seizing on island in the North Sea, off the German coast; Borkum was suggested. The island would then be fortified and turned into a base for submarines and torpedo boats to operate against the German Fleet. This seemed to be Churchill’s favorite; once again the observation that the waters were heavily mined and that the Royal Navy would be exposed to German submarines and torpedo boats while seizing the island and keeping it supplied was cogent.

*Sailing the Royal Navy all the way into the Baltic (which would have violated Danish and/or Swedish neutrality), picking up the Russian army at St. Petersburg, then turning around and dropping off said Russian army somewhere on the Prussian coast where the Russians would march triumphantly to Berlin. There were a lot of objections to that idea.

*Turning to the Mediterranean, landing at Alexandretta (Iskenderun nowadays) in conjunction with the French and cutting the railroad from Turkey proper to Egypt.

*Finally, the aforementioned Gallipoli campaign. Apparently Jackie Fisher pushed this idea, not because it was a good one but because it at least kept the RN away from the German coast. Fisher may have thought nobody would go for it; when it was actually adopted, he had a nervous breakdown and resigned to seclusion.

So, then, some geography and related history. Earlier in 1914 the German battlecruiser Goeben, caught in the Mediterranean when the war broke out, eluded the entire French and British squadrons present and made it to Constantinople. When the Allies indignantly protested to the still-neutral Ottomans, the Germans simply sold the ship and crew to Turkey, and eventually persuaded the Turks to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers (the means of persuasion was rather interesting; the Yavuz sailed off and bombarded Sevastapol, thus getting the Russians to declare war on Turkey. It’s not clear if the Turks were in on it in advance).

That changed the “balance of power” somewhat; now the Russians had another front to fight on. The Goeben (she was renamed to Yavuz Sultan Selim but everybody still called her the Goeben, just like they still called Istanbul Constantinople) was a threat to both the Russian Black Sea fleet and the eastern Mediterranean. What’s more, the rest of the Allies were now deprived of Russian grain exports; Russian was one of the world’s largest food exporters until the Communists took over and improved the agricultural system. Thus the attack on Gallipoli made a little political sense. The grain exports were apparently taken very seriously, to the extent that Russia was promised Constantinople despite the fact that Russian participation was limited to reading the news.

The Gallipoli peninsula is on the European side of the Turkish Straits; it borders the Mediterranean (well, technically the Aegean) on one side and the Dardanelles on the other. The Dardanelles (there’s only one) is a narrow channel from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, basically a wide spot in the Straits and where Constantinople is. The exit to the Sea of Marmara is the Bosporus, another narrow channel leading to the Black Sea. On a map it looked like a relatively simple job to land some troops on the peninsula, march along the shore collecting Turkish gun emplacements, and stand by and cheer while the Royal Navy demolished Constantinople.

As it happened, the Royal and French navies got first crack. This requires some more background (most of you probably already know this, but I’ll digress anyway). The world’s naval powers had built up large fleets of “battleships”, which were basically big ships with big guns intended to fight other battleships. In 1905, the aforementioned admiral Jackie Fisher of the Royal Navy introduced a new concept, the “all big gun” battleship or Dreadnought, named after the first of the class. The “all big gun” name is something of a misnomer; previous battleships had as many guns as could be possibly crammed into the hull without capsizing it – IIRC at one point the US Navy had a ship with 10”, 9”, 8”, 7”, 6” and 5” guns. The Dreadnought had ten 12” guns. The key for the “all big gun” concept was not so much that all the guns were big, but that they were all more or less under central fire control. Range had increased to the point that an individual gunner, even with a telescopic sight, could no longer tell if he was hitting anything; a whole battery of guns of the same size could fire salvos under central control. The Dreadnought made all the major naval vessels of the world obsolete overnight –including Great Britain and France – until they built their own “Dreadnoughts”. That left them with a large stock of reasonably new “pre-Dreadnought” ships that could no longer stand up against a “Dreadnought” in battle but were still heavily armed and armored. These were the ships that the British and French navies intended to send through the Dardanelles to deal with Constantinople – not much good for fighting in a battle line but still believed to be perfectly adequate for shelling Turkish fortresses and Constantinople.

It did not go well. Prior notes that the pre-Dreadnoughts did not have very accurate fire control (which was kind of the point). A few seaplanes were available for spotting but they didn’t have radios; the pilots had to note where shells were falling, write down corrections, put the note in a waterproof pouch, fly back to a ship, and try to drop the pouch on the deck. Vice Admiral Sackville Carden was very apprehensive about the Yavuz/Goeben, and therefore tried to save as many shells as possible to deal with her when he made it to the Sea of Marmara. Finally, the Dardanelles were full of minefields. Then (as now) navies didn’t like mines very much; there’s nothing very glamorous about cruising peacefully along only to have the bottom blown out of your ship as opposed to glorious gun actions against a visible enemy. As a result, the attitude often was (and is) “if we ignore the mines they’ll go away”. As a result, Carden didn’t have any of the Royal Navy’s few minesweepers; instead he had a fleet of fishing trawlers manned by civilians that were supposed to go in at night and sweep the mines. Needless to say, they weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea – it turned out that the current was so strong many of the trawlers couldn’t make headway against it, much less sweep mines, and the minefields were covered by searchlights and gun emplacements. Thus, no mines got swept, and about a third of the naval force was lost to mines and gunfire – the French Bouvet and British Ocean and Irresistible were sunk and the Inflexible and French Gaulois and Suffern were put out of action through damage. One Turkish gun was destroyed (the naval force thought they did better than that, not realizing that the Turkish forts had ceased fire not because they were destroyed but because the mines were doing such a good job).

So now it was up to the Army. The basic idea wasn’t all that bad – a force would land at the very tip of the peninsula, at Cape Helles. Then other landings would be made on the Aegean shore, sweep across the peninsula to the Dardanelles, and cut off all the Turkish troops. This didn’t go well, either. There were actually multiple landings at Cape Helles, at several beaches. On paper, it seems like a very good idea – a force at the very tip and other troops on each side, where presumably there would be sort of a amphibious Cannae with the troops at Cape Helles holding the Turks in place while the others marched toward the center and cut them off – sort of a miniature version of what was seemingly planned for the whole campaign. As it happened, not only did nobody bother to tell the troops that, it wasn’t even what was intended; the central force was supposed to push the Turks back and the flank landings were just supposed to sit there and wait until the central force reached them. As it happened, the troops at beaches S and Y on the flanks got ashore without much problem and could clearly see the struggles at beaches W, X, and V – but they had no orders to go and assist, so they didn’t. Eventually the central landing did force the Turks back after a hellacious struggle and linked up with the flanking forces, only to settle down to Western Front style trench warfare.

Meanwhile, the ANZACs had landed at beach Z, with a vastly overoptimistic plan to sweep across the peninsula at the narrow point and settle the Turk’s hash. What actually happened was nobody had even remotely accurate maps and didn’t realize there was a whole series of rugged and easily defensible ridges between them and the Dardanelles. A Blitzkreig-style rapid advance, ignoring flank protection, might have worked; but in 1915 nobody was in much of a Blitzkrieg mood. The Australians and New Zealanders ended up bottled up within a narrow perimeter.

Finally, yet another landing took place a Sulva Bay north of the ANZACs. Patrols had noticed that the country there was only lightly defended, and it was assumed that another landing could link up with the ANZACs then, once again, sweep across the peninsula. It’s redundant to say this didn’t work either. The landing was made at night and battalions got hopelessly intermingled heading into the beach. An officer with sufficient authority might have been able to take command of mixed units and advance, but the overall commander Sir Frederick Stopford remained offshore; therefore the local commanders concentrated on getting their units together so they could make an orderly advance. A few troops had actually occupied some hills overlooking the beach but were withdrawn until it could be done right. As a result, it was the Turks that ended up on these hills, overlooking a British force on the salt flats below.

Eventually, after a number of Western Front style over-the-the top attacks by the various separated landing zones, Kitchener personally visited Gallipoli and decided that his earlier optimism had been misplaced. All the troops were evacuated (the evacuation was the one outstanding success of the whole campaign, meticulously planned and executed and completely deceiving the Turks). However, as was said later, you don’t win a war by successful evacuations.

Prior concludes by discussing the commanders involved and the overall plan of campaign. It has been sort of an Australian national myth that their forces were squandered by incompetent British generals; Prior charitably concedes that while the commanders were not terribly worse than anybody else by WWI standards. Much like he and Watson concluded in The Somme, the most brilliant general in the world couldn’t have made a success out of Gallipoli; the whole plan was cockeyed. Even if the land assaults had been fantastically successful and cleared the European shore of the Dardanelles, it still would have left the minefields and forts on the Asiatic shore in place. Even if the navy had been able to make it to the Sea of Marmara, there’s no evidence that the Turks would have surrendered just because their capital was bombarded. The supposed alliance with Bulgaria, Greece and Romania on the conclusion of a successful campaign was another mirage; when Romania finally came into the war on the Allied side she fell to the Germans in weeks (Prior points out that most Romanian artillery was ox-drawn and the single Romanian artillery ammunition factory had a capacity of two shells a day). Finally, Prior shows in a table that while ANZACs may have been squandered, so was everybody else; there were more British fatalities than everybody else – Australians, New Zealanders, French, and Indians – combined.

Modern armchair military historians have devised a whole set of alternate histories based on Royal Navy amphibious operations in WWI; they look so good on paper, with armies showing up in the enemy’s rear and raising havoc. In fact, that’s projecting WWII capabilities backward. There were no specialized landing craft in WWI – troops had to be rowed ashore in ship’s boats. There were no field radios until late in the war; officers in the rear had no way to direct troops once they were out of visual range (although they often thought they were directing them) and officers in the front had a disturbingly short life expectancy. Military doctrine called for coordinated advance along a carefully dressed front – this lead to numerous occasions, at Gallipoli and elsewhere, where advanced troops were called back to keep the line straight and reinforcements were sent to areas where advances had failed rather than successes.

In short, another interesting but distressing WWI book from Prior. I had little knowledge of the Gallipoli campaign (for example, I discovered that none of the Allied troops got even remotely close to the town of Gallipoli); thus, this was very enlightening. Prior (and I) regret that he had little access to Turkish records; while there are general discussions of the campaign there are not detailed unit histories with personal anecdotes that make WWI accounts intimate. Finally, the maps are outstanding – lots of them in various scales that show details of the campaign.
… (mere)
setnahkt | 1 anden anmeldelse | Dec 9, 2017 |
Robin Prior has a long and distinguished background as a military historian in Australia. He has some strongly held views not entirely in line with revisionist historians such as Gary Sheffield (I recommend his appearance on the Radio National, see the episode Lions and Donkeys http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/worldwarone/). This important book contains up to date scholarship but also a well written account of the whole campaign dating from its origins.
Prior acknowledges the fascination of Gallipoli - not only its privileged position as a source of nationalist mythology but its 'could have been' quality. For many, the campaign offered the opportunity for massive strategic advantages worth some risk - a risk that continued to escalate with growing entanglement as a solely naval attack transformed into a full scale military invasion. Its status as a theatre that could have changed the course of the war is part of the fascination, but so is the variety of phases of the battle where commentators have suggested victory was 'just around the corner'. Prior spends little time on the question of whether the course of the war would have been transformed, and instead describes the course of the battles and examines whether they really were that close to victory. Could the naval bombardment have succeeded had de Robeck pressed the attack on? Would the invasion have succeeded without the warning of the naval attack? Would things have been different if the Anzacs hadn't landed on the 'wrong beach'? Would more competent Generals have changed everything?
Prior decimates all of the might have beens. About the only successful strategy (abandoned quickly and pretty expensive in any case) was the 'bite and hold' strategy that Hunter-Weston eventually arrived at in his repeated attempts at Krithia. As he does this he describes the narrative in clear prose, minimising the tendency for confusion with the variety of battalions and units. The maps are clear and very helpful in understanding the course of events.
Although a bit more discussion of how useful or otherwise a victory would have been in the overall course of the war would have been useful, overall this book provides a well written and up to date account of the causes, course and mistakes of the Gallipoli campaign.
… (mere)
bevok | 1 anden anmeldelse | Jul 31, 2017 |

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