The Surprising Cause of the Second World War

Per historian A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, which was something of a classic when it came out, but has since passed on, due to its somewhat nuanced take.

The first thing that Taylor argues, rather effectively, is that no one was more surprised than Hitler to find himself at war with Britain and France in September 1939. Unlike in 1914, when Germany directly attacked France as a strategic corollary to fighting Russia, German in 1939 dismembered Poland with Soviet assistance only to have Britain and France declare war on it. Taylor makes the strong point that Hitler, while certainly being a wicked man, was not a lunatic or a fool until the hubris of success in 1940 caught up with him. Rather, Hitler aimed for diplomatic, not military success, playing his opponents off each other with patience and skill. Every move he made in the late 1930’s, from the Rhineland to the Anchluss to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, was accomplished without a shot being fired in anger, and with the acquiescence or even active support of significant sections of the local populations (Discovering the role that Poland, Hungary, and the Slovaks played in the Czech collapse alone makes this book worth it).

So what changed? Hitler pushed his success too far in Czechoslovakia, souring the goodwill of the British people. For it was Britain that was the key player in the crises of the 30’s. France refused to act without Britain, and so in every crisis the British line became the dominant one. Until the Czech crisis, Britain was chiefly concerned with preventing war, on the grounds that war would be the primary evil, and France was chiefly concerned with restraining Germany in order to maintain her own security.

After the Czech crisis, this polarity reversed. Britain gave Poland a guaruntee in order to prevent Hitler from doing to Poland what he did to Czechoslovakia. But there’s a strong argument that Hitler never intended that; that he was serious about only undoing the last Versailles stricture regarding Danzig and East Prussia, and that he expected the same old game: make diplomatic noise and let the Allies bring him a deal. That’s how the Rhineland, the Anschluss, and the Czech crisis worked.

It never occurred to Hitler that Britain had reached its limit, and feeling betrayed by the seizure of Prague, had no desire to accomodate him any further. At the same time, the desire to avoid war had not left them. Instead, they tried to restrain Hitler while keeping Stalin at arm’s length and threaten a war without really wanting to fight one.

As Taylor has it:

The British were overwhelmed by the difficulties of their position — devising policy for a World Power [The Soviet Union], which wanted to turn its back on Europe and yet had to take the lead in European affairs. They distributed guarantees in eastern Europe, and aspired to build up true military alliances. Yet what they wanted in Europe was peace and peaceful revision at the expense of the states which they had guaranteed. They distrusted both Hitler and Stalin; yet strove for peace with the one and for alliance with the other. It is not surprising that they failed in both aims.

The Origins of the Second World War, pg. 221

It is important to note that once war came and the restraints were taken off of Hitler, he embarked on Total Conquest without a qualm, and devoured states that had never been involved with the crises of the 30’s, such as Norway and Greece. Neither Taylor nor myself intends this as apologetics for the Third Reich, which was manifestly wicked and deservedly crushed. But it’s always worth pointing out the gap between grand strategy and diplomatic policy. The British were playing against themselves and their interests throughout the 1930’s, and so found themselves forced to declare the war they had never wanted.

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Why Civil War Battles Were Fought That Way

This being the anniversary of Fort Sumter, I thought it useful to blog a bit about a topic near to the heart of The Sword.

Chickamauga Hero
The Battle of Chickamauga – Civil War Trust

The nature of battles – the typical maneuvers used and paths to victory – changed very little from the time of Alexander to the time of Napoleon. Some have gone so far as to say that if you put Alexander the Great in a time machine and gave him a command in 1800, he would have – after a short period of adjusting to the sound of gunpowder weapons – known exactly what to do.

But a mere 100 years after the time of Napoleon, war was vastly different, and the tactics that worked for thousands of years were no longer operative. The Trench warfare of World War One meant that the entirety of the Franco-German border became a giant line of siege works that extended through Belgium to the sea. The development of heavy artillery, rapid-fire weapons, smokeless powder, and mass-produced rifled-small arms mean the old battle tactics simply could not work. Alexander, skilled besieger though he was, would have been out of his depth at the Somme.

This transition was about half-way underway at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860’s. We see the early versions – breech-loading rifled cannon, Gatling Guns – of the weapons that bled Europe white fifty years later. But we also see the same old Napoleonic infantry tactics, centered around moving and marching in a line. And we still see  in the uniforms – Blue and Grey – that pastiche of Napoleonic pageantry. One of the sillier trends in military dress of that era were Zouave regiments, with uniforms of short jackets, fezzes, baggy pantaloons and calf-length spats. It was a fashion imported from the French in North Africa, and numerous regiments North and South were uniformed thus. It’s hard to imagine Americans fighting battles in such accoutrements, but thousands did.

Winslow_Homer_-_The_Brierwood_Pipe
“The Brierwood Pipe” by Winslow Homer. 5th New York Zouave Regiment.

The modern habit is to regard the odd things about the past as a lack of enlightenment, a failure to come to grips with the truths we have since learned. How absurd, we assume, for these men to march together in tight formations, wearing such colorful outfits. Were they trying to get shot?

And to be fair, the old tactics were losing their effectiveness. One of the things we see regularly in Napoleonic battles – massed cavalry charges – almost never happened in the American Civil War. From the time of Alexander through the time of Napoleon the speed and power of the horse made it an effective means of moving a warrior to a weak point in an enemy army. When effective range of firearms did not extend beyond 50 yards, cavalry could charge infantry and win. But by the 1860’s, improvements to standard infantry firearms made this practice completely untenable, and the use of cavalry as a combat arm was declining. The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War of 1853-1856 was the death-knell for that sort of thing.

What were the changes to the infantry weapons? They were twofold:

  1. The Percussion Lock. Say it with me: Lock, Stock, and Barrel. The three parts of a gun are the lock, where the trigger is pulled and the powder ignited, the stock, the part you hold with your hands and that, in long guns, goes to your shoulder, and the barrel, where the explosion of the powder sends the bullet to its target. In the Revolutionary War/Napoleonic days, weapons were largely flintlocks. The trigger sent the hammer with a piece of flint against a steel plate, which created a spark that ignited the powder. They were an improvement over older matchlocks and wheel-locks, but they still misfired – i.e. the powder didn’t go off – about 30% of the time. With a Percussion Lock, the hammer strikes a small copper or brass cap containing fulminate of mercury or some other explosive substance. This cap is put on a small metal nipple underneath the hammer. Percussion locks reduced the rate of misfires to about 10%, and they were much more robust in bad weather.

    flint vs. percussion
    Above: A Flintlock Below: A Percussion Lock
  2. Rifling Becoming Standard. Rifling is the practice of carving grooves in the inside of a gun barrel. These grooves are curved, so as the bullet travels down the gun barrell, it is made to spin. This spin, like the spiral on a thrown football, makes the bullet go farther and more reliably get to where it’s intended. Rifling doubles if not triples the effective range of a gun. Now, rifling wasn’t a new technology in the 1860’s – but until mass industrialization it had been time-consuming and expensive. By the Civil War, almost all infantry muskets were rifled.

Consequently, the musket of the 1860’s was more accurate, more reliable, and had a greater range than those of the 1810’s. This not only stopped cavalry charges, it made infantry charges less effective. Strong defensive positions became all but unnassailable. One needs only look at the Battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga to see the ease with which even an inferior force in a strong position could hold off a superior enemy. By the time we get to the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-65, we see elongated siege works that almost perfectly predict the trench warfare of WWI fifty years later.

battle-of-petersburg-banner
Trenches at Petersburg.

So yes, improvements in technology meant that the way of fighting in massed formations that had been used since time immemorial no longer held the same effectiveness. So why were they still used? It’s tempting to say, “because they were too blind and too hidebound to realize what had changed”. And that might explain some of it. But there were other reasons why, despite the changes, the Union and Confederate Armies still fought in the grand old way. To wit:

  1. Rifled or not, Percussion or not, they were still muskets. Which is to say, they were still muzzle-loaders, that had to be loaded and fired through an elaborate series of steps, with ramrods like cannon.

    What this meant was that you had to be standing to load your weapon. You could theoretically fire it prone, but since they were so heavy most didn’t, especially since you would just have to stand up to load it again anyway. So while you were loading a gun, it made sense to have a fellow nearby firing his. Hence, mass formations still served a tactical purpose. It was common practice after firing one or two volleys to be ordered to “fire at will” so just this sort of cover-fire could be achieved.

    Breach-loading weapons, and even repeating weapons, such as the Spencer and Henry rifles existed, but they were like rifled muskets in the Napoleon’s time: rare and expensive. A mere year after Appomatox, the Prussians had perfected their breech-loading bolt-action Dreyse “Needle-Gun” to knock the snot out of the Austrians, who were still using muskets. Prussian troops were able to fire prone with a rate of fire 5 times that of the Austrians. But it had taken 25 years of fine-tuning to get the Dreyse ready for prime time. Muzzle-loading weapons demanded muzzle-loading tactics.

  2. And they were still using blackpowder. The use of cordite, or smokeless powder, as an explosive in firearms was still a generation off. Civil War weapons, like those of almost every firearm since the 9th century, used that classic mix of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate), known as blackpowder or gunpowder. Gunpowder is nowhere near as explosive as cordite, and gives off a great deal more smoke when ignited. Consequently, Civil War Battlefields, like those of their predecessors, were covered in smoke. So even though yes, their muskets had better accuracy and range, the reduced visibility of older battlefields were still there. You can’t hit what you can’t see.

    This explains the uniforms. They weren’t just peacocking plumage; they provided what is perhaps the most useful information on a smoke-covered battlefield – who is a friend, and who is a foe. And while it might seem like an advantage to dress wrong to fool the enemy, you’re just as likely to fool your friends and get shot by them by mistake. In the early days of the Civil War, the lack of uniform standards among locally-raised regiments resulted in numerous friendly-fire incidents.

As a consequence, while the massed infantry formations proved largely useless against strong defensive positions, they still worked well enough in the open field. And the technology had not yet allowed for the next phase of infantry tactics. And as World War One demonstrated, even when the tech was there, learning to use it would be yet another step.

The First Lady Really Hates on Fatties, eh?

That’s not fair. What it really says is “The First Lady Targets Obesity in the Military” (h/t: Memeorandum). And the URL reads: http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2012/02/09/michelle-obama-takes-aim-at-chubby-service-members/

Remember when such language was considered uncivil, contributing to an atmosphere of hate?

Anyway, the First Lady argues that overweight soldiers are a national security problem. This has the virtue of being true. And her solution seems to involve restricting the diets of soldiers.

I actually have less of a problem with this than you might think. Soldiers, being subject to military discipline, are restricted in a variety of personal ways. This is necessary to maintain order and unit cohesion. So the government has a compelling interest in keeping its soldiers healthy.

The Nannyism comes in when the interest gets expanded to soldiers’ families. And I follow the argument: the government has to pay for the health problems of obese families of soldiers.

All of which explains why I don’t want the state to have to pay for citizens’ health care in the first place. And unless you really want the unelected spouse of any President sticking her nose onto your dinner plate, you shouldn’t either.

One of These War Crimes is Not Like the Other…

Nestled amid this provocative collection of rare photographs from Saipan (h/t: Ace) are two links also about the subject of the horrors of war:

In the moral scheme of how we fight, urinating on corpses is not acceptable. It is unchivalrous, ungallant, whatever you want. But we need to remember, as Bill Maher reminds us, how inhuman our enemies are. Not because “Tu Quoque” is a valid argument, but because a sense of proportion is needed.

Should the offending Marines receive some manner of punishment for their actions? Sure. Give ’em two days in the brig, and then move on. And when that’s accomplished, our media can start putting the actions of our enemies on the front page, their burning of schools, their decapitating babies, their murder and rape and arson and overall pitilessness. Otherwise, I am forced to conclude that the media focuses on the Marines’ misdemeanors because to do the same to our foe’s felonies would invite a fatwa.

The Air Force Burial Business

I spotted this first on Ace’s sidebar: The Air Force has buried remains of servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in a landfill in Virginia.

The obvious reaction

I know. I know. Ladd Ehlinger, who worked for the military in some capacity until 2001, has piled on. But hold a second:

Air Force now confirms that body fragments linked to at least 274 fallen military personnel sent to the Dover Air Force Base Mortuary were cremated, incinerated and buried with medical waste. That procedure was in place between November 2003 and May 1, 2008. The Air Force also said that 1,762 body parts were never identified and also were disposed of, first by cremation, then by further incineration and then buried in a landfill.

Wait…what’s a body fragment? Is that a body? What is it?

When bodies are not intact — for instance, in the aftermath of a crash or explosion — a body may be released to the family before some parts have been identified by the Air Force Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Families can elect to be notified when parts are identified or leave it up to the military to dispose of them appropriately. Since the policy was changed in 2008, the unclaimed body parts are buried at sea.

So what I take from this is: what got buried in the landfill was unidentified body parts, not whole bodies. What could be identified was sent home to families as it should have been.

At some point, it’s not 100% possible to determine who a particular bone or organ belongs to. DNA testing can only take you so far. And hanging on to body parts in the forlorn hope that they’re going to ever be identified — so you can ship them to family members who have already buried a loved one — is a rather ghoulish bureaucratic perversity.

You can fairly argue that cremating the leftovers and putting them in a landfill is insensitive. I agree, and am glad for the new policy — instituted in the closing months of the Bush Administration — of sea burial (after all, if it was good enough for Bin Laden…).

But however hot this tempest blows, it may extend no further than the teapot’s dome.