A very strong book recommendation

What with the 100th anniversary of World War I and Remembrance Day coming up, a suggestion for a truly excellent book.

Mud, Blood and Poppycock.

Written by a career Gurkha Rifles officer turned historian it’s quite unlike most of what you might have read on WWI. The British Army didn’t have a high casualty rate: losses were actually slightly lower than in other mass conscript European land wars. It’s just that Britain had never had a mass conscript army in any of those wars. The Normandy casualty rate was rather higher in 1944 actually.

The Somme wasn’t a error, it was vital given what was happening at Verdun. Third Ypres/Passchendale was also not an error, equally vital given the French Army mutinies. And absolutely contrary to what just about everyone says about the generals they very rarely made the same mistake twice and by 1918 had actually worked out how to do that combined arms thing of infantry, artillery, tanks and air power. That very thing that the Nazis used so effectively in round two.

It’s also only five quid at the moment which is a bargain for a book this good. Strongly recommended.

I don’t, by the way, insist that he gets everything absolutely right. But I, for one, found his explanations of troop rotation fascinating: most especially his comparison between what the British Army did and what everyone else did. I first read it years ago and gave it another go while traveling over the weekend. It’s stood up very well.

52 thoughts on “A very strong book recommendation”

  1. “The Normandy casualty rate was rather higher in 1944 actually.”
    Surely you can’t compare a campaign with a war. You have to compare a campaign to a campaign.
    Sorry to nitpick.

  2. The Somme may not have been an error in itself–something to help take the pressure off at Verdun WAS needed. But everything about it was handled in a stupid and half-arsed manner. No intelligence (to know the Germans had dug too deep to be killed even by mega-bombardment), no research ( they surely could have done a few tests to discover if a bombardment would destroy deep bunkers) no proper plan(just bland assurances that our troops could stroll over cos’ the Jerries would all be dead.

  3. I’ll give this one a go – I’ve read a few brick sized general overviews of the War which I found rather hard-going.

    John Keegans ‘Face of Battle’ had an excellent section concerning trench warfare, couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

  4. Marvellous this Interwebs thingy. Just gone & bought it on my Nook at midnight 17 here in Oz. Not quite as cheap as Amazon though – £6.49.

  5. Face of Battle was excellent: and as a bit of trivia I was at school with Keegan’s sons when it first came out. It quite transformed the family finances it did so well (there was a £100k payment from a book club edition for example, big money at the end of the 70s). I wouldn’t say that this has a great literary style but it’s most certainly not heavy going. Nicely light style.

  6. Oddly it was Keegans WW1 history from the late 90s I was thinking of when I wrote that the big, strategic books are tough going.

    Not saying it was a bad book — the man knew his onions when it came to war — but there’s only a certain of times I could read about the Treaty of Brezhgzhgzhg or the 34th battle of Isorno before the eyes start to glaze over. Its such a big subject and so attritional that I think it’s easy to get lost.

  7. As eny fule kno

    It rained all the time.
    Tommy Atkins got trench foot but not cholera
    The generals were drunk on champagne
    Barbed wire worked as well on men as it does on cattle
    Poets died
    It wasn’t fair the Jerries had machine guns.

    If I’ve missed out any clichés I stand to be corrected.

  8. I’d recommend Mark Thompson’s The White War. (Italy vs Austria).

    Now there you do get some upper class shits.

  9. But seriously, WWI must seem so long ago and yet my grandfather fought at Gallipoli (I’m 52). He went ashore at Suvla Bay.

    I thought I was really sophisdicated modern and cosmopolitan when I went on holiday in 1980 to Malta only to find out years later that ‘Granfer’ had beaten me to the Island by 65 years. Mind you it took him a head wound that cost him an eye to get there.

  10. ‘Catastrophe’ by Max Hastings is good about the start of WWI. I suspect most people think the real killing came later in the war but 1914 saw millions of casualties just not British ones. More French soldiers died on 27 August 1914 (27,000) than did British soldiers on the first day of the Somme (22,000)

  11. As a side note, as a graduate of the UK state school system I can safely declare that the history you are taught about the Wars is uniformly piss poor. Dan Snow makes some good points.

    If you never learnt anythign else you’d come away with the impression that the Great War was about 80% boring, over-rated poets, 10% gavrilo princeps and 10% soliders letters home.

    WW2 was Rise of Hitler, the Queen Mum visiting blitz sites and the holocaust, it wasn’t till years later that I learnt that the european theatre was basically Germany vs Russia with everything else as a sideshow.

  12. @Andrew – my great-grandfather was a sapper at Gallipoli (he survived & eventually made Lt Col RE).

    In his diary, one entry reads simply: “Under heavy fire all day – made jam.”

  13. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    I was in the same boat as Dan and had a very much Blackadder-style version of the war ( this is late 1970s/early 80s) taught to me. At the time, I suspected that it was untrue.

    But I think what irritates about the BEF’s performance is that it learnt through trial and error, which is of course an enormously costly method. The Commonwealth armies of 1918 that saw off Operation Michael and took part in Haig’s Hundred Days ( and finally defated Austria in Italy) formed a formidable fighting machine,but it took 3 years to get them to that stage.

    I was reading my late wife’s Grandad’s war record the other day. He was just under 30 and a Sergeant in the Territorials, day job was a company secretary. Wounded at Messines October/November 1914 and invalided out, the Army discovered that he was first-class adminsitrator and obviously not cut out to be shot at all the time. Ended the war as a Captain in the Service Corps with a very distinguished record. You can almost imagine him thinking “Didn’t anyone read my CV?” as he dodged the Hun shells.

  14. “BEF’s performance is that it learnt through trial and error, which is of course an enormously costly method.” You under-rate their difficulties. Our tiny professional army largely died in 1914. So there was no-one left to train the volunteers, and later the conscripts, bar old boys – who were necessarily unfamiliar with the new warfare – or the wounded. Every time you took an officer or NCO from France to train the new boys, you’d weakened the fighting force.

    These difficulties didn’t affect the Continental countries, which had large professional armies, and whose conscripts had done National Service.

  15. What about the politics though?

    “WW1 should never have happened, and it’s still unclear what the motive was of whoever it was who caused it”.

    Discuss.

  16. Tim, thanks for the recommendation. Fortunately, I have a birthday coming up soon, so the offspring should take care of the purchase.

    On books about WWI to avoid, please ignore “A Mad Catastrophe” by Geoffrey Wawro, about the Austro-Hungarian attacks on Serbia and Russia in 1914. The kindest description I can make is “superficial”, and the author (as I can attest personally) is of the “poppycock” school of WWI scholarship. (He recommended “Blackadder” to his final-year WWI History class as a worthy reference — I was there when he did it.)

  17. @bnlia

    “But I think what irritates about the BEF’s performance is that it learnt through trial and error, which is of course an enormously costly method.”

    True, but it’s really the only method. In WW1, no one had fought an industrial war before. There was no doctrine. Things which now seem obvious were not then.

    No one really knew what it was going to be like when machine guns arrived. They had an idea, but all sorts of wrongheaded notions persisted. The .50cal is still taking down walls, nearly a hundred years after it was invented!

    Its definitely possible to try things which seem objectively more stupid than others, or to persist too long with stuff that’s not working, but you do have to try new things from time to time, and sometimes they don’t work.

    In the west we have highly evolved military tactics, but even so the infantryman at ITC Catterick today learns plenty of stuff his father in the Falklands didn’t. In part, he learns that stuff because of mistakes made in The Falklands, or Iraq, or Afghanistan five years ago.

    It’s even more pronounced for those less able to fall back on firepower and air power. The Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan learned the hard way that they couldn’t win firefights, so switched to IEDs. Then they learned that the dangerous, unstable and unreliable IEDs which they were planting were quite easy to find and avoid because they were made from honking great Soviet tank shells made out of metal, and so they started using graphite and wood and plastic. These evolutions all took time and cost them lives, but there was no way around that, because if you don’t need to evolve it’s because you are already winning, or even have already won.

  18. Paddy Griffith’s “Battle Tactics on the Western Front 1916-18” is a good book on the development and dissemination of British tactics in WW1. There was a lot of activity, and (according to Griffith) British tacticians anticipated German quote significantly – but the evidence of this has been ignored as (especially since WW2) everyone knows that the Germans had a particular tactical genius that the British lacked and so all evidence to the contrary is either spurious or an anomaly.

  19. bloke (not) in spain

    Quite a day for Gallipoli veterans. Grandfather makes three. Subsequently in Flanders which gave us three generations. My living where G had been in the trenches & an uncle had bombed the shit out of trying (unsuccessfully) to knock out the V1 site.
    Very OT factoid I stumbled across recently, made me think.
    US infantry soldier, European Theatre, average annual days in combat – 6
    US infantry soldier, Vietnam, average annual days in combat – 200+
    (Presumably “in combat” defined as “in location likely to receive enemy fire” or similar)
    Made me wonder about Brits in WW’s 1 & 2 compared with Afghanistan.

  20. @ Andrew
    My grandfather was KOSB and also fought at Gallipoli and later at the Somme and Cambrai. I never met him, but family lore has him as a surface fighter. He’d creep out with his men into the middle of No Man’s Land the night before a big push, then when our initial barrage lifted run like hell at the enemy trenches. The trick was to get there before their machine gunners got to their posts.
    Must have worked, he survived. Germans finally got him in WW2 Blitz.

  21. Apologies lost_nurse and BniS, I should have included you in the response.
    And back to Andrew: when I lived in Malta I found my grandfather had been hospitalized there after Gallipoli.
    Small world.

  22. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    B(n)is, I am led to believe (ie heard it on telly) that a soldier in WW1 would spend a 100 days in each of the layers ( trenches, secondary trenches, reserves) and rotate accordingly.

    Interested, I’m not sure about your example of the Taliban. There have been lots of examples of assymetric warfare in the last 50 years and it rather sounds like they hadn’t done their homework. Admittedly, it’d helped if they had had Stinger missiles like the Mujihadeen !

    I agree that the Great War was a new kind of static industrial war, where the British Army had been trained for rapid deployment and high mobility. But we aren’t talking about “trying something out” like the Raid on Dieppe, but huge weeks-long battles involving hundreds of thousands of men, where getting it wrong is enormously costly.

    When I was a student, I studied the Fall of France and I was puzzled why Lord Gort had such a bad press, after all look at all the medals he’d won in the Great War. As my lecturer pointed out: “Bravery is no replacement for brains.”

  23. Slightly OT

    The .50cal is still taking down walls, nearly a hundred years after it was invented!

    Perfectly possible to build a wall to stop it. Armour on a tank or armored vehicle will.
    Just not worth the time or cost to build everything in a manner that will resist a .50 cal. Small comfort if you’re on the receiving end of one…
    Not that being in an armored vehicle or a solid wall is any comfort. Any half decent force would just switch to an RPG-7 or equivalent.

  24. So Much For Subtlety

    Squander Two – “It’s amazing how many people believe that the generals kept on using the same old outdated tactics no matter how often they failed and yet still won the war.”

    Seriously? Britain ran a quarter of the globe. France almost as much. Russia had double Germany’s population. The Germans fought four of the five veto powers. And the Italians. Almost all by themselves. Once their initial plan failed, they were going to lose in the end. It was only a matter of attrition. Germany was too tiny. That they fought for so long is testament to their military skills – and the incompetence of their enemies.

    It is no surprise that Britain won in the end. I don’t mean that as a slur on British soldiers. It is just an honest admission of the truth that a small little country like Germany should not have been allowed to create so much trouble. Twice.

  25. the thing was that the British army had little knowledge of prolonged artlllery sieges…the French and Germans knew all about them from the various 17thc wars. Once the British generals , such as Plumer, clicked…then things changed. Montgomery fought El Alamein according to a plan devised by Plumer at Ypres, I believe.

  26. Bloke in Costa Rica

    The Yanks were still refusing to do proper troop rotation in WW2. It was basically a case of “stay on the line until you die.” The tour system in Vietnam was largely a response to the very large number of combat exhaustion (aka shell shock) cases this produces. Replacements were moved from depot regiments to the front without any acclimatisation and became casualties very rapidly. And it’s a myth that the only real theatre in Europe during WW2 was Russia/Germany. The loss rate (per thousand combatants per month) was higher in Normandy than on the Eastern Front. For a start, troop concentrations were higher: whereas a divisional front in Russia might be fifty miles or so, round Caen it was more like five.

  27. In defeat, you think again. In victory, you push on.

    I just hope that our military know we LOST in Basra and we LOST in Helmand, and are doing some thinking.

    Stalemate (the Western Front) is an obvious example of lack of thinking, with predictable meat-grinder consequences.

  28. So Much For Subtlety

    diogenes – “SMFS Germany was small? Have you heard of population statistics?”

    OK. Germany had about 60 million people. The British Empire had over 350 million people. How is Germany not the smaller country here?

    Even if you insist that the Empire was no use militarily or economically – not a case a former Gurkha officer is likely to make – Britain and its White colonies had a population about the same as Germany. Except Germany was also fighting France and its Empire and Russia. Russia alone had nearly 180 million people.

    diogenes – “Once the British generals , such as Plumer, clicked…then things changed.”

    And yet Germany was not beaten on the battlefield but by exhaustion at home. Didn’t change that much.

    “Montgomery fought El Alamein according to a plan devised by Plumer at Ypres, I believe.”

    Not a good advertisement for Montgomery – this author is not very nice about him or Churchill I believe.

  29. Forgot to mention that my Grandad fought at Delville Wood with the Transvaal Scottish Regt, 1st South African Brigade. As he put it, “25,000 marched in, 2,000 marched out.” (He wasn’t one of the out-marchers: he was shot in the chest and bayoneted in the knee on Day 5of the battle.)

  30. SMFS…selective statistics….do your research. Read what Carver had to say…etc….and did the British Enpire instantly bring all their fighting troops to the Western Front? How many Empire troops died on the Western Front? I know that French colonial troops died at Verdun…. Your evidence?

  31. So Much for Subtlety

    diogenes – “SMFS…selective statistics….do your research.”

    Look, I have no desire to get into an argument about this, but there is nothing remotely selective about my statistics. When Britain went to war with Germany, so did India. My figures are simply the flat out truth. Ignoring the Empire and concentrating only on the mainland of the UK is what is selective.

    “Read what Carver had to say…etc”

    What did he have to say?

    “….and did the British Enpire instantly bring all their fighting troops to the Western Front? How many Empire troops died on the Western Front? I know that French colonial troops died at Verdun…. Your evidence?”

    All of those are interesting questions but irrelevant unless I want a nit picking argument about the War. And I don’t. Especially not this close to Armistice Day. It doesn’t matter. It is irrelevant – and “instantly”? Really? That’s what you are going with?

    The very fact of Germany’s smallness is always a feature of histories of WW1 even if they do not openly say so. After all, why was Germany able to do so well against Russia? Russian incompetence on the battlefield – and in their factories which meant they could not bring their massive potential and actual resources to fight the Germans.

    Unfortunately exactly the same is true of the UK.

  32. This books seems to think that it was more like 72 hours in a layer.

    A division might be “up at the front”. But that might be two brigades up, one back. And within a brigade two companies up, two back. And within each company two platoons up, two back and so on. Two companies reserve trench, one second and one front for example.

    So, actual time (absent major attackseither way) at the front line was very limited. 3 days a month maybe. I’m not sure if I recalled that exactly correctly but it was that sort of thing.

  33. I think we undersell the competencies of the WW1 generals. The likes of Currie rank as highly as any military commander that our Empire produced. Similarly, the Hundred Days campaign rates as impressively as anything Marlborough or Wellington achieved and, in my opinion, should be remembered in the same way as Agincourt or Crecy. You could argue that by 1918 the Germans were exhausted but I’d counter that by pointing out that if they were such a pushover, where were the equivalent French, American and Italian campaigns?

  34. Tim,

    From what I remember from that book I linked to you are about right. The biggest problem for most squaddies in WW1 was boredom when they actually in battle.

  35. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    Sorry chaps

    I didn’t mean that a Tommy would spend 3 months solidly up to his neck in shit, but 100 days a year.

  36. For a frontline soldier’s view of WW1 on the Western Front I can recommend Old Solders Never Die by Frank Richards.

    He was a signaller with Robert Graves, who encouraged him to write and he writes really well, no frills stuff. Amazing recall of events.

    Even better, I think, is his account of soldiering in India, Old Soldier Sahib. Real life Kipling stuff.

  37. @Wasp

    ‘Perfectly possible to build a wall to stop it. Armour on a tank or armored vehicle will.
    Just not worth the time or cost to build everything in a manner that will resist a .50 cal. Small comfort if you’re on the receiving end of one…
    Not that being in an armored vehicle or a solid wall is any comfort. Any half decent force would just switch to an RPG-7 or equivalent.’

    Yep, I know a .50cal isn’t a magical thing that will always kill anyone, anywhere. The point I was making is that you can’t tactically do much more about it than you could in 1918.

    RPG7 will not (usually) take out modern main battle tanks. One Chally survived 70 hits near Basra in GW2. In another, the Chally was disabled by a Milan (or similar) and a dozen or so RPGs, but the crew just sat there battened down for half an hour until the infantry or the A10s caught up with them.

    Of course, that just leads to bigger warheads and mines etc and up-armouring which means eventually you have sacrificed mobility to the point where you can only drive on basalt, at which point you get out of the tanks and back into fast but lightly armoured vehicles and it all starts again. (Simple version.)

    But that’s my point. It’s trial and error, not trial and always succeed. You experiment with what works, one side wins for a bit, either because your experiment didn’t work or because it did. If it did, it’s the other side’s turn to experiment for a bit, and so on. Along the way, whatever happens, soldiers will die and there isn’t much you can do about it.

    (Again, this is a simplified version but you get the point, I’m sure.)

  38. In one of his books (Funeral in Berlin?) Len Deighton states that there were more Britiah casualties in WW2 due to traffic accidents than combat.

  39. SMFS,

    > Seriously? Britain ran a quarter of the globe. France almost as much. Russia had double Germany’s population. The Germans fought four of the five veto powers. And the Italians. Almost all by themselves.

    And that shows that the British won by using 1913’s failing tactics?

  40. jm,

    > In one of his books (Funeral in Berlin?) Len Deighton states that there were more Britiah casualties in WW2 due to traffic accidents than combat.

    The First Gulf War apparently had a negative casualty rate, as fewer soldiers died in it than would usually die in peacetime.

  41. bloke (not) in spain

    Just to point out, Germany wasn’t the only adversary faced in WW1. There were also the Austro-Hungarian & Ottoman Empires, the first of which was represented on the Western Front.

  42. TimW

    So, actual time (absent major attacks either way) at the front line was very limited. 3 days a month maybe.

    I recommend Sidney Rogerson’s Twelve Days on the Somme. Memoir of a company commander doing a tour at the front in relatively quiet sector in late 1916. The three or so days actually at the front of the front didn’t involve much sleeping. A short and sharp experience.

  43. SMFS,

    Manpower’s almost the least of it (and politically, Britain was handicapped hugely – Corrigan highlights how Lloyd-George cut off manpower to Haig, claiming in 1917 that Germany was beaten so no reinforcements were needed and there was no chance of any further German attacks) – issues like steel production mattered a great deal, and Germany was doing very well there. Warm bodies were important, but rifles, machine guns, grenades, artillery, and logistics mattered more. (The Zulus had lots more manpower at Rorke’s Drift…)

    Similarly, the UK’s numbers of men weren’t directly usable: France and Germany conscripted their youth, trained them, then kept them as reserves to recall as required, a practice considered un-English. However, that meant that when it was necessary to massively expand the British Army, Kitchener’s new recruits were starting from scratch, without the stores of reserve equipment, the prior training or the cadre to teach them.

    A major factor at the Somme was that the New Armies were limited to extremely simple tactics: they lacked the experience or the training for anything else. By the time trained manpower was available, Lloyd George was refusing to send it…

  44. So Much For Subtlety

    Squander Two – “And that shows that the British won by using 1913’s failing tactics?”

    No, it shows that you cannot use Britain’s eventual victory as proof of superior British officering. The Russians, after all, won in World War Two and it was not because their leadership was brilliant. The Chinese won in World War Two and no one would claim that was proof of their superior grasp of military science. If Britain and Germany had been roughly equal in size, then the outcome may have come down to superior command structures. But they weren’t so it is really not that important.

    Squander Two – “The First Gulf War apparently had a negative casualty rate, as fewer soldiers died in it than would usually die in peacetime.”

    Yeah but that is true of Death Row too.

    Jason Lynch – “Manpower’s almost the least of it …. issues like steel production mattered a great deal, and Germany was doing very well there. Warm bodies were important, but rifles, machine guns, grenades, artillery, and logistics mattered more. (The Zulus had lots more manpower at Rorke’s Drift…)”

    I would agree with that. I am not sure that there is such a big difference in weapons in WW1. More gentlemanly which meant much more sharing of military technology. You could have bought the latest Krupp artillery piece for instance, and many people did.

    “Similarly, the UK’s numbers of men weren’t directly usable: France and Germany conscripted their youth, trained them, then kept them as reserves to recall as required, a practice considered un-English.”

    Again Russia’s inability or unwillingness to conscript and create a mass army is often taken as a sign of their political weakness. Britain was fighting to preserve a limited, small, liberal society. Hard to reconcile with a mass Army in peacetime. But that meant they should have kept out of the mainland.

    “A major factor at the Somme was that the New Armies were limited to extremely simple tactics: they lacked the experience or the training for anything else.”

    I am inclined to disagree. It is more than the officers thought that they could do no better. No one tried that in World War Two, except perhaps the Russians, and the American Army was no better trained or had any more experience than Kitchener’s Army. The ordinary soldiers, I would guess, would have understood the logic pretty well if they were given a chance.

  45. > No, it shows that you cannot use Britain’s eventual victory as proof of superior British officering.

    Which I didn’t. What I said was that the eventual victory could not have been achieved using failing tactics. Now look up the word “fail” and try again.

  46. So Much for Subtlety

    Squander Two – “Which I didn’t. What I said was that the eventual victory could not have been achieved using failing tactics. Now look up the word “fail” and try again.”

    Russia and China prove that you can win with tactics that were utter failures. Lining up in a row and charging through minefields is not good tactics. Especially if you have done it once and it has failed so you do it again. And the Chinese were even worse.

    So an eventual victory was achieved in two other cases. No reason to think it couldn’t have been in Britain’s case either. You cannot use the eventual victory of some 800 million people over 60 million Germans and some failing Austrians as a proof of much.

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