Monday, 31 July 2017

And profanation of the dead

Once more we have a commemoration of a First World War Battle. We have reached 1917 and the so called “Battle of Passchendaele”. What we haven’t reached is any sort of understanding of what the battle was about, what happened and why. This is reflected even in the name of the battle. The First Battle of Passchendaele didn’t begin until October. The Second Battle of Passchendaele began in late October and continued into November. What we are commemorating on the 31st of July is the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres. This campaign began with the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Of course, no-one will mention anything about this. All we will get is cliché about mud and futility.

The Third Battle of Ypres was not futile, nor was it defeat for the allied powers. It was part of a series of battles that ultimately defeated Germany. Each of these battles involved enormous loss of life. But this was not because the Germans, the French or the British were stupid. It was simply because we had reached a stage in the history of warfare where defence was massively stronger than attack.

One hundred years earlier during Napoleon’s campaign soldiers were mainly armed with muskets and a large mass of men could charge a defensive position and expect to succeed. This meant that a Generals task was to manoeuvre his troops so that he it would be able to successfully attack his opponent. The General who did this best won. But during the nineteenth century this changed because of the invention of breech loading rifles and latterly machine guns. Even by the end of the American Civil War, defence had become so strong that armies were reduced to trench warfare. Fifty years later with the development of the machine gun it became simply impossible for a large mass of men to charge a defensive position and expect to meet success.

Why didn’t we have a repeat of trench warfare in the years between 1939 and 1945? The answer is that in the period in between technology developed again so that we had effective aircraft capable of supporting attacking troops and we had effective tanks capable of breaking through a defensive line. This brought manoeuvre back into warfare.

The Generals of the First World War had neither effective aircraft nor effective tanks that could operate in all conditions. These things were developed during the course of the First World War, but they had not yet reached the stage of being able to break through a defensive line on their own. The only effective ways of breaking a defensive line that these generals had were artillery and troops.

During the course of the First World War the various armies developed and changed artillery and attack tactics. These became progressively more effective. Unfortunately they had to learn by experience. This experience, otherwise known as battles, was not futile. Only by fighting the Battle of the Somme and later battles such as Third Ypres did the British Army learn how to win. By November of 1917 when the Second Battle of Passchendaele ended with Allied Victory the British had developed “bite and hold” tactics for which the Germans had no answer.  In desperation the Germans attacked in March 1918. Their attack met with initial success and they too developed innovative tactics. But their offensive ultimately failed, because they could not finally break the allied line.

By 1918 the Allied Armies had more or less perfected the method by which they could break the German line and they proceeded to do so from July 1918 until November. In this way the Allies decisively defeated the German Army in the field. But they didn’t do out of the blue. They did so because of the battles that had gone before. Without these, there would have been no victory in 1918.

I tire of commemorations that show zero understanding of the First World War. They are not commemorating anything as they don’t even know what happened. How can you remember if you don’t know what you are remembering? I’m sorry this is not remembrance it is “profanation of the dead.”

These men did not die in vain. Instead they won the greatest victory in British history. The British Army of 1918 was the best Army we have ever had. It had the most up to date tactics, the most brilliant and brave soldiers and it succeeded.

We have become so used to defeatism and pacifism that we forget what we were fighting for between 1914 and 1918. We were fighting for exactly the same thing between 1939 and 1945. The First World War was about preventing an undemocratic tyranny (Germany) from ruling Europe. The Second World War in essence was about exactly the same thing.

We went to war in 1914 because we wanted Belgium to free. We went to war in 1939 so that Poland should be free. We did not want either of these places to be ruled by Germany. We wanted them remain free, sovereign nation states who had the right to say to Germany No.

Preventing undemocratic powers from ruling in Europe was our war aim in 1917 and in 1944. That is why we fought. Unfortunately we lost the peace. Poland and Belgium are part of an undemocratic Empire that is in effect ruled by Germany. The German war aims of 1914 and 1939 have more or less been achieved. Germany dominates and what Germany wants more or less happens. The Governments of small countries are overruled. Their Prime Ministers are appointed and in the end they have to do what they are told. We have the illusion of democracy in Brussels but it is no more than the illusion of democracy that could be found in Berlin in 1914.

We must remember what our soldiers fought for at Ypres and why it mattered that they succeeded. They fought so that Britain would not be ruled by any tyranny and would not be dominated by foreign powers. That is why these wars mattered.

Europe is once again dominated and democracy threatened. Poland is once more part of an Empire only now that Empire is from the West rather than the East. But once more the British have escaped. We got into are small boats and we crowded onto the piers that stretched into the channel and pointed to our island home that would allow us to fight on for all those who had seen their freedom crushed.

We do so again. So let us remember this. Brexit was a great victory.  It was a continuation of the same fight that we have been engaged in for over a century. Unfortunately there are still those who wish to side with our opponents and would prevent our example from freeing Europe once more. Some of these people pretend to remember our dead today. They do not remember them, they do not know them or understand them. They only profane them. 


  1. As a bit of an amateur buff of both world wars, I would say that you are pretty much on the money, Effie, insofar as Germany's war aims on both occasions were almost identical - ie, a disarmed France and a German Empire extending into the East. I would add one further point about 3rd Ypres: it was deemed a strategic necessity, as its principal aim was to overrun the u-boat pens on the Belgian coast, at a time when Britain was facing starvation due to the German blockade. This is a crucially important fact about the genesis of the battle that most media types seem completely unaware of. Thus, indeed, the thousands of British and Empire soldiers who died did not die in vain.

  2. My introduction to WW1 was "Blackadder Goes Forth", as a child in the early 1990s. Great comedy, terrible history.

    It's tragic really that Germany now dominates Europe - and nations like Poland and Belgium that we fought to defend now stand with Germany against us. We need to get out of this EU mess and throw our lot in with the Americans. We then need to work with our American cousins - and perhaps the Russians too - to smash what remains of the EU. It needs to go.

  3. If you could tell the millions of British soldiers who couldn't vote because they didn't own property, and the countless colonial subjects who fought because they were told to, that they were fighting to defeat an "undemocratic tyranny", I wonder what they would say.