August 8th last year passed by without much comment and it will probably pass by yet again this year without any due recognition, but 8th August 1918 marked one of the most momentous days in the history of the British Army, only the context of the interminable industrialised horrors of trench warfare prevent one from calling it ‘glorious’.
8th August 1918 was the first day of the Battle of Amiens where the British Army, in making the largest single days advance in the war to date, inflicted a shattering defeat on the German Army, effectively signalling the end of the Great War which formally came to pass just 100 days later. It precipitated a nervous breakdown on the part of the German commander Ludendorff and demonstrated that after 4 long years the British Army had learned all its lessons and become masters of the battlefield.
Indeed in that final window of time the British and Empire Army could be said to be the most (perhaps the only) effective fighting force on the allied side as it ruthlessly and efficiently pushed the Germans back beyond their own Hindenburg Line. It is perhaps not too great an exaggeration to say that it represented the finest army that Britain has ever put into the field. It was also the largest – an army which reflected the entire Nation.
So what relevance does this event have for us today?
Well history shows that the lessons of WW1 are more relevant to Afghanistan than one might think. Not in scale of course but in so many other aspects.
The stalemate brought about by mass armies and trench warfare created a whole range of new, seemingly intractable, tactical problems for the British Army from 1915 onward (indeed all armies continually failed to solve the dreadful puzzle that was the breaking through of well defended entrenched positions). The army was ill equipped for mass warfare on the Western Front. They were forced to react to circumstances and innovate and introduce new weapons – grenades, trench mortars, gas(!), scout planes, shell fuses, light machine guns, tanks and more. But the British Army did so after a harsh learning period and evolved the combined use of all arms — riflemen, light machine gunners, ‘bombers’ or grenade throwers, artillery (above all artillery), tanks and air support (most importantly in ‘spotting’). The British applied science and enterprise to warfare and converted its industry to prosecute it.
In Afghanistan the terrain and prevailing conditions restrict the conventional use of armoured vehicles (indeed it makes them more vulnerable than ever before) and previous notions of how we can operate in these counter insurgency conditions are shown to be inadequate. The enemy hide themselves away in the community and have evolved novel tactics (not least IEDs) to hamstring our operations. In short a whole series of new and unexpected problems have been set for our Army and our Allies. Just how far are we now along the learning curve?
Despite intense efforts it was only by late 1916 that the British Army began to solve its problems in WW1 and these solutions were refined throughout 1917. Only now is it dawning on our military and the public that significant lessons need to be learned and new tactics evolved for Afghanistan. We should not expect solutions to be easy or quick. Kitchener’s New Armies needed 2 years to learn their trade and a further two to master it – so we cannot expect the new Afghan Army to be self sufficient for some time yet.
WW1 saw innovations in weaponry such as tanks and in artillery tactics. Afghanistan need similar innovation, such as in new types of armoured vehicles and drone (spotter) aircraft and it needs the same enterprise in incorporating these new arms and tactics into the whole battle plan as occurred in 1918.
There was of course considerable friction between the generals and politicians in the Great War. And that is increasingly repeating itself now. At the heart of the friction in 14-18 was the desire of politicians to achieve victory but the unwillingness to face the consequences in casualties. This resulted in Lloyd George refusing to reinforce the Western Front in early 1918, a decision which made the German spring offensive all the more deadly.
The parallels today are uncanny We have spent years in Afghanistan achieving little because we were under resourced and lacking in ‘war aims’, all due to a political unwillingness to sustain the effort and casualties necessary for a victory.
The German strategy following the failure of its Schlifen Plan in 1914 was to hold what it had and bleed the allies white to end the war and hold onto its gains. It nearly succeeded at Verdun. French lossses were truly horrific but their morale (just) held and it’s remarkable that despite unprecedented losses British resolve never broke. Indeed it was German morale which finally cracked.
Today the Taliban expect that by simply continuing to exist and inflict what they hope will be unacceptable casualties they can prevail. This makes it all the more remarkable that the British government are doing so little avoid the negative propaganda of pointless casualties whilst pursuing their aims. The British government could not have invented a policy more calculated to reduce the Nation’s morale if it had tried.
The sobering fact is that in the final triumphant unremittingly successful 100 days, which led to the winning of the WW1, the British and Empire Armies suffered more casualties than during the indicisive Somme campaign. The overwhelming success which followed D-Day 27 years later resulted in a similar attrition rate. Today in Afghanistan we have only just begun to seriously campaign to defeat the Taliban. Are any of us ready to pay the price of success?