Understanding the Costs of War
[Re. the letter to the editor by William H. Bacharach, July/August:] Certainly there is no requirement to agree with any of the views expressed by Andrew J. Bacevich (“Dreams of Dominance Collide With Reality,” Voice, April), but to glibly discount them as having no basis in the real world is spurious. In this Information Age in which we live, Bacharach could (with little or no effort) find enough background on Colonel Bacevich (U.S. Army, Ret.) to avoid the pratfall of a misinformed challenge of another’s credentials. Bacevich served with distinction as a soldier and commander, was a combat veteran and is the father of a young officer [1st Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich] recently killed in action in Iraq. While Bacevich may well be ignorant of many things, war and its costs are not unknown to him and his family.
Colonel Tom Dials
U.S. Army (Ret.)
I am a subscriber to Military History, however my teenage son is the one who generally reads the magazine. In the most recent issue, I was horrified to read specific directions on how to build a Molotov cocktail (Hand Tool, by Jon Guttman, July/August). I realize that Military History does not claim to be a magazine for kids, but in view of what’s been going on in the world lately, do you think it’s advisable to give kids and/or adults directions that they or may not have already known? I realize all this information is available on the Internet if someone were to search for it, but why make it so easy?
Editor responds: Our intent in the Hand Tool and Power Tool departments is to explain how weaponry through the ages was designed and functioned. Such weapons as the Molotov cocktail (essentially gasoline in a bottle) are so basic that even a simple description might read like instructions.
[Re. “The Worst General,” by Geoffrey Norman, June:] In planning for the Somme offensive, Haig never had any “insistence on sending infantry against the enemy in neat ranks at a slow walk.” The high command never issued orders to this effect; instead the pace and formation of the infantry advance were left to corps and divisional commanders, who felt that advancing in line was the best way to keep control amid the fighting, considering the inexperience of NCOs and junior officers of the new army.
Nor did Haig entertain “fantasies of cavalry charges across open country.” Cavalry charges when it employs shock rather than fire tactics. There was no question in the high command of using massed cavalry to break enemy positions using lance or saber. Instead, the cavalry was to advance as mounted infantry once the attack had broken through the last enemy trenches, through the gaps of disorganized enemy forces in order to keep them disorganized. The purpose was to keep the situation fluid until the infantry could recoup for the next push forward. In that tanks were not yet mechanically reliable, and armored cars had little cross-country capability, it was hardly a pipe dream to adapt cavalry to this purpose.
Haig did keep the possibility of breakthroughs in mind while planning both the Somme and Ypres offensives, which testifies to his unwillingness to settle for purely attritional battles. None-theless, both battles by the time they’d begun were overshadowed by crises along the French sector of the front—first Verdun, then the French mutinies—that made the wearing down of German reserves their primary objective.
And it worked. If the casualties of Third Ypres “hanging in the wire” were missed once Ludendorff’s Kaiserschlacht offensive began, the Germans were missing even more; 88 divisions had been bled against the prior British offensive. Had those reserves been at hand during the crisis, the Germans might very well have split the Allied front.
Ever since [British Prime Minister] Lloyd George, Haig has had his critics and their often-fatuous armchair solutions to the problems he faced. It is telling, however, that try as he might, George could not find anyone willing to take Haig’s place and face his awesome responsibilities.
Geoffrey Norman responds: It simply won’t do to say that Haig didn’t sanction the appalling tactics employed on the first day of the Somme. He had been with the BEF since it arrived in France and should have known how the new weapons—especially the machine gun—had changed the nature of war and given the advantage to the defense. Hadn’t he learned anything at Loos? He should have made his subordinate commanders aware of the new realities and been sure they employed tactics that took account of them.
Haig remained attached to the horse long after the facts of the battlefield should have disabused him.
Haig’s style of attrition cost him more men than it did the enemy. True, the Germans did not have enough left in the tank to finish off the Allies in March 1918. But they came close and might have brought it off had it not been for the arrival of the Americans (another of those endlessly debatable propositions).
What remains, I think, beyond debate is that Haig’s profligate use of men, his insistence on pushing forward with offensives long after they showed any promise of success, resulted in a victory that was only marginally better than defeat, the calamitous effects of which are still being experienced by the British and, indeed, most of the West.
[Re: “What We Learned from the Battle of Veracruz,” by Lt. Col. Robert Mackey, June:]. Mackey wrote that William T. Sherman was a participant in the fighting in Mexico. Alas, he was not, much to his disgust and frustration. Instead, he was sent to California, which had previously been seized by American forces.
One other clarification: The author states that Matthew Perry was in command of naval forces during the battle. Actually, David Conner was the senior naval officer in the early phase of the operation and was in command during the successful amphibious landing. Overdue for retirement, he was relieved by Perry between the time of the landings and the surrender of Veracruz. So the author is correct, but I thought I’d add my bit recognizing the important contribution of Commodore Conner.
Long Beach, Calif.
Robert Mackey responds: While Sherman was a latecomer to the war, it was a seminal event in putting the important role of the West Point–trained professional, vs. the militia leader, as the senior “war fighter” in the minds of most Americans. The Civil War would prove that once again, as men from new graduates of the Class of ’61 to older soldiers such as Sherman, Jackson, et al., were the first to be placed in positions of responsibility on both sides.
I greatly appreciate your comments on Commodore Conner and for correcting my oversight. Sadly for Conner’s distinguished career, it was Perry who was credited with the fall of Veracruz, and not Conner.