on 28 September 2011
The abridged, one-volume, small-print, paperback condensation is in my opinion a net loss over the original 1920s memoirs. The maps and charts are less informative, for one thing.
As 1st Lord of the Admiralty, a (temporary) officer at a Western Front battalion HQ, then Minister of Munitions, Churchill's account is a must. He was there, he made key decisions and then took the blame for them, he was closely involved with Fisher, Lloyd George, Geddes and the rest. We get his opinions and personality coming through as well as well-chosen and well-presented facts and figures. Above all he is a good read: you don't always realise this till you try flatter, more detached, and less colourful accounts such as Marder's.
The Penguin Classic gives us about two-thirds of this, but I prefer the originals, even if they take up more shelf space.
I found this book immensely enlightening on getting an understanding of WW1.
Churchill was not only in the middle of government during the war, often he was in the middle of the war itself - being involved in the fighting early on, and regularly going back to the front line to find out what was happening and talking directly with the commanders involved.
The points he makes about Hague for example are very telling. I looked at a recent book about Hague and was astonished to find Churchill hardly mentioned in the index. I then looked at a few incidents I had read from Churchill in this book about Hague and found the Hague book was telling something quite at odds with Churchill's account.
Here are a few things I learned from the book.
The idea that any of the battles were "wars of attrition" in the sense of wearing down the other side is nonsense. Churchill clearly demonstrates both sides had more than enough new recruits each year to make up for the losses being suffered - in theory they could have gone on pretty much indefinitely, even at the rate of killing that was going on, typically each side could provide around a million new recruits each year anyway, so provided less than that were being killed each year, the war would carry on.
The way to win in modern warfare - Churchill argues compellingly - is to bring in sufficient numbers in a sufficiently short period of time - to overwhelm the enemy and bring swift defeat. Anything that takes time can quickly be responded to with additional troops, so numbers, surprise and swiftness are key. This it seems is something close to what the Nazis did with their blitzkrieg strategy in WW2.
Tanks could have been the key to an early British victory. Stupidly the British command didn't keep the tanks a secret and used them very early on before they had had a chance to be used to surprise the enemy, but fortunately the Germans didn't themselves seek to build their own tanks even once we had given the game away about them.
It was shown in 1917 that the way to win a WW1 battle was with tanks. Instead of the long bombardment which signalled to the enemy an attack was coming, with the tanks such a bombardment was not necessary. Instead collect together a few hundred tanks and just point them at the enemy line - without any early bombardment surprise was total and casualties were very low. Unfortunately although some local commanders were able to demonstrate the success of such a tactic, the high command ignored it until much later in the war.
What really lost it for the Germans was their big attack in early 1918. With the withdrawal of Russia from the war in 1917, large numbers of German troops could be brought back to the western front. After Hague had promised at the beginning of 1917 not to waste large numbers of troops in pointless attacks he had done exactly this in Passiondale and consequently the government had declined to let him have any more (or as many as he wanted) troops in early 1918, in case he launched yet another idiotic attack.
So the relatively low numbers of British troops combined with the high number of Germany troops ensured the German offensive when it came was reasonably successful. However - attack in WW1 was always more costly than defence, and the Germans still managed to lose proportionately more men in their offensive, and not actually achieve the objectives they had hoped.
The loss of the German troops - particularly their more experienced troops - meant the momentum of their attack stopped, and allowed the allies to turn on the offensive, particularly with the US troops now arrived, and this time attacks with tanks combined with the new tactic of the crawling barrage where the shelling falls just ahead of the advancing troops (only possible with very skilled artillery) gave the allies the advantage and finally success.
If the Germans had sued for peace at the start of 1918 things might have been very different, but as it was they had to accept total surrender.
If you read one book on WW1, read this - the guy was there and his arguments are strong and logical.
on 20 March 2014
Vol 1. This is the first vol of a 2 vol set with a new preface and a revision written in 1938, the first version in 4 vols dating from 1923. It is an account of those times by someone at the top of the political tree, first Lord of the Admiralty for about 5 years, before and during the war. That he is also a historian and a master of accessible style are also important. But what matters most is the originality of the mind itself: its energy, initiative and all round intellectual grasp. He sets out principles for the tasks he does, as natural as breathing to him.
There is, for example, a passage on battleship design, CH VI, especially, on what counts most. This is clear, economical and brilliant, yet I expect that very few military men, nowadays, will have read it. You know that no one before has ever thought it out like this: hence the confusion beforehand: the ships that did not quite fit the bill. What does matter in 1911? The range of the guns, that most of all, closely followed by the weight of shot; and the speed of the ship and its armour. So we learn that a 14inch gun throws a shell of about a ton 35,000 yards, ie about 20miles. But Winston wants all the factors maximised and gets a ship (The Queen Elizabeth Class) with 8 x15inch guns firing a broadside of 8 tons of high explosive which can sail at above 25knots and have 13 inches of armour. What an improvement on what had gone before! Why these factors are so important is explained clearly. But it is not merely an intellectual exercise. Winston fought for the money to build these great ships and got the job done, against all sorts of machinations and envy and downright rottenness. Von Tirpiz reported that these fired shells more than twice as heavy as the Germans ships. No detail was outside his competence. He visited the shipyards, talked to the builders and designers.
What was a revelation was the reasoning behind the attack on the Dardanelles, so often regarded as Winston's mistake.
The letters tell us that no one was against it until, late in the day, Lord Fisher was. Even he was talked round. The strategic thinking that led to the attack is excellent. When both sides are in trenches stretching from Switzerland to the sea, and the attacker sustains astronomical casualties from machine gun fire and heavy guns, progress can only be made by outflanking moves. Either via Denmark and the Baltic or the Dardanelles and Turkey, these are the flanks. The latter was less risky, the Russians who were under attack from the Turks would profit from that move and the Balkan states [1,000,000 troops] would join the British if the Turks were knocked out.
Why did it fail then? Because Kitchener was 65 and a dithering idiot, despite his ability as a recruiter. He could not make up his mind. So the 29th division which was so important had to be sent late, long after the notion of a Gallipoli invasion had been known to the Turks and Germans. Kitchener could not delegate, no staff work on this had been done. So when troops were sent out they were not ready for battle with the weapons and supplies arrayed in ships ready for action. But the chief failure is one of mind. The Dardanelles should have been captured and easily could have been taken in a single day for the Turks had next to no ammunition left to defend their forts or mines. Even the Germans expected Constantinople to fall and the government was about to move hundreds of miles to the east. The logic of battleships with heavy guns destroying forts had been established already, after Antwerp had its forts reduced by gunfire and several in the Strait a few days before at a cost of very few men and a couple of old ships to mines (that could and should have been swept out first). There were 80 minelaying ships which were not used! The Admiral, Robeck, simply did not realise how close he was to victory. And so, the attack was not pressed. And so a quarter of a million men were lost at Gallipoli and far more throughout the middle east because Turkey fought on the German side. She so nearly capitulated!
And Winston was the scapegoat! It beggars belief. The failure of courage of all these Sea Lords and military men and politicals to press home a brilliant idea when within a hair's breadth of victory, united them in casting the blame on the one man who understood the logic and that this was the case. In the end, for all his dynamism and worth as a first sea lord, Fisher turned out to be a s***. Of course Jellicoe was singlehandedly responsible for the failure at Jutland. All he had to do was apply the Nelson initiative rule: and let his 5 new fast warships chase the enemy. They would have prevailed.
His relationship with Fisher is fascinating. So is the logic behind the development of the tank (mentioned by HG Wells in 1895) in which Winston plays a powerful hand. He is rightly furious when, a handful of tanks are involved for the first time and achieve little, for it handed the idea to the enemy. Rightly, he wanted the shock of a whole regiment of them. They would have carried all before them.
That, after these phenomenal, brilliant efforts, Winston should have been dismissed from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty, was a humiliation utterly undeserved. But he showed them, did he not!
The Dardanelles fiasco shows just how right was Maj Gen Fuller that old men do not make good generals.They are no longer fit to make quick decisions. And that character, which General Graeme Lamb commends as the first quality, which Kitchener had in abundance, is not good enough. BECAUSE of Kitchener's character and impressiveness, no one got to argue with him. He was the weakest man on the team! Because of his strength, and his dithering stupidity.
Caveat: p660. In effect Admiral de Robeck disobeyed WSC's instructions as First Lord: making WSC as he tells us on pvii 'responsible to Crown and Parliament for all the business of the Admiralty'. Winston was the boss! Why did he not override everyone and insist by morse [there in minutes!] that the attack on the Dardanelles forts be resumed immediately? Did it matter that Kitchener and the military and some politicians and Fisher, first Sea Lord, had lost heart, misunderstood the situation and how close they were to a stunning victory? No. Winston was the boss. Robeck had to obey. Clearly, Winston did not force the issue. He should have! In his letter on p662, Robeck never expected military aid. Well then! He should have been ordered to keep shelling the remaining forts. They would have run out of ammo in a single day! The fleet-and what a fleet- had plenty of shells and could stand off and fire them from over 20 miles, outside the straits altogether! That was how strong these battleships were, especially the new Queen class with their eight 15 inch guns each firing a ton of High Explosive. Winston himself failed. He did not need to persuade people his strategy was right. They would have seen it for themselves in a few days of further assault. The channel could have been swept easily, end to end, anything interfering blown to bits by our naval guns which were very accurate, even at that range. Then they could have sailed up to the city and frightened them all to death. Imagine if they trained all these guns on the town! What a triumph that would have been.
WSC knew it. Shows in the book that everyone on the Turkish side, Turks and Germans, thought it was over. A million lives would have been saved if Turkey had been defeated at the stage.
I have just read vol 2: 1914-1918. What a marvel it is.That Churchill was the scapegoat for the Gallipoli disaster is well known. He was in charge of the Admiralty at the time and suggested and promoted the idea. By the time it had occurred he was no longer in the government and never at any time had control of the land or sea forces which were badly led and supplied. We see here the reason for this attack. Turkey had sided with Germany. Between was the whole Balkan region which Germany wished to acquire. Bulgaria joined up with the Germans, the other states were undecided. The invasion of Gallipoli was designed to prevent the joining together of the Germans and Turks, for a very powerful union would have been created which was likely to cause the loss of Egypt and the Suez Canal. German commanders were in charge in the Turkish theatre, even Gallipoli. It was also an aid to the Russians who were British allies under the Tsar then and traditional enemies of the Turks.
WSC writes as Minister of Munitions and explains the matter beautifully. What a leader he was even then! In that job he was magnificent. His treatment of the workers is superb. But it is not commonly known, I think. The general view is that he spent the years from 1915-1940 in outer darkness. Not so!
WSC had access to all the War Office Papers and those of his own staff (he had a statistics dept, most valuable: full of charts and illuminating numbers, it is). I was continually struck by his genius, there is no better word. His performance, his insight and influence for good on everyone from the PM to the French and other allies is unparalleled.
And there is his decency: Of General Gough who was sacked, WSC says 'no episode in his career was more honourable than the disaster which entailed his fall.' p1293 The battle of Jutland is explained. The failure of Jellicoe is clear: where Nelson's captains had the strategy explained to them so that they could act on their own initiative, Jellicoe's had none. Since J did not know what was happening or where, he could not act. Nor could anyone else in his fleet. 4 battleships, Queen Eliz class, could do 29 knots. If set free they were quick enough to have caught the German grand fleet from getting away to their home port. But they had to move at the lower speed of the rest (21k). Yet J is fairly and decently treated.
Reading this is a thrilling experience.