Applying Lessons from History
“I’m so smart” said Homer Simpson, “S-m-r-t”, spelling the word while bragging and at the same time showing the evident lack of intellect. Perhaps not the best example of multitasking. While Homer is the “star” of the popular cartoon sit-com this statement reminded me of the multitude of armchair generals surrounding us. I don’t follow sports, on any level (thereby cementing my status as a “nerd”), but I believe “Monday Morning Quarterback” is the sports equivalent to “Armchair General”. Both making calls well after the fact and with full knowledge the outcome. Most so called sports game experts at least actually watch the game in question. The history expert must draw his or her (yes these irritating people are not gender specific) from the works of others, some of which have as little formal training in the field as…well…me. Making things worse are those who “were there” and then write histories that favour their own side or in an effort to further their own career and or egos. I won’t mention any names but I believe I have covered that Churchillian practice in an earlier blog.
As many of our membership knows the battlefield can be a confusing place. Perhaps understanding exactly what is taking place at the time is impossible. Even police actions on what the public sees as a small operation can be a nightmare to organize and orchestrate. Fire scenes, even without the smoke and noise requires the highest degree of organization. Then, of course, there is most of the rest of us who would find it difficult to organize a one vehicle funeral procession. From the days of two forces meeting on the battle field, knowing when to form line to take cannon fire and the order to form square to receive cavalry, to the battle ground of the 20th Century matters only got more and more confusing. With that in mind let’s first look what was transpiring in France in May, 1940. The allies were in full retreat from the Germans and heading to Dunkirk with the hope of evacuation to England.
Enter Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt of Army Group A, one of the leaders of the German forces. As noted above the allies were in full retreat leaving what resembled a debris trail in their wake. This “debris” included vehicles, artillery pieces, heavy machineguns and everything except light arms which, to the credit of the soldiers and their training, they had retained. With the German army supported by the Luftwaffe prospects looked dim for the allies. Suddenly the German forces were ordered, by their commander Generaloberst von Rundstedt, to halt. At first history would record this as an order coming directly from Hitler but later it would be found that Hitler had merely confirmed the initial order issued by von Rundstedt. Why would the General order a halt of his forces? We may never know so let’s speculate; as that’s what armchair generals do best. History may have taught the General that outstripping one’s supply lines plus your supporting infantry, thereby leaving the possibility of the enemy exercising a flanking maneuver, was a real threat. We, here in the future, know that allies were devoid of any heavy equipment and armament, however that may not have been as obvious to the German leader back in the day. I do think it safe to make the assumption that had the Germans not halted when they did the allies would not have had time to evacuate. This assumption is made completely ignoring the sacrifice of the brave French soldiers who fought a rear guard action against the Germans further slowing their advance. That action and any other stalling actions by the allies, had the events unfolded in any manner as they did, may have indeed resulted in the evacuation taking place to one degree or another.
Stepping back in time, yet staying with the French, let’s look at some of the military decisions made by them based on of centuries of warfare. The French are an intellectual lot and have, through history been at the leading edge in the areas of art, science and military, to name a few. Since the dawn of the medieval times, and even before then, the French have won and lost battles and even wars using massed armies. The Hundred Years War, Franco Prussian War and the Napoleonic Wars, all employed massed armies, whether France was the victor or the defeated the lesson that massed armies was the “answer” to successful military tactics was driven home. This being the case it is no surprise that the response to The German Schlieffen Plan, a plan to encircle Paris at the outbreak of a war in the early part of the twentieth century was France’s Plan Seventeen. Plan Seventeen was a plan where the French would attack, with a massed army, due east straight toward Berlin. Due to the resistance by the Low Countries to the German advance and the failure of the Germans to implement the Schlieffen Plan with the suggested number of regiments the advance was turned well short of Paris. This left the familiar two massed armies facing one another but this time with advanced weapons of war, i.e. long range rifles and not smooth bore muskets and rapid firing machineguns. The result, the trenches of the First World War. After centuries of massed armies meeting on the field battle something relatively new. Sadly the practice of employing massed armies lingered on in the tactics supported by the leaders of the German and the allied militaries. Even though the static form of trench warfare was broken and the war ended in fluid tactics the French noted that the massed army of the Germans was stopped in its tracks by trenches, a form of fortification, so-to-speak. Between the wars the French dug in along their frontier with the development of the Maginot Line. Once again it would appear that an attempt was made, in this case by the French, to learn from the past. Germany did, however, take lessons from the tactics used at the end of the War and developed the Blitzkrieg to great success. We know how well the Maginot line held up to the fluidity of “lighting war”.
At this point, in wrapping up, I allude to the original theme of this series, “Can we learn from history?” Looks like a rather hit and miss proposition at best, relying, like in so many campaigns through the millenniums, on luck.