Friday, November 26, 2010

Fullbore Friday

Lessons - yep there are lessons.

When you go to war - you step in to a dark room. You hopefully have prepared yourself with the best equipment, training, operational concepts possible. The wise commander steps in to that dark room knowing that he will not know what will happen when he enters. At first, he won't see what works and does not - but he looks for it.

He adjusts, he modifies - he tries to find advantage.

Remember the FbF the other day about the Australian Light Horse and the
assault on Beersheba? The Germans then did not think that mounted infantry would fight as cavalry - though the Commonwealth leadership saw the need to improvise, adapt, and overcome. Victory came to the less myopic leader.

Now the other side of the coin. You have cavalry. Always go back to one question: what is the mission.

General de Witte, Belgian Army knew what to do.
On the morning of August 12, the German cavalry arrived at Haelen and prepared to cross the bridge there.
Units of the Belgian cavalry (the 4th and 5th Lansiers, plus a company of cyclists and another of pioneer engineers) under General de Witte ambushed the advanced squadrons of the German cavalry, in what was almost certainly the last fight between mounted cavalrymen, wearing the breastplates and helmets of a different era.
(at the bridge, the Germans) encountered a prepared Belgian cavalry, fighting under General de Witte. The two cavalry fought throughout the day. The significant difference between the two cavalry was that the Belgian cavalry dismounted and fought as infantrymen.

The Germans launched numerous and repeated attacks against the Belgian forces but their sabers and lances could not hold against the unexpected Belgian rifle fire. The Germans fought until 6pm that evening having begun the attack around 8am. Frustrated Marwitz and the German cavalry were forced to withdraw from the bridge at Haelen that evening.

In all the Germans suffered nearly 1000 casualties that August day in 1914; 200 – 300 were taken prisoner by the Belgians, 150 were killed and 600 Germans were wounded. Belgian forces suffered approximately half that number in casualties.
Von Marwitz withdrew, advancing days later with great caution. This battle grew in Belgian folklore as the 'Battle of the Silver Helmets'.
The Battle of Haelen was a tremendous victory for the Allied Forces. Although the Belgians held the bridge at Haelen, the remainder of the German army won the Battle of Liege on August 16 and the German army continued their advance through and takeover of neutral Belgium.
Fight with what you have. Fight for every hour - as those behind you need every one.

Unlike WWII - not all of Belgium was taken by the Germans, and the plucky actions of the Belgian King and his people kept a tiny corner of Belgium free through the war. Their holding action along with the British Expeditionary Force and the spotty help of the French was essential in stopping the Germans from taking Paris.

Without Generals like de Witte, we would live in a very different world. Important to remember - especially for Americans.

In WWI, the Belgians lost 14,000 men in a population of 7.5 million.

For the USA's population of ~307 million today - that equates to 573,066 dead.


ewok40k said...

One may only wonder how would end WW2 if the defenders of Eben Emael and Sedan in 1940 showed the same spirit as in 1914...

Dave Navarre said...

Sadly, at Sedan, the French Army suffered for the failure to spend either enough or properly on defense in the prior decade. The Germans had overwhelming air-superiority due to the near-absence of anti-aircraft guns and the lack of French fighters (they had finally started rolling off the assembly lines, but with so few to start, they had no chance of catching up in quantity). Additionally, most French regiments had only enough transport for half their men, so most regiment-sized frontages were manned by less than half-strength regiments. Of course, there was so much inaction and crying by the high command once the collapse started, the pouli's found out fast they were on their own - abandoned by their government for more than a decade and by the leadership at the point of crisis.

On the other hand, when the 1st German Panzer Division reached the Loire River at Saumur two days before the surrender, they were stunned by formidable resistance. Led by graduates of the German Cavalry School, they encountered the cadets of the French Cavalry School. These cadets, plus retreating French and Belgian soldiers, held off the cream of the German army with a few light anti-tank guns, rifles and sheer bravado for two days.

So, sometimes, the spirit was there in 1940, but when your leaders and your government abandon you, the average soldier knows it and likely responds in a like manner.

ewok40k said...

You know the saying about army of lions led by sheep and vice-versa?
French leadership failed the most, to be sure, form the doctrine, material preparation, strategic planning, and finally to reaction to battlefield challenges. Germans were left with only two weeks of ammo supply when France surrendered - pardon, pleaded  for ceasefire. Quite similar story as with Singapore, those willing to go the extra mile get the victory.
Note that Germans had the invaluable experience of campaigns in Spain (Legion Condor), Poland and Norway. This, and the leaders of Von Manstein, Guderian and Rommel calibre was decisive.

Anonymous said...

CDR, to be sure, 14,000 may seem a lot but even these numbers pale in comparison to the number of KIA among the Brits, who lost half a generation 'in Flanders Fields'. The discrepancy is even so stark that the commonly held view these days is that the Belgians let others do the bleeding in the liberation of their country.

While I understand such a POV completely - what must a Briton think when he sees this very number, 14,000, on a bronze Commemmoration plaque on the Porte de Menin in Ypres, next to the number of 700,000 or so of British KIA - I would like to add some nuance.

First of all, technically Belgium was no allied country in WWI. That meant that the Belgium King, Albert I, retained complete control of the Belgian Army. In other words, allied commanders could not dispose over it, which would have been the case if Albert I had ceded command and agreed to integrate the Belgian divisions in either a British or French Army. In that case, Haig, for example, would have been able to shore up his forces on the Somme with Belgian troops. Or a Foch could have deployed Belgian troops in the defense of Verdun.

Because Albert I adamantly refused this and insisted on his independence, the Belgian troops remained committed to their tiny sliver of land in the extreme west of Belgium, behind the river Yser.

Now, when the Belgian Army had withdrawn into this tiny triangular area in Belgium's extreme west, in late October 1914 after two terrible months (as for machineguns e.g., in the entire Belgian army there were about 183 (!) left), Belgian engineers and locals ingeniously opened a crucial sluice complex in Nieuwpoort at high tide, for several days. This resulted in a massive kilometerwide inundation over a length of perhaps 30 kloms - about the length of the Belgian frontline. This was such a formidable barrier that it excluded ANY further German advance in that sector for the duration of the war.

You see? So here was a situation whereby a.) Albert I refused to place his exhausted troops under either British or French command - much to their chagrin and b.) his troops had created the most formidable artificial barrier on the entire Western front.

Because of a.) and b.)... Belgian losses in the years 1915-1916-1917 were relatively low. Not because of cowardice, but because of circumstances.

Anonymous said...

 You can of course argue that Albert I's stance was immoral because he let others bleed in the defense of his own country. I have read quite a lot about Albert I and believe me, he was not such a person. Rather, I tend to think that from a very early moment on Albert I realized that technolgical advances able to produce machineguns and precision artillery, but not yet able to produce reliable mechanical armour to swiftly break thru a defense, would inevitably lead to MASSIVE losses among the infantry. And this is precisely what happened, 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme offensive. A General Haig who stoicically accepted this, and a Foch who calmy took his lunch and nap after hearing of the carnage at Douaumont, now honestly, THAT borders, imho, on something immoral.

Look at it this way. Suppose Albert I WOULD have offered his paltry army of about seven divisions (later in the war double that IIRC) to Foch or Haig. What would have happened? They would have been senselessly wiped out in one of the great allied 'offensives'. And then? That would have been it.

That would have been it, because UNLIKE the Brits and the French, we Belgians had no means of drafting fresh recuits, our country being overrun for 95%. The only means of regaining some strength lay in recruiting among the refugees in the UK and France, and by 1918 Belgium had again an army of some 190,000 - a little more than the prewar strenght. And it was this army that fought very well in the final offensive of late summer and fall 1918.

Sorry for taking up so much space, I just think that this needed to be said - especially to the esteemed British who peek in here.

Uh, guest is me, Outlaw Mike.

ewok40k said...

I am liking the little scrappy army's strategy
After all, the purpose of the war isnt dying for country, king, cause or religion, but the make the other side do so...
Small countries like Belgium, Finland or lately Israel, dont have the luxury of bludgeoning their way to victory, they need to fight smart.

UltimaRatioRegis said...


To your and ewok's point below, the United States made precisely the same decision, unpopular as it was with France and Britain.  Pershing knew well that US infantry units would be bled to death in the same way that French and British (and Canadian and Australian) formations had been since 1914.

US losses for the time period engaged were far more comparable than many will admit.  About 116,000 killed in seven months of combat.  (Four years of similar combat would have yielded nearly 900.000 American dead.)  The difference being, at places like Chateau-Thierry and The Argonne, and yes, Belleau Wood, Americans successfully defended, and attacked, and defeated the Germans that faced them. 

It took only a few days of seeing the futility of French tactics, particularly, for the field and company-grade officers and NCOs in the US Army and Marine Corps to adapt and implement a new (for the Allies) style of warfare, much more akin to the German shift in 1917 after three years of slaughter.

ewok40k said...

Hmm, similar decision was made by Polish general Anders in WW2, when he refused to feed his army created of Gulag-freed Poles to the mincemeat of Stalingrad, and made exit to the Brit-controlled Middle East. This army followed to storm Monte Cassino in 1944. Though success was due to French colonials outflanking the position, the honour of rising flag over the ruins of monastery went to the Polish 2nd Corps.
Note that by 1918, even Brits made some advances in tactics, especially with newly created tanks, and relatively fast breached the vaunted Hindenburg line.

Outlaw Mike said...

' much more akin to the German shift in 1917 after three years of slaughter.'

URR, I assume you're talking about the 'Stoss' tactics developed by the Germans and which they used in their spring 1918 offensives?

Outlaw Mike said...

Ewok, so Anders was a Soviet prisoner? He 'escaped' to the ME to enlist with the Brits?

To get back to WWI, how would you rank General Haller?

Anonymous said...

The thing is this..... there was still avalid and nescesary use for cavalry in this period, despite the introduction of machine guns, and breech-loading artillery.
Motor transport, though being introduced, was no where universal and was to be the exception even up through the start of WW!!.  Horses were needed to recon, for swift movement of flanking forces, as couriors to support and replace radio and relegraph communications, and as draft aninals for artillery and logistics forces.

The US did not dismount it's last cavalry unit until 19452. The german army maintained millions of horses througout WWII as draft animals, and still had some mounted forces to the end of the war.

The development of arms and ammunition gad far out-stripped the decelopment of transportation and logistics, both in the physical sense and the employment/tactical sense.  Until those in leadership grasped the full potential of motor transport, horses would play an important part in all military operations on land.

In fact, I would still consider their use in some areas, such as Afghanistan, and especially the use of mules as pack aninals in those areas.

AW1 Tim said...

Oops... the "guest" above is me, AW1 Tim.

ewok40k said...

Well, Anders was  one of few lucky officers that avoided Katyn and similar mass graves due to quirks of Soviet beurocracy.  He was one of the finest officers of the pre-war Polish army and I think his command at storming the Cassino was his finest moment. And his "escape" inolved enitire army and thousands of Polish civilians that managed to tag along, amongst them 2 of my grand-aunts (sistes of my grandmother) , one of which lives in Australia to this day.
As for Haller, his "blue army" (called after the hue of French uniforms) was invaluable in 1920 when Soviets almost managed to bring revolution to Germany, only to be stopped by Poland. Trivia: It was Haller that officially claimed sea coast of Baltic as Poland's new frontier after the Versailles treaty.

ewok40k said...
our host seemed to lve this book of latest use for the four-legged all-terain ecologically driven vehicle called horse

UltimaRatioRegis said...


Yes, I am referring to the "stosstruppen" tactics developed in late 1916 and 1917 by the Germans.  Superb work called "Dynamics of Doctrine" lays out how that was done, more or less in stride, while fighting on two fronts.  One of the Leavenworth Papers, #4 I think.

James said...

<span>"spotty help of the French"</span>
<span>There is another kind? :-D </span>

ewok40k said...

Yorktown 1781...
And French were camping in Berlin, Vienna and Moscow in 1800s
Add to this their adamant refusal to budge in WW I.
There is no warrior gene, just good and bad leadership.

Anonymous said...

L'Poilu are not the problem. France's greatest sin was to burden such excellent soldiers with such poor Generals. France's Gloire was when it had great leaders. It's nadir was when she did not.