Monday, January 2, 2012

The War Horse and Innovation

I had the opportunity to see the movie War Horse over the weekend.  Great movie and story.  An interesting sub-chapter to the War Horse story shows up in Wade Davis's Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (2011).  Davis writes the following about World War I, horses, and innovation - -

Britain had not fought a major continental war in a century, and the high command exhibited a stubborn disconnection from reality so complete as to merge at times with the criminal.  A survey conducted in the three years before the war found that 95 percent of officers had never read a military book of any kind.  This cult of the amateur, militantly anti-intellectual, resulted in a leadership that, with noted exceptions, was obtuse, willfully intolerant of change, and incapable for the most part of innovative thought or action.  Thus men who had fought in 1898 at Omdurman - a colonial battle in which the British, at a cost of just 48 dead, had mowed down with Maxim guns 11,000 Sudanese, wounding another 15,000 - nevertheless in 1914 rejected the machine gun as a useful weapon of war.  As late as March 1916, after twenty months of fighting, Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, who had been at Omdurman as a staff officer to Kitchener, sought to limit the number of machine guns per battalion, concerned that their presence might dampen the men's offensive spirit.  For a similar reason, he resisted the introduction of the steel helmet, which had been shown to reduce head injuries by 75 percent.  In the summer of 1914 he dismissed the airplane as an overrated contraption, and he had little use for light mortars, which in time would become the most effective of all trench weapons.  Even the rifle was suspect.  What counted was the horse and saber.

"It must be accepted as a principle," read the Cavalry Training manual in 1907, "that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the imagination of the charge and the terror of cold steel."

Throughout the war, Haig would insist on holding in reserve three full divisions of mounted troops, 50,000 men, ready at all hours to exploit the breakthrough at the front that would never come.  As late as 1926, as the nation mourned the death of nearly 1 million men, Haig would write on the future of war, "I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity of the horse in the future are likely to be great as ever.  Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse - and well bred horse - as you have ever done  in the past."  The frontline soldiers knew better.  Of the cavalry reserve one remarked, "They might as well be mounted on bloody rocking-horses for all the good they are going to do."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for positing this excellent passage from Wade Blake's book. I have not yet seen "War Horse" yet, but this passage caught my attention nonetheless when I first saw it in the book.

    I'd only suggest adding the paragraph that immediately follows that passage, which fills out the story on ultimate consequences of the British high command perspective in this regard:

    None of this, of course, was known or anticipated by the men of the Newfoundland Regiment diligently training on the sodden fields of Salisbury Plain. A solid body of troops prepared to accept moderate casualties, they were instructed, could with “grit, determination and the qualities of a stalker” readily overcome a a machine gun emplacement. The essential precondition for success, noted in the official training record of 1909, was that the men maintain throughout the attack the “sporting spirit inherent in every individual of the British race” and that they cheer as loudly as possible throughout their charge, “so as to effect, by vibration, the enemies’ nerves.” The key weapon would be the bayonet, the point of which “should be directed against an opponent’s throat, as the point will enter easily and make a fatal wound on entering a few inches, and, being near the eyes, makes the opponent flinch. Other vulnerable, and usually exposed parts are the face, chest, lower abdomen and thighs, and the region of the kidneys when the back is turned. Four to six inches penetration is sufficient to incapacitate and allow for a quick withdrawal, whereas if a bayonet is driven home too far it is often impossible to withdraw it. In such cases, a round should be fired to break up the obstruction.” In point of fact, bayonet wounds caused but fraction of 1 percent of casualties during the war... Rifle and machine gun fire brought down a full third of the dead and wounded; high-explosive shells accounted for the rest...


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