• Email
  • Print

Goodbye to All That

The Face of Battle

by John Keegan
Viking, 354 pp., $10.95

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

by Norman F. Dixon
Basic Books, 447 pp., $12.50

The Social History of the Machine Gun

by John Ellis
Pantheon, 224 pp., $4.95 (paper)

How could men fight in battles? What sort of human beings are generals, who deliberately bring them about? It is good that so many people in Britain and America do not know the answers to these questions and now—to judge by recent writing on the topic—are fascinated by almost any explanation. Good, but strange in the American case where so many thousands of still young men who fought in Vietnam could provide their own experiences. Most people, however, watched the war on television and are still mystified. Less strange in Britain. It is twenty years since Suez, and in that time the British have at last grown out of that extraordinary fatalism which saw “wartime” and “peacetime” as night and day, a natural alternation in which every generation must expect the call to “do its bit.” The very word “peacetime,” with its seasonal implication, has vanished from the language.

The heroes are not just tired: they are retired. In the rainy cabbage-plains of Westphalia, young British soldiers drowse in the same Nazi barracks that their fathers and in some cases their grandfathers drowsed in after 1945. The other day, I found myself in one of the largest US air bases in southern Germany. Of the old glamor and opulence of the GI, in European eyes, nothing remained: shabbiness, dirt, and lethargy (cracked roads, stained walls) contrasted with the prosperous market town a few miles away. In the latrines, graffiti about the presidential candidates were overshadowed by a huge chart of homosexual activities and preferences, industriously filled in by platoons of visitors.

Alfred de Vigny wrote in Servitude et grandeur militaires that the soldier’s character was simple, kindly, and patient. “There is something childlike about it because life in a regiment is somewhat like life in a boarding school. Its coarse and sardonic features are imposed upon it partly by boredom, but primarily by its permanently false relationship to the nation and by the artificiality inherent in the exercise of authority.” Vigny, a “peacetime” soldier who never saw a battle, no doubt overdid things by going on to argue that boredom and authority contributed to his concept of the “Abnegation of the Warrior.” Generally, though, he saw armies much as we see them now.

John Keegan is a brother to him. He even writes like Vigny, appreciating similar ironies. “I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath,” his book begins. He is a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, he confesses, who has spent fourteen years “describing and analyzing battles to officer cadets under training…all of whom stand a much better chance than I do of finding out whether what I have to say on the subject is or is not true.” Keegan could stand this particular irony no longer. Class after cadet class asked themselves and him what it was like to be in a battle. He decided to find out. The result is this totally original and brilliant book.

He begins by demolishing the various types of “battle piece” which have come down to us. Sir William Napier’s famous breast-sweller on the advance of the Fusiliers at Albuera during the Peninsular War disintegrates under his analysis; he find it based on so many cheap assumptions about the soldiers themselves that it tells nothing about “what it was like.” The British official history of the First World War performs “the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world’s greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.” Keegan then surveys the more portentous historiography of battle. Edward Creasey’s notion of the “decisive battle” in Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World has been used to justify any “strategically piffling, pointless bloodbath.” He has words of praise for the forgotten French officer Ardant du Picq (killed in the Franco-Prussian war), who annoyed his colleagues by sending them questionnaires about battle experience and by pointing out that masses of soldiery almost never actually collide: one side breaks and runs, thereby incurring most of the casualties. Du Picq and, in our time, General S.L.A. Marshall both saw that fear, not enthusiasm, was the motive for combat.

Keegan then presents his own account of what took place in three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the British offensive on the Somme in 1916. Soldiers have written about their own experiences with the same realism and detail: Esmond Romilly’s Boadilla about the Spanish Civil War, or Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality on the First World War are examples. But as a historical reconstruction of fighting, this central section of The Face of Battle has no counterpart in the literature of war.

At Agincourt the “tumbling effect,” Keegan argues, must have been decisive. The battle can no longer be understood by a diagram of “vans” and “flanks” performing their one-dimensional geometry. Keegan describes men at the head of a column getting jammed up against the enemy by the shove of those behind and losing their footing, so that the rank behind could no longer reach their adversaries across their fallen bodies. French reinforcements hastening to the rescue merely pinned their front rank into this trap. English archers attacking men on the sides of this struggling crowd increased the tumbling, presumably setting up the huge “ripples” which can be seen in modern crowds of demonstrators and which would have taken more people off their feet. The famous English arrows probably did little harm to the French knights, beyond an unpleasant rattling on their armor. Many soldiers were drunk, perhaps very drunk indeed. King Henry V’s infamous order to kill the prisoners cannot have been effectively followed, not least because of the value of live captives for ransom.

Waterloo, on the other hand, was an agnostic battle. The shriving and praying which preceded combat at Agincourt, and during World War I at the Somme, had no attractions for the hard-bitten armies of Wellington. Most people started the day very tired and hungry, and had spent the night lying out on mud in wet uniforms. Some rear-line regiments actually slept for four hours within yards of a battle which must have been the noisiest in previously recorded history.

Keegan identifies seven types of encounter at Waterloo. Cavalry almost never lived up to the myth that they collided with the enemy at high speed, and indeed by the time they arrived at the enemy squares of infantry they were often slowed to a walk by cannon-fire. Horses, sensibly, would decline to jump straight into a row of bayonets: there would be some saber flourishing, then flight. “Here come those damned fools again!” said an infantry officer.

The French artillery did far more damage to the British infantry. But what happened when foot soldiers finally met head-on? Here Keegan is at his best. He shows that hand-to-hand fighting took place only when confined space—farm buildings, for example—meant that soldiers came upon each other only a few yards or feet apart. At longer, “flight” distances—Keegan uses terms from zoology—one side or the other would almost invariably lose its nerve and bolt.

Some mysteries even Keegan cannot fully explain: why, above all, did some battalions at Waterloo remain standing for hours under murderous cannon-fire when they might have lain flat? He guesses that this had to do with the amazing charisma of the Waterloo officers—often unskilled, ignorant of their men’s names and indifferent to their comfort—whose courage somehow coerced those under them. A special variety of heroism, it meant taking injury. “Receipt of wounds, not infliction of death,…demonstrated an officer’s courage.” They stayed at their posts, honor meaning the triumph of self-control, until they were literally shot away.

Then the Somme: that July morning sixty years ago when the half-trained men, supported by half-trained gunners, climbed out of the trench and walked slowly and with hunched shoulders into the German machine guns. Twenty-one thousand died, mostly in the first hour or minutes.

For all the good books written on the subject in the last few years, no one has written more movingly about the Somme than Keegan. I take as one sample his discussion of the failure to arrange communications between the advancing troops and their headquarters. Recalling Captain Scott’s last Antarctic expedition, Keegan describes how the soldiers, bowed under the preposterous weight of supplies and equipment, passed beyond the range of their own signals system and simply disappeared into the unknown. Whole companies were never heard of again. The guns were meant to blow away the barbed wire and then to keep the Germans in their deep dugouts to the last possible moment, so that the British infantry could reach the German trenches before the Germans could come to the surface and man their machine gun emplacements. The guns failed to do either.

The book ends in military reflections, some of them provocative. All armies hate moving: tanks are “not so much weapons, but theatrical devices” used to overcome this resistance to movement. Keegan suggests that armored “break-throughs” mattered far less in the Second World War than received opinion thinks. By the end of the war, most of the units in armored divisions had become infantry rather than tank or motorized formations.

Keegan thinks that battle is dying out. In a sustained metaphor, he compares the growing human strain of warfare on its participants to the appearance of “extreme techniques” in mountaineering. Conditions for infantrymen at Stalingrad were very similar to the conditions which the first direct-route attackers on the North Face of the Eiger had imposed upon themselves. Like such “superdirettisima” climbing routes, battle also becomes longer, more dangerous, more fear-driven (as on the North Face, where there can only be ascent because descent is impossible). Battle has been stripped of human qualities by loads of gadgetry and protective garments, has become more subject to elemental forces like radiation or blizzard. Human beings, John Keegan concludes, are simply not up to this. Nor are commanders, subject to their own special guilts and stresses but also to the suspicion that the contemporary concept of “continuous-operations” battle, conducted by soldiers in a sealed environment much like a sensory-deprivation torture chamber, is asking too much.

Commanders are the subject of Norman Dixon’s book. The resounding title is rather better than the contents. “The Psychology of Military Incompetence” is a phrase that sounds the way the author often sounds: irascible, sweeping, apt to vanish over the horizon of fact in pursuit of a good joke. Dr. Dixon, who is a London lecturer on experimental psychology, served for many years in the Engineers and for nine of them as a bomb disposal expert. Nobody who has done that fearsome job need defer to any general in matters of competence or courage. His “Afterword” is characteristic. “Lest the reader should have doubted my qualifications to write this book, let me reassure him that I have marked authoritarian traits, a weak ego, fear of failure motivation, and no illusions about the fact that I would have made a grossly incompetent general. It takes one to know one!”

The key to Dixon’s argument is the old Frankfurt School-Berkeley definition of the authoritarian personality. This is at once the personality most easily attracted to military life and the one least fitted to withstand the stress of command. “The very characteristics which are demanded by war…are the antithesis of those possessed by people attracted to the controls and orderliness of militarism.”

This is a sound paradox, although not a very original one. An officer obsessed by cleanliness and order, terrified of failure, and given to abject and unquestioning obedience is not going to be of much use once the radio aerial is shot off, the wrong company appears on the flank, and PFC Kowalski turns out not only to have brought defective mortar bombs but to have lost his bootlace. At the same time, it is true that armies, especially between wars, are full of officers like that. Authoritarians at the top when war begins, being less likely than the battalion officers to be hit by a piece of something or fragged by their own long-suffering men, can carry on blundering for long periods, sometimes throughout the conflict.

Keegan observes that naval historians are most envied, because at sea all movements and orders are precisely recorded and no disobedience is possible. Dr. Dixon’s cleanest example of military incompetence is the naval collision between the Camperdown and the Victoria in 1893. Two lines of battleships were steaming parallel to each other. Admiral Tryon ordered them to reverse their course by turning inward. The distance between the two lines of ironclads, however, was less than their turning circles. His second-in-command knew this, but thought it incorrect to advise the admiral of his error. Accordingly the two leading ships turned slowly toward each other, collided, and sank with enormous loss of life.

Dr. Dixon points out that Tryon was an autocratic but outgoing personality, given to experiment and strongly sociable. It was Markham, commanding the other leading ship, who was the obedient authoritarian and therefore refused to challenge the admiral’s order. Much of the book is made up of a series of battle pieces and personality sketches of this kind intended to illuminate the influence of personality upon military decision. They are vivid, detailed, and full of acid wit. Too full, in the end: there is a constant sense of polemic and exaggeration, stimulation rather than conviction. There is nothing much new about saying that Magersfontein or the Siege of Kut were monuments of bungling, or that Haig was authoritarian while Kitchener and Montgomery were less so. What is more interesting is Dixon’s general analysis.

Authoritarianism, with “its associated traits of anal-obsessiveness and the closed mind,” is the result of the crippling conflict between drives of sex and aggression on one side and “the strictures of a bourgeois morality” on the other. Men attracted into the army because it offers the aggression-controlling devices they need will also bring more infantile features of the authoritarian personality with them: orderliness, parsimony, and obstinacy. Dr. Dixon slashes around him with devastating—if not unfamiliar—stuff about pot-training in the English upper classes, the control of aggression at English boarding schools, and the silent battle of the epauletted, saber-swinging veteran to defeat his emasculating Mamma. Militarism, he finally demonstrates, is the mother of incompetence.

Keegan writes about the reality of battle, and Dixon about its commanders. John Ellis’s subject is the objective significance of battle equipment. The Social History of the Machine Gun is speculative but full of information. It should be said that some of the information is wrong: the page on the conquest of Uganda, for instance, has four errors of fact. But this isn’t central to the book, which is telling a story as gloomy and grimy as any in the history of technical innovation.

Machine guns are essentially American. The idea was not: a Scot patented a multiple firing gun in 1626, and an Englishman invented a gas-action blow-back automatic in 1663. But there were two reasons why the machine gun, as a practical weapon, emerged from the United States in the nineteenth century rather than from Europe. One was the nature of American society: chronic labor shortage leading to early mechanization and, correspondingly, the absence of craftsman guilds like those of the European gunsmiths who had no real interest in such methods of production. The second was the Civil War. This was the first war fought by mass drafts from the general population. In the Napoleonic Wars, it was sufficient to defeat an enemy once: his armies could not readily be reconstituted. In the Civil War, it became vital to accelerate the rate of killing in order to outstrip the pace of replacement by conscription. The weapons of high-speed slaughter entered upon their reign. War had become industrialized.

The machine gun was still resisted by most army commands—even the American. Accepted for use against primitive peoples, above all in the colonial conquest of Africa, the machine gun’s use in European war challenged the old officer caste’s view of battle as an exercise of individual will and courage. This was one of the fronts on which the landowning aristocracy made a final stand against the industrial revolution which made their leadership irrelevant and obstructive.

All the repulsive salesmanship of the manufacturers could not overcome this resistance. Mr. Ellis shows us Baron Zaharoff, the famous munitions supplier for World War I, greasing Austrian palms or sabotaging the demonstration models of his competitors. He recalls the huckstering of Coloney and McLean, who claimed that the development of such “terribly destructive weapons of war” would compel the nations to keep peace with each other, and of those who candidly relied on cost-benefit appeal as if the guns were sewing machines or mechanical reapers, saving manpower and therefore money. But only the reality of the First World War made these people millionaires, and even after 1918 it was gangsters and strike-breakers who showed most enthusiasm for the potential of the hand-held machine gun.

This short book is full of good anecdotes and quotations. The Victorian favorites are there, from “…we have got / The Gatling gun and they have not” to Newbolt’s sacramental hymn to the public school virtues:

The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead….
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Mr. Ellis has also managed to make his way to what is now an almost inaccessible traffic island at London’s Hyde Park Corner, and find the small memorial to the Machine Gun Corps which stands there. It carries a brief inscription from the Holy Bible, which for callousness and hypocrisy recalls the sign “Work Makes Free” over the gate of Auschwitz:

Saul hath slain his thousands
But David his tens of thousands.

  • Email
  • Print