World War 1: Stupidity and Luck

The fourth of August was apparently the anniversary of the opening of World War I as far as Britain was concerned, and also New Zealand, which, together with a number of other countries in the Commonwealth, joined in to help Britain. Thus started one of the most depressing episodes of weird luck, stupidity and criminality, possibly for ever. First, stupidity and criminality. I argue various generals committed very serious war crimes. You haven’t heard of them? No, you wouldn’t, because they committed them on their own troops! For New Zealand, the worst two were at Gallipoli and Passchendaele. The concept of Gallipoli was ill-conceived, but even then it was hopelessly executed. They landed in the wrong place, and when one landing actually could have brought success, instead what happened rated a chapter in the book “Great Military Stupidities”. Passchendaele had terrain unsuitable for tanks, weather unsuitable for artillery or any form of vehicle, so they sent in the infantry into waste-deep mud. Simple target practice. A simple strategy would have been to attack further east with tanks and artillery, which was known to work, and cut off the German army there, but that sort of strategy, known at least from the time of Tutmoses III (see the battle of Meggido), and probably earlier, seemed to lie outside the comprehension of these “professional Generals”. As the anniversaries of various battles come to pass, I shall post a few more stupidities and acts of criminality.

What about luck? The first New Zealand casualty in the war was a young soldier who was apparently the target of a long-range shooter, perhaps an early sniper. The bullet hit his rifle and ricocheted off it, into his neck and thence to spine and killing him. That has to be unlucky, although some may say he could have taken better cover. However, in war, you cannot spend the whole time taking cover.

Our History Channel has just offered a program that showed some quite remarkable aspects of luck. How true these are I do not know, but for what it is worth, two that struck me were as follows.

The first involved a British advance. The bulk of the action went somewhere else, but a lone British soldier was walking along when an unarmed German stood up. The British soldier raised his rifle and ordered the German to stop. The German faced him, then, when the soldier did not fire, and apparently did not know how to order him to surrender, he turned his back on the Briton and walked calmly away. The Briton did not fire. The German was Adolph Hitler. Think of how history would have changed had that British soldier pulled the trigger. The second involved an Italian soldier who came across three enemy, presumably Austrians. He calmly shot each of them as they turned and ran. Taking cover or shooting back did not occur to them. The Italian was Mussolini.

Young men apparently rushed to enlist, and in Britain at least, instructors in the army camps also rushed to get to the front. Apparently they believed this would be over by Christmas, and they wanted their medals. This had the effect of leaving the newly enlisted essentially untrained, although given the way the Generals used troops, it may not have mattered that much. The war was terrible, but even worse it set the scene for even worse. The war to end all wars failed miserably in that objective.

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