100th Anniversary: The Last Medieval Siege in the War to End All Wars.

Fake News! Of course, World War 1 did absolutely nothing to end all wars, and while everybody hoped it would, they all then went about carrying out actions that made the next one inevitable. However, that is not what this post will be about. Rather, this week, and more particularly the fourth of November, is also the 100th anniversary of the most successful day the New Zealand Army had on the Western Front, and probably in WW1, namely the liberation of Le Quesnoy. On the basis that most readers of this will never have heard of this, I thought it was worthwhile interrupting my transport sequence of posts.

Le Quesnoy in France is rather close to the Belgian border and had been overrun by the Germans very early in the war, so the citizens had been under occupation for over four years. However, at this very late point in the war, the Germans suffered a rather acute problem – they were running out of horses. Horses were needed for bringing supplies to the front, and for moving artillery, and since WW1 was fought on an industrial scale, very large amounts of supplies were needed. The horses they had had been overworked and many had simply died of exhaustion, and the rest were not in good condition. Accordingly, when the New Zealand Division made an advance, the Germans were a bit static, and the village of Le Quesnoy was not only encircled, but the Division advanced several miles towards Belgium. They captured 60 artillery pieces and 2000 Germans.

Le Quesnoy remained in the hands of Germans. It was a walled city, more or less unchanged from the middle ages. City walls would offer little resistance to artillery, but the New Zealand army elected not to use artillery. The actual orders were to encircle and hold, as there seemed to be little point in wasting lives when an Armistice was reputed to be being negotiated soon. However, the brass did not inform the troops about that, so the troops decided that they might as well try to take the town. Without artillery, they made what might well be the last medieval siege, a claim that might well be reinforced through the fake news on a local stained glass window in a church, designed, oddly enough, by a padre who was there. What the window is reported to show is the walls of the city being scaled by hordes of soldiers on ladders, straight out of the Hollywood movies.

The truth is actually a bit weirder. There were three walls, and the outer two were scaled, possibly with a number of ladders as per the stained glass window, but they were not really defended that well, and that left a moat and an inner higher wall. Scaling the walls might appear dangerous as defenders on the top should easily repel them, but it did not work out like that. The machine gun was a most effective defensive weapon in WW1; here it became an interesting offensive weapon. Any head appearing over the stonework received a burst of machine gun fire, which effectively made looking over the wall an act of suicide.

For the inner wall, the distance from the bottom of the moat to the top of the wall was greater than the length of their longest ladder. However, there was one place where a narrow ledge ran for a short distance along the side of the wall. The final wall could only be climbed with one ladder. Apparently there was worse; the ladder could only hold one soldier at a time. They managed to very quietly raise the ladder and while two soldiers steadied it, Lieutenant Leslie Averill climbed it. He got to the top, then saw two Germans. He fired two shots at them from his pistol, both of which missed, but the Germans did not realize there was only one of him and they fled. Very soon, the garrison surrendered. One interesting point is the sixth person up this ladder was a Major, dragging a cable and carrying a field telephone. He wanted to make sure he reported the surrender, and that his name was associated with it. That may have done him some good – he became a Major General in WW2, and was a Chief Justice in New Zealand.

The moral here, if you want one, is that if you wish to get ahead, get into a position to take the credit, then take it. Sometimes, like the judge/General, a highly competent person gets into the position, but sometimes the only competence is in taking the credit. But if don’t take the credit, even if you earned it, you languish.

Memories from Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 3.

I returned to the kiosk at five, as requested, and was surprised to be invited by the woman in the kiosk to stay the night at their apartment. So I drove her home, and she must have been a bit surprised at the car, particularly now that before setting off I refilled the clutch hydraulic oil. The leak was now getting rather bad, and there were only so many clutch usages before a refill, and the number was getting smaller. Anyway, we made it to her apartment, where I met the husband. The Heitlegnerov (I apologise if I got the spelling wrong from memory) apartment was compact, but it seemed to have everything I would expect in a modern western apartment. The previous year I had been in Calgary, so I knew what a modern North American apartment looked like, and the Czech one was much better than where I was in England.

This family had a rather bad history. First, they were Jews, and had spent most of WW II hiding in the forests, living in huts with dirt floors. The husband had been part of a resistance to the Germans, and when the war was over, he had actually helped get the communists into government, only to find the communists in Czechoslovakia were also anti-Jewish. Back to mud floor accommodation for a while. Gradually things got better, and when Dubcek came to power, they got up in the world sufficiently to get this apartment. Now they saw it all coming down around their ears. However, by accident, their daughter, Alenka, was in England on a short stay to help her learn English. The parents had discussed this, and they wanted to send a message for her to stay in England, and would I take some family heirlooms and some of her property? Of course I would, with volume restrictions on obviously women’s things.

The following morning it was announced that the road to Linz was open at the border, so I set off early. Somehow, the day seemed grim, and very quiet. For a major city, nothing was happening. The day did not get better, and when I drove through České Budějovice the continued absence of activity maintained the depressing feeling. It was just as I was leaving České Budějovice that I noticed two young Czechs hitch-hiking. Since I had not seen any cars for a long time, their prospects were poor, so I stopped. They first wanted me to smuggle them out, but I pointed out that was impossible. Any cursory search would find them, but I would take them to the border, let them out before it and they would be on their own. I would wait on the other side for a while, in case they made it. Then they wanted me to smuggle something else: a petition to the United Nations, signed by (according to them) half a million identified signatures. I agreed. I had a tall cardboard box in the boot, and for my trip behind the iron curtain I had taken emergency food: canned food, drink, fruit and rye bread. I had kept the waste, including opened cans because I could not find anywhere to dump rubbish. The petition was wrapped in pastic bags and went to the bottom, a piece of a different cardboard box went on top, just in case although that was probably worthless as a deception, the cans went on top, then rotting fruit, then some mouldy bread, then some fruit that was technically still edible, then the remains of the rye bread, then can openers, cutlery, etc.

When I got to the border, the guards were Czech, but they still did a search. When they came to the box, they asked what was that? I pointed out I was just being tidy and tried to look as iunconcerned as I could. They started ferretting but it got increasingly distasteful and they gave up. The barrier went up, and I was in “no-man’s land”. When I got to the Austrian guards, there were the two Czechs, beaming with triumph. They had got throough before me, while I was being searched, and had told the Austrian guards about the petition. They thought this was mission accomplished. I had no option but to hand the petition over, and while the expressions on the faces of the Czech guards was worth seeing, I was thoroughly depressed. I had taken a huge risk, and for what? The Austrian guards would at best destroy the petition; at worst hand it back to the Czech authorities. Austria was never going to annoy Russia. As I headed to Linz I was stopped by a journalist who wanted the story and a picture of me and my beatup Anglia carrying a Czech flag. I have no idea whether it ever got published.

When I got back to England on the first Saturday I went up to London and to the address where Alenka was staying. It was a grey day with light rain, and the family, being orthodox Jews, left me there standing in the rain. Alenka came to the door, I handed over her valuables, and tried to give as cheerful account as I could of her parents and their feelings. I asked her what she wanted to do. Apparently there were a few scholarships being made available to Czechs who could find a place in a University, and I promised to do what I could at Southampton for her. As it happened, I found a Post-doc was treated as staff, and on my recommendation she could go there, but as it happened, somewhere else was found for her (I think East Anglia). However, that did not last, and eventually she got homesick and returned to Czechoslovakia, where things were seemingly improving a little. It would not be helpful for someone in a communist country then to be corresponding with the West so I never heard from her or her parents again. I am naturally curious as to where her life took her, but I guess I shall never know.

Anzac Day

April 25 is a public holiday in New Zealand and Australia, in remembrance of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landing at Anzac Cove, in Gallipoli during World War 1, hence our major remembrance day remembers a disaster. In my opinion, the campaign illustrated just about most of what was wrong with the way World War 1 was fought by the allies. The Ottomans had entered the war on the German side, and the objective of the campaign was to take Constantinople and remove them from the war. That was a noble goal, but it left open the question, was it achievable with the resources available and did the Allies go about it in a sensible fashion? There were several strategic mistakes straight away (in my opinion, anyway).

The first mistake was to underestimate the enemy. It was generally felt that the Ottomans would have no heart for fighting. The British started with a naval blockade in the Dardanelles, using a number of obsolete battleships that were not doing anything else. This was pointless and had no worthwhile objective. You cannot defeat an enemy without at least the option of occupying his ground. The Ottomans mined the Dardanelles, and the British and French lost some obsolete battleships. With that, they managed to raise the morale of the enemy, and that was a critical mistake. The Ottomans had had a recent history of failure, and if troops feel they will fail, they usually do. If, on the other hand, they feel they are up to the job, they probably are. Another critical mistake was that the move gave away the element of surprise and flagged that a military operation was imminent. The Ottomans prepared.

Undeterred, the allies made landings on various parts of the northern side of the Gallipoli peninsula, with the main force of British and French at Cape Helles at the Western end, and the Anzacs at Anzac Cove. Things started badly for the Anzacs when the Royal Navy made a navigational error and landed them at the wrong place, which had a narrow beach and steep hills rising from close to the beaches. Now you might think that the commander of the invasion, seeing they were in the wrong place and not only that, a most unsuitable place, might order the navy to take them to somewhere better, but no. Incompetence has to be matched with stupidity! The landing was faced by only two companies but they had good defensive positions on the hills. There were serious casualties since there was no cover, and lot of time was wasted, which gave the Ottomans time to bring up reinforcements. On finally advancing, the troops found the terrain to be badly broken, with ravines and spurs; ideal for defence, terrible for rapid progress. Worse, the Anzacs had almost useless maps.

So with the attack bogged down in two places, you might think things couldn’t get any worse? Then you would be wrong. A third invasion was launched with an extra 70,000 British troops. The key to note here is that the British High Command regarded the Gallipoli attack as a bit of a side show, possibly put on to keep Churchill happy because this was his pet project. That meant the commanders sent to this campaign were the ones who were lesser lights. Now, with two lesser lights already bogged down, the third had to be a really dim light. Sir John Monash was later to describe the commanders as, “the most abject collection of Generals ever collected in one spot.”

The overall commander for the landing at Suvla Bay was Sir Frederick Stopford, chosen largely because he was the only one left with adequate seniority.

Stopford had been brought out of retirement, and although only 61, he was in very poor health, and before leaving for Gallipoli, had to get someone else to lift his dispatch case onto a train. He had never commanded troops in battle. The Divisional commanders were not much better. One, Major General Hammersley, had just got over a nervous breakdown, and collapsed on the first day of the landing. The first formal objective of Suvla Bay was to advance and take two important hills, as this would relieve the pressure on the Anzacs, but Stopford and his Divisional commanders seemed to believe they could not do this. No surprise here; if you think you can’t, generally you won’t. Stopford felt that success depended on surprise and it was important to keep all information from the Ottomans. Accordingly, his Brigadiers were not told of the plan until the last minute, they were only given a brief glimpse of the landing site, and many landed without maps. To make matters worse, they were given “targets” to occupy, but the Navy landed them in the opposite order. Had there been a slightly more dynamic commander, and had the Brigadiers been supplied with proper maps, the objectives could have been swapped, but no, the landing boats had to criss-cross, then unload on reefs. Thanks to the lack of maps, the men given the task of taking Suvla point simply got lost. Those tasked with taking Hill 10 had no idea which hill it was.

Even stranger, Brigadier General Hill, commanding 6,000 men on transport vessels, awoke unexpectedly to find himself under fire at Suvla Bay. He had no idea he was to take part in a landing, and had no orders as to where to land. Stopford felt he was up to this task: they would land and support the 11th Division attack on Hill 10. These orders assumed the 11th was attacking Hill 10. As it happened, they were still on the beach, which meant chaos on the beach.

Rather interestingly, there was no attempt at reconnaissance, which meant one of his commanders decided to create a five-mile diversionary attack on his target hill. This diversion went straight at the only real system of opposition trenches, while the primary target, as it happened, was essentially undefended. Later, three other Brigade commanders were happily resting on Hill 10, and while some troops had captured two other objectives, they needed reinforcements, but all communications seemed to have broken down. So had logistic support. Stopford had even overlooked in a Turkish summer the necessity of supplying the troops with water, and presumably everything else.

You may think this would sum up all the incompetence and stupidity of Suvla Bay. Unfortunately, it merely scratches the surface. The overall result was that it achieved nothing, there was no reprieve for the Anzacs, and the whole Gallipoli campaign was soon to collapse. Only the withdrawal was done competently. The ordinary soldiers at Gallipoli fought with great courage and determination. Their commanders fought with unparalleled stupidity and incompetence. So the Anzacs and others were lucky to get out of Gallipoli? Not really. Their next destination was the Somme where the losses were even greater than at Gallipoli, and the stupidity was still there in good order. The Anzac ceremonies end with, “Lest we forget.” Yes, we must remember the brave fallen, but also we should ensure a level of competence in commanders if we ever have to fight again.

Remembering Gallipoli

You may agree with me that war is futile, but during WW1 futile as a word seems quite inadequate. Appalling seems better. I have been reminded of this because in Australia and New Zealand the 25th April is known as Anzac Day, to celebrate that 100 years ago, Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought together for the first time at the ill-fated campaign at Gallipoli. Unfortunately, the commanders were British, and were officers that were not required for the Western Front, and hence were down the list of competence. Given that the Western Front was not exactly overloaded with competence, the residue was just plain awful. The New Zealand and Australian forces were landed at what we call Anzac Cove, and if you search Google Earth, you might well ask, why there? There is a small amount of flattish land, behind which there are fairly impressive hills. The Turks, not unnaturally, occupied the high ground. If you look a bit further with Google Earth, you will see there are much better landing spots from the point of view of having room to maneuver later. As it was, the Anzacs got ashore, and were peppered with fire from the word go.

The whole campaign seems to have been an exercise in incompetence. It would have been possible to land a month earlier, in which case the defences could have been relatively weak, but the lack of appreciation of the need for speed stalled that. There are also reports that they landed at the wrong spot anyway, but these cannot really be confirmed. This lethargy by the command continued with the landing. Rather than make a determined advance, which admittedly would have cost lives, they stayed near the beach, which meant that when they did try something, they lost more lives. Eventually, a number of attacks were attempted but they were poorly planned and achieved nothing against the determined defence.

Eventually the command decided they had to do something more likely to lead to success, and less of the formal “turn up and fight”, so two moves were tried that could in principle have given a chance for overall success. In one, the New Zealand infantry brigade made an attack on Chunuk Bair. One battalion got held up during the advance, so the commander stopped the attack for a while to let the fourth battalion catch up. That is just plain stupid, as the plan was exposed and it gave the Turks an excellent opportunity to quickly reinforce, and thus made the whole exercise extremely costly. There was some possibility that the overall commander was drunk, but we shall never know. Eventually it was taken and held for two days before being relieved by two British battalions. There had been attempts to support them during those two days, but apparently the support got lost in the dark! At this point the two British battalions were dislodged and the Turks retook the position. This exercise was really incompetent. Either the position was critical or it was not. If it were not, it should have been ignored. If it were, either there were reserves available to take advantage of victory, or there were not. If not, again, the assault was a criminal waste of lives. The taking of ground is not an objective. The real objective is to take advantage of the gain and make whatever easy advances are available.

Even worse was the attack on Suvla Bay. Twenty-two British battalions were to land, and would be opposed by only 1500 Turks. The troops would then advance inland and take three hills that were important for the Turkish artillery, and then rout the enemy. The problem with this plan was that it required a commander with the need for energy. What they got was Lieutenant-General Stopforth, who was in poor health. Accordingly, when the landing was made, he stayed on the ship, in bed! The next level down was not much better. One, Major-General Hammersley, had recently had a nervous breakdown, and he had another on day one of the operation. The landing went badly, with many not knowing where they were or what they were really trying to achieve. Brigadier-General Hill did not even know he and his men were to land at Suvla so he had no time to plan or look at maps. Landing was difficult because those who had landed had not moved inland. General Sitwell apparently went so far and decided to stop and take a break, despite no real Turkish opposition. Logistics were awful; they even forgot to provide water. Finally, communications were so bad that nobody had any real information on what was going on other than that in front of them.

The tragedy here was that there were two plans that might have worked. One was so poorly supported that it was almost inevitable it would not, and the other was so ineptly carried out it did not. Notwithstanding that, this was the stuff of nation-building. Australia and New Zealand suddenly decided that British generals were not exactly brilliant, and the two countries became much more like independent countries. Turkey found something here to unite it, and Kemal Ataturk, a commander in the campaign, went on to build modern Turkey. Finally, the British learned two things. The first was that seniority and long service are not what makes a great commander. Secondly, they learned how to make seaborne landings, which in WW 2 was not a bad thing to know.