Sunday, July 26, 2009

Could It Be 1915 Again?

A reader has contacted me with an interesting historical analogy. He wonders if the current political argument over helicopters in Afghanistan is in any way similar to the Shell Scandal of 1915 which led to a change of Prime Minister.

A quick question prompted by the latest revelation (see link below) - do you think the emerging realisation that our troops have been woefully under-equipped could become the 'shells scandal' of our age? In 1915 it came from no-where, quickly gathered public anger, forced ministers to defend what was increasingly indefensible and ultimately led to the collapse of the Liberal Government.

Perhaps we are too close to the next General Election for this to make much difference but I think the similarities between now and 1915 at least make for an interesting conversation.

My knowledge of that period of history is not good enough to make an relevant comment, but I am sure my readers are better informed.


Moderniser said...

I'd just be happy for the issue to get more of a profile. The British Army remain the most elite fighting force in the world and are one of the few things we can still be proud of. The public are already pretty aware of the fact that our boys and girls in Afghanistan are getting dumped on by a government that has lost the plot.

The attitude the Americans have with regards to their army is quite astounding compared to ours.

PhilC said...

Interesting analogy; through I wonder whether it is more like the missile gap row between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960.

Russell said...

If it's 1915 again, can't we send Brown & Co to the trenches? Preferably on the Western Front.

Inspector Morse said...

My history is also a bit rusty, but I am 99.9% sure that it was the shell crisis that also led to limited pub opening hours (to keep the munitions workers toiling). Prior to the crisis it was 24/7 - somewhat like today.

Just thought I'd throw that in.... God alone knows what the moral is.

The Young Oligarch said...

Can't see it , Iain .

We've already had the dodgy , Lloyd George-type government for the past 12 years .

Time to fast-forward to Andrew Bonar Law .

michael pimmer said...

Could it be 1915 again?

I'm sure it could, Iain, I'm sure it could.

Pelagius said...

Hang on. When I saw "1915", I thought it was Brown's reference to World War I being fought for freedom, and democracy and something else so neo-conservative that George Bush could have said it.

Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't 1914-1918 the classic imperialist war? Kaiser Bill only invaded little Belgium after Britain and France had declared war.

I can't see Brown allowing Harry Patch's comment that war is "organised murder" to be broadcast from Westminster Abbey.

Anonymous said...

Pah. The Shell Scandal led to the end of the Liberal Government only: Asquith reconstructed his cabinet as a coalition, but kept all the plum jobs for the Liberals and gave the Tories duff posts. Bonar Law, for example, should've been Chancellor as leader of the largest party in the coalition, and got the Colonies.

It was a stitched up "Government of all the Talents" in that respect, and we've already had one of them. I expect that isn't the analogy you were after!

Simon Harley said...

Iain, it was a significant factor among a number. Churchill had a large part to play in light of the failed Dardanelles campaign and Conservative opposition to form any coalition with him in it.

Anonymous said...

No --- it is analogous to the situation in 1917-18 where Lloyd George wanted to win WW1 but plotted against the generals that had to do just that.

He conspired the removal the CIGS Robertson and held back troops and resources from the Western Front - all just before the Germans launched their spring offensive.

The shell scandal was that shells failed to explode and also that Britain's industry as slow to be get on to a war footing and supply the sheer number needed. These were failures of ability not intent.

In Afghanistan our government gave our troops a task but never matched the numbers and resources to match the task -- and only now that Brown has to back up his friend Obama is the truth being exposed.

Dick the Prick said...

Lloyd George was brilliant - Squiffy a tit. By our antagonism to those who don't play cricket became sensitive for some drivel. It was defo Tigers who shot Sri Lankan cricket team. I absolutely love Davey Welsh my Arse George - only 2/5ths thru his memoirs and not read Tom Jones but i'm a Yorkshireman - like what I see.

Simon Harley said...

Pelagius, Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August, France on 2 August and then invaded Belgium, over which Britain declared war on Germany on 3 August.

David Boothroyd said...

There are two other more likely analogies but I bet it's nothing like the Cordite vote of 1895. I do wish the Conservatives the same luck in pursuing this as Asquith had in the Maurice Affair of spring 1918.

Raedwald said...

No, not the Shells Scandal but perhaps Crimea. We have no William Howard Russell in Afghanistan today, but we do have Richard North, doing the same job that Russell did in the Crimea, if not to the same effect.

We sent our army to Crimea without winter clothing, without adequate food, cooking, medical and other supplies, and it took the anger of a roused nation to move the obduracy of the Horse Guards. Like Afghanistan, the campaign in Crimea was strategically inept and poorly understood. Just as the Commanders at Crimea were fighting Waterloo forty years out of date, so ours today are fighting the Northern Ireland campaign of the 1970s.

The Young Oligarch said...

Churchill went to the Western Front to command 6th Bn Royal Scots Fusiliers , though .

Don't see Des Browne or Buff doing any stints in Afghanistan as penance .

"Classic imperialist war"?

How can three words say so much ?

Anonymous said...

Loyd George's sophistry is comparable with Brown's "60%" misleading use of helicopter statistics.

In early 1918 LG held back troops and forced the British to take over large sections of vulnerable front from the French with these inadequate numbers. All of which made it far too weak to hold back the German spring offensive. Ultimately no thanks to LG the British withstood the offensive (which sapped the German Army) and went on to a war winning offensive.

Today's Labour Party are not going to split like the Liberals then with a view to putting our servicemen's welfare before their Party.

Bill Quango MP said...

As Raedwald & trevorsden said.
Also in the Crimea the public were repeatedly told that we had won. In the end , after many casualties a sort of victory was achieved that was enough to allow the British, French and Turks to declare a victory and get the hell out, never to return.
What happened after the troops left, we neither knew nor cared.

Bonetired said...

Inspector Morse

And don't forget the nationalization of Carlisle's breweries ... Carlisle State Brewery which stayed in public hands until 1974 !

Bonetired said...

Further to the last posting. The number of shells produced did increase massively, but the quality was dire. It is said that the number of duds fired in the build up to the Somme offensive was very high indeed (some figures are up to 30% - ) which was one of the prime factors (along with the fact that wrong kind of shells were fired - to much shrapnel and not enough HE which would cut the wire) in the massacre of 1 July ....

Simon Harley said...

Yes, Young Oligarch, Churchill did go to the front - having first tried to secure himself a brigadier's slot (not exactly the safest position I have to admit) through his friendship with Sir John French.

Considering the level of his humiliation after the Dardanelles and his perception in Parliament, where else could he have gone? Only after the ascendency of Lloyd George could he return to a position of power.

Back to the analogy, one key element is missing - a media magnate with the power to bring about change in government.

As to the British Army, did anyone read the letter from a recent Sandhurst director of studies who said that the army had lapsed into an arrogant state of complacency during the 90s and 00s?

Nick Drew said...

what is clear, is that the scandals that move the average punter are those that are easily understood, like expenses & helicopters

FSA vs BoE, for example, is a lost cause, don't know why Osborne bothers

Art. 38 said...

This extract in the Telegraph from a forthcoming book by Andrew Roberts also illustrates what happens when you have an incompetent politician who thinks he knows better than his generals:

Frozen to death by the Fuhrer

The Young Oligarch said...

Lloyd George's statistical sophistry is especially evident in his memoirs (sorry I don't have a copy to give a reference , I'm doing this from memory) when he discusses machine guns .

Having castigated the army's stupidity for only having 2 per battalion , he goes on to extol his own initiative in increasing this to 32 .

He doesn't mention that the small numbers were due principally to his starving the army of resources when he was Chancellor in order to fund more popular projects (while the government secretly committed the country to war with Germany) ; or that the 2 MG's were per infantry battalion and that his administration had concentrated all a division's MG's into a Machine Gun battalion . The subsequent leap from 24 to 32 was less dramatic , so he didn't see the need to mention it .

John Terraine is especially good on this issue in "The Smoke and The Fire" pp 130-41 .

Cavalier use of statistics ? Not seen any of that from the current government .

Cynic said...

What is even worse is this weeks attept by MoD to cut compensation to injured soldiers. They now claim that they should only pay compensation for the original injury not later complications. So if you are shot the compensation is based on a nice clean wound. If you later contract say gangrene or mrsa and lose the leg...tough ...that is a later complication and you dont get money for that.

The MOD have lost this argument twice in the courts where the Judges will have none of it but are now appealing AGAIN because there is big money at stake.

You really have to wonder at the state of this Government when sensible men like Bob Ainsworth are swept along in this mad Treasury inspired defence when they know its hopeless and know how it looks to the public and, above all, to the troops. Its total utter madness politically and on ever level yet they plunder on. Zombie Government by the political undead.

Dear God, when will some of them develop enough backbone to just say no to Brown and resign if they have to, before their own reputations are destroyed with his.

Unknown said...

The phrase....

"Lions led by Donkeys"

Springs to mind.

Not strictly correct because the donkey was a General, not a Prime Minister, but near enough and certainly correct in 2009!

CCTV said...

The British Army remain the most elite fighting force in the world

'Elite' in the sense of small and a useful accompaniment to a proper fighting army you mean ? A sort of brigade to attach to the US Marine Corps as 'little brother'.

DominicJ said...

The AustroHungarian Empire Declared War On Serbia.
Russia Declared War on the AustroHungarian Empire, as it had signed a treaty to protect Serbia
Germany Declared War on Russia, as it had signed a treaty to join them in any war with Russia
France Declared War on Germany, because it had signed a treaty to do so
Germany invaded Belgium
The UK declared War on Germany, because it had signed a treaty guarenteeing the Belgian State.

Hardly the "Classic Imperialistic War"

Anonymous said...

"The phrase....

"Lions led by Donkeys"

Springs to mind.

Not strictly correct because the donkey was a General, not a Prime Minister, but near enough and certainly correct in 2009!"

Actually the phrase was an invention of Alan Clarke (author of "The Donkeys", it wasn't a quote and he admited as much in later years.If there was any failure of leadership on the British side in WW1 it was political, not military. Our generals were, on the whole, as good as anybody else's, no serious student of WW1 subscribes to the "Lions led by Donkey's" myth. Of course if you get your view of history from "Blackadder Goes Forth" and "Oh What a Lovely War" etc then this is the kind of nonsense you'll believe.

cad said...

Interesting read, but the issue today is not just the lack of helicopters, it's the lack of properly protected ground vehicles.

The Jackal vehicle has proven utterly useless in its intended role, barely better than the snatch land rover. This will never change as long as pundits concentrate on the helicopter aspect.

Inter-service rivalry is to blame... so some things never change.

Gary Elsby said...

The US has six times more troops in theatre than the UK.

We have a casualty rate of 190 and they have 650.

We have 30 helicopters and they have 100(unofficial numbers).

The US has a 50% less casualties than the UK.

It therefore follows that helicopters are not saving lives of the US military.

WW1 was never played out in Germany.

The annhilation of British troops is now factually proven to be because of the order to 'walk towards enemy gunfire'.

Devastation would have been avoided if they ran towards enemy gunfire.

Anonymous said...

Mr Elesby - It therefore follows that helicopters are not saving lives of the US military.
Nope that is totally unproven. I should say a small teeny weeny factor might be how aggressive they are and just perhaps what opposition they are facing.

By 'annihilation' you are presumably thinking of the first day of the Somme. Given the width of no mans land in places ... err, all troops from all armies walked did not run. Troops walked forward at El Alamein. In 1916 the British Army was considered barely trained to do much else. Within a fortnight the Army had invented the creeping barrage to resolve the issue.

Anon 9.08 is correct. By the end of WW1 the only effective allied fighting force was the British Army and they (we) had by then ground the Germans into submission.

'classic imperialist war'??
WW1 was instigated by Germany - they were looking for an excuse and eventually got it. I do not think there is any reputable historian who would dispute that.

Anonymous said...

This is unlikely to result in a change in Prime Minister, delightful though that would be. A change in Prime Minister would not solve the problem, as it did not in 1915.

Then, British troops were using conventional military tactics when technological developments in modern weaponry required a new type of warfare. The army was as much as fault in failing to adapt as the government was in providing the funding and procurement for the hardware and ordinance, in 1915.

This government is both hostile to the military and parsimonious and we do not have the same set of military training difficulties as existed in 1915. A clever leader (which we have not got and will not get in the unlikely event of a change of leadership) would use the realities of our military and financial resource shortcomings as leverage to reduce Britain's commitment in Afghanistan.

So no. Apart from the criminal negligence being in common, these are different circs, requiring different solutions.

Gary Elsby said...

If US helicopter numbers are accurate (it's a secret) then their casualty numbers should be half that which is now recorded.
That would be based upon UK casualty figures.The argument stacks up that our Generals are wrong in their case for more helicopters to avoid infantry losses.

The Somme was mass slaughter and El-Alamein was not and the fact is that to run towards the sound of enemy gunfire, would have resulted in fewer casualties.This is now scientifically proven.

The Young Oligarch said...

"The Somme was mass slaughter and El-Alamein was not".

At The Somme , the British Empire fielded 50 divisions at any one time , at El Alamein it was 10 . The Germans had between 30 and 40 divisions , at a time , on the Somme , with 4 at El Alamein , plus 7 Italian . El Alamein lasted 14 days , the Somme 141 . Daily British casualty figures are 2,950 on the Somme , 968 at El Alamein .

Taking into account the far greater number of troops involved , the per diem casualty figure is actually higher at El Alamein .

What is the difference ? A political faction has found it necessary to minimise (indeed , deride and deny)the British victory in the First World War .

The same faction has no such imperative regarding the Second World War , because of ideological hatred for our opponents (a hatred many temporarily forgot in 1939-41).

Our troops deserve the best support we can give them and the most cautious approach to deploying them in war .

This government , like that of Asquith/Lloyd George has starved our forces of resources , to buy votes with state largesse , while committing them to a "Progressive" war overseas .

Now Gary Elsby attempts to blame our Generals .

That hasn't happened before , has it ?

DominicJ said...

Regarding Gary Elsbies point
The UK suffered 1:214 casualties
The US suffered 1:363 casualties

More helicopters, less casualties.

Gary Elsby said...

I didn't decry the tactics of WW1 or Field Marshall Haig as I have not studied his tactics in great detail and I do realise that the mass slaughter on the Somme was orchestrated to relieve pressure on Verdun.
I'm not blaming our Genrals for wanting more resources for our troops, I'm suggesting their case for more helicopters based upon British/US casualties does not add up.
Dominic is falling into the trap of many a undergraduate who looks at the figures and gives an instant observation.
wrong to do so as more US helicopters has not resulted in less casualties, even though the figures produced say so.
If more helicopters means less casualties, then why is the US figures so high? They shouldn't be and this weakens British Military claims for that particular resource.
In other words, what is Britain doingin theatre more successfully?

Anonymous said...

In other words, what is Britain doing in theatre more successfully?
Gary Elsby

The UK 'support to fighter ratio' is much, much better than the US's. This is ultimately good if it is the result of a well-equipped, lean fighting force with fine-tuned, optimal logistics, but bad if it is the result of inadequacies in funding.

Guess which is correct.

Gary Elsby said...

Then give the detail of soldier underfunding as an operative on the ground.

None of this mumbo jumbo about Blair or Brown 'deliberately' shortchanging our soldiers.

I'm tired of hearing the slur, so just give the facts and then we can all agree on guilt or innocence.