Saturday, November 12, 2011

Welcome to Hell: You must be this tall to ride.

The vast corpse factory of the Western Front took a lot of raw material to feed, and it soon became obvious to most of the participants in the Great War that prewar standards for cannon fodder would need to be relaxed if their General Staffs' demands for fresh casualties were going to be met.

The British, who alone among the major combatants had entered the war with a non-conscript professional army, came up with several schemes to raise the numbers of troops required to be taken seriously in this life-sized game of RISK.

One of these was the "Pals battalion", where groups of volunteers from a single company or school or sports club or neighborhood were encouraged to enlist together, with the promise that they would all be kept together through training and combat, rather than allotted out piecemeal to replacement units. This allowed small British communities to share the experience of having huge actuarial holes blown in their census tables with their continental allies, who used the more usual system of regional conscription.

Further, it quickly became apparent that the British army's minimum height requirement of 5'3" was perhaps a bit strict, as someone who was 5'1" could get blown apart by a torrent of Maxim bullets as well as any six-footer, and the dark Satanic mills and mines of post-Edwardian Britain were well-stocked with burly kobolds who could lug a pack like nobody's business. "Bantam battalions" were quickly organized, where the height requirement was reduced to 5'nowt" in order to give shorter guys the chance to get their own taste of dulce et decorum.

When the Lancashire Fusiliers moved into the line before the Somme offensive, their numbers included three Pals battalions as well as three Bantam battalions. One wonders if a young signals leftenant of the Fusiliers, one 2Lt. John Tolkien, witnessed the stubborn courage of the latter and got any ideas for future writings.


bluesun said...

He always denied it...

Dan said...

Been a long time since I read his biography, but I believe Tolkien was out of action with the yellow fever during the Somme.

Tam said...


Tolkien was inavlided out of the lines with trench fever in early November.

(Other noted trench fever sufferers include young leftenants A.A. Milne and C.S. Lewis; apparently if you can jot down your fever dreams, they are quite marketable...)

Don M said...

Milne in particular wrote "Peace with Honour" a particularly silly pacifist screed, hoping that during the next attempt at war, everyone would just refuse to fight. After all what would those bad Germans do, murder people in concentration camps?

Truth is stranger than fiction.

WV: duckies as in, duckies all in a row.

Tam said...

Don M,

If the Germans had just stayed home and murdered people in concentration camps, I doubt the world would have been too perturbed. We let governments murder their own people in droves all the time.

It's when they try to murder some other country's people that nations start getting annoyed.

Turk Turon said...


*scrambles for dictionary*

1. A familiar spirit that haunts houses; a brownie.
2. A gnome that haunts mines and other underground areas.

mikee said...

Turk, you never played D&D in high school or college or grad school, did you?

Goodness, I was such a nerd....

TW: Expon. Yes, I was a right 'pon when younger, but now I've matured into an expon.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but does anyone know what happened to the Atomic Nerds' blog?


Old Grouch said...

"...does anyone know what happened to the Atomic Nerds' blog?"

Looks like a hijack.

Ken said...

"By 1916 all but one of my close friends were dead." -- The Professor

I wouldn't say there was a direct link between his experiences and his writing. Can't help but think there's some kind of relationship, though. If you've ever read White's The Once and Future King...Theodore White was a veteran too.

(Actually, just read some of the later passages in JFC Fuller's Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship to see what some people who have seen war start to think about...things. :-)

Ed Foster said...

An obscure corollary of the obscene losses suffered during the first war was a demographic study done in the 90's of the British population before, during, and after the war.

Britain suffered by far the highest per capita losses of any combatant. There were so few surviving and marrigeable younger men that ladies in their teens through early thirties quite commonly married men in their 40's, 50's, and 60's.

Evidently this sort of thing had happened before, and Mother Nature developed a small compensation. It turns out that if the husband is twenty or more years older than his wife, the birth ratio between boys and girls is skewed more than 2 to 1 in favor of male children.

I'm sure that worked out very much in Britain's favor twenty years later, but it was a hell of a price to pay for a future 30% bump in enlistments.

Years ago, I watched the last scene in Gallipoli in horror, as the Australians were cut done in windrows. All of the legs sticking out of the piles of corpses in their khaki shorts were the same solid pink freckled legs of my then teen-aged sons.

Glory. Bullshit. Wars should be kept small and quick, and fought by professionals who know what they're getting into.

Ed Foster said...

The Germans, incensed by the thrashing they took from the less numerous British during the first months of the war, implied that the British were cheating somehow by employing professionals rather than conscript "citizen soldiers", and refered to the Brits as mercenaries.

A.E. Housman wrote something called Epitaph For An Army Of Mercenaries.

"These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead".

"Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay".

The world would probably be a better place if Imperial Germany had won a quick victory in 1914, sparing us the Communist revolution and the world wide horrors that fell on us 25 years later.

But what men the BEF were, and what a difference a few professionals can make in the right place and time. The same thing happened again four years later at Belleau Wood, with the same results. Paris was saved again, and France stayed in the war rather than sueing for peace.

Virtually all of the BEF regulars were dead or crippled by 1916, replaced by decent men who were, individually, only a fraction of what they replaced.

The BEF truely was magnificent, and deserves all the respect in the world. God Bless Them.

RauĆ°bjorn said...

@Ed Foster
"Glory. Bullshit. Wars should be kept small and quick, and fought by professionals who know what they're getting into."

The reason wars like the American Civil War and WWI have such horrendous death tolls is because the "professionals" fight using the techniques they've been taught (i.e. what worked in the last war) rather than pioneering new techniques that keep pace with technology.

America has, for the most part, given up such foolishness, though we appear to be making the same mistakes in Afghanistan as we did in Vietnam.

Wilhelm Durand said...

Speak of the devil, I've just been reading The Annotated Hobbit.

I highly recommend it, since it contains such nuggets as this:

"Tolkien consented to [hiring outside artists] as long as it was possible 'to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios(for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).'"

This was in 1937.

Joe in PNG said...

I think even if Germany would have won a quick victory, Wilhelm would have found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He was quite good at that.

Joe in PNG said...

...As in Kaiser Wilhelm II, not Mr. Durand...

Ed Foster said...

RauĆ°bjorn, we won Vietnam in a walk, and it only took three years, '65 to "68.

North Vietnam's top general, Vo Nguen Giap, said that after the disaster of the Tet offensive, the war was essentially over and they were making ready to withdraw all their troops and agents. Famous quote, easy to substantiate.

Only the support given the communists by the American left (media included) changed the collective mind of the politbureau and convinced them to start trying again 6 months later.

Even that was dramatically different that the previous effort. With the destruction of the Viet Cong as a cohesive force, the war became a conventional invasion, backed financially by both Russia and China.

After the withdrawal of most U.S. forces in '71-'72, the entire North Vietnamese army invaded the south, and ended up dead or in South Vietnamese Prisoner Of War camps.

That, and Operation Linebacker's destruction of the North's entire air defense net, brought the communists back to the table, once again ready to give up any thought of conquering the south.

And again the American left snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Unable to let a Republican President take (deserved) credit for a total victory, Senator Proxmire and the other Democrats cut all allocations to the South Vietnamese government in half.

Now a soldier had to fire 20 cartridges to get 10 replacements, eat two meals to get one, burn 10 gallons of diesel to get 5. Also soldier for two months to get paid for one.

A few months later, that same Democratic congress cut the money and supplies in half again, requiring the Viets to use up 4 of anything to get one replacement. All while Russia and China continued to pour money and equiptment into the north.

From total victory to complete collapse in four years, all due to Proxmire, Kennedy, and other such vermin.

Google up pictures of the communist troops entering Saigon. Old men and young boys riding on flatbed trucks. That was all they had, but it was enough, because an unpaid and starving South Vietnamese military either gave up without a fight, or had already gone home.

On Afganistan you might be right, although there really is no option but to keep enough troops there to deny Al Quida a base of operations.

I have several friends who have returned from Afganistan in the last year or two, and their utter contempt for all Afgans is totally consistent. It seems the only things Afgans are really good at are treachery and the wholesale seduction and buggery of little boys.

That is not an exaggeration. A man's status over there is determined by how many kids between 7 and 12 he has in his harem, and professional stand-ins are often hired to inseminate wives whose husbands are sickened by the thought of even touching them.

And you wonder why they beat their women to death for reading about a world where they might be regarded as human.

Iraq has to be regarded as at least a qualified success. The wack-jobs aren't running it, and there isn't undue control being given to Iran. Actually, if I were Amadinejad, I'd be filling my pants and stuffing the Swiss bank accounts.

The American Civil War and the First World War were nasty because the technology of the time favored the defense, simple as that. If you had the money, you could put out more exploding shells than the other guy. Problem was, the Kaiser didn't start runnig out until 1918.

New York City alone had more manufacturing capacity than all of the south, so the south lost.

Everything after Gettysburg was simple Southern unwillingness to accept the inevitable. Scottish pride made the south a wasteland for the next three generations (that confederate flag was the Cross of St. Andrew, remember?).

Chas Clifton said...

@Ed Foster, I can't supply a citation, but I believe that France had the highest death role relative to population.

Tam's post reminds me of reading of a sort of urban legend among the French during the Napoleonic Wars to the effect that the British bred special broad-shouldered but short men to serve between decks on their warships.

But I did take the tour of HMS Victory at Portsmouth. I'm 6-1, and I could walk around on the gun decks fairly comfortably — except where the decks sloped up at the bow and stern.

Tam said...

Chas Clifton,

"France had the highest death role relative to population."

It is indisputable fact that France had the highest percentage of males in uniform by the end of the war...

Vaarok said...

The book "The Myth of the Great War" really makes me cringe whenever the topic of WW1 comes up. Because yes, hiding in a muddy trench getting shelled and then charging a machinegun emplacement was terrible.

Unfortunately, it fails to recognize that the other guys were shelling and had machineguns.

WW1 was such a slaughter because the French and British used huge numbers and old tactics against small numbers of somewhat-innovative Germans and paid the price. I think the casualties were something like 7-5-3 French-British-German.

When you throw in things like how the Italians got bribed into fighting and then kept getting shredded at Isonzo, and the complete clusterfucks of Kut and Gallipoli, you'll begin to notice how the Hun wasn't so much to blame for the slaughter as the leadership that couldn't understand German tactics and technology made infantry rushes ineffective.

I often wonder if the Battle of Kettle Hill and related experiences in Cuba against German-equipped Spaniards with Mausers and Maxims, plus the in-theatre training from Chasseurs and other survivors helped influence Pershing's tactics and resistance to having his forces appropriated by the French and British to smear like patches across holes in their lines.

Anonymous said...


+1 on The book "The Myth of the Great War"

that is a must read

Uncovers much bs and alot of US Army finally saying

duh, dufus you've done this for 4 years and not made any progress lets try something else.

+100 on the BEF


Alan J. said...

Ed, I'm preaching to the choir, but I'll say it anyway. I'm grateful that America fights wars, "...kept small and quick, and fought by professionals who know what they're getting into." That's the one benefit that has come out of Viet Nam and Desert One. We've learned that we only lose when our troops are stabbed in the back by our politicians, 'cough cough, Jimmy Carter, cough' and the politicians have learned that the public won't stand for their interference any more when the bullets are flying. Getting rid of the Draft and the professionalism and dedication of our military is why any troop in uniform is held in such high regards today.

Do you remember the Budweiser commercial of the troops walking through the airport, and the public spontaneously starting to applaud them? That alone says it all, and it shows how far we've come from the days of Viet Nam.

Borepatch said...

Tam, I don't have my books, but The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien contains a lot about the origin of his idea for the Hobbits. I can't remember exactly, but it was all about the lost English countryside before the Enclosures and nothing about the trenches.

But my books are 900 miles away, so I can't look it up for you.

As to Atomic Nerds, didn't something like this happen to their site in January? It wasn't a hack, it was a DNS screw up at their provider.

Tam said...


Regardless of what might have sunk into the kindly Professor's subconscious without his knowledge, I was thinking more of the Khazad than the Pherenniath. ;)

Tennessee Budd said...

Turk, I hate to cite a work of fiction as a reference, but check "Land of Unreason":
"What are the Kobold Hills?"
"The hills where the kobolds be."
Ed Foster & Vaarok, I can't help but wonder what would've happened if James Longstreet had lived to see WWI. In the War of Northern Aggression, he already saw the value of defensive trenches against then-modern rifles. He may have adjusted his plans upon considering newer weapons & tactics. We'll never know.
Hell, I'd be happy enough if Lee (PBUH) had listened to him at Gettysburg.

Justthisguy said...

"Goodbye to All That" is more my favorite Great War Memoir. Graves calls things by their right names. It's not shrapnel that hit him but a piece of shell. It's not conscripted but forcibly enlisted. Stuff like that. Also, the story about his German redleg uncle being detailed to shoot the spire off of Reims cathedral because he is a Protestant is pretty funny.

nzgarry said...

The way the generations in my family descended, I only had one relative who served in WWII, but three of my great uncles served in WWI.
Uncle Arthur fought at Gallipoli, was severely wounded after 3 months or so and evacuated to Malta where he died.
Uncle Lionel fought on the Western Front for nearly three years and sadly was KIA on 26Sept 1918.
Uncle Harry was gassed and invalided home where he died not long after the war. My own Grandfather was the youngest brother and not of Military age, which is doubtless the reason I am typing this!.
Every little town here in NZ has a memorial to the WWI fallen. When we lived in the US we toured the
Southern States a lot and I noticed the same memorials in the town squares to your Civil War dead. The tragedy of all this in both cases to me is that the innocent wind up doing the fighting.

Justthisguy said...

My family has gotten off lightly in the wars of the Twentieth, losing only one Marine to a Jeep accident in the Pacific. Family folklore has it my Dad was offered a ride home from Saipan in USS Indianapolis and turned it down, having a premonition. The ages didn't work out right for any of us to attend the Great War.

But boy howdy, did we have a time in the Lincoln War! I had one greatgrandfather who lost an eyeball at Chancellorsville while going around the left with Jackson, and another who walked back fo MS barefoot from Appomattox. He was 16 at the time, I believe.

Deo Vindice.

Justthisguy said...

Oh, on Robert Graves:

There is of course a Sousa march for any occasion, so I have just cued up "The Royal Welch Fusiliers."

Curiously, they have a relationship with the USMC going back to the Siege of Peking, which is of course why Sousa composed it.

Zendo Deb said...

Lets see...

Small, 4' 10" or so. Check.
Barrel Chested. Check.
Miners. Check
Fierce fighting companies. Check.

Sounds like Durrin's folk to me.