/ Episodes

Episode 155: Listener Questions Pt. 1

This is the first of at least 3 episode dedicated to listener questions for this year. Thank you to Patrick, Mike, Andy, and Owen for the questions this time.

The History of the Great war is also available on Stitcher


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 155. This week we have something special, an episode filled with listener questions. When I originally asked for questions a few months ago, I honestly did not expect much of a response. The last time I asked for questions, I barely got enough for a full episode, but this time was different. Currently there are enough questions on the list four about 3 episdoes. This means that everybody few months for the rest of the year we will be doing another episode full of listener questions. This also means that if you have a question you want an answer to there is still time. Hit me up at historyofthegreatwar@outlook.com, facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar, or twitter.com/historygreatwar.

Corrections! Listener David. During the episodes on the Middle Eastern campaign I, multiple times, referred to the Australian Light Horse as cavalry. This is not technically correct and they were actually mounted infantry, or mounted rifles depending on where you fall on that argument. Basically they were not trained for the traditional cavalry charge and they were created and organized to only use their horses for mobility but then to dismount when it came time to actually attack. This is important, and many cavalrymen or mounted infantry troops at the time probably would have made it a point to make sure they were properly categorized. It should also be noted that during the last 2 years of the war the Australian Light Horse started to look more and more like traditional cavalry as their armament and tactics changed due to combat experiences like those at Gaza.

We start with a question from long time listener, and long time Patreon supporter, Patrick. "What were the solutions developed for the Offensive regarding mobility for exploitation used by the British in the Near East Theatre? Could those solutions have been applied in the West by either side (were the Allied and CP decision makers in the West arrogantly blind to lessons learned in other theaters?)?" Before I start to answer this question, I should probably start with my opinion on the Western Front situation. Over the course of the last several years I have become convinced that the Western Front was an insolvable puzzle. There were simply too many men, in too many areas, with too much defensive mobility. During the war there were two types of mobility, defensive, and offensive, and defensive mobility during the war, was a strategic concern and mostly revolved around railroads. They were the only way to move the number of troops and material around in the quantities that were required, and they benefitted the defender far more than the attacker. The Germans made perhaps the best use of this mobility throughout the war, and it allowed them to move troops between the Western, Eastern, and Italian fronts as they needed. However, this does not mean that the Entente did not also benefit. During the early days of the war in 1914 the French used railroads on the defensive to quickly shift troops towards Paris, and then to launch the battle of the Marne. In all of these cases the defenders were able to identify and experience an attack, and then still be able to quickly move in troops and supplies to meet it.

We can contrast this to what the attackers had access to. They could, and had to, use railroads to prepare for an offensive, however when it came time to advance they have to move forward, and when they did the rails could not follow. This put a hard cap on how fast the troops could move forward, roughly as fast as men could walk. There were also serious limits on the volume of supplies that could be moved forward. These facts were true from the beginning until the end of the war, first seen in the German advances through Belgium and Northern France, then in the Entente attacks in 1915-1917, then in the German offensives of early 1918, even at the end during the 100 days the Allies were reaching the end of their supply tether when the war ended.

Many of these restrictions still applied in the Middle East, however there were some other factors that reduced their power. When you look at the actions in the Middle East, especially in Palestine and Syria they stand out because there are actions like cavalry charges, mounted infantry actions, flanking maneuvers, sometimes entire actions were built around them like at Beersheba. There were even deep raides into the rear of the front lines.

When you investigate these actions what is clear is that the tactics, goals, and execution by the British, Arabs, and Ottomans is actually pretty traditional. Mounted troops seeking a flank, then attacking when they found the opportunity. Or mounted troops positioned to cut off a retreat or to pursue a fleeing enemy. These were all ideas that the generals wanted to put in place on the Western Front, usually to a fault, but the differences between the theatres made it almost impossible. Flanks were non-existent, and the number of men present cannot be ignored. To make any sort of large cavalry action, or to use the cavalry as a mobile attacking force, would have required a much larger force than any army had even at the beginning of the war. Even if those numbers could have been found, they would have required such a quantity of supplies and provisions that supply would have become a serious problem. In 1917, even with just a few divisions of cavalry behind the front, the British still had issues trying to keep the horses properly fed on top of what had to go to the artillery and other horses. Even if these troops could have been supplied at rest, keeping them supplied during an offensive would have been even more difficult due to the amount of fodder that would have been required.

Our second question comes from Mike who asks "How did battlefield care of the wounded evolve from the beginning of the War to it's conclusion, and did the involvement of the United States improve that care or the way it was delivered?" I am, at this very moment, about to finish up a lengthy Patreon series on this very topic so this question comes at a good time. Battlefield care certainly evolved during the war, both in how wounds were treated and how the soldiers who were wounded were treated. Just like every other aspect of the war nobody was really prepared for the scale of what was going to happen after 1914, and nobody was prepared for how many wounded men they would soon have to treat. In this problem the static nature of the fighting actually helped. Before the war everybody was planning for a more mobile conflict, and therefore they expected to have to provided mobile care. As the line became stagnant and then statice the average level of care actually rose as base hospitals could be closer to the front, casualty clearing stations and their equivalents could become larger and better prepared, and permanent transportation arrangements could be created. Overall, care on the Western Front was quite good, the biggest problem being getting the wounded to care in time for it to make a difference. When you read about care for the wounded, just getting them off the battlefield was a herculean task, this was especially true in areas like Flanders as we discussed in the Passchendaele episode a few months ago. Since medical care is a very large topic I am going to just discuss two areas that saw significant change during the war, first blood transfusions and then how the British treated battlefield wounds.

One of hte big innovations that would be widely used during the war, and which would save countless lives, was blood transfusions. Blood transfusions had been used before the war, but it was still a relatively new method of treatment for blood loss. It had only been in 1901 that doctors had begun to determine that there were different blood times, and that they were generally incompatible, which was obviously a pretty important step to making blood transfusions work on a large scale. By 1917 blood transfusions would be a critical part of the treatment of battlefield wounds, and part of this transitions was the discovery of ways to store blood for a lengthy period of time, just like we do today. Before this innovation blood transfusions had been directly from one person to another, it was discovered that if the blood was kept cold, and it was mixed with an anti-coagulant it could be kept for a reasonable amount of time. This change was obviously critical to allowing the armies to bank up a large amount of blood that could then be used during large attacks. It is difficult to overstate how important blood transfusions were to saving lives during the war, especially with so many cases of large blood loss before patients even arrived at an aid station.

When looking at how the British treated wounds during the war, it is first important to discuss the events of the Boer War. Just like in so many other areas the British Medical Officers were trained to fight the last war, not the one in front of them, and during the Boer War there had been a certain set of conditions. Most of the fighting in southern africa had occurred on the South African Veldt, or uncultivated land. This was quite different than the areas that the British would be fighting over on the Western Front. Flanders and northern france were heavily cultivated, and this meant it was very easy for wounds to become contaminated and for infection to set in. Another problem for the British is that so many of the wounds would not be caused by bullets, which generally leave nice clean and tidy wounds, but instead artillery shells. When an artillery shell explodes oddly shaped bits go spinning and flying in weird ways and when those oddly shaped bits hit a squishy human body all kinds of bad things happen. These wounds would then be contaminated by the dirt and mud that the shells hit, or any of a million other ways. Because of this the primary method of treatment for the British army before the war, which basically amounted to cleaning it out a bit and then covering it up were insufficient. Instead they, over the course of many wasted months and years, developed new methods that involved large scale excisions of the wound. Excision involved the following steps. The skin around the wound would be cleaned as much as possible, then matter would be removed. This removal involved cutting out damaged tissue, paying special attention to any foreign objects like dirt and debris. Then the wound would cleaned with an antiseptic solution, iodine being popular, then it would be washed with saline. Removing any contiminated tissue was critical, as was doing the excision as soon as possible. Before the war the British had favored doing little invasive surgical work near the front, instead believing that the best process was to transport men to base hospitals before doing anything drastic. I will let Sir Anthony Bowlby, a leading figure in British medical changes, describe why this was a very bad plan. "[It is] absolutely essential for success that this excision should be done as soon as possible after the infliction of an extensive wound because in such cases gas gangrene may become widely spread within 24 hours. It is therefore necessary to operate on such cases before the patient is sent by train to the base, as he will seldom be surgically treated there until more than 24 hours has elapsed since the time at which he was wounded. This method of treatment has entirely supplanted the application of strong antiseptics to a recent wound, or the use of continual saline infusions. It is a method whose value is agreed upon by the surgeons of all the Allies, and has recently been unanimously approved by the Meeting of the Surgeons of the Allied Armies in Paris."

The last bit of Mike's question revolves around the United States. The entry of the United States into the war, and the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force did not have an appreciable affect on the medical side of the conflict. They also did not do a great job taking care of their soldiers. Just like in many other aspects of the American war effrot in Europe, the tactics, technology, and training of the AEF was far closer to the standards of 1914 than 1918 and this meant that there were not enough doctors, not enough medical facilities, not enough transport available to evacuate the wounded, and the training given to doctors was not sufficient for the task at hand. Not a good look.

Our third question is from listener Andy who asks "So why did the British attacks as Passendale fail so spectacularly in Autumn 1917 when similar equipment and tactics succeeded so completely in Autumn 1918 that they won the war? Was it really just the rain and mud or German exhaustion (both on the front after failed attacks/over extended supply lines and on the home front) or was there something else that tipped the balance?" To start this answer lets discuss just a bit about the situation at Passchendaele, and really most of the Entente attacks between 1915 and 1917, and some of the big mistakes that the British would make before and during the offensive. First of all, the attacks were performed against positions that the Germans had occupied for the better part of 4 years. This was true of most of the front in late 1917, save the Hindenburg line only, but enough work had been put into those defenses to make up for their short occupancy. The British were also launching their attack when the Germans were in one of their best positions since early 1915. Italy would soon be almost knocked out of the war at Caporetto, the Russians would be on their way out after the summer offensives, and the French army was still recovering from mutinies. This allowed the Germans the freedom to move in troops, almost as many as were required, during the 6 months of the attacks in Flanders. The next problem was that the British were still using incredibly long bombardments before their attacks, which gave the Germans plenty of warning, they were also attacking on a relatively small area of the front when compared to the entire length of the Western Front. They compounded this problem by attacking out of the Ypres salient which further restricted their ability to move or conceal preparations. Finally, the attacks would be continued far too long, far past the point of sanity and while the weather was acceptable early on, by the end they were trudging through a muddy mess.

I think that is a reasonable summary of why the British failed at Passchendaele, of course there is a 2 hour episode on that campaign that I hope everybody listened to. But now lets shift our focus and look at the differences between Passchendaele and the allied attacks in 1918. In their Spring and Summer attacks the Germans willfully sacrificed to very important, and irreplacable, pieces of their defenses from the previous 3 years of fighting. The first sacrifice was their prepared defensive positions. The line in the West had been relatively stable since the end of 1914 and the Germans had used that time to build up their defensive networks to what I would call an absurd degree. This was true on the Chemin des Dames, and at Passchendaele, and everywhere in between where the Germans occupied the Hindenburg Line and its offshoots. These positions were strong, safe, and built to a depth that for many years made large scale offensive operations seem impossible for the British and French. They also, critically, provided at least some safety from the gargantuan artillery barrages that had become typical of Entente attacks by the beginning of 1918. When the Germans attacked, and they made progress, they pushed forward away from these defensive and all along the front they would put into territory that had not been occupied by either side during the war. The only area where they was not true was on the old Somme battlefields, which presented their own problems. After they made these advances, and they did not win the war, they would have days, not years, to dig and prepare their new defenses for the coming allied attacks, and that was just not enough time. This made it far easier for the Allies to attack and to make actual progress partially due to how vulnerable it made the Germans to Allied artillery. When this vulnerability was combined with the growing Allied artillery advantage, well, it would not go well for the Germans.

The second major item that the Germans gave away, was manpower. Throughout 1915, 1916, and 1917 the Germans never had a manpower advantage on the Western Front. They had often faced the large Entente attacks with fewer men, but they had always been able to move in more troops as the fighting went on week after week and month after month. These new troops would come onto the scene somewhat fresh and prevent any sort of large scale breakthrough. During early 1918 the situation was different. With the final removal of Russia from the war German divisions came streaming from the east, and Ludendorff used this new manpower advantage to launch an attack. The attacks would fail, and by the time that they did the Germans had lost so many men, so many irreplacable men, that they were not once again at a disadvantage, and it was growing by the day as more Americans arrived. They had faced this problem before, by this time there was one big difference. This time there were no more reserves, no more formations to pull from other fronts, fronts that no longer existed, no more recruits back home. What the Germans had at the front, already spread thin, was all they had. This meant that as the Allies started and continued their attacks, the Germans could not do what they had always done, pull troops from elsewhere and launch counter attacks. It is difficult to overstate how thinly stretched the Germans made themselves in the spring and summer of 1918 as they advanced deeper and deeper into large salients along the front. They had to pull reserves from everywhere to keep the attacks going, and when they finally stopped they would be in trouble.

Both of those problems were inflicted on the Germans by their own actions, however there were two things that the Allies did to exacerbate and fully capitalize on them. The largest difference was in the coordination of all of the Allied armies at once. All along the front the Allies would have the ability, and desire, to launch offensives, from Flanders in the North to the Argonne in the south. This was only possible due to the creation of the Supreme War Council, and the elevation of Foch as Supreme Commander of all of the allied forces in Western Europe. By launching attack after attack on divergent objectives, the German army was unable to easily use the few reserves that it did have, and once the retreat began it was difficult to stop it. It should be noted that not all of the attacks were greatly successful, especially in areas where the Germans were occupying older defensive lines like in the Argonne, but the pressure from all along the front contributed to the successful attacks being really successful.

Along with the large number of attacks the Allies also changed how they attacked in 1918, well at least the British did. The biggest, and bar far the most obvious of these changes was in how artillery was used before the infantry went forward. At Passchendaele and Messines the British artillery fire had lasted for weeks, but by the time of the 100 days offensives the British forbid their artillery to fire more more than 48 hours. This was only possible due to the quantitative and qualitative improvements that had been made to the British artillery by that point in 1918 but it also represented a shift in what they thought artillery should and could be used for. Instead of being used to destroy the front line defenses in detail artillery was instead just used to suppress the enemy defenses, and to hammer the enemy artillery as much as possible. This made the attacks far more likely to succeed since the Germans had less time to prepare their response, much like at Cambrai in late 1917, surprise was actually possible. That was a pretty lengthy answer but that is just a tiny preview of what we will be discussing over the coming months. We will be discussing the events on the Western Front, from the German attacks in March until the Armistice in November over the course of roughly 22 episodes, starting in May and running all the way into October. So expect a lot more discussion this topic.

Our final question today comes from listener Owen who asks "Did the Easter 1916 rising have any short or long-term impact on Irish troops in the trenches by those commanding them? Could ask the same about the decision not to introduce conscription into Ireland." It took some time before news of the Rising reached the front lines, and initially the news was quite sketchy. Many men believed that it was a simple workers riot, which was not unheard of during the war as the expectations of the factory workers continued to rise as demands at the front grew. However, as more information, and correct information came to the front the overwhelming feeling among the Irish troops verified depending on their own views. Unionists, which made up most of the Irish officers, had a similar reaction to those experienced by every British soldier. However, the nationalists were somewhat more interesting. While the rebels were fighting for a cause that the nationalists believed in, they did not like that it was happening while they were off fighting a war. Some units would not find out about the rising until they came off the lines, and for units of the 16th Irish Division, they would be recovering from a gas attack when they found out. In general, a good word to describe the overall feeling of the nationalist Irish troops was one of disappointment. When they returned home they would find themselves in a somewhat ambiguous situation. They had just spent several years fighting for the country that had been on the wrong side of the Rising, and Eugene Sheehy, one of those soldiers would say "As the tide of Irish public opinion gradually changed and hostility to England grew we did not quite know where we stood, or where our duty lay."

I think it is also interesting to look at the views of Irish veterans after the war, and a good source for this information is an article by Peter Karsten entitled Irish Soldiers in the British Army, 1792-1922: Suborned or Subordinate? In this work Karsten says that after the war many veterans did not join Sinn Fein or the IRA, and in fact there was often a lot of tension between those groups and veterans organizations like the British Legion and Comrades of the Great War. In Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921 David Fitzpatrick would say that many Irish veterans hated Sinn Fein and its members "for having kept out of the war and envied them their settled jobs." One IRA general would say that the Irish Free State army of 1922 would be made up of many men who had fought hard against them in the war of indepedence. When the treaty of 1922 came up for vote, the areas of Ireland that had provided the most volunteers during the Great War were often the ones that voted strongly for the treaty. This was opposed by areas on the western side of Ireland who rejected the treaty, instead wanting to fight on to obtain more of northern Ireland, these were also the areas where the fewest number of volunteers were found. On the second part of your question, the reaction at the front to the question of Irish conscription, I could not find anything really concrete as a read around, if anybody out there has anything and would not mind sending it my way I will include that information in a future episode.

So, that is all for now, thank you to Patrick, Mike, Andy, and Owen for their questions, and if you asked a question fear not, it will be included in a future episode. Thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next episode as we tie up some loose ends on our story of the Great War in the Air.

Episode 155: Listener Questions Pt. 1
Share this

Subscribe to History of the Great War