- 'British Problems'
- by Frederick Palmer
- from his book 'My First Year of the War' 1915
A Discussion of the Merits of Professionals Versus Volunteers
traditional uniforms of the British army before the war
THROUGHOUT the summer of 1915 the world was asking, What about the new British army ? Why was it not attacking at the opportune moment when Germany was throwing her weight against Russia ? A facile answer is easy ; indeed, facile answers are always easy. Unhappily, they are rarely correct. None that was given in this instance was, to my mind. They sought to put a finger on one definite cause; again, on an individual or a set of individuals.
The reasons were manifold; as old as Waterloo, as fresh as the last speech in Parliament. They were inherent in the Anglo-Saxon race. Whoever raised a voice and said, This, or that, or you, are responsible! should first have looked into his own mind and into the history of his race and then into a mirror. Least of all should any American have been puzzled by the delay.
"Oh, we should have done better than that we are Americans!" I hear my countrymen say. Perhaps we should. I hope so ; I believe so. The British public thought that they were going to do better ; military men were surprised that they did as well.
Along with laws and language we have inherited our military ideas from England. In many qualities we are different a distinct type ; but in nothing are we more like the British than in our attitude toward the soldier and toward war. The character of any army reflects the character of its people. An army is the fist ; but the muscle, the strength, of the physical organism behind the blow in the long run belong to the people. What they have prepared for in peace they receive in war, which decides whether they have been living in the paradise of a fool or of a wise man.
As a boy I was brought up to believe, as an inheritance of the American Revolution, that one American could whip two Englishmen and five or six of any other nationality, which made the feathers of the eagle perched on the national escutcheon look glossy. It was a satisfying sort of faith. Americans had never tried five or six of any first-class fighting race ; but that was not a thought which occurred to me. As we had won victories over the English and the English had whipped the French at Waterloo, the conclusion seemed obvious.
English boys, I understand, also had been brought up to believe that one Englishman could whip five or six men of any other nationality, but, I take it for granted, only two Americans. This clothed the British lion with majesty, while the lower ratio of superiority over Americans returned the compliment in kind from the sons of the lion to the sons of the eagle.
After I began to read history for myself and to think as I read, I found that when British and Americans had met, the generals on either side were solicitous about having superior forces, and in case of odds of two to one they made a " strategic retreat." When either side was beaten, the other always explained that he was overcome by superior numbers, though perhaps the adversary had not more than ten or fifteen per cent. advantage. Then I learned that the British had not whipped five or six times their number on the continent of Europe. The British Expeditionary Force made as fine an effort to do so at Mons as was ever attempted in history, but they did not succeed.
It was a regular army that fought at Mons. The only two first-class nations which depend upon regulars to do their fighting are the British and the American. This is the vital point of similarity which is the practical manifestation of our military ideas. We have been the earth's spoiled children, thanks to the salt seas between us and other powerful military nations. Before any other Power could reach the United States it must overwhelm the British navy, and then it must overwhelm ours and bring its forces in transports. Sea-power, you say. That is the facile word, so ready to the lips that we do not realize the wonder of it any more than of the sun rising and setting.
When we want soldiers our plan still is to advertise for them. The ways of our ancestors remain ours. We think that the volunteer must necessarily make the best soldier because he offers his services ; while the conscript rather a term of opprobrium to us must be lukewarm. It hardly occurs to us that some forms of persuasion may amount to conscription, or that the volunteer, won by oratorical appeal to his emotions or by social pressure, may suffer a reaction after enlistment which will make him lukewarm also, particularly as he sees others, also young and fit, hanging back. Nor does it occur to us that there may be virtue in that fervour of national patriotism aroused by the command that all must serve, which, on the continent in this war, has meant universal exaltation to sacrifice. The life of Jones means as much to him as the life of Smith does to him ; and when the whole nation is called to arms there ought to be no favourites in life- giving.
For the last hundred years, if we except the American Civil War, ours have been comparatively little wars. The British regular army has policed an empire and sent punitive expeditions against rebellious tribes with paucity of numbers, in a work which the British so well understand. Our little regular army took care of the Red Indians as our frontier advanced from the Alleghenies to the Pacific. To put it bluntly, we have hired someone to do our fighting for us.
Without ever seriously studying the business of soldiering, the average Anglo- Saxon thought of himself as a potential soldier, taking his sense of martial superiority largely from the work of the long-service, severely drilled regular. Also, we used our fists rather than daggers or duelling swords in personal encounters and, man to man, unequipped with fire-arms or blades, the quality which is responsible for our sturdy pioneering individualism gave us confidence in .our physical prowess.
Alas! modern wars are not fought with fists. A knock-kneed man who knows how to use a machine-gun and has one to use which is also quite important could mow down all the leading heavy-weights of the United States and England, with the latest champion leading the charge.
Now, this regular who won our little wars was not representative of the people as a whole. He was the man " down on his luck," who went to the recruiting depot. Soldiering became his profession. He was in a class, like priests and vagabonds. When you passed him in the street you thought of him as a strange being, but one of the necessities of national existence. It did not interest you to be a soldier; but as there must be soldiers, you were glad that men who would be soldiers were forthcoming.
When trouble broke, how you needed him! When the wires brought news of his gallantry you accepted the deeds of this man whom you had paid as the reflection of national courage, which thrilled you with a sense of national superiority. To him, it was in the course of duty ; what he had been paid to do. He did not care about being called a hero ; but it pleased the public to make him one this professional who fights for a shilling a day in England and $17.50 a month in the United States.
Though when the campaign went well the public was ready to take the credit as a personal tribute, when the campaign went badly they sought a scapegoat, and the general who might have been a hero was sent to the wilderness perhaps because those busy men in Congress or Parliament thought that the army could do without that little appropriation which was needed for some other purpose. The army had failed to deliver the goods which it was paid to produce. The army was to blame, when, of course, under free institutions the public was to blame, as the public is master of the army and not the army of the public.
A first impression of the British army is always that of the regiment. Pride of regiment sometimes appears almost more deep-seated than army pride to the outsider. It has been so long a part of British martial inheritance that it is bred in the blood. In the old days of small armies and in the later days of small wars, while Europe was making every man a soldier by conscription, regiment vying with regiment won the battles of empire. The memory of the part each regiment played is the inspiration of its present; its existence is inseparable from the traditions of its long list of battle honours.
The British public loves to read of its Guards' regiment and to watch them in their .brilliant uniforms at review. When a cadet comes out of Sandhurst he names the regiment which he wishes to join, instead of being ordered to a certain regiment, as at West Point. It rests with the regimental commander whether or not he is accepted. Frequently the young man of wealth or family serves in the Guards or another crack regiment for awhile and resigns, usually to enjoy the semi-leisurely life which is the fortune of his inheritance.
Then there are the county line regiments, such as the Yorkshires, the Kents, and the Durhams. In this war each county wanted to read about its own regiments at the same time as about the Guards, just as Kansans at home would want to read about the Kansas regiment and Georgians about the Georgia regiment. The most trying feature of the censorship to the British public was its refusal to allow the exploitation of regiments. The staff was adamant on this point; for the staff was thinking for the whole and of the interests of the whole. In the French and the German armies, as in our regular army, regiments are known by numbers.
The young man who lives in the big house on the hill, the son of the man of wealth and power in the community, as a rule does not go to West Point. None of the youth of our self-called aristocracy which came up the golden road in a generation past those in modest circumstances who have generations of another sort back of them, think of going into the First Cavalry or the First Infantry for a few years as a part of the career of their class. A few rich men's sons enter our army, but only enough to prove the rule by the exception. They do not regard the army as "the thing." It does not occur to them that they ought to do something for their country. Rather, their country ought to do something for them.
But sink the plummet a little deeper and these are not our aristocracy nor our ruling class, which is too numerous and too sound of thought and principle for them to feel at home in that company. Any boy, however humble his origin, may go to West Point if he can pass the competitive examination. Europe, particularly Germany, would not approve of this ; but we think it the best way. The average graduate of the Point, whether the son of a doctor, a lawyer, or a farmer, sticks to the army as his profession. We maintain the Academy for the strict business purpose of teaching young men how to train our army in time of peace and to lead and direct it in time of action.
Our future officers enter West Point when they are two years younger than is the average at Sandhurst; the course is four years compared with two at Sandhurst. I should venture to say that West Point is the harder grind ; that the graduate of the Point has a more specifically academic military training than the graduate of Sandhurst. This is not saying that he may be any better in the performance of the simple duties of a company officer. It is not a new criticism that we train everybody at West Point to be a general, when many of the students may never rise above the command of a battalion. However, it is a significant fact that at the close of the Civil War every army commander was a West Point man and so were most of the corps commanders.
The doors are open in the British army for a man to rise from the ranks ; not as wide as in our army, but open. The Chief of Staff of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir William Robertson, was in the ranks for ten years. No man not a West Pointer had a position equivalent in importance to his at the close Of the Civil War. His rise would have been possible in no other European army.
But West Point sets the stamp on the American army, and Sandhurst and Woolwich, the engineering and artillery school, on the British army. At the end of the four years at West Point the men who survive the hard course may be tried by courtmartial not for conduct unbecoming an officer, but an officer and a gentleman. They are supposed, whatever their origin, to have absorbed certain qualities, if they were not inborn, which are not easily described but which we all recognize in any man. If they are absent it is not the fault of West Point; and if a man cannot acquire them there, then nature never meant them for him. From the time he entered the school the government has paid his way ; and he is cared for until he dies, if he keeps step and avoids courtmartials.
His position in life is secure. His pay, counting everything, is better than that of the average graduate of a university or a first-class professional school who practises a profession. Yet only three boys, I remember, wanted to go to West Point from our congressional district in my youth. Nothing could better illustrate the fact that we are not a military people. From West Point they go out to the little army which is to fight our wars ; to the posts and the Philippines, and become a world in themselves ; an isolated caste in spite of themselves. I am not at all certain that either the British or the American officer works as hard as the German in time of peace. Neither has the practical incentive nor the determined driver behind him.
For it takes a soldier Secretary of War to drive a soldier ; for example, Lord Kitchener. Those British officers who applied themselves in peace to the mastery of their profession and were not content with the day's routine requirements, had to play chess without chess-men ; practise manoeuvres on a board rather than with brigades, divisions, corps, and armies. They became the rallying points in the concourse of untrained recruits.
German and French officers had the incentive and the chessmen. The Great War could not take them by surprise. They took the road with a machine whose parts had been long assembled. They had been trained for big war ; their ambition and intelligence were under the whip of a definite anticipation.
A factor overlooked, but even more significant than training or staff work, was that what might be called martial team-play had become an instinct with the continental peoples through the necessity of their situation. This the Japanese also possess. It is the right material ready to hand for the builder. Not that it is the kind of material one admires ; but it is the right material for making a war- machine. One had only to read the expert military criticism in the British and the American Press at the outset of the war to realize how vague was the truth of the continental situation to the average Englishman or American but not to the trained British Staff.
So that little British Expeditionary Force, in ratio of number one to twenty or thirty of the French army, crossed the Channel to help save Belgium. Gallantry it had worthy of the brightest chapter in the immortal history of its regiments from Quebec to Kandahar, from Agincourt, Blenheim and Waterloo to South Africa, Guards and Hussars, Highlanders and Lowlanders, kilts and breeks, Connaught Rangers and Royal Fusiliers, Duke of Wellington's and Prince of Wales' Own, come again to Flanders. The best blood of England was leading Tommy Atkins. Whatever British aristocracy is or is not, it never forgets its duty to the England of its fathers. It is never ingrate to its fortune. The time had come to go out and die for England, if need be, and these officers went as their ancestors had gone before them, as they would go to lectures at Oxford, to the cricket field and the polo field, in outward phlegm, but with a mighty passion in their hearts.
The Germans affected to despise this little army. It had not been trained in the mass tactics which hurl columns of flesh forward to gain tactical points that have been mauled by artillery fire. You do not use mass tactics against Boers, nor against Afridis, nor Filipinos. It is difficult to combine the two kinds of efficiency. Those who were on the march to the relief of the Peking Legations recall how the Germans were as ill at ease in that kind of work as the Americans and British were at home. It made us misjudge the Germans and the Germans misjudge us when they thought of us as trying to make war on the continent of Europe. A small, mobile, regular army, formed to go overseas and march long distances, was to fight in a war where millions were engaged and a day's march would cover an immense stretch of territory in international calculations of gain and loss.
For its own purposes, the British Expeditionary Force was well-nigh a perfect instrument. As quantity of ammunition was an important factor in transport in the kind of campaign which it was prepared for, its guns were the most accurate on a given point and its system of fire adapted to that end ; but the French system of fire, with plentiful ammunition from near bases over fine roads, was better adapted for a continental campaign.
To the last button that little army was prepared. Man for man and regiment for regiment, I should say it was the best force that ever fired a shot in Europe ; this without regard to national character. As England must make every regular soldier count, and as she depended upon the efficiency of the few rather than on numbers, she had trained her men in musketry. No continental army could afford to allow its soldiers to expend the amount of ammunition on the target range that the British had expended. Only by practice can you learn how to shoot. This gives the soldier confidence. He stays in his trench and keeps on shooting because he knows that he can hit those advancing figures and that this is his best protection. The more I learn, the more I am convinced that the Germans ought to have got the British Expeditionary Force ; and the Germans were very surprised that they did not get it. With their surprise developed a respect for British arms, reported by all visitors to Germany.
Mr. Thomas Atkins, none other, is the hero of that retreat from Mons. The first statue raised in London after the war ought to be of him. If there had been five hundred thousand of him in Belgium at the end of the second week in August, Brussels would now be under the Belgian flag. Like many other good things in this world, including the French army, there were not enough of him. Many a company on that retreat simply got tired of retreating, though orders were to fall back. It dug a trench and lay down and kept on firing accurately, in the regular, businesslike way, reinforced by the "stick it" British character until killed or engulfed. This held back the flood long enough for the remainder of the army to retire.
Not all the generalship emanated from generals. I like best that story of the cross- roads where, with Germans pressing hard on all sides, two columns in retreat fell in together, uncertain which way to go. With confusion developing for want of instructions, a lone, exhausted staff officer who happened along took charge, and standing at the junction in the midst of shell-fire told every doubting unit what to do, with a one-two-three alacrity of decision. His work finished, he and his red cap disappeared, and I never could find anyone who knew who he was.
After the retreat and after the victory of the Marne, what was England's position ? The average Englishman had thought that England's part in the alliance was to send a small army to France and to take care of the German fleet. England's fleet was her first consideration ; that must be served. France's demand for rifles and supplies must be attended to before the British demand. Serbia needed supplies ; Russia needed supplies ; a rebellion threatened in South Africa ; the Turks threatened the invasion of Egypt. England had to spread her energy out over a vast empire with an army that had barely escaped annihilation. Every soldier who fought must be supplied overseas. German officers put a man on a railroad train and he detrained near the front. Every British soldier had to go on board a train and then a ship and then disembark from the ship and go on board another train. Every article of ordnance, engineering, medical supply, food supply, must be handled four times, while in Germany they need be handled but twice. Any railway traffic manager will understand what this means. Both the British supply system and the medical corps were marvels.
Germany was stronger than the British public thought. Germany and Austria could put at the front in the first six months of the war practically double the number which the Allies could maintain. Russia had multitudes to draw from in reserve, but the need was multitudes at the front. There she was only as strong as the number she could feed and equip. In the first year of the war England suffered 380,000 casualties on land, more than three times the number of men that she had at Mons. This wastage must be met before she could begin to increase her forces. The length of line on the western front that she was holding was not the criterion of her effort. The French who shared with the British that terrible Ypres salient realized this.
Apart from the regulars she had the Territorials, who are much the same as our National Guard and vary in quality in the same way. Native Indian troops were brought to France to face the diabolical shell-fire of modern guns, and Territorials went out to India to take the place of the British regulars who were withdrawn for France. Every rifle that England could bring to the assistance of the French in their heroic stand was a rifle to the good.
Meanwhile, she was making her new army. For the first time since Cromwell's day, all classes in England were going to war. Making an army out of the raw is like building a factory to be manned by expert labour which you have to train. Let us even suppose that the factory is ready and that the proprietor must mobilize his managers, overseers, foremen, and labour from far and near a force individually competent, but which had never before worked together. It would require some time to organize team-play, wouldn't it ? Particularly it would if you were short of managers, overseers, and foremen. To express my meaning from another angle, in talking once with an English pottery manufacturer he said : "We do not train our labour in the pottery district. We breed it from generation to generation."
In Germany they have not only been training soldiers, but breeding them from generation to generation. You may think that system is wrong. It may be contrary to our ideals. But in fighting against that system for your ideals when war is violence and killing, you must have weapons as effective as the enemy's. You express only a part of Germany's preparedness by saying that the men who left the plough and the shop, the factory and the office, became trained soldiers at the command of the staff as soon as they were in uniform and had rifles. These men had the instinct of military co-ordination bred in them, and so had their officers, while England had to take men from the plough and the shop, the factory and the office, and equip them and teach them the rudiments of soldiering before she could consider making them into an army.
It was one thing for the spirit of British manhood to rise to the emergency. Another and even more important requisite went with it. If my country ever faces such a crisis I hope that we also may have the courage of wisdom which leaves an expert's work to an expert. England had Lord Kitchener, who could hold the imagination and the confidence of the nation through the long months of preparation, when there was little to show except repetition of drills here and there on gloomy winter days. It required a man with a big conception and patience and authority to carry it through, and recruits with an unflinching sense of duty. The immensity of the task of transforming a non-military people into a great fighting force grew on one in all its humdrum and vital details as he watched the new army forming. "Are you learning to think in big numbers ? " was Lord Kitchener's question to his generals.
Half of the regular officers were killed or wounded.
Where the leaders? Where the drillmasters for the new army ? Old officers came out of retirement, where they had become used to an easy life as a rule, to twelve hours a day of hard application. "Dug-outs" they were called. Veteran non- commissioned officers had to drill new ones. It was demonstrated that a good infantry soldier can be made in six months ; perhaps in three. But it takes seven months to build a rifle-plant; many more months to make guns and the navy must never be stinted. Probably the English are slow ; slow and thoroughgoing. They are good at the finish, but not quick at the start. They are used to winning the last battle, which they say is the one that counts. The complacency of empire with a century's power was a handicap, no doubt. We are inclined to lean forward on our oars, they to lean back which does not mean that they cannot lean forward in an emergency or that they lack reserve strength. It may lead us to misjudge them.
Public impatience was inevitable. It could not be kept silent; that is the English of it the American, too. It demands to know what is being done. It was not silent in the Civil War. From the time McClellan started forming his new army until the Peninsular campaign was six months, if I remember rightly. Von Moltke, who built the German staff system, said that the Civil War was a strife between two armed mobs ; though I think if he had brought his Prussians to Virginia a year later, in '63, which would have ended the Civil War there and then, he would have had an interesting time before he returned to Berlin,
The British new army was not to face another new army, but the most thoroughly organized military machine that the world has ever known. Not only this, but the Germans, with a good start and their system established, were not standing still and waiting for the British to catch up, so that the two could begin again even, but were adapting themselves to the new features of the war. They had been the world's arms-makers. With vast munition plants ready, their feudal socialistic organization could make the most of their resources in men and material.
More than two million Englishmen went to the recruiting depots, though no invader had set foot on their soil, and offered to serve in France or wherever they were needed overseas. If no magic could put rifles in their hands or summon batteries of guns to follow them on the march, the fact of their volunteering, when they knew by watching from day to day the drudgery that it meant and what trench warfare was, shows at least that the race is not yet decadent. Perhaps we should have done better. No one can know until we try it. If liberal treatment by the government and the course set by Secretary Root means anything, our staff ought to be better equipped for such a task than the English were ; this, too, only war can decide.
Whatsoever of pessimism appeared in the British Press was telegraphed to America. Pessimism was not permitted in the German Press. Imagine Germany holding control of the cable and allowing press dispatches from Germany to pass over it with the freedom that England allowed. Imagine Germany having waited as long as England before making cotton contra-band. The British Press demanded information from the government which the German Press would never have dared to ask. I have known an American correspondent, fed out of hand in Germany and thankful for anything that the fearful German war-machine might vouchsafe, turning a belligerent when he was in London for privileges which he would never have thought of demanding in Berlin.
If an English ship were reported sunk, he believed it must be, despite the government's denial. Did he go to the Germans and demand that he might publish the rumours of what had happened to the Moltke in the Gulf of Riga, or how many submarines Germany had really lost ? Indeed, he was unconsciously paying a compliment to British free institutions. He expected more in England ; it seemed a right to him, as it would at home. Englishmen talked frankly to him about mistakes ; he heard all the gossip ; and sometimes he concluded that England was in a bad way. In Germany such talk was not allowed. Every German said that the government was absolutely truthful; every German believed all of its reports. But ask this critical American how he would like to live under German rule, and then you found how anti-German he was at heart. Nothing succeeds like success, and Germany was winning and telling no one if she had any setbacks.
If there were a strike, the British Press made the most of it, for it was big news. Pessimism is the Englishman's natural way of arousing himself to fresh energy. It is also against habit to be demonstrative in his effort; so it is not easy to understand how much he is doing. Then, pessimism brought recruits ; it made the Englishman say, "I've got to put my back into it !" Muddling there was and mistakes, such as that of the method of attack at Gallipoli; but in the midst of all this dispiriting pessimism, no Englishman thought of anything but of putting his back into it more and more. Lord Kitchener had said that it was to be a long war and evidently it must be. Of course, England's misfortune was in having the war catch her in the transition from an old order of things to social reforms.
But if the war shows anything it is that basically English character has not changed. She still has unconquerable, dogged persistence, and her defects for this kind of war are not among the least admirable of her traits to those who desire to live their own lives in their own way, as the English-speaking people have done for five hundred years, without having a verboten sign on every street corner.
It is still the law that when a company of infantry marches through London it must be escorted by a policeman. This means a good deal: that civil power is superior to military power. It is a symbol of what Englishmen have fought for with spades and pitch-forks, and what we have fought Englishmen for. My own idea is that England is fighting for it in this struggle; and starting unready against a foe which was ready, as the free peoples always have done, she was fighting for time and experience before she could strike her sturdiest blows.
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