Category Archives: Britain

Population, Industry, and World War I

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 169-95:

A combination of industrialisation and major improvements in public health in the second half of the 19th century led to large increases in the population of Europe, rising from about 200 million in 1800 to double that figure by 1900. The experiences of war during the 19th century resulted in most large nations adopting systems of national service followed by a variable period as a reservist; as a result, when the continent plunged over the precipice into war in the summer of 1914, all the Great Powers had the ability to field forces on a scale that dwarfed anything that had gone before.

The same industrialisation that helped increase the population of Europe also provided arms and munitions on a scale to match the huge armies that were sent into battle. Yet despite the enormous stockpiling and production of guns, bombs and shells, all armies found themselves struggling to cope with the huge consumption of resources that followed. Every army that fought in 1915 was forced to moderate its military ambitions to live within the limitations imposed by ammunition shortages, and it was only at the end of the year that all sides could begin to look forward to a time when they might have sufficient matériel to cope with the demands of modern warfare.

In the west, the terrible irony of the ‘mobilisation’ of 1914 was that hundreds of thousands of men were left facing each other in almost static front lines, subjecting each other to bombardments and assaults that left huge numbers dead or maimed without any prospect of ending the war. In many respects, the fighting on the Eastern Front was very different, with the front line moving back and forth as the vast spaces of Eastern Europe allowed armies to exploit weaker areas. However, the very space that allowed for such movement also made a conclusive victory almost unachievable. As early as October 1914, the Germans had correctly calculated that it was impossible for armies to maintain operations more than 72 miles (120km) from their railheads, and both sides rapidly realised that there were few if any strategically vital objectives within such a radius. Consequently, although there were major advances by all sides, it was not possible to advance sufficiently far to force the other side out of the war.

The Great Powers entered the war with a clear idea of how they intended to win. Germany wished to avoid a prolonged two-front war, and opted to concentrate most of its strength against France, intending to send its victorious armies east after defeating its western opponents. Russia believed in the irresistible might of its vast armies, and anticipated a steady advance that would roll over the German and Austro-Hungarian forces, while the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire calculated that their best hope was to draw the full weight of the tsar’s armies onto themselves, giving the Germans every opportunity to win the war in the west before the Russians could put enough forces into the field. When these initial plans failed, senior commanders struggled to come up with alternative strategies, trying usually without success to learn from the errors of the opening campaigns. To a very large extent, the one shining victory of the opening phases of the war – the German triumph at Tannenberg in September 1914 – left commanders on all sides attempting in vain to recreate the great encirclement. They repeatedly saw the endless stalemates as anomalies; the reality was that it was Tannenberg that was the anomaly, achieved at a time when there was still open ground between formations, allowing corps and armies to be outflanked – by the time they became aware of German movements, it was too late for the Russians to react. As the war continued, the density of troops prevented any such advantage being achieved.

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Danish Language Loss Overseas

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 737-67:

Two centuries ago, Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain. Now, the language is contained in scarcely more than a single country that’s just over half the size of Scotland. Read on for a chronicle of ruin.

The decline began in 1814 when Denmark, a loser in the Napoleonic Wars, was forced to cede part of its territory. All of Norway – many times larger than Denmark proper – suddenly gained independence, albeit initially under the rule of the Swedish king. Danish, having been the official language for centuries, had exerted a strong influence on Norwegian, particularly the kind spoken by the urban elite. Norwegian nationalists now had two objectives: out with the Swedish king, and out with the Danish language. It took a while, but eventually they managed both.

The Danish language was also losing ground further afield. In 1839, school students in the Danish West Indies (yes, they existed) were no longer taught in Danish, but in English instead. In 1845, the Danes sold their Indian trading posts to the United Kingdom, and followed suit in 1850 with their West African colonies. And in 1917 the Danish West Indies were sold off as well, this time to the United States. With that, Denmark was no longer a tropical country. Granted, few people actually spoke Danish in these colonies. But in 1864 the motherland itself also took a hit: in the spoils of war, the region of Slesvig was given to Prussia and renamed Schleswig. To this day, the German province of Schleswig-Holstein is home to a Danish-speaking minority numbering tens of thousands.

Then, in 1918, Danish morale took another blow: after more than five centuries under Danish rule, Iceland gained independence. Admittedly, Danish had never been more than an administrative language, but even this status was now lost. Some time later, Iceland also demoted Danish from its position as the most important foreign language. From then on, young Icelanders would focus on English at school instead.

The Faroe Islands, to the north of Scotland, acquired autonomy within the Danish kingdom in 1948 and promptly declared their native Faroese to be the national language. To help soften the blow, Danish retained its administrative status, but in practice it was used only for official contact with the motherland.

And so all that remained of Denmark’s colonies was the largest and most sparsely populated of them all: Greenland. Until 1979, that is, when the island was granted limited autonomy and permission to govern in its own language, Kalaallisut, otherwise known as Greenlandic. This decision came as no great surprise. Although Danish was a mandatory school subject, many Greenlanders struggled to speak the language, which was poles apart from their own. In autonomous Greenland, Danish initially retained more official functions than in the autonomous Faroe Islands. But that has since changed as well: in 2009, Kalaallisut became the one and only official administrative language. With this move, Greenland achieved a unique position: the only country of the Americas (yes, Greenland is part of the Americas), from Canada all the way down to Chile, where the indigenous language doesn’t play second fiddle to that of its colonial master. The poor Danes. Rejected by the Norwegians, betrayed in the warm-water colonies, defeated in Slesvig, then dumped by the cold-water colonies as well. But the Danes do have one consolation: their ancestors were among those who occupied England in the fifth century and thus laid the foundations for English – a language that has conquered the world like no other.

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Routes and Volume of Western Aid to USSR, WW2

From Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II, by Henrik Lunde (Casemate, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1640-47, 1654-58:

What arrived in the Soviet Union via Murmansk was only part of the immense flow of aid from the Western democracies. Aid via the Persian Gulf began arriving in 1942 but the flow was small until 1943 when the railway system between Basra and the Caspian Sea area had been expanded sufficiently to accommodate the traffic. The supplies and equipment arriving by this route eventually amounted to about 25 percent of all aid to the Soviet Union.

The largest flow, accounting for about half the aid, came across the Pacific to Soviet eastern ports. The possibility that this route would be disrupted by the Japanese was taken into account and Stalin warned Japan not to interfere. Thus approximately 25 percent of the aid came via Murmansk and Archangel. The total tonnage shipped via the northern route was 3,964,231 out of a total of 16,366,747.

Between March 1941 and December 1945, the United States of America contributed to Russia: 14,795 aircraft; 7,537 tanks; 51,503 jeeps; 35,170 motor bicycles; 8,700 tractors; 375,883 trucks and lorries; 8,218 anti-aircraft guns; 131,633 submachine guns; 345,735 tons of explosives; 1,981 locomotives; 11,155 railway wagons and trucks; 540,000 tons of steel rails; in excess of 1 million miles of telephone cable; food shipments to the value of $1,312 million; 2,670,000 tons of petrol; 842,000 tons of chemicals; 3,786,000 tyres; 49,000 tons of leather; and 15 million pairs of boots. The total value of the above is said to be $11,260,343,603.

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Finland’s ‘Continuation War’, 1941-45

From Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II, by Henrik Lunde (Casemate, 2011), Kindle Loc. 68-96:

In the Winter War (November 1939–March 1940), Finland was left alone to face Soviet aggression with only a modicum of assistance from Western countries. Many books and studies have been written about this conflict. The extensive coverage in English of this three-and-a-half month struggle should not be surprising—for it represented the gallant fight of a democratic “David” against a totalitarian “Goliath.” The bravery and determination of the Finns against insurmountable odds captured the imagination of the whole world.

The same is not true for the much longer and bloodier war that Finland fought against the Soviet Union at the side of Germany from 1941 to 1944—and their subsequent campaign to drive the Germans out of Finland in 1944–45. It might be true, as Olli Vehviläinen writes, that the war in North Europe was “buried under the avalanche of more newsworthy events in the greater war,” but this was not the only reason.

Professor John H. Wuorinen writes the following in the foreword to his book, based on an anonymous Finnish manuscript, which he edited and published in 1948:

A document which tries to give an objective account therefore cannot be published without unpleasant consequences for author and publisher alike. If this were not so, this book would no doubt have been published in Finland months ago, and the name of the Finnish author would occupy the customary place on the title page.

While it is difficult to pinpoint how long after the war the condition described by Wuorinen persisted, it is worth noting that that the official history of Finland’s involvement in World War II was not finished until 1994, more than thirty years after a similar multi-volume history about the war in Norway was completed.

The war at the side of Germany was not viewed in the same manner in the West as was the Winter War—it was not seen as a courageous and gallant fight to preserve democracy and freedom against a giant totalitarian neighbor. While numerous works on the war have been published in Finland, it is to be deplored that virtually none have been translated into English. The war at the side of Hitler was not one that brought pride to the nation and was a period many Finns would rather forget. Due to the lack of impartial and balanced treatment, large segments of the public in the US and Europe continue to believe that Finland found itself at the side of Germany in 1941 because it was attacked by the Soviet Union.

The Finns also refer to the war at the side of Germany as the “Continuation War,” an attempt to depict it as a continuance of the Winter War in order, perhaps, to obtain a more favorable reception both domestically and internationally. Both this attempt and the insistence that it was an independent war waged against the Soviet Union fail to stand up to close scrutiny. It has proven hard to overcome the fact that Finland was the only democratic country at Hitler’s side.

The Finns’ own views about the war at the side of Germany have changed over the years. In the earlier period there was a tendency to emphasize the error of their decision to align themselves with Germany. Later, they appear to have come to the conclusion that the war was a struggle for survival and that the government made what it thought to be the least harmful choice among bad alternatives.

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Scale of German Losses in Normandy

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 3695-3718:

About fifty divisions of the Wehrmacht had been committed to battle in Normandy — well over a million men. Fewer than ten of these divisions could still be classed as reasonable fighting formations after the Seine River had been crossed. Of a total of about 2200 tanks and assault guns used in Normandy, almost 1800 of them remained as burnt-out hulks in the rolling fields west of the Seine. About 210,000 Germans had become prisoners-of-war since the invasion, and another 240,000 had been either killed or wounded. In other words almost half of the total number of German troops engaged in the battle of Normandy had appeared on a Wehrmacht casualty list in one category or another.

The losses amongst senior commanders were commensurately as high as those suffered by the men. For in addition to the normal hazards of the battlefields, German generals were also subjected to the tantrums and intuitions of their Fuhrer. Hitler succeeded in dismissing his senior officers almost as quickly as the Allies managed to kill, wound or capture them. By 25 August three field marshals had been eliminated — von Rundstedt had been dismissed, von Kluge had taken poison and Rommel had been wounded. Amongst army commanders, Dollman of Seventh Army had died, his successor Hausser had been severely wounded in the Falaise Gap, Geyr von Schweppenburg of Panzer Group West had been recalled to Berlin, and von Salmuth of Fifteenth Army had been replaced by von Zangen. And farther down the military hierarchy no fewer than three corps commanders and twenty divisional commanders had been killed, captured or wounded. The battle of Normandy had cost the German Wehrmacht in three months almost twice as many men as they had lost at Stalingrad where 250,000 troops had surrendered to the Russians. And as additional satisfaction to Allied commanders, the Seine had been reached two weeks ahead of schedule and the broad strategical battle had been fought exactly as planned.

Retreat had been well learnt by the Wehrmacht in Russia. In fact, by the end of August 1944, it had almost become a habit. Once the German General Staff was given complete freedom to carry out a straight, administrative task it usually did it well. Having once decided to withdraw behind the Seine, the fact that no bridges existed over the river below Paris constituted a relatively minor problem. Crossing rivers while going backwards was a specialty of staff officers who had been chased back over the Volga, the Don and the Dnieper. With the destruction of the Seine bridges it had been necessary early in the campaign to organize a system of ferries and pontoons for the sending of supplies and reinforcements to Normandy. These well-camouflaged crossing places now did yeomen service in the reverse role of transporting the broken units to the comparative safety of the east bank. Harassed by a vigilant Allied air force, almost 300 barges were destroyed or damaged in the seven days preceding 23 August when the exodus was at its height. Although the west bank of the Seine was choked with abandoned vehicles, knocked-out guns and tanks, and frightened horses, thousands of German troops succeeded in crossing the Seine at Rouen, Elbeuf, Caudebec and Duclair.

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Quick German Surrenders in the West

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2649-59. 4137-57:

Contrary to the fond hopes of von Luttwitz, not all junior commanders in the West were the ‘hurrahing’ type. It was only their discipline and not their faith that kept many of them in the line. Thus it was quite common to find German officers surrendering only after they had assured themselves that their honor had not been compromised. The fact that they had sworn to fight to the last was interpreted by many officers as fighting until they found a way to stop which was not inconsistent with their oath.

On one occasion an infantry commander refused to surrender unless Allied troops had first thrown some phosphorus grenades into his position, as he had no answer to phosphorus. Six grenades were therefore produced and thrown, and, after inspecting the results of the subsequent explosion, the German officer, his honor apparently having been saved, quietly surrendered himself and his whole unit. Another instance of this kind of behavior was provided by the commander of the Cherbourg Arsenal who declined to give himself up until a tank was produced. A Sherman tank was accordingly driven up to the walls of the Arsenal and the general then considered he had been subjected to a tank attack. Not possessing adequate anti-tank defense, he now felt that he could surrender honorably and without having broken his pledge to defend to the end.

On 14 August, hardly two weeks before the city was invested, Wildermuth took over the defense of the bastion of Le Havre.

If the Supreme Command was looking for a fanatical, zealous, feverish young Nazi to inspire German troops to fight to the end, it could have chosen no one less likely to fit the role than Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth. He was not young, he was not inspired, he was not a soldier, and what was most important, he was not a Nazi. Nevertheless, the polite, tired, efficient bank director was suddenly shunted from Italy to this fortress in France, and ordered to perform a fight-to-the-death task for the glory of the Fatherland. Small wonder the martyr’s crown rested uneasily on his head, and so readily slipped off when events hemmed him in.

A two-divisional British assault, following the dropping of some 11,000 tons of bombs in Le Havre, was launched on 10 September.

By noon on 12 September, forty-eight hours later, the port had capitulated and 11,300 German troops had laid down their arms. This, despite the fact that the defenses available were amongst the strongest in Europe, that ammunition was plentiful for the 115 guns in Le Havre, and that sufficient food was on hand to keep 14,000 soldiers for eighty-nine more days. The explanation for this speedy collapse lies in the commandant’s personal conception of what ‘the end’ really meant. “In my opinion it was futile to fight tanks with bare hands,” said Colonel Wildermuth. “As early as 9 September I had given orders to all my officers that Allied infantry attacks were to be opposed everywhere, even with the side arms only. But in the event of an attack by tanks, resistance nests which no longer had any anti-tank weapons were then at liberty to surrender.”

Thus the Colonel had transformed the Supreme Command’s precept of fight to the last man to his own concept of fight to the last anti-tank gun. The difference was fundamental. It marked the civilian from the soldier. For Wildermuth, with his banker’s mind, was a soldier only so long as it was reasonable to remain one. Once the cost in blood and pain was too much, he felt it was time to become a civilian again. He was an efficient, able man who carried efficiency and ability into battle with him in much the same way as he would have used them to draw up a balance-sheet. He was not mentally prepared to sacrifice the lives of his men for a philosophy in which he only half-heartedly believed. It is in the personality of the leader of the garrison of Le Havre that lies much of the explanation for the fall of this formidable fortress in less than forty-eight hours.

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Germany’s ‘White Bread Division’, 1944

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4344-67:

After five years of nervous tension, bad food, and hard living conditions, the Wehrmacht found itself swamped with soldiers complaining of internal gastric trouble. Some of these were real, others were feigned. It was difficult to check.

As defeat became more and more imminent and life at the front more dangerous and more uncomfortable, the rise in the number of men reporting themselves as chronic stomach sufferers became alarming. With the staggering losses in Russia and France, it was no longer possible to discharge this huge flood of groaning manpower from military service. On the other hand their presence in a unit of healthy men was a constant source of dissatisfaction and unrest, for they required special food, constantly asked to be sent on leave, continually reported themselves to the doctor, and grumbled unceasingly about their plight. It was thus decided by the Supreme Command to concentrate all these unfortunates into special Stomach (Magen) battalions where their food could be supervised and their tasks made lighter. It was originally intended to use these troops for rear-area duties only, but as the need for additional men became increasingly critical these units were sent forward for front-line duty as well.

On Walcheren Island, following the Allied invasion, it was decided to replace the previous normal infantry division with a complete division formed from these Stomach battalions. By the beginning of August 1944, the transformation was complete. Occupying the bunkers of the polderland of Walcheren Island and pledged to carry on to the very end were stomachs with chronic ulcers, stomachs with acute ulcers, wounded stomachs, nervous stomachs, sensitive stomachs, dyspeptic stomachs, inflamed stomachs — in fact the whole gamut of gastric ailments. Here in the rich garden country of Holland, where white bread, fresh vegetables, eggs and milk abounded, these men of 70 Infantry Division, soon nicknamed the ‘White Bread Division,’ awaited the impending Allied attack with their attention nervously divided between the threat of enemy action and the reality of their own internal disorders.

The man chosen to lead this formation of convalescents through their travail was the mild-looking, elderly Lieutenant General Wilhelm Daser. His small, peaked nose, his horn-rimmed glasses and his pink, bald head effectively hid his military identity. Only a firm, loud voice accustomed to giving orders betrayed it. Like the other fortress commanders he was chosen for his final military role because he could easily be spared, not because he had any particular qualifications for the task. The tremendous wastage of senior officers incurred by the Wehrmacht in Russia and North Africa was the prime reason for Daser’s being called out of semi-retirement in February 1944, to take over a static coastal division in Holland. His last active field command had been in 1941 when he had been sent back to Germany because of heart trouble. The years between had been spent as a military administrator of civilians in occupied territory. Now, at sixty years of age, he had neither the enthusiasm, the zeal nor the ability to make of Walcheren a memorable epic of German arms — but neither had most generals of the Wehrmacht in the declining months of 1944.

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