Archives » History

On Their Shoulders by C N Barclay

British Generalship in the lean years 1939-1942. Faber and Faber, 1964, 184 p.

On Their Shoulders cover

The book is primarily a defence of the British generals in the early years of World War 2 who, “out-numbered, out-gunned, out-tanked and inadequately supported from the air,” nevertheless did not suffer terminal defeat and thereby bought time for sufficient numbers of men, training and decent equipment to be brought to bear. (Time too for allies belatedly to alleviate the burden.)

Barclay’s preface is at pains to point out that, “with the exception of the Great War, the British Army was a small colonial force, unsuitable for modern war. Both World Wars were begun with negligible land forces which had to hold the fort until expansion had taken place. After Dunkirk, alone, defeats were inevitable, not losing the war was about all that could be done,” and include the amazing statistic that, “The Boer War of 1899-1902 cost us more in men and material resources than the struggle against Napoleon nearly one hundred years before.” Perhaps more contentiously he states that, “the Staff College provided us in World War 2 with the best team of generals this country has ever known.” A particular handicap was that British generals’ experience of armoured warfare when the war began was theoretical as none had directed armoured troops as those forces barely exisedt. Nevertheless an armoured foray against the German advance near Arras did give the enemy cause for concern.

Barclay devotes one chapter each to Gort, Wavell, O’Connor, Wilson, Auchinleck, Cunningham, Percival and Hutton. Gort made the correct decision to retreat to Dunkirk and thereby saved not only most of the BEF, including most of the generals who would go on to victory in the latter years of the war, but also a substantial number of French troops, Wavell oversaw the victories against the Italians in East and North Africa, O’Connor directed that North African campaign and might have gone on to Tripoli if not denuded of troops for the forlorn Greek adventure but was then unluckily captured by a German patrol, Wilson helped in the planning for O’Connor’s victory and was then himself plunged into the debacle that was Greece before taking successful command of the Iraq, Syria and Persia sector, Auchinleck at least stopped Rommel’s first foray into Egypt but as an Indian Army man with no experience of armoured warfare was a strange choice for the role given to him, Cunningham swept the Italians from East Africa before being (briefly and almost certainly mistakenly) appointed to command in the Western Desert, Percival made no difference at all to the defence of Malaya and Singapore and Hutton had the impossible job of trying to save Rangoon.

While Norway, the Dunkirk campaign, the Western Desert, Greece, Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma saw defeats they were in the main retrievable. The single utter catastrophe was the fall of Malaya and Singapore (the biggest ever defeat in British military history.) This could be put down to political failure, local attitudes and dispositional necessities but General Percival did not do much to ginger things up when he arrived. It was also the only British campaign for hundreds of years in which naval support was totally absent. This was of course due to the sinkings of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by the Japanese air force. In amongst these setbacks there were notable successes, the utter destruction of numerically much larger Italian forces in East Africa and North Africa (“two of the most resounding military victories in history”,) the elimination of the Vichy French threat in Syria and the flawed success of Operation Crusader in the Western Desert.

Barclay cites lack of high quality training as a principal contributor to defeat. Better trained, more mobile forces, even if much smaller in number, can nevertheless achieve victory. Against the Italians the British troops (whom I would submit were also better motivated) were the better trained. In Malaya, not so, even if the Japanese had in effect only the one tactic. The Germans were, of course, trained superbly.

The book is unfortunately lacking in depth. In addition, due to the overlapping jurisdictions and swapping of roles there is frequent repetition of information. We were told about ABDA at least four times.

According to Barclay the war was disastrous in its consequences, “allowing Communism into the heart of Central Europe.” In addition the colonies were lost, Britain’s prestige and influence declined. Yet the consequences of a German and Japanese victory would have been even more regrettable. And the generals discussed did prevent that.

Barclay’s somewhat Victorian/Edwardian world-view, exemplified by the Communism remark above, is emphasised by his use of the word “savages” to describe some of the native peoples against whom the British Army was used in colonial times. Fifty years after the book’s publication reading that expression came as a shock.

Pedant’s corner:- he showed mark enthusiasm (marked,) india (India,) seemed to damp enthusiasm (dampen,) and other who visited (others,) the British public have been given the impression (has been given,) Field- Marshall (Field-Marshal,) Alemein (Alamein,) non-commital (non-committal,) Iraqui (may have been the spelling in 1964; now it is Iraqi,) based on New Delhi (in, surely?) after he arrive (arrived,) Caldron Battle (Cauldron is more usual,) there were a few (was,) for an Army office his early background (officer,) military unsound (militarily,) Japanes (Japanese,) “It would be foolish to deny that there may not have been neglect in the training of the Army in Malaya” (the exact opposite is meant; “It would be foolish to deny that there may have been neglect in the training of the Army in Malaya.” It is obvious from Barclay’s previous comments that the training was very poor,) “if other councils had prevailed” (counsels,) it maybe that (may be,) “that is is no part” (that it is,) two lines are transposed on page 160, by much small bodies (such small bodies,) to a less degree (lesser degree is more usual,) acquite (acquit,) salving the bulk of the Burma Army (saving makes more sense,) miscaste (miscast,) “the programmes for units was similarly laid down” (either

Newhailes

Newhailes is a stately home near Musselburgh in East Lothian. It’s now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

Front view:-

Newhailes

Rear view:-

Newhailes

There was a tree there festooned with a mushroom-type growth, in several places:-

Fungus at Newhailes

Newhailes Fungus

Fungus at Newhailes

Walking the grounds we came upon this memorial to the Battle of Dettingen. There is a Latin inscription in memory of John, 2nd Earl of Stair, who fought as 2nd in command to George II at the Battle of Dettingen:-

Dettingen Memorial, Newhailes 6

The battle took place in the War of the Austrian Succession and was the last one in which a British Monarch led his troops.

Reverse view:-

Newhailes, Dettingen Memorial, Reverse View

English inscription after a renewal in 1907:-

Dettinhgen Memorial, Newhailes, Inscription

Knutsford

We passed through Knutsford on our way down south last year and it was only then that it struck us – when we saw an allusion to it on a building that it was named after Cnut Sveinsson aka King Canute or Cnut the Great, he who famously did not hold back the waves though it seems he was proving to sycophantic courtiers that he could not do that rather than attempting to show that he could.

We thought we’d stop for a look on our way back up this year.

This building had deco aspects in the rounded elements:-

Knutsford; Art Deco?

And on the right here was the one next door:-

Knutsford Again; Art Deco?

Tesla had deco styling on the pillar, canopy and roofline:-

Knutsford Art Deco Style

Detailing:-

Tesla, Knutsford, Detailing

One of my interests is the Festival of Britain so I found this plaque worthy of note:-

Wesley Commemoration, Knutsford

Knutsford is a typical English town with quite narrow streets. I don’t know why the bunting was out:-

Knutsford, King Street again

Cloth Hall, Ypres: In Flanders Fields Museum

With the possible exception of Saint Martin’s Cathedral, the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) is the most imposing building in the city of Ypres (Ieper) in Flanders, Belgium. (The cathedral’s spire can be seen to the rear.)

Cloth Hall, Ypres

The mediæval Cloth Hall was all but totally destroyed by shelling during the Great War but lovingly restored in the years after.

There is now a lovely fountain in the paving at the front of the Hall.

Cloth Hall fountains

Flanking one of the doors to the Cloth Hall are two memorials. This one is to the French soldiers who died in defence of Ypres during the Great War:-

Ypres Memorial

And this commemorates the liberation of Ypres by Polish troops in 1944:-

WW 2 Liberation Plaque, Ypres

The Cloth Hall now houses In Flanders Fields Museum, formerly the Ypres Salient Memorial Museum:-

In Flanders Fields Museum

The Australians in Nine Wars by Peter Firkins

From Waikato to Long Tan, Pan, 1973, 524 p, including i p acknowledgements, ii p list of illustrations, i p list of maps, vi p index of military formations, xv p general index, vi p bibliography.

The Australians in Nine Wars cover

The book covers Australian soldiers’ exploits from a time when Australia wasn’t even Australia but only a collection of various separate colonies. Some of these first sent men overseas to New Zealand to assist against the Maoris, then to Sudan in the aftermath of Gordon’s death in Khartoum and to China during the Boxer Rebellion. Its military prowess came to flower in South Africa in the (Second) Boer War – during whose duration Australia as a country was constituted – where, being used to the bush, they were able to play the Boers at their own game blending in to the countryside and showed for the first time their flair for unconventional warfare. The other wars covered are of course the two World Wars, the Korean War, the “Malaysian Emergency” and Vietnam.

The book’s thrust is that the Australian fighting man is unique, forming a citizen army there to do a job and get back to normal life as soon as possible, consisting of individuals full of initiative. In it we discover that it was Australians who won in Palestine and on the Western Front in the First World War, were essential in holding Tobruk, won at El Alamein, were the first to defeat the Japanese on land in World War 2 (which General Slim wrote was an inspiration to those in Burma) and even won in Vietnam! British Generals were crap (due to the class system) and prejudiced to boot. Moreover they apparently systematically underappreciated and failed to give credit to Australian contributions and leadership due to the “Union of British Generals”. Douglas MacArthur comes in for equal criticism for being insufficiently grateful for and appreciative of their efforts.

There is considerable force to this argument when you consider General Hunter Weston’s reply to a comment at Gallipoli that a third attack on Achi Baba peak was sure to cause heavy losses. “Casualties? What do I care for casualties?” he demanded, but Firkins’s strictures do no justice to the difficulties of prevailing in an age when defence had the advantage over attack and no-one involved had sufficient experience of the problems to be overcome. He asserts that the tank was at first “used so unskilfully that the one weapon which could have ended trench warfare was frittered away as an infantry support or wasted in its unsupported success at Cambrai.” Maybe so, but where were experienced tank generals to be found? Conjured out of thin air, perhaps? This point is ironically underlined later in the book when one of Firkins’s heroes of WW2, General Morshead, is quoted as saying of his early experiences in that war, “I didn’t handle my tanks well. I should have kept them concentrated and them all together. I didn’t know enough about tanks then as I do now.” Australian generals it would seem are to be cut slack not afforded to others.

In WW1 all Australians were volunteers, most of whom saw action in the frontline. Support services were provided by the British army as a whole as was the greater part of their weapons, ammunition and supplies. In the next paragraph Firkins says their “contribution to the successes of the British army was quite disproportionate to the numbers involved” and they, along with the New Zealanders and Canadians, did not receive due credit for their deeds till late in the war. Notwithstanding their valour and the very real downplaying of their role, how much could they have achieved without support, weapons, supplies and ammunition? But they were used as the spearhead of every attack after Gallipoli. The Australian casualty rate was 68½%; double that of the British Empire’s troops as a whole. They did however develop the tactic of peaceful penetration which dispensed with the usual preliminary heavy artillery bombardment.
Australians were “accustomed to judging their officers by their personal qualities and not by their badges of rank” and gained a reputation for indiscipline among British officers, an attitude which Firkins says was a main factor in their contributions being undervalued.

The book covers the heavy Australian involvement in the all but forgotten campaign against the Vichy French in Syria in WW2 – where more men were lost than in Greece and Crete combined.

Elsewhere the author pours scorn on “Churchill’s overriding concern for British Imperial interests, to the detriment of an Australia fighting for her life,” saying it “cast a grave reflection on his judgements.” It’s an odd injunction. Churchill wasn’t Australian; he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It was his responsibility to preserve British Imperial interests. Ultimately of course he failed in that, but the roots of that failure did not lie with him, they originated in the Great War, and perhaps in the tides of history. And has Australia’s subsequent cleaving to the US served it any better?

Firkins includes an illuminating aside uttered by a US liaison officer in Korea of the Australians’ former foes now allies, “When the Turks ran out of bullets they unsheathed their knives. They are as tough as their reputation. They obeyed only one order: Advance. Any other order confuses them,” and he sees the war in Vietnam as a necessary one against an enemy which perpetrated “vile cruelties and civilian slaughter” but he does predict (the book was first published in 1972) the final North Vietnamese victory when the US and its Allies‎ withdrew. He quotes approvingly Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s subscription to the domino theory. An additional forty-five years perhaps yields a different perspective.

Pedant’s corner:- Bridges’ (Bridges’s,) Gavril Princep (usually Gavrilo Princip,) Saint Stephens’ (Saint Stephens’s,) Colonel Holmes’ detachment (Holmes’s,) “until there were no infantry remaining to carry on” (Firkins has previously treated infantry as a singular noun, which it is; so, until no infantry was left,) Gheluvet (Gheluvelt, this was on a map,) Smuts’ (Smuts’s,) von Sanders’ (von Sanders’s,) Cairo headquarters were laying plans, (headquarters is usually treated as a singulsr noun,) the Australians forward positions (Australians’,) Larisa (Larissa,) Churchill’s staff were not enthused (staff was?) twleve (twelve,) Churchillean (usually Churchillian,) Mohne and Ede dams (Eder,) “it was estimated … about 5,000 Japanese had landed… In fact it was considerably less” (fewer,) Clowes’ (Clowes’s,) Potts’ (Potts’s,) of an enemy who were swarming past (was,) Japanese force with numbered more than (which numbered,) had showed (shown,) no more that a form flitting through foliage (than a form,) Mindano (Mindanao; on a map,) the rest were (was,) this area included……. and covers … (keep the tense the same.)

Ancient and Moderne

Just before the chapel’s entrance on the approach to Rosslyn Chapel stands the Old Rosslyn Inn.

Old Rosslyn Inn

The inn’s catalogue of great and good patrons is commemorated on a plaque by the arched gateway:-

Old Rosslyn Inn

Yet this obviously 20th century building (in the Art Deco/Moderne style) can also be seen from the access road.

Moderne Building

Black Watch Monument, Aberfeldy

Near to Wade’s Bridge in the south bank of the Tay at Aberfeldy stands this monument to one of the most famous Scottish military regiments The Black Watch, which like all historic Scottish regiments (which have been successively amalgamated till only one is left) now only exists as a battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

The statue depicts a Highlander drawing his sword:-

Black Watch Monument, Aberfeldy

As this detail shows the site was granted by the Marquis of Breadalbane in the year of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria 1887:-

Black Watch Monument Detail

The Monument commemorates the assembling together in 1733 of the six independent companies (afterwards increased to ten) of the Black Watch and a later plaque notes the granting of the freedom of the burgh of Aberfeldy to the regiment:-

Black Watch Monument, Detail 2

More general side view. A small part of Wade’s Bridge can be seen in the background:-

Black Watch Monument, Aberfeldy, from South

Theresa May Not

Of course I caught on the news Mr Irresponsible‘s last Prime Minister’s Questions. What a parade of sycophancy that was (with a few exceptions.) The man has been an absolute disaster for the country and he ended up being applauded for walking away from it! [On which note whatever happened to the convention that applause was unparliamentary? They just make it up as they go along.]

And did anyone else notice the journalist’s comment that austerity was forced on him? Forced? FORCED? It was a choice, a political choice that could quite easily have been made otherwise. In all probability it contributed mightily to the situation we find ourselves in. They say journalism is history’s first draft. In this case it was history being rewritten before it was history. David Cameron’s place in history is of course utterly secure – as the worst Prime Minister since the office was instituted, with the possible exception of Neville Chamberlain (though even he managed to delay war with Hitler till the country’s defences, in the shape of the RAF, were just up to the task.)

Then there was the fawning over the new PM, Theresa May. Did nothing else happen in the world today?

I did notice her claim that her government will not be to the favour of the privileged few but for those who are struggling. This reminded me of “where there is discord may we bring harmony” and we know how well that worked out for the less privileged.

And in one of her first acts….. She has appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary!

Words fail me.

Apart from:- on this evidence, Theresa certainly won’t.

In Memoriam

The Battle of the Somme began 100 years ago today. That first day saw the British Army suffer 57,470 casualties, its greatest ever one day loss in battle.* 19,240 of these were killed. Overall the battle (really a series of battles) lasted for four and a half months and resulted in 1.120-1.215 million casualties over both sides. Only the Russian Front battles of the Second World War were bloodier.

Like the Ypres Salient, the countryside where the battle(s) took place is dotted with Commonwealth War Cemeteries.

There is a particularly striking memorial at Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel, in the form of a caribou.

Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

The names of the British army dead who remained missing are engraved on the walls of the towering Memorial at Thiepval.

Thiepval Memorial

Visiting Thiepval is as sobering an experience as the Menin Gate.

The bagpipe tune below was composed by William Laurie who fought at the Somme. He was Pipe Major of the 8th Argyllshire Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Higlanders. He became ill as a result of trench conditions and died on Nov 28th 1916.

To all who fought:-

The Battle of the Somme

*More personnel (80,000) were lost by surrender at the Fall of Singapore in 1942.

Menin Road South Cemetery

The cemetery is well inside the boundaries of Ypres/Ieper and lies on the edge of the Menin Road. It contains the remains of 1,657 soldiers of whom 118 are unidentified but 24 of these are known or believed to be buried here.

Menin Road South Cemetery

This view from the east shows the Stone of Remembrance, the Cross of Sacrifice and (at the western end) the shelter building containing the cemetery register:-

Menin Road South Cemetery, View from West

free hit counter script