hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Advance Britannia!

Alphen, Netherlands. 21 July. Britain stands at a grand strategic juncture. In a speech broadcast from 10 Downing Street on VE Day, 8 May 1945, and entitled “Advance Britannia”, Winston Churchill said, “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead”. Thankfully, post-Brexit Britain does not find itself prostrate on the rocks of penury having fought a six year war in the defence of Europe’s freedom. As Churchill made his famous speech British debt to GDP stood at 250%, compared with a contemporary ratio of a still too-high but manageable 89.2%. However, if Britannia is to advance Prime Minister May must be under no illusions about the culture, thinking, and groups she must either change or face down if Britannia is truly to advance. Who are they?

Scottish secessionists: The Scottish Neverendum Party (SNP) represents a clear and present danger to the Union because they will use any excuse to secede. Secession is, after all, why they exist. Prime Minister May must face them down, not least by pointing out the inconsistencies in their case, and not just about Scotland’s economic fundamentals. The SNP fought the 2014 independence referendum with a clear understanding that if they succeeded they would take Scotland out of the EU. Now, they are claiming to fight for independence to keep Scotland in the EU. Worse, by campaigning in the UK-wide Brexit referendum SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon legitimised the vote as a UK-wide vote. To claim now it legitimises her call for a second independence neverendum might be clever politics, it is also rank hypocrisy. A renewed clash over the future of Britain is now inevitable.

Remoaners and lawyers: My on balance preference was for Britain to remain in the EU. However, I am a democrat and accept the decision of a majority of the British people to quit, as I would have accepted the settled will of the Scottish people had they voted to quit the UK in the 2014 once-in-a-generation referendum. Efforts by those on the losing side to change the result by legal hook or political crook are appalling. If they succeed democracy will be well and truly dead in the UK, to be replaced by legal fiat. This is a battle that has been long in the making between Parliament and a section of the judiciary who routinely seek to use European law to erode parliamentary sovereignty. Brexit must indeed mean Brexit, and democracy must indeed mean democracy.

Little Britons: Some of the post-Brexit commentary about a post-EU Britain demonstrates the extent to which many in London do not understand power. One of my critiques of the EU has been the extent to which Brussels has hastened the retreat of many Europeans from power in favour of often vague, vacuous, dangerously self-defeating and self-deluding ‘values’. Too often the EU has failed to aggregate the power of its member-states into strategic influence and effect. This has contributed markedly to the culture of decline management one finds at the heart of Westminster and Whitehall, and which has done so much damage to Britain and its strategic brand.

Little Englanders: Then there are triumphant little Englanders, some of whom seem to think a post-Brexit Britain is on the verge of rebuilding the British Empire. There are signs that the clunkily-named (I think I named it!) world Anglosphere is beginning to swing behind Britain. However, the Anglosphere must not be seen as an alternative to engagement with Europe. Little Englanders are particularly deluded over immigration. Britain’s power is established on its facility and ability as a trading nation. Given the link between trade and the free-ish movement of peoples the only real choice, and by extension control, post-Brexit Britain will have over immigration is from whence it comes and for what purpose. The real choice Britain faces in this world is between wealth and power or poverty and weakness.

Vengeful Europeans: There are those in Europe, particularly in the √Člysee Palace it would appear, who want Britain ‘punished’ for exercising democracy. They and their ilk should be left under no illusion that whatever the domestic pressures they face a pragmatic and respectful Brexit is in the best interests of all. The alternative is the mutual impoverishment and weakening of the democracies, and the strengthening of real adversaries and enemies. Thankfully, Chancellor Merkel appears to understand that, even if she will do all she can to protect German interests during the Brexit negotiations.

Economists: …because all things being equal they do not understand power and are wrong about everything.  
          
The May Strategic Agenda: Prime Minister May must now rebuild the very idea of Britain and build it on power fundamentals. Britain is the world’s fifth biggest economy and the world’s fourth biggest defence spender. Britain is not the small island that some would have it and in any case power not geography (Mackinder or no!) dictates influence and effect. From a defence-strategic viewpoint the British armed forces will have a particularly important role to play in rebuilding the idea of Britain. This is not because the future Britain will be militaristic or nationalistic, heaven forbid! However, a country needs a sense of moderate patriotism to function and such patriotism must identify with a legitimate strategic brand that is built on power. And, given the dangerous world into which Britain is moving the armed forces must combine with Britain’s amazing soft power to communicate to the world British strength and stability. When Britain’s strategic brand is strong, Britain and the world are a safer place.
      
To succeed Prime Minister May will need to combine strategic imagination, purpose and resolution. For too long the very idea of Britain has been suborned by political correctness, nationalist secessionists, those for whom the very idea of country is bad, nostalgic idiots, and short-termist, visionless politicians who have allowed the very idea of Britain to whither, and for whom Britain is mere balance-sheet. From the conversations I have had it was precisely such views of Britain that were rejected by the pragmatic and informed many in my native Yorkshire, the heartland of the Great Revolt.

Churchill finished his VE Day broadcast with a call to peaceful arms that is no less relevant today. “We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task both at home and abroad. Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!”

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 18 July 2016

Two Coups Turkey

“My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth, and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will, every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not interfere with sane reasons or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men”.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Founder and First President of the Turkish Republic

Alphen, Netherlands. 18 July. Two coups took place in Turkey this past weekend. The first coup was an exercise in military incompetence. The second coup is still underway and as coups go it is being exercised both brilliantly and ruthlessly. As a friend of Turkey both coups sadden me, not only because 265 people were killed and over 1400 wounded, but Turkey this weekend could well have ceased to be a strong Western state, and instead become a weak Middle Eastern potentate. With the arrest of over 6000 people, some 3000 of them members of the judiciary, this weekend could also mark the final, irrevocable eclipse of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s visionary 1923 constitution and his dream of a secular Turkish state which he crafted from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and which sought to uphold the rights of all Turkish citizens.

A few years back I stood on the towering spot where Ataturk had commanded his troops during his brilliant defence of Gallipoli just over a century ago. His eyes were cast to the West even as he defended his country against the forces of France and the British Empire. Strategically, Turkey is just as important now as it was back then. Indeed, Turkey is the pivotal power, sitting at the strategic crux of east and west, north and south.

For many years I have cut President Erdogan political slack. Turkey is not a Western European state and governing Turkey has never been easy, and in any case the rest of Europe has been utterly duplicitous in its dealings with Ankara. For years the EU has pretended to promise eventual Turkey membership, and Turkey has pretended to believe the EU. Now, incompetent elements of the Turkish armed forces have helped President Erdogan step over the threshold between democracy and autocracy upon which he has been standing.

The irony is that President Erdogan can also legitimately wrap himself in Ataturk’s flag in the wake of the coup and claim he is protecting the very Kemalist constitution he could well now destroy. as Turkey shifts from parliamentary democracy to presidential fiat. A kind of ‘sovereign democracy’ beloved of the likes of Russia’s President Putin.

So, how could this happen? The failed military coup followed the same pattern as the ‘interventions’ by the Army in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997, all of which were designed to restore Ataturk’s order. It is also hard to avoid the conclusion that that elements within the officer corps were goaded into this coup. For months now Army officers have been complaining that President Erdogan was weakening the Army, purging secular officers, and side-lining the Army from its self-appointed role as ‘guardians’ of Ataturk’s republic. Suspiciously President Erdogan issued several warnings that some form of coup was imminent.
   
What are the implications for Turkey? Contemporary Turkey is split roughly three ways between a European-leaning, more liberal west, a conservative heartland from which President Erdogan draws much of his support, and the Kurds in the south and east of the country. The speed with which President Erdogan has moved to round up opponents has the feel of a pre-planned operation. In the short-term there is no doubt Erdogan’s power will be further enhanced. However, as it becomes clear that the Turkish Republic is slipping into a kind of democratic dictatorship wrapped in a pale green cloaks of Islamism then the acute divisions within the country will likely become more evident. At the very least tensions between President Erdogan’s APK government and the Kurdish PKK will increase.

The implications for the West are equally profound. Turkey has the second largest army in NATO. It is an army that has been weakened, and will be further weakened, as President Erdogan purges any elements in the officer corps he suspects of complicity in this plot. Worse, a powerful cornerstone of European security has been weakened and will continue to be weak for some time to come. This raises a host of questions about the viability of the West’s anti-ISIS and anti-Assad strategies. Operations against ISIS have already been disrupted with the temporary closure of the vital Incirlik air base this weekend. There are also now real questions as to the willingness of Turkey to assist in managing the migrant flows from the Levant to Europe. Certainly, much will now depend on the tone and tenor of criticism from a Europe, not a few leaders of which probably hoped the coup might succeed, if it had led to a more amenable Turkish leader with which to deal.

Therefore, Turkey’s two coup weekend has winners and losers. The winners are President Putin’s Russia and ISIS as both benefit from a divided Turkey no longer anchored as firmly in the West as it was even last week. The loser is the West, as it could well be that Turkey ceased to be a member this past weekend. At the very least there will need to be a lot of patient and clever diplomacy to keep Turkey looking westwards.

However, the biggest loser will be democracy and the Turkish people. Indeed, Turkey’s Great Man must be spinning in his magnificent marble tomb in Ankara this morning. As President Ataturk once said, “Victory is for those who can say “victory is mine!” Success is for those who can begin saying “I will succeed” and say “I have succeeded” in the end”.

Julian Lindley-French         

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

China; Might or Right: EU; Right or Might?

Alphen, Netherlands. 13 July. Geopolitics is a permanent power struggle between symmetry and asymmetry. There is certainly a certain symmetry in the delicious coincidence of the launch of the new EU Global Strategy and the rejection yesterday in The Hague by the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration of China’s feisty claim to some three million square kilometres of the South China Sea, through which some $5 trillion of trade passes every year, and under which huge oil and gas resources are believed to be oozing and bubbling invitingly away.

Whereas Globstrat is the usual blah blah that passes for ‘strategy’ in the EU, China’s quick denunciation of The Hague judgement, and de facto rejection of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), suggests a twenty-first century that could be every bit as cold as the waters Beijing claims as its own. For Europeans events in the South China Sea are equally momentous and beg THE geopolitical question; are pious words ever going to be matched by real power? It is EU yawn versus Chinese brawn.

China has certainly acquired a lot of brawn of late. In 2016 China will increase its defence expenditure by 8% to around $150 billion. Paradoxically, an 8% increase in Chinese defence expenditure is the lowest such percentage increase since 1989.  Between 1989 and 2015 the Chinese defence budget grew year-on-year by more than 10%. The key stat is this; in a conservative estimate CNN values the size of the US economy in 2016 at $19 trillion, with the Chinese economy worth some $12 trillion. The US will spend some 3.4% of GDP on defence in 2016, with the Chinese spending 8%. Therefore, one has only to do the ‘math’, as the Yanks say, to realise the trouble that could well lie not too far ahead.      

Furthermore, whilst Chinese defence expenditure would appear to be far below 2016 US defence expenditure of $573 billion, the gap is not as wide as it appears. First, the US must spread its forces and resources across the globe; China concentrates its military power by and large on East Asia. Second, declared Chinese defence expenditure is believed to be far lower than the actual amount Beijing invests in ‘defence’, particularly in defence research and development. Third, China would appear to get more ‘yang’ for each yuan invested, than the Americans get bang for each buck. Pork barrel politics and sequestration have done terrible damage to the US military.

The EU? Lots of yawn. In 2016 EU members will spend some $200 billion. However, that expenditure is badly fractured and generates nothing like the same bang for each euro/pound etc., spent as either the Americans or the Chinese.  Moreover, the British 25% of EU defence expenditure is about to quit the Union, taking with it some 40% of defence research and technology investment.

Taken together Globstrat and The Hague judgement suggest a geopolitical tipping point which could point to either peace…or war. Read the official Chinese government statement on The Hague judgement and it is uncompromising. However, read between the lines and Beijing clearly leaves some wriggle room for a negotiated settlement with Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam all of which contest the Chinese claim. However, if China continues to turn the series of reefs it has seized of late into military bases, and then moves to exclude the air and sea forces of other states from the South China Sea, then Beijing will be set irrevocably on a collision course with other powers, most notably the United States.

As for the EU if ‘discourse’ is not matched by force and resource then Globstrat will be yet another one of those European exercises in empty geopolitics that sooner or later collapses under the weight of the very meaningless acronyms it generates. If the EU strategy was indeed ‘global’ EU foreign and security policy ‘supremo’ Federica Mogherini would be meeting with European leaders this morning to consider the EU’s position on the South China Sea, and what support Europeans could offer the democracies in the region. There will of course be a statement, but the very idea of ‘EU action’ is absurd, which is precisely why the EU is NOT a global actor.

Globstrat will certainly spawn a lot of talk.  Endless Brussels meetings of endlessly ambitious young think-tankers will now ensue in which the illuminati try endlessly to find signs of grand substance where in fact there is none. Globstrat will be minutely examined with each word parsed for signs of life in the corpse that is Europe’s ‘strategic culture’. Brexit happened because too many in Brussels and elsewhere refused to heed warnings of impending disaster, choosing instead to shoot the messenger. If Europeans continue to merely talk about geopolitics, but not act on them, a far greater disaster awaits       

However, China too must also face realities which begs another question; why is China so determined to control the South China Sea? Beijing believes that only a state with access to assured natural resources can assure power and influence in the twenty-first century. The Communist Party believes the only way to maintain power is to honour the post-Tiananmen 'contract' by which the Party retains unquestioned power, in return for guaranteeing improving living standards. That 'contract' can only be honoured if China controls 'strategic' resources.

Beijing has a choice to make. China is not a liberal democracy, but nor is President Xi a President Putin, for all the former’s strong ties with the People’s Liberation Army. For the past thirty years China has done well by supporting and often exploiting the ‘rules’ of the international system. However, China’s extra-sovereign behaviour and its ridiculous ‘historical’ claim to almost the entirety of the South China Sea, based on no more than a spurious nine-dash line on a strange map that appeared from nowhere in the 1940s, suggests a China for which might is fast becoming right, even if for China it is patently wrong.   

China must seek a negotiated settlement to the South China Sea dispute for such a settlement is in the Chinese national interest and would demonstrate the real leadership to which China rightly aspires. As for Mrs Mogherini and her Globstrat at some point she will be forced to answer the same question Stalin once asked of the Vatican; how many divisions does it have?

China might or right; EU right or might?


Julian Lindley-French 

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Iraq: The Strategic Lessons of Chilcot

“The danger is, as ever with these things, unintended consequences”
Prime Minister Tony Blair, 2002

Alphen, Netherlands. 7 July. It is 12 volumes and 2.6 million words in length and took 7 years to prepare. Yesterday afternoon I spent reading the 150 pages of the Executive Summary of Sir John Chilcot’s magnus opus The Iraq Enquiry. The strategic implications of what is a damning report into Tony Blair’s leadership of Britain at the time of the 2003 Iraq War are profound. Indeed, given the report’s condemnation (not too strong a word) of the failings of Britain’s political, intelligence, and military elites Chilcot brings into question the very utility in any circumstances of Western intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed, Chilcot begs a question that the good knight himself does not answer; how do western states deal with the very real threats that do emanate from such places?  The West intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq and stayed; the result was disaster. The West intervened in Libya but did not stay; the result was disaster. The West did not really intervene in Syria; the result was disaster.

In recent (and not so recent history) few such Western efforts to shape the Middle East have achieved their stated objectives.  Indeed, in what is now a history of ill-considered consequences there is a certain tragic symmetry in the fact that the July 2016 Chilcot Report was published a century after the May 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord, which led to the creation of Iraq and so many other troubled Middle Eastern states. 

Chilcot underpins the need for sound strategic judgement that was lacking at times in the post 911 political environment. Chilcot reinforces the need for political leaders to understand what is possible on the ground. For example, there is a marked contrast between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Gulf War. Whereas the 1991 war was undertaken to uphold the Middle East state structure, the 2003 war set out to change the very nature of the Middle Eastern state. Powerful unintended consequences ensued because powerful unwanted forces were unleashed because powerful people, especially in Washington, refused to confront powerful realities.  Indeed, Iraq was too often more about politics inside the Beltway, rather than security outside of it.

Chilcot firmly asserts that if such an intervention is to be launched it must be properly planned, resourced and forced. None of the West’s post-911 interventions have been properly planned and all have failed, including Afghanistan.  In fact, sound planning was indeed undertaken for post-‘conflict’ Iraq by the State Department’s ‘Iraq Shack’. However, President George W. Bush took responsibility for such planning away from State because he did not trust it and handed it to the Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, which had no experience of such work. The subsequent Coalition Provisional Authority was a disaster.

Chilcot also warns of the dangers of politicising intelligence. Tony Blair had a whole raft of reasons for wanting to stay close to Bush, not least maintaining US support for the peace process in Northern Ireland. However, his lack of influence in the Bush White House was in stark contrast to his desperate need to remain close to Bush. This helped lead Blair to interpret the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) purely through the lens of the transatlantic security relationship rather than wider British interests. It is certainly to the chagrin if not the shame of the elite British civil service that so many did not challenge the Downing Street clique, most notably the British Intelligence services. Iraq revealed the politicisation of the once masterful British civil service which continues to this day, and which even today too often prevents truth being spoken to irresponsible power.

Chilcot is also clear about British military failure. The British Army was humiliated in Iraq, a humiliation that perhaps marked the beginning of the end of the special ‘Special’ US-UK Relationship. The gap between the military power Britain’s leaders said Britain could exert in support of the US soon proved to be false, even though the Americans must also take a lot of the blame for going into Iraq before all the forces and resources necessary to succeed were in place. Britain’s influence in Washington was sorely damaged as a result, and has never really recovered.

One has only to look at the Defence Planning Assumptions in the UK’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review to understand that putting a front-line force in excess of 40,000 troops into Iraq would break the troop bank, to then ‘plan’ in 2006 to go to Afghanistan as well before the mission in Basra was complete was dangerous military nonsense. The Defence Logistics Organisation effectively collapsed in 2003. That is why the occupation force was far smaller than the invasion force and why good military commanders and their civilian counterparts struggled to create a secure space in which stabilisation and reconstruction could take place. However, Britain’s top military commanders at the time must also shoulder some of the blame because they went into Iraq not to succeed but to get out as quickly as possible.

The failure in Iraq may have also marked the beginning of the end of Britain’s membership of the EU. After championing Britain’s future in the EU, and being seen as a de facto leader by many of the new Central and European members of an enlarged EU, Blair’s failure effectively ended Britain’s influence in the EU and ceded leadership to Germany. The opposition of France and Germany to the war proved to be correct, although the motivations of President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder were complex.  The subsequent split between Britain on one side, and France and Germany on another, has never really healed and the slide towards Brexit accelerated.

Chilcot addresses another issue – method. In 2008 I wrote two reports following a fact-finding visit to Afghanistan. Both reports highlighted the same problems of commission and omission. Put simply, if a Western state or group of states is going to intervene in places like Afghanistan or Iraq it is vital the ‘human terrain’ is properly understood and all national and international means – civil and military – are applied carefully and rigorously to generate outcomes that give the inhabitants hope of positive change. This all-important unity of effort and purpose backed up by sufficient forces and resources was never achieved in either country leaving military commanders to try and close an impossible gap between intent, capability and capacity.

There is also a dangerous flip-side to Chilcot. In the wake of Iraq Britain steadily lost strategic self-confidence, the elite belief in Britain as a power collapsed, and with it there was a loss of British popular faith in both US leadership and in Britain’s own Establishment. It also demonstrated the extent to which keeping on the right side of a poorly-led Washington led Blair and his close clique to lose the strategic plot as the relationship between ends, ways and means descended into political fantasy.

At the start of this piece I raised a question implicit in Chilcot about the very principle of armed intervention; how do western states deal with the very real threats that do emanate from such places?  A hard truth is that there will be occasions in future when such interventions will sadly be necessary. The world is a dangerous place. If Chilcot leads to improved strategic judgement, better understanding of the challenge, the proper political use of intelligence, the re-establishment of appropriate distance between politicians and civil servants, and the closing of the gap between the roles and missions political leaders expect of armed forces, and the forces and resources needed to do the job asked of them, then all well and good. If, on the other hand, Chilcot leads British and other Western political leaders to conclude that they never want to find themselves alongside Blair facing a political, media and public opinion ‘lynching’ and abandon the very idea of military interventions in extremis then the post-Chilcot world is suddenly more not less dangerous. Reading Chilcot I was struck at times just how political the report is.

Ultimately, Tony Blair achieved the exact opposite of what he said he set out to achieve in Iraq and went to war on a false premise.  Over 150,000 Iraqis died, together with some 179 British military personnel, whilst over one million people were displaced. Blair and the Britain he led must bear full responsibility such for failure. However, the real blame ultimately lies with President George W. Bush and Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld who at the time confused the need for revenge and ideological fervour for sound statecraft.  The threshold for Western military intervention in the Middle East or anywhere must be necessarily high. Chilcot may now have set that threshold impossibly high.

Julian Lindley-French
        

   

Monday, 4 July 2016

NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2016

Alphen, Netherlands. 4 July. On the eve of the NATO Warsaw Summit it is my honour to announce the publication of my latest hard-hitting report: NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2016: Twenty Vital Defence Planning and Related Questions the NATO Warsaw Summit Should Address…but will probably not.

Launched last week in Warsaw for FWPN the report considers the questions the political leaders of the Alliance should answer given the threats posed to NATO and in light of Brexit:

Is NATO fit for twenty-first century purpose?

Who has real power?
What if war breaks out in Europe?
Just how dangerous is Russia?
Can NATO defend itself?
Is Europe serious about defence?
Is the NATO defence and deterrence posture credible?
Do political NATO and military NATO agree about war?
Can Central Europeans influence Europe’s defence?
Is the balance of power in NATO Europe shifting?
What is the EU planning?
What are the strategic implications of Brexit?
Can Germany lead European defence?
Would a European Defence Union work?
Are NATO and the EU compatible?
Has NATO the strategic imagination to fight a new war?
Do NATO Europe’s leaders have the political courage to think about war?
What price will the Americans demand?
What critical defence planning issues must Warsaw address?
Is NATO the enduring Alliance?

You can download the full report for free via the Atlantic Treaty Association website:


Julian Lindley-French 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Brexit: I Told You So!

Dear All,

Below is a segment from a paper I wrote for the French think tank Fondation de la Recherche Strategique in Paris in February....I told you so!

"It is the morning of 24th June, 2016. Britain and the rest of Europe, indeed the rest of the world, are coming to terms with the shock result of the Brexit referendum the night before. By a majority of 52% to 48% the British people voted to quit the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron goes before the TV cameras to announce that he has accepted the settled will of the British people. He takes full responsibility for the result and announces that Britain will invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union and begin the two-year ‘deaccession’ of the United Kingdom from the European treaties and institutions. He also announces his resignation forthwith as prime minister...

The rest of a shocked EU is faced with a quandary. Conscious that on this grey June morning the EU’s erstwhile second power might have set a dangerous precedent for withdrawal an emergency EU summit is called. Reactions across Europe range from pleading with the British people to think again, to outright condemnation of the British as ‘traitors’ to the very idea of a Europe Britain helped forge in blood. Quietly, some hard-line Euro-federalists express satisfaction that political integration can now proceed without the applied brake that London has come to represent for decades.


Berlin and Paris are under no illusions about the strategic and political implications of Britain’s split, especially so as President Putin continues to exert pressure on Europe’s eastern flank, and migrants continue to pour in from Europe’s southern flank. Privately, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande admit they should have tried harder to bring Britain into the Franco-German directoire. Across the Atlantic a lame duck President Obama joins presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to express regret having pushed hard for Britain to remain within the EU. After all, Washington have long seen the British as a strategic convenience and a tool to influence the EU. However, Obama also expresses confidence that now the issue has been ‘settled’ the transatlantic relationship in all of its myriad economic, social, political, and, of course, military forms can move forward. Donald Trump, just anointed Republican presidential nominee, says he really does not care, and that he will be happy to work with Britain as president. Mischievously, President Putin congratulates the British people for having chosen the path of ‘sovereignty’. In fact, for all the concerned leaders Brexit is a leap into the political dark for no-one knows what the strategic implications of Britain’s historic decision to quit EU will be".

Not that I am gloating...the situation is far too serious for that. Well, just a little bit.

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Battle of the Somme

“The English generals are wanting in strategy. We should have no chance if they possessed as much science as their officers and men had of courage and bravery. They are lions led by donkeys”.
General Erich Ludendorff.

1 July, 2016.  Zero Hour One Hundred Years plus Two. It was the bloodiest day ever for the British Army. A century ago some 300 kilometres/190 miles to the south of me the “big push” was underway. Twenty-nine British Army divisions were advancing across no man’s land in the face of heavy machine gun, mortar, infantry and artillery fire laid down by seven defending German divisions across a 50 km/30 mile front. By Zero plus Five the British had taken some 55,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead.

The reason for the Battle of the Somme was the Battle of Verdun. By 1 July, 1916 the French Army had already been fighting on the charnel fields of Verdun for 134 days. German commander General Erich von Falkenhayn reportedly said his aim at Verdun was to bleed France white. Between February and December 2016 the French Army would suffer up to 540,000 casualties, of whom some 150,000 would be killed.

The French commander-in-chief Marshal Joffre pleaded with the British to launch a major offensive in the west to ease the pressure on French lines at Verdun. Crucially, British commander-in-chief General Sir Douglas Haig believed German forces had suffered sufficient attrition at Verdun to believe a combined Anglo-French assault on the German lines would succeed. Haig even believed it might be possible to enact a complete breakthrough of German defences and commence a rout. The Somme area was chosen for the offensive because it was where British and French forces stood alongside each other.

Five days prior to the offensive the British started an enormous artillery barrage that saw over one million shells fired at the German defences right up until the commencement of the advance. The fact that such a barrage could be mounted was proof the British had overcome the crippling shortage of artillery shells from which the British Army had suffered since the outbreak of war in August 1914.
The British offensive should have succeeded, at least on paper. British forces enjoyed more than a three-to-one superiority in men and materiel. However, the offensive failed. The reasons for failure are manifold.  However, in the intervening century the myth of the Somme has become overpowering and made it hard to discern fact from fiction.

The British Army at the Somme included in its ranks a significant number of Kitchener’s New Army. This was a newly-formed, ‘green’ (inexperienced) ‘citizen army’, which included the Sheffield City Battalion, from my own home town, and which fought with distinction on 1 July at Serre.  However, there were also a large number of battle-hardened British, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and other forces committed to the Somme offensive.

Marshal Joffre had promised the British that the French force on Haig’s right flank would be equal in size to that that of the British. However, by late June the French Army was simply unable to put such a force into the line such was the pressure being exerted on them by Falkenhayn at Verdun.

However, it was not green pal’s battalions or the French that did for Haig’s Somme offensive. It was Haig himself who doomed the Somme offensive to failure through bad strategy and over confidence.  By committing to a front some 30 km/50 miles wide the British force was spread far too thinly. The artillery barrage whilst impressive did nothing like the damage expected to the well-engineered German trenches and forewarned the enemy as to the scale and location of the offensive. Cohesion between the British divisions, and communications between high command and operational commanders was via a rudimentary command chain that was unable to withstand the confusion of a dynamic offensive after so long having been committed to a relatively static defence.

By November 18, 1916, when Haig called off the offensive, the British had gained an area some 12 km/9 miles deep and some 25 km/20 miles wide, but had suffered 623,907 casualties at a rate of some 3000 casualties per day. However, German losses also numbered 465,000 casualties. Conscious that the German Army could not suffer such losses again over the winter of 1916/1917 the Germans engineered the fearsome Hindenburg line behind the Somme battlefield to which they retreated in February 2017. Crucially, the Somme offensive did indeed help relieve pressure on the French Army at Verdun.

Lessons were learned from the failed Somme offensive. In March 1918 Ludendorff launched Operation Michael, a last desperate attempt by the German High Command to split British and French forces which were being reinforced daily by the arrival of US forces. German Stormtroopers were unleashed across what had been the old Somme battlefield. At first the British reeled back but crucially did not break.

At the Battle of Amiens, which commenced on 8 August, 1918, on what Ludendorff called the “black day of the German Army”, an exhausted German force faced a new new All Arms assault by the British. Out of the mist an enormous artillery barrage was unleashed, but this time British, Australian, Canadian, Indian and New Zealand forces, supported by American and French forces, and all under a ‘supreme’ unified command, advanced right behind the barrage employing new flexible ‘grab and hold’ infantry tactics. The force was also supported by a large number of tanks and massive air power.

Crucially, the assault took place over a much narrower front than the Somme offensive enabling the British force to punch through German lines. The German Army true to its tradition fought bravely but as an offensive force it was broken at Amiens. German commanders of a later generation studied the All Arms Battle very closely, but they gave it another name – Blitzkrieg
                    
In memory of all the fallen on all sides at the Battle of the Somme which began one hundred years ago today.

Julian Lindley-French