In Flanders Field: Bloody arithmetic

In times of war, Generals become very important people; sometimes, as in 1917, much too important for the general interests of the ruling-class. Not only did they decide on questions of strategy in their own sectors, they were able to influence or make decisions on the widest scale. Haig, Foch, Cadorna, Joffre, Nivelie, each had taken part in decisions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. To some extent the Generals constituted a special sectional interest, running things their way, and able to deceive, ignore, or persuade the politicians. False reports (and Haig’s Staff turned these out in hundreds) would serve to blind the politicians to the appalling errors being committed. Once appointed, Generals became notoriously touchy, resenting criticism and blocking any move by politicians to interfere.

The threat of resignation, with the resulting blows at morale of troops and workers, would frequently serve to bring the politicians into line. Generals were removed, but only after their particular front had begun to resemble a slaughterhouse, and sometimes not even then. Kitchener set an example, closely followed by his one-time protege Haig, of the stiff-lipped, silent autocratic General. Haig was scandalised when Lloyd George discussed west-front strategy with French officers and politicians behind his back; he noted in his diary that the man was not a gentleman, a supremely irrelevant consideration, bearing in mind the tremendous interests at stake. Apart from the prestige of their professional positions, the British west-front butchers, Haig and Robertson, had considerable support from the British ruling-class.

They were able to override Lloyd George, who thought west-front strategy useless and incapable of producing any decisive result. Lloyd George did have part of his way after the battles of 1917, for by then even the adoring Lord Northcliffe had begun to have his doubts. It was becoming obvious that the German Army was not destroyed, and that no important gain had been made. There were important reasons why Haig was not given the sack; reasons of morale, social influence, and because Haig was a good general in the limited sense of organising, defensive measures. Robertson lost his job as Chief of the Imperial General Staff; reserves were withheld from Haig, and a. system of closer co-operation with the French came into being.

The problem of maintaining control over the Generals is still exercising the ingenuity of Governments. Churchill was to be in much closer touch with the Generals than Lloyd George. By 1939, the Generals were tamed; the old-fashioned officer gave way to more technically-minded machine-conscious officers. Closer systems of control prevented any repetition of 1917. Slaughter became a subject of scientific planning. Hitler, Stalin and Churchill were careful to be always on their guard against the Generals. The German Staffs were purged again and again; Stalin relegated Zhukov to obscurity after the war.

The Bloody Arithmetic of Attrition
The first world war introduced a new branch of arithmetic—a branch that even the cavalry generals could appreciate. The equation was a simple one; three million dead British and French soldiers plus two million dead Germans could equal defeat for Germany. Some there were, like Lloyd George, who were astute enough to realise that attrition could be dangerous for Capitalism. Lloyd George, as a popular orator, was more in touch with public opinion than were the supporters of this simple arithmetic. Ceaseless battering had led to the final collapse of Russia, and had led to serious trouble for the French Government.

“Attrition” was popular with a large section of the ruling-class because it offered something more than mere military defeat; it offered the destruction of a large part of Germany’s manhood, the exhaustion of her economy, and a Europe free for Britain and France to bustle in.

For popular consumption the argument was modified, the enemy was being defeated even though no significant advance was being made. The enemy’s armies were being destroyed (as indeed they were, but not as fast as Haig and his Staff liked to believe, for even at the height of the Flanders battle the Germans could afford to send troops to defeat Italy). Attrition did work, but in a way unforeseen by its supporters. In March 1918 Germany began her last offensive, and in thirteen weeks suffered 700,000 casualties. Germany, desperate to finish the war before the full weight of America could be brought to bear, destroyed the army that had held the western front for four years.

The Dead Weight of Tradition
Capitalist organizations do not always function in the best interests of the ruling-class as a whole. Conflicting demands during wartime may paralyse strategy, so that nothing is achieved. An example is the Dardanelles campaign; (here was no agreement on how many troops to send, the haggling went on for months. It seems that Britain and France almost sustained defeat, not by Germany, but by their own traditions and methods of warfare that had become irrelevant by 1914. As a result, Germany, while maintaining the defensive in the west, was able to gain considerable victories elsewhere, as for instance in Russia. Rumania and Italy. There were alternatives to attrition, but the opportunities were lost, and if such a complex situation can be summarised at all, they were lost because of the outmoded thinking of the ruling-class, of whom the Generals were a part.

A new Waterloo was always just round the corner, and if the Waterloo turned into slaughter-house warfare, there was always the argument for attrition to fall back on. They were full of arguments, those Generals, Haig had another one in his magazine; he had waged the Flanders campaign in order to prevent the Germans from falling on the French. He also waged it because the French had offered their support! And what of the chief participants, the poor bloody soldiers? They were always ready for another effort, another crawl across ground covered by machine-gun fire and under continuous bombardment. The British troops set an example of devotion to duty unequalled in those days; apparently British workers were well-drilled and well impregnated with their ideologies, of which there was a fairly wide choice, all leading to the conclusion that one must tight for one’s country, whatever the cost.

The New Passchendaels
The overthrow of one set of myths doesn’t matter very much to Capitalism, for there are plenty of brainy people ready to provide variations of the theme “fight and die.” New ideologies are continually being manufactured, and there will always be one or two to suit the needs of the time. The bitterness aroused by 1917 did not make workers into Socialists, but it did give rise to numerous peace movements (in one of which “Go to it” Herbie Morrison was prominent). These movements withered away when Capitalism was once more torn apart by war. With a new appeal, workers could be called out to fight again. Cassino, Stalingrad and Hiroshima mocked the 1918 politicians’ boasts “war to end wars.” The second world war also gave rise to its peace movements, but rather different. The New Pacifists would apparently be prepared to fight if H-bombs were excluded and war consisted of battles like Passchendael, Stalingrad or Cassino.

Breaking the Circle
There is a way out; humanity do not have to tear each other apart; the circle can be broken. What has been said here about ideologies does not mean that there is no end to Capitalism and its wars. A new society can be brought into being. This new society has already taken rough shape in the minds of some of us. Disgust and disillusionment take a slow but steady toll of Capitalist ideas —an example of this is the decline of “white feather” incidents! People in the last war were far less ready to condemn those who stayed at home.

Unfortunately there has been far more apathy and disillusionment than determination to put things right. People are disgusted with politics, including even the Socialist Party in their condemnation. Perhaps in a way there is here a terrible indictment of Capitalism; men and women have lost their faith in a world fit for humans, taking refuge in the acquisition of cars, brass-plates and the material flotsam of a mass-rubbish-producing society. Change is possible; we can reject Capitalism with its Passchendaels, Stalingrads and Hiroshimas. People can act in their own interests, instead of in the barren, blood-smeared interests of ruling groups. The way out does not lie along the road of pacifism or ban-the-bomb (a futile movement if ever there was one). The way lies along the path of Socialist understanding.


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