Category Archives: history

The ebb and flow of battle

For as long as humans have been describing warfare and battles we have described the ebb and flow as first one side and then the other gains the upper hand, pushing their opponent back across the battlefield (or, in the larger picture, across the map.) However, I don’t think any accounts of such events have ever really lent themselves to a true understanding of just how battle lines can shift within the duration of a fight.

Prior to the development of the modern firearm and the introduction of armored vehicles, a battle line was very much a line. A mass of men armed with melee weapons and short range projectiles, occasionally aided by archers and/or cavalry. The two sides faced up against each other and bashed each other in the face. Depending on the situation, it might have been tightly formed lines such as the Roman legions or Greek phalanx, where only the first few lines were actively fighting at any one moment, or it might have been more loosely formed, where the two masses became wholly interspersed amongst one another (as seen in Braveheart).

Early modern firearms still relied on massed lines of men, but that was because of the inaccuracy of the weapons and because battles usually still resorted to hand-to-hand combat.

Both of these periods saw tactics in which reserve units were sent to reinforce ones’ own weak lines, or to overload weak spots in the opponents. The attacks and counters in this manner are what led to the forward and backwards movement of the fighting across unprepared (lacking significant constructed defenses) battlefields.

Even into the 1900s, hand-to-hand combat was quite common, despite the increase in accuracy of firearms. Bayonet charges were quite common in both WW1 and WW2. However, in WW1, battles were often dependent upon the ability of one side to gain control of prepared defensive positions, making it a much more static environment in terms of what could be gained and lost. Attacks were often made with multiple waves of infantry charges. If an attack failed, the defender had not lost any ground and the attacker had not gained any.

By WW2, the days of inaccurate, low rate of fire weapons were gone. And as a result, so too was the day in which two groups massed on a field and fought face to face (if they could help it). The nature of the war had one side utilizing infantry distributed amongst prepared, static, defensive positions and artillery with mechanized reinforcements, while the other used a combination smaller individual units of infantry supported by armored vehicles, aircraft, and much more accurate artillery and naval fire to help overcome heavily prepared defensive positions. Because of the less solid nature of the lines of combat, the ebb and flow of the battles were much less obvious (to anyone who wasn’t actually in the middle of it all).

The modern development of video has given us the ability to record and see just how lines of combat ebb and flow. But because of the shift away from massed front lines, there isn’t much chance for us to actually view the ebb and flow of a battle. And most cameras brought to the front lines of a combat zone are usually in the thick of things, not getting a bird’s eye view of the larger situation. But the last few days have presented us with something we’ve never had before. A top-down look at fighting between two large crowds primarily armed with melee weapons and simple projectiles — rocks and molotov cocktails. The clashes between the anti-government protesters and what seem to be government controlled thugs have been recorded and broadcast by several news agencies who have set up their cameras on balconies, high up in nearby hotels.

In the clip below, the government thugs have maneuvered some trucks across the road to provide themselves with some cover, and to force the protesters back into Tahrir Square. However, the protesters attack and push the thugs back. There are numerous similar videos available if you can find them, where you can see first one crowd flowing forward and the other backward, and then the process reverses. At one point the group attacking the protesters sends people up into a nearby building to throw rocks and brickwork down on the protesters. At various points, the attackers pushed the protesters all the way back into the square, but by nightfall the protesters had pushed out to the end of the road and set up makeshift barricades (which I have been calling Mubarricades in my head), to defend themselves from the rocks and molotov cocktails which were being hurled at them. I asked a couple of folks on Twitter who are in the military and/or study military history and didn’t get any affirmative responses that there is any video from earlier conflicts which show this back and forth. It’s definitely something that might be of interest to the military, riot police and security forces. And anyone who might be contemplating any popular insurrections as well.

The Blitz

September 8, 1940, was the first full day of a new strategy by the Luftwaffe as part of Nazi Germany’s plan to invade Great Britain. Starting at tea time on September 7 and lasting until May 10, 1941, German bombers specifically targeted major British civilian and industrial centers. London was attacked for 76 consecutive nights and over 43,000 civilians were killed across the country.

The Blitz originally began as part of the Battle of Britain which lasted from July until October 1940. In July, the Luftwaffe targeted shipping centers and fleets but by August they had shifted their focus to RAF airfields and later the industrial centers producing planes and parts for the RAF. The Battle of Britain was the first all-aircraft battle in history and is generally seen as one of the decisive battles in WW2 as the German failure to obtain air superiority effectively prevented any possibility of invasion of the Home Islands. And it was a stunning victory for the British. Outnumbered, the British employed various tactical advantages to make up for their deficiencies — the small area which they had to defend, the establishment of overlapping radar detection stations all along the coastline, and the recruitment of experienced pilots from other nations.

You might recall that last week, I mentioned that a significant number of Polish soldiers and pilots escaped to Britain. Over 35,000 in total, around 8,500 of whom were airmen. However, only 145 of them served as fighter pilots in the RAF (along with over 400 other non-British pilots — New Zealand and Canada also had over 100 pilots in the RAF each) during the Battle of Britain. The Polish pilots were notable for their experience, most having already fought in the September Campaign, and several in the Battle of France. The first two fully Polish squadrons, the 301 and 303, went into action in August 1940. The 303 was known as the Kościuszko Squadron, after a Polish patriot (who also served with distinction with the American colonial forces during the American Revolution), and despite entering the battle on August 30, claimed 126 kills, the highest of any single squadron during the war. And their losses were 70 percent less than other RAF squadrons.

Because of the RAF’s outstanding efforts and the continuing increase in British industrial production, the Luftwaffe was never able to obtain air superiority, so in September, they shifted their attacks to general industrial targets and civilian centers to attempt to reduce the British morale. But because of the lack of air superiority, bombing attempts were mostly limited to night time when fighter planes were less effective — in the days before on-board radar and other targeting systems, fighter pilots had to be able to see what they were shooting at. The early part of the Blitz focused almost entirely on London, with targets spreading to other industrial cities and ports from November 1940 to February 1941 and then shifting almost exclusively to ports from February until May to assist the German Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic.

By May, the increasingly heavy air and ground defenses began to take a significant toll on the Luftwaffe, and the Germans decided to cease the bombings as being ineffective and began shifting their bomber units to the Eastern Front to support the attack on the Soviet Union. The Blitz is perhaps the most significant part of the war in the British collective consciousness. It has been depicted in numerous movies and books even in stories produced recently. As much as we owe to the soldiers and sailors and pilots who fought in WW2 (“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” — Winston Churchill), we also owe a great deal to the civilians who resisted the psychological warfare and organized and defended their homes, and today we should remember them and those who lost their homes and lives during the Blitz. And let them know that it was indeed Britain’s finest hour.

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us now. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ — Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons, June 18, 1940

Darwin’s other “secret”: terraforming Terra

Imagine you’re exploring the remote islands documenting aspects of the various ecologies you encounter. One of these islands is used as a waystation by the British Navy, but due to its volcanic history and remoteness is woefully lacking in significant vegetation and wildlife. What do you do?

If you are Charles Darwin, you encourage a friend of yours, who you know will be visiting the same island, to establish a series of shipments of trees, grasses and bushes and other forms of flora from botanical gardens from all across Europe to be planted on the island to flesh out the ecosystem on the island.

Why would you do that? To increase local water supplies. The trees and other plants capture rain and reduce evaporation, even with the dry prevailing winds in that area of the ocean. Over time, the plants turn the volcanic rocks into extremely rich soils. Now, the island is a cloud trap and home to a full-fledged forest, albeit one unlike any other on the planet — playing home to eucalyptus, pine, bamboo and banana trees and many others.

And why is this significant? One of the biggest problems with human exploration of the other planets in the solar system is that they aren’t “habitable” — they lack liquid water and breathable atmospheres. The science fiction and science of changing those worlds is “terraforming”: “making like Terra”. But it is rare for scientists to have real world examples of how terraforming can work. The island of Ascension is one of those examples. While it isn’t a completely isolated system the way that Mars is, there are significant ideas that can be applied to the concept of terraforming Mars.

The more we learn about Mars, the more we learn that it is potentially terraformable. But it will likely take more than the few generations. We can’t start with trees, ecologies are much too complex and trees have too many large requirements. We’d have to start with extremophile bacteria and other simple life forms such as lichen to begin creating usable soils and adjusting the atmosphere and then working our way up. One of the better looks at the process in science fiction is Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars.

Until we get to Mars though, we can continue to be amazed at the wonders of nature of planet Earth.

September 1

Pretty much everyone in America knows that America’s entrance into WW2 was prompted by a sneak attack by the Japanese upon Pearl Harbor and other American bases throughout the Pacific. What most people don’t know is that the German attack on Poland 71 years ago today also occurred prior to an official declaration of war. (An odd concept in and of itself, really.) The combination of the Luftwaffe and the Panzer divisions of the Nazi army quickly forced their way through the initial Polish defensive lines, primarily because of numerical and technical superiority — the Polish Air Force was primarily made up of 10 year old aircraft and the Army had only 140 of their most modern tanks (which were actually better armed than the German Panzer I and Panzer II).

The Polish defensive plan prior to the war was for a slow, tactical withdrawl to allow their allies, the British and the French, time to come to their aid. However, the lack of natural defenses left them thinly spread and unable to mass enough of a military presence in front of any of the three primary routes of attack the Germans took. Within 2 weeks, the 400 plane Polish Air Force was reduced to 54, though nearly 100 pilots and planes were able to withdraw from combat through Romania. Many of them made their way to Britain where they joined the RAF and were some of the most successful pilots during the Battle of Britain — evidence of the high level of training and skill that they possessed.

After initial retreats, on September 9, the Polish Army counter-attacked along one flank as the Germans besieged Warsaw, and had some initial success before the German air superiority overwhelmed them. The 10 days of the Battle of Bzura were key in allowing other Polish forces to reorganize themselves and also allowed much of the Polish government and military high command to safely withdraw to the south and then to exit the country and make their way to Britain to set up a government-in-exile.

Despite being overwhelmed, the Polish military was preparing to make a significant defensive stand along the southern border with Romania. But on September 17, the Soviet Union invaded from the east, unveiling the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to the world. This was the deciding factor in Poland’s decision to defend itself — the government ordered all remaining members of the military to escape the country to try to reform in Britain and France. Warsaw fell on the 28th and the final active military resistance efforts were defeated on October 6.

But despite the defeat, the Polish government never surrendered. As such, it was the only non-neutral nation in Europe which did not either surrender to or collude with the Axis powers. And despite the short duration of the fighting, the Polish military inflicted a significant amount of damage upon the Germans — though it lost over 300 airplanes (most of which were outdated), the Air Force destroyed or damaged over 500 of their German counterparts and the Germans sustained almost 50,000 casualties (16,000 of which were KIA) and lost one quarter of the 2,750 tanks they had used in the invasion. In comparison, the German invasion of France, a fight between much more evenly matched militaries only lasted a week longer, involved more than twice as many soldiers on the German side alone (over 6 million total between Germany and France), and resulted in 150,000 German casualties, 1,500 lost planes and 750 lost tanks.

One of the most persistent myths about the German invasion of Poland is that the Polish military was so outdated that horseback cavalry attacked tanks with swords. The truth of the matter is that both Germans and Soviets also employed horseback cavalry and that all three militaries generally used them as dragoons (soldiers that traveled by horseback, but actually fought on foot). The myth itself was based on an event during the Battle of Krojanty, when Polish cavalry armed with rifles and sabers who had attacked German infantry were ambushed by armored vehicles.

And on a related note, September 1 also marks the halfway point for the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 in which the Polish resistance — the Home Army — attacked the German military which was in control of the city. It was intended to be a coordinated effort in which the Soviet army would attack the German forces from outside the city and in which the RAF, South African Air Force and USAAF would provide supplies and reinforcements by air drop. But the Soviets refused the RAF and USAF permission to land on Soviet air fields to refuel and stopped their advance on Warsaw, leaving the resistance fighters to fend for themselves for just over two months.

Two days after September 1, 1939, The United Kingdom and France both declared war on Germany. The German goal in invading Poland was Lebensraum — space for Germany to expand its Nazi population, a greater source of natural resources and a region to serve as a buffer against any possible aggression from Soviet Russia. But through a combination of international alliances and changing internal foreign policies (e.g. the shift in Britain away from appeasement), it initiated a massive continental war between a multitude of nations that when combined with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and their later attacks on other nations in the Pacific led to a truly global war. September 1, 1939, is, in my mind, the single most significant day in the last 100 years.

Parallel Evolution in Political Parties

Beginning in the late 1800s, before the adoption of the modern meanings of “liberal” and “conservative”, America saw the rise of progressivism. In general, the term was an all-encompassing word for various political efforts which focused on reforming society in response to the changes driven by industrialization and modernization. Progressivism included members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, but one of the main groups driving the various efforts were socialists in all of the term’s many varieties, and before “socialist” became a dirty word which was synonymous with “communist”.

By the 1930s though, following Woodrow Wilson and FDR’s elections to the presidency, the Democratic party was almost completely characterized by its progressive members. A key part of this loss of “conservative” party members was the growth of the influence of the more extreme elements of progressivism — most notably, Marxist socialists — and the willingness of the more moderate (in relative terms) Democrats to do things that were designed to alienate the conservative members of the party. Think FDR’s attempt to pack the US Supreme Court leading to a cross-party conservative effort to block the vast majority of the legislation Roosevelt later proposed. The influence of communists and other true extremists diminished quickly following WW2, but the result of the growth of the party in the 20s-40s was a fairly monolithic party with regard to the social ideals which it represented.

Since the late 1900s, we’ve been seeing a similar process, albeit influenced by different factors, occuring the Republican party. Following an even further homogenization of the Democratic party in the 1960s, in response to further progressivization, a populist driven effort to reform social norms based on “traditional” conservative values developed under the banner of the Christian right — a mirrored reversal of the goals of the Democrats in the early 1900s.

More recently, the rist of further populist, grassroot efforts led by demagogues in the media (for every Upton Sinclair there is a Glenn Beck? (Probably the first time they’ve ever been mentioned in the same sentence!)) has created a similar effect on the Republican Party as the polarizing grassroot reform campaigns of the many socialist-led Democratic efforts in the 1920s and 30s. And just as the populist driven growth of Democratic progressivism drove out conservative elements of the party, so too has the populist driven growth of Republican traditionalism driven out liberal elements of that party.

Assuming there is no imminent future official splintering of the Republican Party, it will be interesting to see how the more extreme members are treated in the future with respect to the persecution that the communists of the 20s and 30s experienced in the 1950s and 60s.