Friday, November 04, 2005

Intellectual legacy of the First World War (3)

Just re-reading Niall Barr's excellent Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein, and noted that he makes a point related to the discussion of British First World War experience as 'preparation' for the Second World War. Niall discusses the different British units' ability to react to the more static warfare which took place at the eastern end of the Western Desert in 1942 - a big shift from a more mobile style which had been practised - successfully or otherwise, from 1940. He notes that the British effectively reverted to a 1918 style offensive battle: close coordination of all arms beneath heavily concentrated artillery fire to achieve limited aims. Those who did this most effectively were those who had been staff officers on the Western Front twenty five years before.
Saying that Montgomery fought First World War style battles is not exactly new. But Niall has traced through the careers of a number of less senior officers to make the point more conclusively. He also has the great benefit of having been a First World War historian first - so he knows what he's talking about. The methodological problem, however, seems to be actually finding evidence of Second World War generals looking back and drawing their own lines of intellectual inheritance. Two aspects to that problem - the first is that this isn't the sort of evidence that goes into staff appreciations (although it would be interesting to conduct a literary comparison of Dorman Smith's plans for the defence of Alamein with plans for defence in depth in 1918). The other is that the reputation of their predecessors may have been so tarnished by 1942 that no Second World War general was going to compare himself. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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