Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Eulogizing the bravery and sacrifice of its troops during the First World War the way British Education Minister Michael Gove does (“After 100 years, Britain still at war over legacy of World War 1,” Japan Times, January 10, 2014) is neither camouflage nor excuse for the criminal incompetence of British tacticians that exacerbated their casualties in meetings with German forces during that war. The Minister was criticising the comedic Blackadder television series of thirty years ago that contributed to a popular impression that the war was “a misbegotten shambles, a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.” But patriotism and respect for the fallen should not deter us from boldly acknowledging the truth that it was pretty much of a shambles, and there were catastrophic mistakes aplenty.
After nearly a century of peace in Europe the British entered the war in the summer of 1914 using tactics based on their last experience of mass warfare - the Napoleonic Wars. It’s unbelievable but its true that Tommies were ordered to march across the battlefield in straight lines directly into the fire from Germany’s modern, water cooled, mechanical machine guns. You would think the British generals would learn the folly of that after the first day, but instead they repeated it for a couple of years, culminating in the slaughter of the First Battle of the Somme in the summer and fall of 1916, the first day of which remains the greatest single day disaster in British military history.
The mistake the British made in the early years is that rather than using the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars they ought to have learned from the American Civil War, when massed modern artillery bombardment was used for the first time to terrorising effect. The U.S. Civil War was not yet mechanized total warfare the way that World War One became, but it was a fair preview of what was coming in the twentieth century.
Education Minister Gove’s reaction to criticism of the Great War as its centenary approaches and commemorative events are planned shows how much more dangerous politicians are than soldiers. A man who disregards the incompetence of the war’s execution is not a patriot, he does not properly honor the memory of the fallen, and he’s not qualified to be in charge of educating the young about it.