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Lessons from the Great War for Civilization

By Gregory R. Copley,

writing in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, May 21, 2008

Dawn breaks gently on the Margalla foothills of the Himalayas, a Spring haze muting blue the majesty of the escarpment. Pakistan is, further into North-West Frontier Province and elsewhere, touched again by war, this time against the irregular foes emerging from a transnational ideological movement married into tribal issues.  

It is a war which will require creative thinking by Pakistan Armed Forces leaders at all levels. They have neither the luxury of time nor the indiscriminate and expensive application of technological superiority. 

No! This is a war which will require solitary decisions, different from those made in guerilla wars elsewhere, even nearby. Pakistan’s decisions will require a judicious mix of psychology, sensitivity to history and customs, and an awareness that the cost of mistakes may be too high to bear. Pakistan cannot take this war for granted, because it cannot take for granted that the nation-state of Pakistan has yet acquired the resilience to survive the emotional, brutalizing modernization which is required to finally bring together all the traditional societies into a unified nation-state which acknowledges an over-arching identity ahead of local identities. 

I have come here fresh from time on the French battlefields of the Western Front of the Great War of 1914-1918, where the British Indian Army — which formed the basis of the modern Pakistan Army as well as the modern Indian Army — fought and died for an Empire of which they are no longer part. Those troops of the British Indian Army fought there, and in Gallipoli in the Dardanelles campaign of 1915, and in other locations of that Great War, alongside my relatives in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), who formed part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Forgive me for seeing the parallels, and the intertwining lessons of there and here, then and now, which I explore for you here. 

It was to the AIF’s graves, its battlefields, its memorials — its souvenirs, as the French call such icons of memory — that I had gone to celebrate ANZAC Day, April 25, 2008, on the 90th anniversary of the “big push” against the Germans on the Western Front in 1918. Every town and village in that part of the Department of the Somme, in the region of Picardy, flew Australian flags and showed how lovingly their care anointed the monuments and schools which memorialized the efforts which cost the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) and the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) 53,000 dead in the 1916-1918 period on the Western Front alone. [Australia, then with a population of four-million, lost more than 61,000 dead in World War I and 152,171 wounded; Belgium, with a population then of 7.5-million and in defense of its own territory, lost only some 43,000 military personal and 44,686 military wounded.] 

But that is my private journey. There is no reason that you should feel the same thoughts as I over this great flowering and passing of Australian youth — my relatives among them — who had come, as the troops of the British Indian Army had come, thousands of miles from their homes to die in a war which the residents of rural France recall and revere, even if the citizens of Paris forget. So I mention it only as preface to the reality that the Pakistan Army is now facing the need, as the Allies did on the Western Front of 1917-1918, for unique new doctrine and contextual strategy to address the challenges facing it in the “War on Terror”. 

We think of the “War on Terror” — stupidly-named and misleading — as something amorphous and universal, just as we think of the Great War as a war in which there was little movement or creativity; little new thinking. But we would be wrong to characterize either the “War on Terror” or the Great War as conflicts which lacked creativity and the potential for it. Indeed, apart from the highly mobile war conducted by Field Marshal Edmund Allenby (later the first Viscount Allenby) in the Great War Middle East theater against the Ottomans, the perception of a stagnant Western Front is shattered by the activities and creative military genius of a general who equaled Allenby and whose doctrine, like that of Allenby, served as a precursor to the military doctrine of today. 

General Sir John Monash, whom Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in World War II was to call the greatest general on the Western Front of World War I, created a combined arms approach to fighting which broke the stagnation of trench warfare. This was particularly evident at the Battle of Le Hamel, on the Somme, on July 4, 1918. It was not a date chosen by fate or by accident: Gen. Monash had US troops under his command. Monash himself was unusual: he was a militia officer, not a regular; he was an Australian, and a Jew. It was largely for these characteristics that he had to fight one war against the Germans, and another against the British and some of the Australian establishment. 

And yet, for his brilliance, he had 208,000 troops under his command at Le Hamel on July 4, 1918, including the 50,000 inexperienced US troops. The Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, had arrived on the Western Front just before the battle, determined — on the basis of prejudiced reports against the general — to replace him. Hughes then witnessed the breathtaking success of the battle, and Monash’s follow-up on August 8, 1919, at the Battle of Amiens, described later by Germany’s General Erich Ludendorff as “the black day of the German Army in the history of the war”. 

Monash’s success was so dramatic for its conceptual grace and scope that King George V did what no British monarch had done for two centuries: he went to the battlefield to knight the victorious commander. On August 12, 1918, Lt.-Gen. John Monash was created a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB). What Monash had done was to create a philosophy of an “all arms” approach to battlefield maneuver which introduced a new, coordinated utilization of infantry, armor, communications, artillery, and air power, coupled with pre-assault small unit actions which today would be called “special operations”.  

Monash was determined to reduce the risks to the lives of his troops in a war which had been characterized by the staggering scope of its casualties. Le Hamel was over and done in 90 minutes, but it was an action which saw the first award of the war of the US Medal of Honor (to Corporal Thomas Pope), and two Victoria Crosses. The VCs went to Private Henry Dalziel, 15th Battalion (Queensland and Tasmania), who, armed only with a revolver, rushed German machinegunners and captured the post. Lance Corporal Thomas Axford, 16th Battalion (Western Australia), used grenades to eliminate another machinegun post held by 16 Germans. 

Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian in the Great War and an influential figure in his own right, and someone who had worked against Monash, nonetheless wrote: “The main result of Hamel was that Monash’s careful arrangements furnished the model for almost every attack afterwards made by British infantry with tanks during the remainder of that war.” Indeed, it provided the model for blitzkrieg in the next war, and for all-arms ops to the present day. 

There is much to be discussed about the action at Le Hamel, and no justice can be done to it in a short review of it, or of the associated assaults by Canadian forces. Monash employed small unit harassment operations in advance of the “big push” to distract, demoralize, and confuse the entrenched German forces in activities known as “peaceful penetration”, subsequently followed by the use of a totally coordinated offensive at Le Hamel. This action used British Army tanks in a variety of ways, even though they had been widely perceived to have failed earlier, on April 11, 1917, when deployed with Australian troops at the nearby First Battle of Bullecourt. The Second Battle of Bullecourt was to be fought a month later. 

[Australians were to become familiar with the tank operations from their first deployment by the British Army in 1916. Significantly, the monument to the Australian divisions decimated at Pozičres stands in lonely silence across the road from the monument to the British Army’s Tank Corps. Fighting around Pozičres cost Australia 10,000 dead.] 

The Battles of Bullecourt had seen British Gen. Sir Hubert Gough throw AIF troops into the slaughter in the belief that the Vickers Mk. 1 and Mk. 2 tanks would clear the path for their advance. Monash learned from the tragedies of Bullecourt and Pozičres, and determined never to sacrifice troops — and their trust in their commanders — with such cavalier abandon. Australian troops were all volunteers, and the Bullecourt episode demolished Australian troop confidence in British command. Thus, under Monash, the advance “peaceful penetration” at Le Hamel was part of extremely careful planning for the battle as a whole, in which armor (“supply tanks”) were used for logistical support as well as offensive operations using the newer, faster tanks. The AFC’s 3 Squadron used its RE-8 aircraft to airdrop ordnance to the troops advancing at Le Hamel and in “noise distraction” as part of the combined operation. 

The AIF lost 1,400 men at Le Hamel in those 90 minutes; the US Army lost 176 men. But Monash the outsider knew that the casualty levels would have been dramatically higher, as they had been in the other great engagements of the AIF in World War I, had his planning and creative use of forces within the incredibly confined battlespace of the Somme been anything less than it was. 

The point is that even within a war in which conventional wisdom discourages creative approaches and new doctrine, and in which the battlespace is constrained either geospatially or politically, there remains an imperative — not just a possibility, but an imperative — to do what is unexpected and which takes advantage of the terrain, and the realities and psychology of the enemy and the contextual society. 

Today that imperative takes on a broader dimension, in large part because the current conflict framework is more fluid and engages society as a whole. The US and even Australia may think their engagement in the “War on Terror” is comprehensive, but even the current political climate in the West shows that the public regards participation in this conflict as “optional”. 

It is not optional for Pakistan. 

Pakistan cannot withdraw from the “War on Terror”, having embarked on it. Indeed, it is a war which may well finally break the last barriers to the completion of the Pakistani state which began life with the partition of British India in 1947. If seen in its broadest context, the conflict within Pakistan is an affair which could allow for the final penetration of the Government of Pakistan into areas which had maintained their autonomy for the six generations of Pakistani statehood (and for decades before, during the British presence). 

But Pakistan’s leadership is well aware that careless or impatient entry into the Pakistani territory of foreign troops of the NATO ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) contingent from Afghanistan could well paint the Pakistan central Government in the light of waging a fight not for Pakistan but for the foreigners. And that could lead to divisions which could ultimately rupture Pakistan. 

Pakistan could, however, finally bring the writ of the central Government over all of Pakistan, using creative military doctrine and civil affairs programs to cope with the insurgencies which have spilled from Afghanistan into its own Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and into the North- West Frontier Province. Even India, which had welcomed the discomfiture of the Pakistani Government caused by the insurgencies in the Tribal Areas and the NWFP, would find the collapse of the Pakistani state an unwelcome consequence of the war. 

Wars are always, ultimately, characterized by their unintended, or unconsidered, consequences. Just as World War I defined the ensuing global balance, the rise of the United States, and the subsequent culture of Australia and other countries, so too the “War on Terror” may define the future, for good or ill, of Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

As an Australian, walking among the graves so carefully tended amidst the rolling countryside of the Somme Valley, 90 years after the deaths of my kith and kin, I see the consequences in Australian society. What happens today in Pakistan and Afghanistan — and Iraq and the Sudan, and so on — will shape the tomorrows of many people, and determine, indeed, whether or not they even retain their societies. 

Monash, in World War I, focused on the searing lessons of Bullecourt, Pozičres, and other battles, and recognized his responsibility to his troops who represented so large a percentage of Australia’s small population. He realized that he needed to devote enormous care and creativity to his actions. Do we today pay sufficient attention to the broader future in our military actions, or do we impatiently seek solutions to answer the needs of an election cycle? 

My gaze into the purpled Himalayan foothills, and beyond to the hot struggles of the tribal lands, is made more reflective by the cool dawn I spent on April 25, 2008, at the vast Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, just south-west of Le Hamel. There, on April 24, 1918 (the third anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli, Turkey), the small town was the site of the world’s first battle between two tank forces: three British Mark IVs against three German A7Vs. The Germans took the town, but that night and the next day it was recaptured in a spectacular action at a cost of more than 1,200 Australian lives. 

In Villers-Bretonneux, the town’s mayor spoke of the Australian troops on July 14, 1919, when unveiling a memorial in their honor, noting: “The first inhabitants of Villers- Bretonneux to re-establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy 10 times their number … They offer a memorial tablet, a gift which is but the least expression of their gratitude, compared with the brilliant feat which was accomplished by the sons of Australia … Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for ...” 

Everywhere I walked in the fields of the Somme there were reminders of that great Australian odyssey: live ordnance and shrapnel still churn back into the sunlight of the Spring plowing. And graves marked “Known But to God” are still carefully loved as though dug but yesterday, alongside those which as tragically show the youth of their inhabitants. “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old ...” 

Thus must we learn from the genius and compassion of Sir John Monash, rightly knighted for his chivalry on the field of battle, and prepare to live with graves created now and which must be tended a century hence. And remember that only the society which survives and prospers — which prevails — a century hence will have the capacity to tend the tombs of its forefathers.  

To prevail, then, means to think of tomorrow when acting for the day. And to see where the physical and psychological battlefield horizons transition seamlessly into the strategic sky. 

It was at the foot of the memorial to the Second Division, AIF, at Mont St. Michel, scene of terrible carnage on August 31-September 1, 1918, that I plucked a sprig of forget-me- nots and pressed them into my own book, The Art of Victory, so that I would not lose sight of the cost of victory.  

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”  

And learn from them.