The Art of War

Posted on May 30, 2013. Filed under: History, Wargaming | Tags: , |

British Mark I Tank, Battle of the Somme, September 1916

British Mark I Tank, Battle of the Somme, September 1916

Memorial Day is behind us once again. It’s the official start of summer and BBQ season, at least in the minds of most people.

It is a time to remember those who have fallen in defense of this nation.

We are also coming up (in a little over a year) on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Later, this July will be the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings in Sicily, the return of Allied forces to Western Europe during the Second World War. In a little over a month will be the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the battle that decisively turned the war in favor of the Union during the American Civil War.

I love to play wargames recreating various wars, from the battlefields of teh American Civil War to the First and Second World Wars, to modern/hypothetical (read Third World War) warfare. It allows one to explore the possibilities that could have or could possibly happen.

There are those who have a moral outrage when it comes to playing wargames, especially those where one side is the Nazi regime of the Second World War. That’s okay. I’ve played the Nazi side before and will continue to do so. I don’t feel the need to defend myself about it. I do it to explore possibilities.

Of course, there are those people out there who complain doesn’t allow them to perform certain operations exactly as it happened. There are those who think that these games allow the Nazis to win too much. In the long run, I’ve never seen the Nazis win a game in the Soviet Union, because they get spread out too thin, and ultimately, they get crushed by sheer numbers.

Adolf Hitler, when he invaded the Soviet Union, wanted to drive to Leningrad, then on Moscow, then to the Caucasus Mountains, where the bulk of Soviet oil was located. He couldn’t make up his mind what the objective was, and it cost him the war. We should all be thankful for that.

But what if he had concentrated first on Leningrad, then Moscow, then the Caucasus Mountains, in that order? What if he did not order the fatal stand at Stalingrad?

I’ve heard several history teachers say that Hitler came closer to winning the war than anyone dares imagine, but did he really? I like to game it out and try stuff, find out if that were true, or close to true (with alternative history, anything can happen).

I am preparing to set up my First World War board for Western Europe.

It is the war that ushered in the modern age. As any war progresses, people figure out more efficient and deadly ways to kill each other. Technology begins to grow at a rapid pace. The First World War ushered in the era of the tank, the airplane, and the machine gun. Poison gas was used by the Germans on the Western Front. Both sides were trying anything and everything to break the deadlock of the Western Front.

The war also caused major changes in the landscape of Europe and the Middle East. Old empires fell while giving rise to others. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, as did the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Monarchy collapsed and the Bolsheviks seized power. Even though they did not do much, Japan was ascendant in the far east, and the United States showed that they were a power that was growing in strength.

In August, 1914, the Germans poured across the borders of Belgium and pushed into France as far as the Marne River, just east of Paris. They moved so close that Parisians could hear the sound of artillery firing in the distance. They moved that far in six weeks and exhausted themselves. Communications were disrupted and they were stopped and pushed back to NE France, as the French raced troops to the front in taxi cabs from Paris.

Once the front stabilized, both the Allies and the Germans began digging in, creating miles and miles of trenches, stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea.

Each side pushed against the other to try to break through. In 1915, the Germans employed poison gas, which was highly effective, but they were unable to take advantage of the breach and push through because the wind shifted. Both sides tried suicidal frontal assaults against enemy trenches, and successes were only a few hundred yards at the cost of countless lives. Artillery was unleashed to break up barbed wire on the battle field, and provide cover for advancing troops, but the enemy knew that when the bombardment started, an attack was coming, and they hid in their trenches to await the end of the bombardment.

Italy also turned their backs on their allies in the Triple Alliance (those allies being Germany and Austria-Hungary), and joined France, Britain and Russia in the Triple Entente. They never really liked Austria-Hungary and wanted territory in the Tyrol (Italian Alps), and Carinola to the east. Much of this territory was very mountainous, and thus the Italians were beaten back time and again.

In 1916, Erich von Falkenhayn announced that he was going to “bleed France white” by attacking the linchpin forts surrounding the city of Verdun. This he did, and he fought for the city for almost a full year (10 months to be exact), without taking it. That’s not to say that the French weren’t hanging on by their fingernails, but Falkenhayn not only bled the French white, he bled the German army white. The British were forced to launch the disastrous Somme campaign in direct response to the Battle of Verdun, to attempt to relieve pressure from the French. Over 700,00 men lost their lives at Verdun, while over 300,000 were killed at the Somme.

That’s 1,000,000 men killed in a single year in two campaigns.

The British also introduced the tank for the first time in 1916 during the Somme offensive. The idea was to have a vehicle that could cross trench lines and was impervious to machine gun fire. They were very slow (top speed of 3 mph), but effective in large numbers, but this was not discovered until 1918 during the Amiens offensive and after the reliability had greatly increased.They were, however, vulnerable to artillery fire, and were notorious for breaking down.

1917 brought another failed Allied offensive, and ultimately the French army mutinied, tired of going “over the top” and seeing their comrades killed, or being shot themselves for a few yards of dirt. They were tired of the miserable conditions in the trenches.

The end of the year saw the Russian army collapse and the Czar abdicate his throne. The Bolsheviks took over, eliminating their enemies violently and ruthlessly. On the Italian front, the Austro-Hungarians, with help from the Germans, broke through at the disastrous (for the Italians, anyway) Battle of Caporetto. Thousands of Italians surrendered, and the Central Powers captured thousands of weapons and field guns. Although they were heavily stung, the Italians hung on and managed to fight back.

1918, the final year of the war, saw the outbreak of the Spanish influenza, which killed millions worldwide in two years. The Germans, knowing that the Americans were coming, and bolstered by troops returning from the Eastern Front, launched a final offensive using new tactics, which would become the basis for modern infantry tactics. They pushed deep into France, approaching the Marne River again, where they had been in four years of deadlocked fighting.

As the Germans pushed into France, Marines from the United States began to move into the line. At Lucy-le-Bocage, a small French village, Captain Lloyd W. Williams, a company commander in the 5th Marines, was advised by a French officer to retreat. Williams famously said “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” Williams would not survive the ensuing battle.

The offensive was blunted, and the Germans driven back.

Years of war had broken everyone involved. People were starving on the home front. Soldiers had no spirit left. The primary reason the Americans were so effective, and able to do so much heavy lifting to bring the war to an end was because they had not been involved on the battlefield. Our spirit was unbroken, unbowed, and the troops were fresh.

Many members of the German Army felt betrayed when the Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland. They referred to those who surrendered as the November Criminals, claiming the German Army had not been defeated in the field, when in fact, they had been. This set the stage for the rise of the Nazi Party.

In those days, the war was known as The Great War, and the War to End All Wars. It was not known as the First World War until the Second. No one who lived through that war could conceive that war could be any more devastating than the one they had just experienced.

New words entered into our lexicon, like shell shock, a condition we now know to be post-traumatic stress.

But what if the Germans had won the war? Would there have been a Second World War? Would a German victory prevented the rise of the Nazis? Japan was becoming more confident and aggressive in the east, attacking China in 1931, 13 years after the end of the Great War. Would that have led to a global conflict, or would war have been limited to the Pacific region? Unfortunately, gaming can never answer those questions, but the question of “What could have happened if Falkenhayn didn’t attack Verdun, but attacked somewhere else?” can be.

In all honesty, I am getting tired of writing about politics constantly, saying the same thing over and over, or in different ways. I may retreat to my games for awhile, if I can find some space this weekend. That’s the one drawback to them is that they can consume a lot of space.

Maybe I’ll put up a page on this blog dedicated to them for those who are interested.

Obama sucks, so does his administration, and so does the government. That should be good for at least 30 posts.

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