Tuesday, February 21, 2006

WWI British Infantry
At Walter's suggestion, I'm reading The First World War, by John Keegan. I'm really enjoying it, though it's quite a sad read. One interesting thing about the set-up to WWI is all of the interconnectedness, market-wise, education-wise and family-wise between the warring parties. All of the connectivity failed to prevent the war. I haven't gotten to thinking about whether this has anything to do with Mr. Barnett's theory of Core/Gap, but I might think about it and post on it later. But that's not why I'm writing today!

As you will recall, earlier I posted about the value the British Infantry had in the Napoleonic Era: alone among all other armies at the time, they practiced with live ammunition. This made them deadly and was, in large part, why they were able to defeat Napoleon. As it turns out, the Brits didn't lose this value during the time between Napoleon and the Kaiser. Keegan writes about Germany's first strike at France through Belgium, where a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was part of the defensive line:
The British, if only for a moment, were to be cast into the role of opposing both the concept and the substance of the [entire German offensive plan]. . . .The BEF was equal to the task. Alone among those of Europe, the British army was an all-regular force, composed of professional soldiers whom the small wars of empire had hardened to the realities of combat. . . .The British Lee-Enfield rifle, with its ten-round magazine, was a superior weapon to the German Mauser, and the British soldier a superior shot. "Fifteen rounds a minute" has become a catchphrase, but it was the standard most British infantrymen met, encouraged by extra pay for marksmanship and an issue of free ammunition to win the badge in their spare time.
Later, Keegan describes the BEF's work as they stop the final German offensive before equilibrium is established at the Western Front.
. . . on 20 October . . . a general German offensive began. . . . The real contest was between fourteen German infantry divisions against seven British [divisions] . . . . The line was held by the superiority of the British in rapid rifle fire. In artillery they were outgunned more than two to one, and in heavy artillery ten to one. In machine guns, two per battalion, they were equal to the enemy. In musketry, still quaintly so called in the BEF [though they were really firing rifles], they consistently prevailed. Trained to fire fifteen aimed rounds a minute, the British riflemen . . . easily overcame the counter-fire of the attacking Germans who, coming forward in closely ranked masses, presented unmissable targets. . . . In the absence of strong physical barriers to hold the enemy at a distance, it was the curtain of rifle bullets, crashing out in a density the Germans often mistook for machine-gun fire, that broke up attacks and drove the survivors of an assault to ground or sent them crawling back to cover on their start lines.
It's striking to me how much Keegan's description of events mirrors the descriptions of British battles in the Napoleonic Wars. Seeing this pop up in a description of WWI again makes me wonder: What was it about the British culture that gave them this particular value when it came to warfare? Why did they alone practice with live ammunition in the Napoleonic Era, and why did that same value carry through to giving away ammunition and incenting target practice at the turn of the 20th century? Finally, I wonder: Do the Brits still have it, or did it disappear in a post-Christian, post-Modern malaise? (I ask this without any snark.)

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