About MSW

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“

The Royal Navy: The Invasion Fleets before D-Day I

Wars are not won by defensive measures alone. Defence can only continue for so long. The war has to be taken to the enemy and where territory has been taken, it has to be won back, no matter how difficult that might be. Stalin recognized this, which is why he constantly demanded a ‘Second Front’ to relieve the pressure on his forces but, of course, he failed to accept that the Allies already had a second front on the North Atlantic, perhaps a third on the Arctic convoys or in the fighting in North Africa and later in Italy. To his mind none of these mattered, and what he wanted was a repeat of the First World War strategic situation with a Western Front in France and an Eastern Front in Russia.

Clearly North Africa was a good place to start and to exercise the growing Allied amphibious capability. Without the industrial support of Metropolitan France, resistance by Vichy forces, no matter how determined, was bound to be overcome sooner rather than later. That opposition was likely demonstrated not just by the Vichy refusal to surrender the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir and Oran, but by the fact that in May 1941 the Vichy regime had signed the Paris protocols with Germany. These allowed the Germans to use French bases in Syria – which prompted the British-led invasion of that country – and in Tunisia and French West Africa, as well as releasing almost 7,000 French prisoners of war for service with the Free French in North Africa.

Albacore “∅L” BF653 from 820 Squadron, HMS Formidable, during Operation Torch.

Operation Torch

Another factor in the choice of North Africa was that British and British Empire forces were already engaged in the Western Desert, in Libya and Egypt, and landings further west would help them by squeezing the Italians and Germans between two large Allied forces. The British had become increasingly successful in North Africa with the capture of El Alamein, but more was needed if the Mediterranean was to be secured. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had certainly helped to weaken the Axis forces in North Africa, attacking and sometimes cutting the supply lines from Italy to Libya.

For many this was the ‘Second Front’, landing almost 100,000 men in French Morocco and Algeria behind the Axis lines. The operation, code-named TORCH, had to take into account that Morocco included Spanish-held territory to the south and east of Tangier. The Allied naval commander was Admiral Andrew Cunningham of the Royal Navy, while the Supreme Commander was General Dwight Eisenhower of the United States Army.

The division of territory in Morocco between France and Spain meant that the invasion forces had to be divided into three. The Western Task Force, designated TF34, came from the United States with twenty-three transports to land 34,000 troops commanded by Major General Patton to the north and south of Casablanca. The force had covering fire from 3 US battleships as well as the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and 4 escort carriers, 7 cruisers and 38 destroyers.

The Centre Task Force came from England and was commanded by Commodore Troubridge, RN, with 2 escort carriers, 3 cruisers and 13 destroyers escorting and then supporting 28 transports and 19 landing craft, landing 39,000 soldiers commanded by Major General Fredendall at Oran in Algeria.

Near Algiers, 33,000 British and American troops under the command of Major General Ryder were landed from 16 transports and 17 landing craft with the aircraft carriers HMS Argus and Furious (the world’s first two aircraft carriers), 3 cruisers and 16 destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Harold Burrough, RN.

Good communications are essential in any such operation but with the forces divided as they were, communications were more important than ever. Commodore Troubridge had his signals team in the exarmed merchant cruiser Large, which had been converted so hastily that the sleeping accommodation for staff officers, just aft of the bridge, was unfinished and umbrellas provided the only protection from the weather.

The landings all took place on 8 November, starting an hour or so after midnight at Oran and then shortly afterwards at Algiers, while those at Casablanca started at 04.30. Many of those involved were very inexperienced, and this told most with the pilots aboard the US ships. The escort carrier USS Santee had just 5 experienced pilots aboard and during the operation she lost 21 of her 31 aircraft, of which only one was ‘just possibly’ due to enemy action.

The invasion showed confusion among Vichy leaders. Admiral Darlan, in Oran and in overall command of Vichy French forces, agreed to a ceasefire if Marshal Philippe Pétain, the dictator of Vichy France, agreed, but Pétain was desperately trying to prevent German forces from entering unoccupied France. Darlan then decided to change sides and ordered his forces to side with the Allies, but a number of his subordinate commanders disagreed and allowed German forces to enter Tunisia.

Meanwhile, British and American ships attacked the Vichy positions with gunfire and carrier-borne air power. Several of the British Fleet Air Arm pilots were engaged in air-to-air combat with French fighters. Another was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, but while his captors decided what to do with him the Vichy French forces surrendered and he was back on board his ship within two days of being shot down. One of the shortest spells as a prisoner of war on record!

Operation Husky

Eight months were to pass before the next Allied invasion; that on Sicily, Operation HUSKY, on 10 July 1943. The delay was necessary because Axis forces in North Africa were still capable of fighting and it took until May 1943 before resupply became completely impossible and they surrendered to the Allies.

At this stage the United States would have preferred to start planning an invasion of France, but the British saw the taking of Sicily as more important. It would not only lead to the invasion of Italy, through which Churchill hoped to reach Germany, but more importantly it would ease the pressure on Malta and also enable the Mediterranean to be used by convoys once more. The saving in fuel and time of using the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal rather than sailing via the Cape was one consideration, but another was that this provided a massive one-off boost in both merchant shipping tonnage, estimated by some to be the equivalent of having an extra 1 million tons of shipping, and naval vessels, all of which could be used to ease the pressure elsewhere.

Invading France – or as Churchill insisted, landing in France, as he believed that as allies, the UK and USA could not ‘invade’ France to liberate it – was in any case going to be the hardest of all. While the so-called ‘Atlantic Wall’ was not as well-built and defended as Hitler liked to believe, it was still a formidable obstacle and the Germans had substantial air and ground forces in the country. Even the Americans began to realize that an invasion of France would take time to prepare, with rehearsals and training. A good indication of the size of the problem was that the original idea was for simultaneous invasions of Normandy and the south of France, but the resources simply were not available.

The decision to invade Sicily was taken at the Casablanca Conference held between 14 and 24 January 1943. Code-named SYMBOL, this was one of the most important conferences of the war, planning future strategy, and was attended by the British and American leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt, as well as Generals Alexander and Eisenhower. However, there was one noticeable absentee: Stalin. The Soviet leader was invited but he declined because of the critical situation at Stalingrad. It was at Casablanca that the Allies first decided to demand unconditional surrender and also planned a combined USAAF and RAF bomber offensive against Germany. A determined effort was also made to reconcile the different factions of the French armed forces represented by de Gaulle and Giraud, and this led to them forming a French National Committee for Liberation.

Stalin’s failure to attend the Casablanca Conference was yet another instance of his lack of logic, especially since he missed the opportunity to demand an Allied invasion of France and his much-desired ‘Second Front’. The Battle of Stalingrad was almost over, the Germans having been encircled and an attempt to relieve them foiled by the Russians. While final surrender did not come until 2 February, any other leader would have had the strategic perspective and the confidence to leave matters in the hands of trusted military commanders.

Much of the problem lay in Stalin’s policy of, in modern terms, micromanaging the war. He knew who was in command and where they were situated, down to middle-ranking officers. His close colleagues, in effect his war cabinet, were constantly harassed and bullied, humiliated in front of their peers. Often a close member of their family would be held in a gulag (prison camp), usually on rations that were not even at subsistence level. There was no trust, no semblance of being part of a team, but instead the rule of fear. In short, Stalin felt vulnerable.

Operation HUSKY was more akin to the Normandy landings than TORCH had been, with a combined amphibious and airborne assault. First, on 11 and 12 June 1943, the garrisons on two small Italian islands, Pantelleria and Lampedusa to the west of Malta, surrendered after bombardment by the Royal Navy and raids from Malta-based squadrons of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm.

For some time the Royal Navy had maintained what amounted to a second Mediterranean Fleet in what was officially known as Force H, based on Gibraltar, while the Mediterranean Fleet had been forced to withdraw to Alexandria in Egypt from the beginning of 1941. Force H had grown in strength and its successes had included participation in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. By mid-1943 it had 6 battleships and 2 modern aircraft carriers – HMS Indomitable and Formidable – plus 6 cruisers and 24 destroyers. Designed to be a fast-moving task force, it did not have escort carriers. Force H was to act as the covering force for Operation HUSKY. The landings were by an American Western Naval Task Force and a British Eastern Naval Task Force. There were 2,590 ships altogether with 2,000 landing craft, including the new landing ship tank (LST), with the intention of landing 180,000 men under General Dwight Eisenhower who had to face more than 275,000 men in General Guzzoni’s Italian Sixth Army.

Where the Allies were strongest was in the air, as well as at sea. The Allies had 3,700 aircraft, mainly operating from land bases in North Africa as well as the three airfields on Malta, while the Axis powers had 1,400 aircraft.

The Western Naval Task Force was to land the US Seventh Army on the south coast of Sicily, while the British Eastern Naval Task Force would land the British Eighth Army on the south-eastern point of the island. The Americans had to take the port of Licata and the British the port of Syracuse. After this, they were to seize the airfields around Catania.

The assault was launched from North Africa as the forces assembled would have overwhelmed the facilities available on the small island of Malta. On the eve of the invasion, bad weather nearly caused the landings to be postponed. This did at least lull the Axis commanders into a false sense of security, apart from which many of them had been led to believe that the Allies would head for Sardinia. The result was that the amphibious assault was a great success, but in the high winds the airborne assault was less so, with many paratroops landing in the seas while many of the Horsa gliders suffered the same fate having been released too early by their towing aircraft. More than 250 troops were drowned.

On 11 July a strong counter-attack was launched by German Panzer divisions, but this was broken up by Allied air power and a heavy bombardment from Force H.

Italian resistance virtually ended when Mussolini fell from power on 25 July, after which Hitler dropped his opposition to German troops being withdrawn and some 40,000 German and 62,000 Italian troops crossed the Straits of Messina to the Italian mainland starting on the night of 11/12 August, with much of their equipment and supplies intact.

Only the invasion of Normandy, Operation OVERLORD, was larger than HUSKY. More than any other operation, the invasion of Sicily provided the Allies with vital experience and many lessons were learned that would prove invaluable later.

Operation Avalanche

The logical move was for the Allies to follow the retreating Axis forces across the Straits of Messina and this is what Montgomery’s Eighth Army did on 3 September 1943. That same day, the Allies and the Italians signed a secret armistice at Syracuse.

The next step was to cut off as much of the German forces as possible and also shorten the advance towards Rome. This was done at Salerno on 9 September, the day after the armistice was announced. The landings at Salerno were co-ordinated with a British airborne landing at Taranto to enable the remains of the Italian fleet to escape to Malta. The airborne landing was covered by the guns of the six Force H battleships.

On learning of the armistice, the Germans moved quickly to seize Italian airfields. Salerno was chosen instead of a landing site further north because it was close to Allied airfields in Sicily but it was only just within range for fighter aircraft, meaning that they could spend very little time patrolling the area, usually no more than twenty minutes, and if combat occurred could not return to Sicily. The solution was to deploy aircraft carriers.

The United States Navy provided an Independence-class light carrier and four escort carriers. The Royal Navy once again deployed Force H to cover the landings with HMS Illustrious and Formidable, as well as creating an escort carrier fleet known as Force V with escort carriers HMS Attacker, Battler, Hunter and Stalker augmented by HMS Unicorn, a maintenance carrier but here, not for the last time in her career, used as an active fleet carrier with fighter sorties flown from her. Force V provided thirty Supermarine Spitfire fighters aboard each escort carrier and no fewer than sixty aboard Unicorn.

The British ships sailed from Malta as if to attack Taranto, but instead headed north to Salerno. Once off Salerno, Force V was given a ‘box’ in which to operate, flying off and recovering their aircraft. The trouble was that with so many other ships in the area, the box was too small, giving the carrier commanders great difficulty as they steamed from one end to another and then had to turn. This was nothing compared to the difficulties facing the pilots, trying to land on ships steaming close to one another and avoiding mid-air collisions. Worse still, the weather on this occasion was good, too good in fact. The Seafire needed a headwind of 25 knots over the flight deck for a safe take-off but in still air conditions the escort carriers could only provide 17 knots. Arrester wires and crash barriers had to be kept as tight as possible. Most escort carriers lacked catapults – known at the time as accelerators – and even when fitted, these hydraulically-powered aids lacked the punch of a modern steam catapult. The amphibious assault and the covering force on this occasion were much smaller, at 627 ships.

In contrast to the landings in North Africa and Sicily, the Luftwaffe mounted heavy attacks against the carriers and these were sustained until 14 September. The need for air cover meant that the carriers were asked to remain on station longer than originally planned, and their frantic racing up and down with the ‘box’ meant that fuel began to run low so they had to resort to using their reserve tanks. In addition to conventional bombing, the German response was augmented by the first use of radio-controlled glider bombs that damaged two British cruisers and the veteran battleship HMS Warspite.

The difficulties faced by the carrier pilots meant that deck landing accidents accounted for a higher loss rate than the Luftwaffe with Force V’s 180 aircraft reduced to just 30 by 14 September. Meanwhile, the Germans had organized a massive counter-attack between 12 and 14 September.

As the campaign ashore moved slowly, a further amphibious assault was planned for Anzio further up the coast. For this, shore bases near the Salerno landing site were available and carrier air support was not needed, but even in January 1944 the landings at Anzio faced strong German opposition and it took four months for the Allies to break out of their beachhead. While Salerno and Vietri were captured, they remained too close to the German front line for either to be used as ports.


The Royal Navy: The Invasion Fleets before D-Day II

Hands stand by their twin 4 inch gun turrets to repel any lurking enemy aircraft as HMS MAURITIUS fires a broadside at German positions in the Anzio beachhead.
A 22536
Part of
Royal Navy official photographer

Operation Shingle

Convalescing at Marrakesh in French Morocco after an illness, Churchill convened two conferences at his villa to discuss the situation in Italy where the hopes of a rapid advance on Rome following the Salerno landings had been foiled by strong German resistance. The first was held on 7 and 8 January 1944 with Churchill in the chair, accompanied by Lord Beaverbrook and attended by senior British and American officers. The second was on 12 January when Churchill and de Gaulle met.

Although the need for a second landing further north had been agreed in late 1943, the initial plan was cancelled in favour of landings at Anzio, code-named Operation SHINGLE, which was decided at the Marrakesh conferences. Little time was lost in mounting the operation which took place on 22 January but suffered accordingly as the force used was too small, simply the 6th US Corps of the Fifth US Army. The 6th US Corps was augmented by the 1st British Infantry Division and a British Commando brigade, which landed north of Anzio. Other forces landed at the port or to the south. Just 378 ships took part and air support was provided mainly by the USAAF with the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force. The Germans deployed radio-controlled explosive boats and human torpedoes against the ships but with little effect while German air power was also weak in the area.

There was confusion over the objectives and instead of exploiting the initial surprise, the 6th US Corps found itself consolidating its position. Bad weather meant that the Allies had difficulty in reinforcing those ashore and by 26 January, Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, improvised a Fourteenth Army with a core of six divisions. This force surrounded the Allies, and attempts to break through saw both the British and the Americans suffer heavy casualties with 2,100 and 3,000 respectively. As the month drew to a close, Ultra intelligence warned the Allied commanders of a German counter-attack, to which they were able to respond effectively.

Fierce fighting in the second half of February saw the Germans suffer very heavy casualties with 5,389 men killed or wounded as the Allies moved heavy artillery and massive air power into position. Nevertheless, Kesselring managed to keep the Allies contained until they were able to break out and link up with the US Fifth Army on 25 May and begin the final advance on Rome.

Anzio was a big disappointment to the Allies. Churchill later wrote that he had ‘hoped that the Allies were hurling a wild cat onto the shore but all they got was a stranded whale.’ The US Navy’s official historian was equally blunt, writing that ‘putting such a small force ashore was akin to sending a boy on a man’s errand.’

The landings in the Mediterranean were not over until the Allies invaded the south of France in August, and even then there were further minor operations to re-take Axis-occupied territory. Nevertheless, Normandy was next and the Allies had learned much about amphibious operations both in the Mediterranean and in the Far East by this time. Two points were clear. The first was that the Germans might be losing the war, but they were still capable of mounting a formidable defence and still possessed the capability of fighting a highly mobile war so that large and well-equipped forces could be assembled quickly when needed. The second was that any assault had to be meticulously organized and assembled in such force that the defences could be overwhelmed, while the force ashore needed to be sustained and supported, regardless of the weather.

Nevertheless, there was much to be done and much to be learned before the Normandy landings.

St Nazaire

One idea that appealed to the British in particular was the idea of raids on enemy-held Europe. The Royal Navy had two successful raids during the First World War at Zeebrugge and Ostend, and so plans for such raids started soon after the withdrawal from Europe.

The first such raid was at St Nazaire on the night of 28 March 1942. This was the one major French Channel port that had a dry dock capable of accommodating the German battleship Tirpitz that occupied so much time of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. If the Normandie Dock (built for the French ocean liner of that name) was put beyond use, there would be no chance of the battleship being brought south from Norway to begin a career of commerce raiding. St Nazaire had been the intended destination for the Bismarck when she was sunk by the Royal Navy.

In an operation code-named CHARIOT, the destroyer Campbeltown, one of fifty Town-class ships provided by the United States Navy in 1940, was to be loaded with 3 tons of explosives and used to ram the dock gates before exploding 150 minutes later. Campbeltown was to be escorted by two destroyers, Atherstone and Tynedale, an MGB, an MTB and sixteen motor launches carrying army commandos led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Newman of the Essex Regiment, who were to land and blow up the dock and other shore installations. In all, there were 44 army officers and 224 other ranks as well as 62 naval officers and 291 ratings. Overall command lay with Commander Robert Ryder in MGB314, with Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie in command of the Campbeltown. The two escorting destroyers were to pick up the raiders after the operation, assisted by further MTBs.

Leaving Falmouth in Cornwall before dawn on 27 March 1942, the timing of the operation was dictated by the spring tide and the need to cover 410 miles of open sea and 5 miles of the Loire estuary to reach St Nazaire. To help with the operation, Campbeltown was remodelled to look like a German destroyer and wore the German naval ensign. Despite being spotted by a U-boat, the small force was within 2 miles of St Nazaire before being picked up by German searchlights, but Ryder gained an extra three minutes by offering German identification signals; however, the small force was then extensively illuminated and came under heavy fire. Beattie continued at 20 knots, full speed for his elderly destroyer, and at 0134 on 28 March he rammed the dock gates, just four minutes later than scheduled. The ship penetrated the caisson to a depth of 36 feet.

Ryder landed under heavy fire to find that the destroyer was in exactly the right position and then ordered MTB74 to fire her torpedoes, which were also set to go off later, at the dock gates. Commandos ran ashore from Campbeltown to destroy the pumping house, anti-aircraft positions and a fuel tank, while those aboard the launches set up a diversionary raid on the Old Mole and the Old Entrance. The commandos also seized the Ile de St Nazaire, from which the withdrawal was to be made. In the ensuing fire-fight the commandos suffered heavy casualties as the Germans struck at their launches, and by the time Ryder ordered the withdrawal, just seven out of the sixteen were available.

During the withdrawal, heavily laden with wounded, they were intercepted by E-boats and an MTB sent to help with the rescue was sunk and another three damaged before the destroyers Atherstone and Tynedale were able to pick up the survivors and speed them to Falmouth. The cost of the operation was 144 men killed – 23 per cent of the raiding force – and another 215 captured, with 271 returning safely to Falmouth.

Campbeltown’s explosives did not go off on time and were not discovered by the Germans, so many German officers took their wives and mistresses aboard to see the ship. Around noon the following day Campbeltown finally blew up, taking 380 Germans with her. The next day, 30 May, the torpedoes also blew up, prompting French dockyard workers to attempt to take over the dock from the Germans, causing panic among the German gun crews who opened fire and in addition to killing eighty French dockyard workers also killed many of their own men.

Three VCs were awarded to the naval personnel involved and two to the army commandos, including their commanding officer. Commander Ryder received the VC for commanding the attack under heavy fire and ensuring that its objectives were met before ordering and organizing the withdrawal while his MGB was severely damaged. Beattie also received the VC for his coolness under fire and determination in ensuring that Campbeltown fulfilled her mission. Able Seaman William Savage aboard MGB314 showed great skill and determination as well as devotion to duty, maintaining fire while under heavy fire himself, but was fatally wounded as MGB314 attempted to withdraw. He died the following day.


The raid, originally known as Operation RUTTER but later renamed Operation JUBILEE, was to be launched from five ports in the south of England with Southampton as the most westerly and Newhaven the most easterly. There would be 5,000 Canadian troops, 1,000 British and 50 US Rangers, supported by 237 ships and aircraft from 74 squadrons, of which no fewer than 66 would be fighter squadrons. The heavy Canadian involvement was due to their commanding general wanting them to see action.

Given the complexity of the exercise and the lack of experience among the men and their commanders as the first of the Mediterranean landings was still some months away, an exercise was conducted to provide training and also to ensure that the arrangements were workable. This was just as well as the first exercise was a complete disaster, but ten days later all went well with the second. A date still had to be fixed and it was not until 1 July 1942 that the Dieppe operation was set for 4 July, or the first day after that date with favourable weather conditions.

The weather was bad and on 7 July the operation was postponed. General Montgomery in command of forces in the south of England wanted it cancelled as the troops involved had been briefed and he feared that security would be compromised. His objections were ignored and planning continued; he was then removed from the operation and posted to Egypt to command the British Eighth Army.

One of the changes made after his departure was that of the name to Operation JUBILEE, but more serious was the decision to cancel the planned aerial bombardment which it was feared could cost heavy French casualties. Instead, eight British destroyers would bombard the port but battleships, which could have made a difference with their guns of 14, 15 or even 16in calibre, were held back because they would be vulnerable to German shore-based artillery once they were in coastal waters. This was being overly cautious as the guns of these ships could easily fire over ranges of 20 miles, outside the range of German coastal artillery. Meanwhile, Montgomery’s concerns about security were soon justified as French double agents warned the Germans about British interest in Dieppe, while the commanding officer of the 1st Parachute Battalion was later to comment that from the start ‘security was abysmal’. In any case, increased radio traffic and the growing concentration of landing craft in the south coast ports were also detected by the Germans. The next change, as the weather continued to be poor, was that the planned paratroop landings were cancelled as the use of airborne forces was even more vulnerable to weather conditions. This decision was reversed.

In command of combined operations, Admiral Louis Mountbatten was anxious to see action and impatient for a landing on enemy territory, although this would be just another ‘hit and run’ raid. In this he was not alone. Churchill felt that there was much to be gained both in raising morale among the Allies and in showing Stalin that the British were taking the war to the enemy. In fact, by this time Stalin was already on the offensive in northern Russia, but his main concern was that the main German thrust had turned southwards towards Stalingrad.

Churchill later recalled:

I thought it most important that a large-scale operation should take place this summer, and military opinion seemed unanimous that until an operation on that scale was undertaken, no responsible general would take the responsibility of planning the main invasion…

In discussion with Admiral Mountbatten it became clear that time did not permit a new large-scale operation to be mounted during the summer (after ‘Rutter’ had been cancelled), but that Dieppe could be remounted (with the new code-name ‘Jubilee’) within a month, provided extraordinary steps were taken to ensure secrecy. For this reason no records were kept but, after the Canadian authorities and the Chiefs of Staff had given their approval, I personally went through the plans with the C.I.G.S., Admiral Mountbatten, and the Naval Force Commander, Captain J. Hughes-Hallett.

The initial plan for the attack was an unimaginative frontal assault, but this was developed with the use of British paratroops to attack the German artillery positions mounted on the headlands either side of the town and the port. There were plans for an aerial bombardment before the raid to soften up the target.

The special troops who were still assigned to the operation were Royal Marine, and Royal Navy Commandos, although the idea was not that they should lead the operation but instead they would follow the main force ashore from motor gunboats and destroy the harbour installations. There was even an ex-burglar on their strength who was supposed to break into a port office and burgle the safe, expecting to find important documents.

If security was poor before the raid, so too was intelligence about the target area. Allied air reconnaissance missed the German gun positions embedded in the cliff faces, while the suitability of the beach for tanks was assessed using holiday postcards and amateur photographs. In addition to poor knowledge of the terrain and the defences, there was little knowledge of enemy strength.

Although Mountbatten was in command of special operations, he was not going on the raid; the assault force would be led by Major General Roberts and the naval force by Captain Hughes-Hallett. Mountbatten did, nevertheless, address at least some of the troops before they embarked, as recalled by Sergeant George Cook of No. 4 Commando, which was to attack the artillery batteries at Varengeville-sur-Mer, to the west of Dieppe:

Mountbatten gave us a lecture – said he wished he was coming with us. Once we realised where we were going, I think 200 blokes thought, ‘I wish he were going instead of us.’ But yes, very nice talk. We cheered him – off he went. Then we started priming grenades, drawing ammunition. Our troop were doing the demolitions, so we drew explosives and we’d a fair amount of stuff which we packed up…Then we had a meal and we sailed – a beautiful evening, as we went down the Solent and past the Isle of Wight.

Suddenly an officer said, ‘Oh – they’ve got all the harbour lights lit.’ I looked over the prow of the boat and you could see lights on the shore. The lighthouse at Varengeville-sur-Mer was flashing, so I thought, Cor blimey – everybody awake. We’re going to have a pretty bad welcome here.

When we landed, there was some barbed wire. We’d a roll of wire netting which we threw over the barbed wire so we could run over it. The Germans were firing tracers from their pill-boxes, and Lord Lovat said, quite casually, ‘They’re firing too high.’ He was about six foot – I’m five foot four – so I thought, ‘If they’re firing over his head, there’s no danger they’re going to hit me’ – but they did fire their mortars and four or five blokes were killed on the beach.

Cook and his comrades advanced, firing. One of them shot a man out of an ack-ack tower, who ‘did a lovely swallow dive off the top’, before they reached an orchard accompanied by one of Cook’s friends, another sergeant, Geordie Horne, who was almost immediately shot dead, before Cook himself was hit in the face and shoulder.

Even before the raid began at 0450 on 19 August, the cover was blown completely as a number of the escorting warships had already engaged warships accompanying a German convoy off Puys and Berneval at 0348.

To avoid confusion, the landings were at four beaches each given a colour designation for the operation. One of these, the most easterly, was Blue Beach, where the assault started badly. After leaving the converted Belgian cross-Channel ferry Princess Astrid, the 10th Landing Craft Assault Flotilla started off in the wrong direction and eventually reached the beach sixteen minutes late as dawn was breaking and the element of surprise had been lost. The initial attacks were on the coastal batteries. The attack at Varengeville-sur-Mer by No. 4 Commando was successful, but this was the only unit to meet all of its objectives during the operation. The Royal Regiment of Canada landed at Puys, where they were virtually wiped out with just 60 of the regiment’s 543 men being evacuated from the beach after many were cut down on the ramp where the bodies piled up, while others were mown down by machine-gun fire as they attempted to cross the pebbled beach to the shelter of the sea wall 40 feet away.

Those offshore could not see what was happening ashore because the ships covering the landings had laid a dense smokescreen. This did nothing at all to protect those involved in the landings, but made command and control more difficult.

In the ensuing chaos, most of the landing craft carrying the marines were hit by gunfire on the run-in and the few men who reached the shore were killed or taken prisoner. In an attempt to regain control and end the suicidal mission, their CO stood up in the stern of his craft and signalled to those behind that they should turn back; he was then killed by German gunfire.

The RAF had allocated aircraft, including many fighters, to the operation but Squadron Leader ‘Johnnie’ Johnson leading No. 616 Squadron recalled that there was supposed to be a headquarters ship, HMS Calypso, with radar and RAF controllers aboard that was meant to be controlling air operations. On four sorties over Dieppe that day, he could never establish communications:

We could see very little except for a bloody great pall of smoke over the town, and lots of shelling going on down below. But we could do nothing about it because the attackers and defenders were all within a hundred yards of each other. We couldn’t help the army. When we got home after the first patrol, we knew that the whole thing had been a disaster, but there was nothing we could do to help them.

Withdrawal began at 1100 as the heavy fire continued. It took until 1400. When the assault force left, it left behind 3,367 Canadians who had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner, as well as 275 RM Commandos. The Royal Navy lost a destroyer and 33 landing craft, with 550 men killed or wounded. The RAF lost 106 aircraft. Compared to this, the Germans lost just 591 men killed or wounded, and 48 aircraft.

The surviving landing craft had been ordered to the main beach at Dieppe at 1030. When the first of them arrived there, it was met by a solitary soldier and it was only after he had been handed a Lewis gun with which to defend himself that someone realized he was a German soldier attempting to desert. Once the withdrawal started in earnest, the few landing craft were overcrowded and in danger of being swamped. One of them was hit by a shell and capsized, but the crew managed to get their passengers aboard another vessel.

In the inevitable enquiry into what went wrong, many tried to blame Mountbatten, but as there was no reprimand and he remained in post, it seems that it was not his fault and he did not act alone, although there is no written record of the operation being given the go-ahead. General Sir Alan Brooke was abroad at the time and many believe that had he been at home in the War Cabinet, he might have persuaded Churchill to cancel the operation; however, this is conjecture.

Some believe that the disaster at Dieppe was necessary so that lessons could be learned in time for the Normandy landings but even so, there were many avoidable failings. Either there had to be a heavy aerial bombardment before the operation, or it should have been called off. Some form of reconnaissance from the sea was necessary: this would have noted the gun positions in the cliff face, and could also have assessed whether the shingle on the beach would have damaged the tank tracks, although the latter would have required reconnaissance parties to land on the beach and take samples without being noticed. In addition, much heavier naval firepower was needed and had to continue right up to the moment when the landing craft hit the shore.

The Blockade of Malta (1799)

Malta 1801

When the French fleet sailed for Egypt, Napoleon had left on Malta a garrison of 3,000 men under the command of General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois. The French administration had continued the unpopular reorganisation of the churches and convents, removing many of the art treasures into their own safe keeping. But Vaubois’ position was growing more difficult almost daily.

Following the defeat of the French fleet at the Nile and the arrival of Villeneuve’s ships, the garrison on Malta numbered up to 6,000 men, with two frigates and one line of battle ship,1 but the French were effectively cut off from regular supplies by a naval blockade by British ships and the refusal by the emboldened King of Naples to continue selling produce from his dominions to the French garrison on the island. However, starving the French into submission would take some considerable time, given the huge grain silos built by the Knights of St John in the solid rock, which held enough reserves for the island to survive for a year or two.

The growing disquiet within the civilian population eventually escalated into violence during a particularly bloody incident on 2 September, when the French garrison of the town of Notabile attempted to seize a convent in preparation for it to be dismantled. The angry crowd armed themselves with simple farm implements and took control of the town, overrunning the small French garrison in the process and massacring them. Vaubois promptly concentrated his troops within Valetta and a fort on the island of Gozo and waited, more in hope than expectation, for a relief force to come to his aid. The rebel movement grew quickly, spreading across the entire island like wildfire and a junta was soon formed, led by Emmanuel Vitale and Canon Francesco Caruana, who immediately appealed for help to the King of Naples for troops to support their cause. The King, however, avoided openly supporting the revolt, with French troops in upper Italy threatening his mainland possessions. However, Nelson sent a Portuguese squadron under Admiral the Marquis de Nizza, which arrived on 18 September and landed supplies and arms for the rebels. He was also ordered to continue the naval blockade, but at that moment Nelson’s only real aim was the destruction of the ships in Valetta harbour.

Captain Sir James Saumarez arrived off Malta on 24 September with part of Nelson’s battered fleet with their prizes in tow. Nelson and the remainder of his fleet arrived soon after, although the admiral himself hastily proceeded on to Naples to continue his infatuation with Lady Emma Hamilton, leaving his captains to get on with the blockade. Saumarez supplied 1,200 muskets and ammunition to the rebels and then left for Sicily to get the ships repaired.

Captain Sir Alexander Ball, commanding HMS Alexander, arrived with Culloden and Colossus to join the Portuguese ships blockading Malta. Nelson returned briefly on 24 October, landing twenty-four barrels of gunpowder and on the 28th the small island of Gozo, with its French garrison of 200 men and twenty-four cannon, fell into allied hands. Ball was installed as President of the Council to liaise with the ill trained and poorly armed Maltese and to help them maintain the blockade. To maintain their hold on their positions on shore, he bolstered their numbers by landing some 500 Portuguese and British marines. In late December three British bomb vessels arrived and a regular bombardment began; two Neapolitan frigates also arrived to bolster the blockade.

In early 1799 two French attempts to break through the naval blockade were successful, with a schooner arriving from Ancona and the frigate Boudeuse successfully delivering supplies to the island from Toulon, extending the siege by a further six months. However, food was so short that Vaubois forcibly evicted most of the civilians from Valetta, reducing the city’s population from 45,000 souls in 1799 to 9,000 the following year.4 These additional mouths simply added to the difficulties the British were having in providing supplies, particularly wheat, to the civilian population of rebel-held Malta. By April many hundreds were on the brink of starvation and Captain Ball was finding it difficult to keep the rebels at their posts. Despite frequent appeals to the King of Sicily, supplies were only grudgingly released and the navy was forced to seize passing grain ships to meet the demand.

In May news arrived of a sizeable French expedition entering the Mediterranean. Commanded by Admiral Etienne Eustache Bruix, it comprised twenty-five ships of the line from the Brest fleet and had been sent to relieve the sieges of Malta and Corfu, unaware that the latter was already in Russian hands, and to resupply the French army in Egypt. Having failed to add the five Spanish ships at Ferrol to his numbers, Bruix ignored Admiral George Elphinstone, Lord Keith’s squadron of fifteen ships of the line off Cadiz, despite his huge numerical advantage, determined to achieve his objectives. Unable to combine with the Spanish fleet at Cadiz because of adverse winds, Bruix sailed on into the Mediterranean and headed for Toulon for repairs to his storm-damaged ships.

Keith chased after Bruix, calling for every available ship to rendezvous with him, causing Nelson to lift the naval blockade of Malta to strengthen his squadron off Sicily. During the two months that Captain Ball and his ships were away, the siege was commanded by Lieutenant John Vivion of the Royal Artillery, who incredibly not only kept the siege guns firing but also managed to keep the absence of Ball’s squadron a complete secret, whilst also placating the islanders, who were again desperately short of both supplies and hope.

The British fleet, now numbering twenty ships of the line and commanded by Admiral John Jervis, Earl St Vincent, pursued Bruix towards Toulon, but soon discovered that they were being followed by seventeen ships of the Spanish fleet which had escaped from Cadiz, under Admiral Don Jose de Mazarredo, also now in the Mediterranean. The British were potentially at risk of being overwhelmed by a vast combined Franco/Spanish fleet of forty-two ships. Luckily for St Vincent, a storm wrought havoc on the Spanish fleet particularly, no fewer than nine ships being virtually dismasted, and the whole fleet was left in such poor condition that the Spanish were forced to run for the safety of Cartagena.

Whilst St Vincent watched the Spanish fleet at Cartagena, Bruix sailed from Toulon on 27 May with twenty-two ships of the line, leaving some badly damaged ships to continue their repairs, and accompanied a large number of supply ships full of stores and men en route to Genoa to reinforce the struggling French forces fighting the Austrians in northern Italy. St Vincent, although forced by ill health to relinquish his command to Admiral Keith, insisted on maintaining his fleet in the vicinity of his newly acquired but extremely vulnerable base on Minorca. His advance squadron did, however, have the good fortune to fall on a squadron of five French frigates under Rear Admiral Perree returning from the Army of Egypt at Jaffa to Toulon, capturing them all.

Bruix sailed from northern Italy to return to Toulon, paying a visit en route to Cartagena, where he found most of the Spanish ships were now repaired and ready for sea. Transporting 5,000 Spanish troops as reinforcements for the island of Mallorca, the combined fleet, now numbering some thirty-nine ships, sailed on 24 June for Cadiz.

On 7 July Keith’s fleet was substantially reinforced by the arrival of twelve ships under Rear Admirals Charles Cotton and Cuthbert Collingwood, which had been detached from the Channel Fleet and sent in pursuit of Bruix. Keith sailed for the Straits of Gibraltar, only to find that the enemy combined fleet had passed through some three weeks before and eventually returned to Brest, forty-seven ships of the line strong – where it then lay uselessly for over two years.

So many ships, so much effort by all sides – and so little achieved. In fact, the overall result was that although the British fleets had been led a merry dance and had clearly been outmanoeuvred, Bruix had comprehensively failed to use his superiority to achieve anything of real value. His excursion to Genoa could just as easily have been achieved by a squadron of frigates; he failed to resupply Malta and Egypt; and by sailing into the Atlantic, taking with him the Spanish fleet of Cartagena and Cadiz, simply for all of them to be bottled up in Brest, he relieved the British navy of the threat of any significant enemy ships in that sea and effectively handed control of the Mediterranean to the British.

However, the position for the allies was also complicated by Malta’s confused politics. Britain, Russia and Naples, all allies in the coalition against France, each cast avaricious eyes over Malta and it was far from clear who should act as the island’s guardian when – rather than if – the French garrison was finally forced to capitulate. Tsar Paul, as their official protector and almost certainly their next Grand Master, not unsurprisingly continued to champion the Knights of St John. His recent alliance with the Ottoman Empire had seen Russia gain the strategically important island of Corfu and a Russian fleet had entered the Mediterranean. Malta would make an excellent additional strategic point from which to build Russia’s military strength in southern Europe. Naples and Britain, however, both saw that the rule of the Knights had permanently ended, as the civilian population would never freely accept them back and they had no intention of re-imposing them with military might.

Despite this apparent disarray in the allied position over Malta, in late 1799, when the Tsar suddenly decided to withdraw from the Mediterranean, the British acted. Brigadier General Sir Thomas Graham was sent in command of a force comprising 1,300 British infantry and a similar number of Neapolitan troops to support the rebels besieging Valetta as the blockade now began to see the visible effects of starvation and disease within the garrison. On 10 February 1800 a further French relief convoy of five ships sailed from Toulon under the command of Admiral Jean Baptiste Perree in the 74-gun Genereux, a survivor from the Battle of Aboukir, in a desperate attempt to resupply the garrison. The convoy was, however, cornered off Lampedusa on 18 February and destroyed, Perree being killed during the action.

The garrison now began to see defeat as inevitable, and the 80-gun Guillaume Tell, which had also survived the Battle of Aboukir and escaped to Malta with two frigates in September 1798, was made ready to sail in a desperate attempt to escape to Toulon. Crammed with troops and commanded by Rear Admiral Denis Decres, the ship would escape during the hours of darkness and slip through the blockade before dawn. She sailed on 30 March but was immediately spotted by the frigate HMS Penelope, which constantly harried the French battleship despite being heavily outgunned; the rigging of the Guillaume Tell was seriously damaged, whilst Penelope skilfully remained out of range of her overwhelming broadside. The damage caused by Penelope meant that two British battleships, the Foudroyant and Lion, were eventually able to catch and capture the French ship despite a very determined defence.

Food shortages within Valetta led to extortionate prices for what few supplies were still available; it is recorded that eggs sold for 10 pence each; rats were 1 shilling 8 pence each and rabbits went for 10 shillings. Eventually, after a sixteen-month siege and two years of naval blockade, the French had even run out of horse, cat and dog meat and were now losing 100 men a day to starvation and disease. The frigate Boudeuse was broken up to provide firewood, but on 24 August the frigates Diane and Justice, both with understrength crews, made a desperate break for it. They were quickly spotted and pursued. Diane proved too slow and was soon captured, but Captain Jean Villeneuve’s Justice successfully outran her pursuers and reached Toulon in safety, the only ship to successfully break the blockade. The French garrison was finally forced to surrender on 4 September 1800. The terms of the surrender handed everything over to the British, not the Maltese, whom the French refused to deal with. The handover included two Maltese ships of the line and a frigate which still lay in the harbour.

In an astute and very devious move, just days before the French garrison capitulated Napoleon offered Malta to the Tsar in a clear attempt to cause disunity between the allies, but Britain was to maintain possession of the island. Its strategic position was now clear to both the British government and the Royal Navy. Situated some 60 miles south of Sicily and 200 miles from the North African coast, with an excellent deep water harbour and exceedingly strong defences, the island was in a perfect position to grant a naval power like Britain control of access between the western and eastern Mediterranean. British control of Malta would additionally make the resupply of men and equipment for the French army in Egypt extremely hazardous.

The island was made a free port and the Maltese did well under British rule because of the greatly increased trade. The island immediately became a lynchpin of British policy; it became essential to control this island fortress and it became the headquarters of the British forces in the Mediterranean and would continue as such for the remainder of the war; indeed, it would retain this vital position for the next 160 years.

Neocolonialism in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa

In the decade following World War II, three sub-Saharan African territories threatened the French project of maintaining its empire as the reformed French Union or French Community. In targeting Madagascar and Cameroon, Paris strove to preserve the French Union. In making an example of Guinea, which had refused junior partnership in the French Community, Paris hoped to demonstrate that nation’s inability to assume the responsibilities of independence and to dissuade other territories from following its path. French victories were short lived. By the end of 1960, virtually all French sub-Saharan African territories had become sovereign independent nations. The UN trust territories of Cameroon and Togo claimed their independence in January and April 1960, respectively. In June, Senegal, French Soudan, and Madagascar declared independence. They were followed in August by Dahomey, Niger, Upper Volta, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Ubangi-Shari, Middle Congo, and Gabon. Finally, in November, Mauritania became a sovereign state. Thus, by the end of 1960, the eight territories of French West Africa, the four of French Equatorial Africa, the two UN trusts, and Madagascar had declared their independence from France. Having devised the means to maintain dominance through economic and military agreements, France was ready to relinquish political control – and to unburden itself of the onus of colonial rule. None of the territories that achieved independence in 1960 was subjected to the dire consequences imposed on Guinea two years previously.

The French African territories were independent but weak. Most of the new nations were small and impoverished, and France remained a significant force in their political and economic affairs – in a relationship that typified neocolonialism. Africa remained France’s most important source of raw materials and, after Europe, its second most important market for exports. French state-owned enterprises invested heavily in African oil and minerals. In a number of former colonies, France continued to control the radio, telecommunications, and military communications networks. In many countries, French citizens retained important positions in government and influenced economic, foreign policy, and military decisions. Thousands of government-sponsored teachers, technicians, and medical and military personnel, as well as tens of thousands of private entrepreneurs, lived and worked in the former colonies. Decades after the colonies became independent, France exploited their natural resources, profited from investments in their economies, and propped up or overthrew their governments. No other former imperial power intervened to the same extent in the internal affairs of its onetime possessions.

Once African territories became independent, French-African affairs were directed from the Africa Cell, a secretive body that was separate from the Foreign Ministry and worked under the personal direction of the French president. From 1960 to 1974, the Africa Cell was headed by Jacques Foccart, who not only shaped France’s Africa policy but also directed the activities of the French intelligence agency, SDECE, throughout Francophone Africa. As such, Foccart had enormous power in making or breaking African governments. Successive French presidents and heads of the Africa Cell cultivated close personal ties with the leaders of Francophone African states and established pacts that stressed loyalty and reciprocity. Until the early 1990s, the personalization of politics bound France to its African clients, even after the extent of their corrupt, repressive, and authoritarian practices had been exposed. Personal ties were strengthened by annual Franco-African summits that included French presidents and their Francophone African counterparts.

France’s ties to its former colonies were formalized by a number of cooperation agreements signed in the early 1960s and subsequently updated. The agreements covered economic, monetary, and foreign affairs; defense and security; strategic minerals; and other domains. Whereas the French Community agreement of 1958 gave France sole authority in these areas, the new cooperation agreements were billed as giving African nations a voice. In reality, they perpetuated French dominance. Although most former French territories signed such agreements, four of them – Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Cameroon, and Gabon – constituted the pillars of the postcolonial system. Their political and economic policies were crafted to protect French interests, and their rulers, boasting close personal ties to France, reigned supreme for periods ranging from two to four decades. If the regimes or their policies were threatened, Paris used its political, economic, and military clout to restore the balance.

The postindependence economic cooperation agreements preserved the mercantilist relationship between Paris and its former colonies. For France, they guaranteed markets for exports and privileged access to Africa’s raw materials, the most important of which were critical to French aeronautical, nuclear energy, and armaments industries. The former colonies agreed to limit their imports from other countries. As a result, France remained the dominant supplier of goods and services, even though French prices generally exceeded the world average by substantial amounts. Even after the 1963 Yaoundé Convention opened Francophone African markets to all members of the European Economic Community, France continued to maintain a large trade surplus with Africa, in part because French foreign aid and loans to African governments were tied to French goods and services. Large French trading companies still controlled the import-export market, and French industries continued to dominate African manufacturing sectors.

Economic cooperation agreements were complemented by monetary accords. Most former French colonies joined the African Financial Community (CFA) or franc zone, a monetary union whose participants shared a common currency, the value of which was linked to the French franc. Membership in the franc zone bestowed a number of benefits on its African participants. The CFA franc was convertible – unlike the currencies of many individual African countries. The currency’s convertibility meant that the French Treasury would exchange any quantity of CFA francs for hard currency. Moreover, the CFA franc was guaranteed by the Bank of France. Countries with balance-of-payments difficulties were able to draw on the foreign exchange reserves of members with a surplus. However, membership in the franc zone also had drawbacks. African participants surrendered their economic autonomy. Monetary and financial regulations – and, by extension, economic policies – were determined in Paris. The issue and circulation of currency was under French control. France was permitted to devalue the CFA currency without consulting African governments, and French administrators could veto the decisions of African central banks. Lack of restrictions on capital transfers meant that French firms repatriated significant portions of their profits rather than reinvesting them in African economies.

These shortcomings were not merely theoretical. In the late 1980s, when many African countries were in economic crisis, the French Treasury was forced to bail out a number of clients threatened with bankruptcy, repaying their IMF and World Bank debts. The bailouts constituted a huge expense for French taxpayers and resulted in a dramatic revision to French policy. In 1993, Paris took the unprecedented step of suspending the free convertibility of the CFA franc and announced that, henceforth, prospective aid recipients must implement IMF and World Bank structural adjustment and good governance programs before receiving French aid. Moreover, France would no longer bail out corrupt countries with failing economies. In January 1994, France made another unforeseen move, unilaterally devaluing the CFA franc by 50 percent. Shock waves spread across the franc zone. Import costs doubled, and foreign exchange earnings plummeted. Household income and living standards declined precipitously. These critical actions were taken without input from African governments.

Like the postindependence economic and monetary accords, military cooperation agreements provided the framework for permanent French involvement in the former colonies. Parties to the agreements were required to buy French weapons and equipment and to hire French military and technical advisors. They could also appeal for French military intervention to quash internal or external threats to their regimes. In exchange, France was guaranteed access to strategic raw materials in the signatory countries. Most important among these were oil, natural gas, and uranium, the critical element in nuclear-power production. France was granted a priority right to buy such strategic materials and to limit or prevent their export to other countries if such actions were determined to be in “the interests of common defense.”9 Related military training and technical assistance agreements guaranteed French training to African armed forces, while the French intelligence agency trained African intelligence operatives as well as local police forces. From the early 1960s through 1992, France trained some 40,000 African military officers. In some instances, French officers remained after independence to organize, train, and advise the new national armies. In others, African soldiers were sent for training in France. These agreements gave France enormous influence over the size and capabilities of African armies. As the major weapons supplier in its former colonies, France also had significant influence over the regional balance of power.

The military accords granted France enormous clout by permitting the former imperial power to retain military bases and keep large numbers of troops on African soil. In 1960, when most French African colonies attained their independence, more than 60,000 French troops were lodged in some ninety garrisons in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. The number of troops in North Africa was far greater – with 500,000 French troops in Algeria alone. In the context of widespread decolonization, France determined that it was politically risky to station such large numbers of troops in Africa. As a result, when the Algerian war ended in 1962, France began to diminish its military presence on the continent. Between 1962 and 1964, some 300,000 French troops departed, leaving more than 23,000 French troops in nearly forty garrisons. France closed most of its military bases, retaining only those in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, and Madagascar. In the mid-1970s, after its ejection from the bases in Chad and Madagascar, France established new ones in Gabon, the Central African Republic, Djibouti, and on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion.

Despite these moves, France retained a considerable military presence in Africa. By the late 1970s, some 15,000 French troops were still garrisoned in more than twenty African states and territories, and France continued to maintain transit, refueling, and support facilities across the continent. Nor did the removal of hundreds of thousands of troops herald the end of French military intervention. Contingents in Africa were supplemented by rapid deployment forces composed of mobile airborne troops, which were stationed in France and ready to intervene whenever and wherever necessary. As late as 1993, a rapid deployment force of 44,500 men was ready to leave France on short notice to protect French interests in Africa.

French Military Intervention in African Affairs

During the first three decades of African independence, France was involved in some three dozen military interventions in sixteen African countries, including Benin, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, and Zaire. In most cases, France acted to protect allied regimes from internal threats to their power rather than from external aggression. In some instances, French intervention was sparked by concern about communist subversion or intrusion into France’s privileged domain by Anglophone or Arab interests.

French government concerns about communist subversion were nearly matched by its antipathy toward American political and economic expansion into France’s “traditional” spheres of influence. Hostility toward the United States had been preceded by centuries of competition with Britain. Paris’s aversion to Anglophone influence in Africa, the so-called Fashoda complex, is frequently attributed to a 1898 incident at Fashoda, Sudan, where a British military challenge thwarted French dreams of building an empire from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Even after the dissolution of its empire in the 1950s and 1960s, France considered its former colonies to be a pré carré (private domain) or chasse gardée (private hunting ground) – off limits to other powers, much as the United States applied the Monroe Doctrine to Latin America. To safeguard its supremacy, France expanded its sphere of influence to include Francophone countries that had been colonized by Belgium (Congo/Zaire, Rwanda, and Burundi) and sought to undermine the influence of Anglophone countries such as Nigeria and Uganda, which it considered to be British and American surrogates. Thus, during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70, France was the main source of arms for the Biafran secessionist movement. In the 1990s, France supported a Hutu extremist regime in Rwanda in its bid to destroy the Uganda-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel movement composed primarily of Rwandan Tutsi refugees and their descendants, who had been exiled in Anglophone Uganda. It was these Hutu extremists who perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed nearly one million lives. Paris also supported Zaire’s brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko (formerly, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu), until he was driven from power in 1997 by a Zairian rebel movement supported by Uganda and RPF-led Rwanda.

Six cases of French military intervention are briefly considered here, including those in Cameroon, Niger, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Zaire. In each case, French predominance was believed to be threatened by communist, Anglophone, or pan-Arab interests. Two countries, Cameroon and Gabon, were among France’s four political and economic pillars on the continent. All six countries possessed important deposits of strategic minerals, particularly uranium, which France desired for both weapons and energy production. Protection of France’s privileged access to uranium was a factor in French intervention in Niger, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Zaire. Gabon and Chad also possessed important oil reserves. Diamonds were found in the Central African Republic and Zaire, while the latter also claimed rich deposits of copper, cobalt, and a plethora of other strategic minerals.

Although all six cases displayed a number of commonalities, they also exhibited differences. In Cameroon, France engaged in a long-term counterinsurgency operation, which diverged from the more common pattern of thwarting or supporting military coups. Following its expulsion from the RDA and banning by the French government in 1955, the UPC had transformed itself into a guerrilla movement. With longstanding ties to the PCF and to nationalists in British Cameroon, the UPC sparked French concerns about both communist and Anglophone infringement. Immediately after Cameroon’s independence, President Ahmadou Ahidjo, who was closely tied to metropolitan interests, requested French assistance in quashing the UPC insurrection. France sent 300 military officers to orchestrate the Cameroonian government’s response and five French battalions to enact it. In the ensuing months, some 3,000 rebels were killed, and thousands of civilians died as a result of the war. Ahidjo subsequently banned all opposition parties and, with SDECE support, established an extensive domestic security apparatus. The insurgency was quelled in the mid-1960s, and Ahidjo clung to power until 1982.

French intervention in Niger included thwarting a coup d’état, supporting a coup d’état, and waging a counterinsurgency operation. In 1963, French troops helped crush an attempted coup against Hamani Diori’s government, which had granted France priority access to uranium deposits and other strategic minerals. In 1964–65, France assisted Diori in putting down a rebellion led by Sawaba, an outlawed organization that had emerged from the Nigerien Democratic Union, Niger’s renegade RDA branch. Sawaba, like the UPC, played into French fears of communist and Anglophone infiltration. The organ-ization’s guerrillas were trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc countries, Cuba, China, and North Vietnam. They also received support from radical African states, including Algeria and Ghana. Equally worrisome, Sawaba’s popular base was linked ethnically, culturally, and economically to Nigeria, France’s Anglophone nemesis in the region. French intelligence officers, who continued to dominate Niger’s security apparatus, kept close tabs on Sawaba’s activities, while French security officers supervised the beating and torture of captured Sawaba guerrillas. French soldiers were stationed in several Nigerien cities, and Paris retained military bases in Niger until the end of 1964, when the conclusion of the Algerian war rendered their presence less crucial. French support for Diori waned with his loyalty. In 1974, the Nigerien president attempted to negotiate more favorable terms for uranium sales, at a time when Nigerien uranium constituted two-thirds of that used by French nuclear reactors and French firms held significant shares in Niger’s uranium exploration and production. Shortly after negotiations began, Diori was overthrown by a military coup. The French military did not intervene to support him.

In Gabon, where France had extensive investments in uranium, oil, natural gas, manganese, iron, and timber, Paris supported a client regime by suppressing domestic dissent and restoring the president to power following a military coup. In 1960, SDECE intervened in Gabon’s presidential elections to ensure the victory of Léon M’ba, who was willing to cater to French interests. In 1960 and 1962, France helped M’ba put down internal unrest aimed at his increasingly repressive government. In February 1964, 600 French paratroopers reinstated M’ba after he was toppled by a coup d’état, which French President Charles de Gaulle believed was orchestrated by the CIA to give the United States access to Gabon’s oil, uranium, and other strategic resources. In Gabon, there were widespread protests against the dictator’s reinstatement.

After M’ba’s death in 1967, his successor, Omar Bongo, was handpicked by SDECE’s Africa chief, Jacques Foccart. During Bongo’s forty-two year reign, French paratroopers and pilots were permanently stationed near the Gabonese capital, and French officers trained the country’s military and intelligence networks. Notoriously repressive and corrupt, Bongo siphoned off Gabon’s oil wealth to become one of Africa’s richest rulers. The year after its client was installed in Gabon, France intervened in the Nigerian Civil War, hoping to undermine the power of the Anglophone giant. SDECE agents convinced Bongo to recognize the Biafran secessionists and to permit France to use Gabon as a resupply area. Over the course of the war, France covertly supplied the Biafrans with 350 tons of weapons, transferred through both Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire.

In the Central African Republic, France supported regime change to safeguard its interests – failing to intervene in some cases and aggressively intervening in others. In 1960, France actively supported David Dacko as the nation’s first president. Military and economic cooperation agreements permitted France to station troops in the country and to control uranium exploration and production. Dacko quickly instituted a one-party state that was rife with corruption. Hoping to gain popular support by demonstrating his independence, Dacko eliminated French monopolies on diamonds and lumber and accepted Chinese aid. On New Year’s Eve in 1965, Dacko was overthrown in a military coup led by army chief of staff Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa. French troops in the capital did not intervene.

Claiming that he was saving the country from international communism, Bokassa began a decade and a half of brutal dictatorial rule. He changed the name of his country to the Central African Empire and was crowned emperor in a ceremony reputed to have cost $30 million. Concerned that Bokassa’s repressive policies and erratic behavior threatened French interests, SDECE planned another coup. In September 1979, in what Jacques Foccart called “France’s last colonial expedition,” French paratroopers and intelligence agents deposed the emperor and restored Dacko to power. As before, Dacko permitted a strong French military and bureaucratic presence in the country. However, in September 1981, when Dacko was overthrown by army chief of staff General André Kolingba, who had important French military connections, France again chose not to intervene. Another in a long line of corrupt dictators, Kolingba maintained close relations with France through the end of the Cold War.

French intervention in Chad, which occurred in 1968–75, 1977–80, and 1983–84, was perhaps the most drawn-out of France’s military actions in postcolonial Africa. Bordering on six states, Chad was rich in uranium and oil and an important source of cotton for the French textile industry. Concerned about Soviet, Libyan, and American intrusion, Paris acted to ensure the survival of a regime friendly to French interests. During the colonial period, France had focused its development efforts in Chad’s predominantly Christian and Sara south, neglecting the heavily Muslim northern region. As a result, Sara and other southerners dominated the state at independence. In 1962, President Ngartha François Tombalbaye, a southerner, outlawed all political parties except his own and appointed primarily southerners to the government and civil service. Discrimination against the Muslim north led to the establishment of the multi-ethnic Front for the National Liberation of Chad (FROLINAT) in 1966 and the commencement of armed struggle. Between 1968 and 1971, the French military helped Tombalbaye’s regime recapture most of the rebel-held regions. In the meantime, Captain Muammar al-Qaddafi came to power in neighboring Libya following a 1969 coup d’état. When Nasser died in September 1970, Qaddafi assumed the leadership of the pan-Arab movement, which supported Arab emancipation and unity in Africa and the Middle East. Hoping to draw Chad into the Libyan sphere, Qaddafi openly supported the Chadian rebels, contributing to tensions between FROLINAT’s primarily Arab leadership and Tubu fighters on the ground.

By 1975, when Tombalbaye was killed in a coup d’état, Chad’s north-south division had been replaced by a more complex pattern of ethnic and intra-ethnic conflict. At one time or another, France and Libya supported most of the factions with military and economic aid. Although the factionalism was domestic in origin, foreign involvement made it particularly lethal. General Félix Malloum, chair of the newly established military junta, incorporated more northern and eastern Muslims in his government, but southern Sara continued to dominate. Among the northern rebels, rivalry between Arabs and Tubus was further complicated by divisions among Tubu groups. Goukouni Oueddei’s Tubu faction, residing near the Libyan border, identified strongly with the peoples of southern Libya. Hissène Habré’s Tubu faction, located further south, was oriented toward Sudan in the east. Under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s center-right government (1974–81), France provided covert assistance to Habré, while Libya supported Goukouni Oueddei. The United States, which considered Libya to be a Soviet proxy as well as a sponsor of international terrorism, supported whichever side was opposed by the Libyans.

By the spring of 1978, half of Chad was under rebel control. Malloum appealed for the return of French troops and made an alliance with Habré, who joined the government as prime minister. France supplied 2,000 troops and Jaguar fighter-bombers to stem Goukouni’s advance. By March 1979, more than 10,000 Chadians had died in the violence. A peace accord was signed in August, followed by the establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity (GUNT), which was recognized by the OAU as Chad’s legitimate government. Goukouni assumed the position of president, and Habré was named minister of national defense. By late March 1980, it was clear that GUNT had failed. French troops and OAU peacekeepers stood by as Habré’s forces took control of part of the capital. Libya responded to GUNT’s appeal for assistance, providing money, training facilities, and troops.

Under François Mitterrand’s socialist government (1981–95), France again changed course. Committed to backing the OAU solution, the new French government threw its support to Goukouni, offering economic aid and support for an OAU peacekeeping force in exchange for Libyan withdrawal from Chad. Goukouni agreed, and Libyan soldiers departed. The Reagan administration, however, believed that Qaddafi was an agent of international communism. Worried that Chad, Sudan, Egypt, and Nigeria would fall like dominos, President Reagan authorized the CIA to funnel large amounts of cash, arms, and vehicles to Habré’s rebels, undermining the OAU peacekeeping operation. In June 1982, largely as a result of American covert funding and military support, Habré returned to power. In another about-face, France recognized the Habré government as a fait accompli and the one most likely to protect French interests.

Goukouni again turned to Libya for assistance. In June 1983, Goukouni’s forces, armed with sophisticated military equipment and backed by 2,000 Libyan regulars, attacked Habré’s forces in Chad. France, the United States, and their regional proxy – Zaire – came to Habré’s rescue. While the United States provided military advisors and aid, and Zaire sent aircraft and paratroopers, France supplied some 3,000 troops, as well as weapons, equipment, and logistical support. The Chad campaign of August 1983 to September 1984 was France’s largest military intervention in Africa since Algeria. Habré ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, when he was ousted by his former chief military advisor, Idriss Déby. Habré’s brutal eight-year reign was marked by the systematic use of torture and thousands of political murders.

Paris also had a strong presence in Zaire, which followed France as the world’s second most populous Francophone country. French businesses had important interests in the copper and cobalt mines of Shaba (formerly Katanga) Province. They helped build the massive hydroelectric dams near the capital city and assisted in the construction of ports, airports, and telecommunications infrastructure. In the 1970s and 1980s, France bailed out the nearly bankrupt Mobutu regime and provided it with sophisticated military equipment – including Mirage F1 fighter jets, Alouette III helicopters, armored cars, and weaponry – as well French instructors to teach Zairian soldiers how to use them.

France also intervened in Zaire militarily. In 1977 and again in 1978, Zairian rebels based in Angola attacked the mineral-rich Shaba Province. Claiming that it was repelling a Soviet-backed invasion from MPLA territory, France helped Mobutu ward off the first wave of attacks in April 1977 by transporting Moroccan troops and military vehicles to the embattled region. In May 1978, Paris sent 1,000 French paratroopers to break the siege of Kolwezi, an important Shaba mining center. In a strategic region challenged by Anglophone interests, Zaire was France’s final hope. As a result, the French courtship of Mobutu endured for two decades. Having “lost” Rwanda in 1994 to the English-speaking RPF, Paris was determined to retain Zaire for “la francophonie.” In 1997, as Mobutu’s regime crumbled under a rebel onslaught backed by Uganda and RPF-led Rwanda, France ran a covert military operation against the rebels that included three combat aircraft and some eighty European mercenaries. While the United States distanced itself from Mobutu, who had little value in the post–Cold War world, France supported its protégé to the bitter end.


The armed forces of all five countries covered in this article, although they have been significantly enlarged and modernized, remain small and weak, incapable of offering credible deterrence against attack from larger neighbors, let alone great powers outside of the Gulf region. Until 1961 in Kuwait and 1971 in the other states, the British were responsible for external security. Thus the development of modern armed forces began only recently. Their small populations preclude the creation of large land forces; they have largely concentrated investment in naval assets and air power. Their wealth permits acquisition of modern weapons systems which are not manpower-intensive and which hold greatest promise of blunting if not deterring the kinds of threats posed and on several occasions carried out by Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and, of course, by Iraq against Kuwait in August 1990. A brief description of the armed forces of the Gulf Arab states and their incipient attempts at military cooperation follows.


The military forces of Oman, numbering 41,700 (including 6,000 in the Royal Guard of Oman), are a volunteer force and among the most professional and best trained in the Gulf. Their quality reflects the long involvement of seconded and contract military personnel from Great Britain, up to the highest levels, and the experience of combat in two operations against domestic military threats in the Jebel Akhdar campaign of the 1950s and the Dhofar Rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s. The ruler, Sultan Qabus bin Said, is a graduate of Sandhurst and, as supreme commander, takes a very close interest in the armed forces. The Royal Army of Oman (RAO), formerly the Sultan of Oman’s Land Forces (SOLF), accounts for 25,000 of the personnel of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF). The SAF dates from 1958 when, with British advice and assistance, it was formed from separate security forces.

Throughout the 1980s, British officers held many of the senior positions in the Sultan’s Armed Forces, but by the following decade Omanis had filled them. However, British personnel still play an important role. For example, there remain some 400 British personnel in the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO), as well as a rather significant number of Pakistanis. Moreover, there continues to be a close association between the Omani and British military forces as reflected in the joint maneuvers called Operation Swift Sword, which in September-October 2001 involved 23,000 military personnel on Omani soil and in the sea off Oman. The Royal Army of Oman remains essentially a light infantry force, which could counter the threat of an immediate neighbor or fight a delaying action against the invasion of a more powerful foe. It is organized in four brigades and 18 battalions and served by 200 tanks and 150 artillery pieces. The RAO is armed mainly with a variety of British and U.S. weapons.

The Royal Navy of Oman (RNO), created in 1975 as the Sultan of Oman’s Navy (SON), is a light but effective patrol force that faced the threat of the Iranian navy in the Strait of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war. Its personnel has been expanding in recent years, currently numbering 4,000, and its craft include nine combat vessels and 56 patrol craft armed with guns and surface-to-surface missiles. In 2005, the RNO was reportedly about to receive 12 small, high-speed patrol boats from Abu Dhabi and to select the builder of three new state-of-the-art patrol boats in a $600 million deal.

The Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO), formerly the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (SOAF), was formed in 1959 and numbers about 5,000 men. It has had jet fighter aircraft and helicopters in its inventory since 1969 and currently comprises 30 combat aircraft, over 40 transport aircraft, and 49 helicopters together with air defenses of 58 light surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers. The air force continues to receive the lion’s share of new weaponry, reflecting the primary importance that all the Gulf Arab states accord to air power as their principal line of defense. In 2005, the RAFO began taking delivery of 12 F-16 jet fighters. Together with these advanced aircraft, Oman will receive advanced armaments including Harpoon antiship missiles and JDAM precision-guided munitions in a deal amounting to $850 million. This is the first aircraft order from the United States and reflects a shift away from overwhelming reliance on Great Britain as arms supplier. In addition to the United States, a number of European countries, Canada, and Pakistan also supply weapons to Oman. Jordan and Turkey have provided training along with Britain and the United States. Defense outlays have grown modestly in the past few years, amounting to $2.44 billion in 2003, 11.6 percent of GDP.

Prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Oman had shown a greater willingness than the other Gulf Arab states to cooperate openly with the West in the military sphere. In the late 1970s and early 1980s agreements were reached with the United States to provide for American access to Omani facilities, especially in emergency situations. Supplies were prepositioned at military facilities, several of which the United States undertook to upgrade, most importantly the air base on Masirah Island. By the mid-1980s the Omani government had grown noticeably less enthusiastic toward overt military cooperation with the United States, as was apparent in the strained 1985 negotiations that granted an extension of U.S. access rights.

This reflected in part Oman’s establishment in 1985 of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, which had come to appear less menacing under Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as the normalization of relations with the Soviets’ Arabian Peninsula protégé, South Yemen. It was also presumably occasioned by a more neutral stance vis-à-vis Iran, as Oman attempted to move away from confrontation to a kind of modus vivendi. Nevertheless, together with the other Gulf Arab states, Oman made available its facilities, especially military airfields, to assist Desert Shield/Desert Storm operations following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The principal U.S. defense agreement, made in June 1980, was renegotiated in December 1990. Following the New York/Washington terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Oman made available its facilities for the U.S. and British operations against al-Qa‘eda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United States declared Oman one of the key nations in the fight against terrorism. Omani-U.S. military relations have become increasingly close and extensive; the United States has access to airfields, storage and prepositioning facilities, a communications center, and naval facilities.


Of all the Gulf Arab states Kuwait has been in the most vulnerable military position, in immediate proximity to two threatening and overwhelmingly more powerful neighbors. Iran menaced Kuwait throughout the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, taking direct action against its territory on more than one occasion. From the beginning of the 20th century, fear of the Ottoman Empire and subsequently of independent Iraq has deeply influenced Kuwait’s defensive posture. Since Kuwait’s independence in 1961, Iraq has several times bluffed military invasions either to redraw disputed borders or to enforce claims to all of Kuwait’s territory, and in August 1990, invaded and occupied its neighbor.

Against the wholly disproportionate forces of either of these two neighbors, Kuwait’s armed forces, totalling 12,000 men, could expect to do little more than cause significant damage to the invader and delay his progress, while awaiting the aid of other GCC states and over-the-horizon U.S. forces. In the event of Iraq’s invasion on August 2, 1990, it did less than that. Despite the massing of Iraqi troops on the border, previous false alarms had persuaded the Kuwaiti leadership that they faced only another bluff. The defense minister downgraded the armed state of alert just before the invasion, and a large part of the Kuwaiti officer corps was permitted to remain on leave. As a result, virtually no organized resistance was offered, with the defense minister joining most of the rest of the ruling family in quickly fleeing to Saudi Arabia. (Fand al-Ahmad, a brother of the ruler, gave his life leading troops against the Iraqi onslaught.)

Kuwait’s modern military dates to 1948. After independence in 1961, the military was reorganized with the air force separated from the civil aviation department, and in 1970 the Kuwait Military Academy graduated its first class. The navy was established in 1973 and in 1976 compulsory military service of two years (one year for university graduates) was decreed for all Kuwaiti males and a military reserve was established. Total active forces number 15,500 men and there are 24,000 reserves. Omanis and other non-nationals serve in the armed forces.

The army comprises 11,000 troops organized in three armored brigades, two of them mechanized, and one each assigned to artillery, border defense, and the Royal Guard. The National Guard, a paramilitary force of 5,000, is assigned guard duties on the border and in the oil fields. While earlier purchases of weapons for the army were heavily influenced by political rationale, attempting to steer a neutralist course between the United States and the Soviet Union, the recent acquisitions have more directly reflected military need. The United States and Great Britain are the leading suppliers; the American Abrams tank accounts for the bulk of the army’s armor.

While the active armed forces personnel have been reduced in the past four years, from 19,500 to 15,500, the navy has been enlarged to 2,000. It serves as a coastal defense force, with 10 combat vessels, some outfitted with Exocet surface-to-surface missiles, and 77 patrol craft.

As in Oman, special emphasis has been placed on the development of the air force, which has 2,500 personnel. It is tied into the Saudi Arabian air defense network so as to be able to utilize information provided by the Saudis’ Air Warning and Control System (AWACS). In 1988, the Reagan administration concluded a deal with Kuwait for the sale of 40 F-18 fighter-bombers and about 600 Maverick missiles for a reported $1.9 billion. The aircraft replaced U.S.-manufactured A-4s that were in Kuwait’s inventory, with deliveries of the F-18s completed in 1994. In addition to the F/A-18C/D advanced multirole combat aircraft now in its inventory, Kuwait is procuring F/A-18E/Fs. Kuwaiti pilots acquitted themselves well during Desert Storm, flying missions from Saudi airfields in the aging A-4s that they had flown out of Kuwait as the Iraqis invaded. The lack of qualified pilots to man the aircraft in its inventory remains a significant problem for the Kuwaiti air force.

As with the other Gulf Arab states, a major weakness of the Kuwaiti armed forces has been their extensive dependence on foreign advisers for daily management and operation. The country’s large arms inventory suffers from its mix of U.S., British, French, and Soviet weaponry with limited interoperability as well as simply the inability to absorb effectively the sheer amount of sophisticated weaponry. To some extent, the U.S.-assisted restructuring of the Kuwaiti military over the past decade has addressed these weaknesses.

In the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion and occupation, a certain ambivalence has marked Kuwaiti thinking on how best to provide for the state’s future security. Some were persuaded that Kuwait must look in large part to enhanced military power of its own to counter future aggressors, and in 1991 Kuwait earmarked some $5 billion to strengthen its armed forces. Its annual defense expenditures are about 11 percent of GDP, $3.81 billion in 2002. However, the prevailing view was that, whatever improvement might be effected in its own military capabilities, Kuwait would be obliged to depend on powerful friends for its essential security. After having previously seen the United States as, at most, a distant over-the-horizon presence, Kuwait had initialed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States in September 1991 to stockpile U.S. military equipment and engage in joint training and exercises. In subsequent months, several exercises were carried out with the U.S. Marines as well as with the British Royal Marines. In early 1993 Kuwait signed a defense memorandum with the Russian Federation.

In April 2001, Kuwait and the United States agreed on a 10-year renewal of the 1991 pact permitting U.S. forces to use Kuwaiti facilities and station troops and equipment there. In 2002 and 2003, the American-led coalition’s build-up for the conflict that was initiated with Iraq in March 2003 brought large numbers of military personnel, particularly American and British, to Kuwait (about 24,000 Americans were there in 2005); vast quantities of matériel from the United States have been shipped through Kuwaiti ports. The close cooperation between the two countries during the prosecution of the war and the operations against the drawn-out insurgency that has followed has linked Kuwaiti security still more closely to the United States. This was symbolized on April 1, 2004, when U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Kuwaiti Minister of Defense Jabir Muhammad al-Hamad Al Sabah presided over a ceremony designating Kuwait a major non-NATO ally of the United States.


The Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), established soon after independence in 1971, comprises army, navy, air defense, and Royal Guard units. Its personnel number 11,000, making the BDF the smallest military establishment in the Middle East. Military service is voluntary. Separate from the BDF, the public security forces and coast guard report to the Ministry of the Interior. Bahrain’s defense spending has been fairly steady and substantial, though lower as a percentage of GDP than the other GCC states; in 2003, it was $618.1 million, 7.5 percent of GDP. Like the other Gulf Arab states, Bahrain has focused its defense efforts on its air power, the Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF) or Bahrain Amiri Air Force (before the emirate’s designation as a kingdom in 2002). The air force began modestly with two small helicopters in 1977. A 1985 purchase of Northrop F-5s from the United States was Bahrain’s first acquisition of fixed-wing military aircraft. In 1987, 12 F-16s were added to the dozen F-5s already in service. Despite this upgrading of naval and air forces, the BDF remains a largely token military force. In 2000, delivery of a second squadron of F-16s, equipped to carry the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile, commenced. The original F-16s are being upgraded to carry the missile as well, and in early 2003 Bahrain deployed Patriot missile interceptor batteries obtained from the United States. In addition, an academy for pilots was established. These developments have significantly improved the RBAF. The army has also been strengthened, largely with American weapons, including 54 M60A3 tanks. The navy remains modest, an efficient patrol force whose acquisition of attack gunboats and missile boats makes it also a small combat force.

Bahrain inherited good military facilities from the British, for whom the island had been a significant military asset in the Gulf. These included an airfield and naval base. Following the British military withdrawal in 1971, the U.S. Navy’s Middle East Force, which had maintained a small flotilla at Jufair since 1949, was permitted to retain home-porting privileges. Since 1977 a new agreement permitting U.S. warships to call for supplies upon request has essentially extended the earlier agreement with a lower profile. U.S. access to Bahraini facilities in the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 was Bahrain’s most important contribution to Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The United States completed a defense agreement with Bahrain in September 1991. Since then, the United States has provided military technical assistance and training through foreign military sales (FMS), commercial sources, excess defense article sales (EDA), and through the International Military and Education Training (IMET) program. In 2003 and 2004, the U.S. Navy conducted Exercise Neon Response, an annual bilateral “training evolution” with the BDF to “enhance foreign relations and operational techniques” between the two countries. In October 2001, President George W. Bush announced the designation of Bahrain as a “major non-NATO ally,” underscoring the closeness of U.S.-Bahraini military security relations.

In 2004, Bahrain became the first Gulf Arab state to promote women to a senior rank in the military when two female officers achieved the rank of colonel. Each was a medical doctor, one being the head of the military hospital’s radiology department and the other the head of its maternity department.


With its small population of not more than 850,000, the bulk of it non-Qatari, Qatar could not defend itself against any probable aggressor. It has relied for its security primarily upon efforts to promote political stability in the Gulf and upon the protection provided by friends. Like Bahrain, Qatar is covered by the Saudi AWACS umbrella and combat aircraft.

The commander in chief of the armed forces is Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler since June 1995. In 2002, Qatar and the United States foiled a coup by mid-level Qatari army officers who were opposed to the American military presence in the emirate, as a result of which the ruling family increased its direct supervision over the military. In September 2003, the emir appointed his son, Crown Prince Tamim (who had replaced his older brother, Jassem, as heir apparent in August), to the position of deputy chief of the armed forces. The armed forces number 11,800 personnel, making them the second smallest in the Middle East after Bahrain. Manpower shortages have led to reliance on personnel from other countries, particularly Oman. Military service is compulsory for males who do not graduate from secondary school, and volunteers are accepted from the age of 18.

The ground forces number 8,500 organized in two brigades. The Royal Guard comprises one brigade, while the other incorporates armored, mechanized, and artillery battalions. Weaponry includes 44 tanks, with negotiations under way for purchase of another 80. These, like approximately 80 percent of Qatar’s arms, are French. Air force personnel number 1,500 and the principal combat aircraft are a dozen advanced multirole Mirages. The navy, with 1,800 personnel, has seven combat vessels whose armaments include Exocet surface-to-surface missiles in addition to 17 patrol craft. In June 1992, Qatar signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, which has been progressively expanded. In April 2003, the United States announced that the U.S. Combat Air Operations Center for the Middle East would be moved to Al-Udhaid Air Base in Qatar, a logistics hub for U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, and a key center for those in Iraq. Additionally, Camp Al-Sayliyyah, the largest pre-positioning facility for U.S. equipment in the world, served as the forward command center for CENTCOM personnel during the invasion of Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom. While France continues to be the principal arms supplier, the United States has joined France and Great Britain as the leading sources of military training.

The United Arab Emirates.

Of the five countries covered in this srticle, the UAE has devoted by far the greatest expenditures, overall and per capita, to the development of its armed forces. The UAE’s armed forces evolved from the Trucial Oman Levies (TOL), later known as the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS), created by the British in 1951 to maintain order among the tribes of the then-Trucial States. By 1971 this was a well-trained, British-officered force of 1,600, drawing 40 percent of its recruits locally, 30 percent from Oman, and the balance from Iran, Pakistan, and India. In that year the TOS became the Union Defense Force (UDF), with its headquarters in Sharjah. From the beginning of independence, however, there were separate forces in each emirate, the Abu Dhabi Defense Force, established in the late 1960s, being the largest. Since the emirate rulers’ pledge in 1976 to merge their forces, the country has moved slowly toward effective integration.

The total UAE armed forces manpower is over 72,000, with approximately 60,000 troops headquartered in Abu Dhabi and 12,000 in the Central Command in the emirate of Dubai to whose defense it is primarily committed. The UAE has invested heavily in recent years in strengthening its armed forces. It continues to rely on troop force from other Arab countries, particularly Oman and Pakistan, but the officers are now almost exclusively UAE nationals. Like the other Gulf Arab states, it has emphasized the development of its air force but with its sizable oil revenues has been able to expand its airpower far beyond that of any of the other GCC states excepting Saudi Arabia. Indeed, with the acquisition of 140 advanced strike aircraft, the UAE has become one of the best-equipped air forces in the Middle East. From France, it received the first of 30 Mirage 2000-9 aircraft in late 2004; additionally its current fleet of 33 Mirage 2000-5 aircraft will be upgraded to the standard of the newer version. In 2005, the UAE began to take delivery of 80 F-16E/F Block Desert Falcons acquired in 2000 for $6.4 billion; delivery will be complete in 2007 and the planes are expected to remain in service beyond 2030. These aircraft and their advanced weapons systems will greatly enhance the UAE’s over-the-horizon capabilities and will provide interoperability with U.S. military forces in the region. Emirati pilots are being trained to fly the F-16s both in the UAE and in Arizona. Supplementing these are 33 transport aircraft, 88 training aircraft, and 102 helicopters in service.

The UAE’s ground forces number 59,000 personnel in a total of nine brigades. They reflect the greatest range of arms supply, with 388 French Leclerc battle tanks, delivery of which was completed in May 2004, representing the principal weapon of the three armored brigades. Great Britain, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Jordan, and Turkey are among the other countries that have recently supplied armaments for the ground forces. The UAE’s naval forces have 2,000 personnel and are equipped with 12 combat vessels, some of them built in Abu Dhabi, and 104 patrol craft, as well as 30 additional assault boats ordered in 2004. The navy also has 10 landing craft, with another 15 being delivered. The UAE is committed to building up its navy from a purely coastal defense force to one with blue-water capabilities.

Interestingly, women have begun to play a role in the UAE military. In 1991, following the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Shaikha Fatima, wife of then UAE president Shaikh Zayid, took the lead in establishing the Khawla bint Al-Azwar Military School which trains women volunteers between the ages of 18 and 28 for military service. Female soldiers serve in secretarial, communications, and training positions. Some have been assigned with their male colleagues to peacekeeping duties in Kosovo. The highest-ranking female in the UAE armed forces is a colonel who heads the dental section of the medical corps.

Although the UAE has drawn on diverse sources of arms and confirmed its close security ties with France, long a leading source of arms, by signing a defense accord with that country in 1995, it has established an intimate security relationship with the United States since signing a bilateral defense pact in 1994. The F-16s acquired in 2000 were then superior to those in the U.S. inventory. They were outfitted with software codes to permit alteration of friend-or-foe designations on their cockpit displays, something never before shared with a non-NATO ally. Moreover, the UAE demanded and received from the United States advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs) that had not yet been sold to any Middle Eastern country, including Israel. Its request for approval of delivery of two E-2C Hawkeye 2000 airborne early warning (AEW) platforms went before the U.S. Congress in 2005. In January 2005, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Peter Rodman, led a Pentagon/State Department delegation to the UAE for the first meeting of the Joint Military Commission that formalized the two countries’ growing defense cooperation. Rodman confirmed that a military air flight-training center was now operational in the UAE and that pilots were being trained there and in Arizona to fly the F-16s. He cited “a variety of agreements, informal and formal” that the United States had concluded with the UAE and noted the intention to hold a regular series of bilateral meetings on security issues.

Attempts to integrate the Gulf Armed Forces. In 1981, the Gulf Arab states joined Saudi Arabia in forming the GCC. Their action was largely prompted by security concerns, following the Islamic revolution under Khomeini in Iran and the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq. The GCC’s decisions to establish a Gulf Arab arms industry and to coordinate arms purchases have not been realized to any great extent. There has been some progress toward a third goal, creating a rapid deployment force. In 1983 and 1984 exercises involving elements of all the GCC armed forces participated in joint exercises, and a number of bilateral exercises have been held since. “Peninsula Shield Force” is stationed at Hafr al-Batin in northeast Saudi Arabia.

In January 2001, the GCC states signed the region’s first defense pact in which they pledged to come to one another’s aid in the event of an attack against any of them. Agreement was also reached on expanding the force from about 5,000 troops to 20,000. The force, however, is rarely maintained at its full brigade strength. About 6,000 personnel are kept at Hafr al-Batin with the balance on alert in their home countries as reserve units. In February 2003, the GCC agreed at an emergency session to deploy the Peninsula Shield forces in Kuwait as war between the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq loomed. The GCC forces did not participate in the coalition operations against Iraq. After 20 years, efforts to create a significant integrated GCC military have not met with great success and any serious talk of developing a 100,000-man force has effectively ceased. The fact that the smaller GCC states continue to feel some resentment at what they perceive as Saudi hegemonic attitudes tends to militate against creation of more effective integration. However much the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 and the events of the decade and half that followed have increased the sense of shared danger, the Gulf Arab states have continued to pursue weapons systems purchases with limited emphasis on their interoperability. For the foreseeable future, Peninsula Shield will remain essentially a symbol of GCC unity against external threats and as an earnest of future intentions.

The general Gulf Arab states’ concentration on developing air power because of their considerable monetary resources and limited manpower has led them to focus more attention on a unified air defense than on ground forces integration. A start was made, as noted, with the extension of the Saudi AWACS coverage to Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. Some progress has been made recently toward developing a regional air defense. The GCC is implementing a project called Hizam al-Ta‘awun (Band of Cooperation), which is a program to establish a telecommunications network linking the military headquarters of the GCC states and then their radar systems. This provides secure communications between the various national command and control centers but does not really integrate the GCC state air defenses. Progress toward true air defense integration lags, and the practice of purchasing weapons systems that are not interoperable between the Gulf states and even within them continues to be an obstacle. Despite significant political tensions in U.S. relations with the Gulf Arab states, they continue to see little alternative to reliance on American power for their essential security, as reflected in their bilateral security pacts and intensified military cooperation with the United States. Cooperation extends well beyond agreements for American use of facilities and positioning of forces to interactive cooperation. Since 1999, Cooperative Defense Initiative programs have brought together senior U.S. and GCC military leaders to promote greater awareness of the regional security environment and foster cooperative efforts in the CDI. The recently established Air Warfare Center for military air flight training at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the UAE was established not simply to train Emirate pilots on advanced U.S. aircraft but to serve air force pilots from throughout the GCC.

Recently, the Gulf Arab states have begun to focus seriously on an air defense system that would extend to missile defense. Major-General Khaled Al Bu-Ainain, commander of the UAE Air Force and Air Defense, has urged achievement of complete transparency among the GCC command and control networks to meet the threats of attacks by aircraft and missiles. In 2004, he and other GCC military planners urged revival of plans for a regional missile defense system aimed not only against a potential Iranian threat but possible threats from nations farther east, including India and China. Clearly, U.S. technology and operational expertise will be required if such a system is to be constructed.

The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered I

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (CO 204) Men of a battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment resting after an attack in July 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212858While the battle on the Ancre (13–18 November 1916) was being fought, an Allied High Command conference at Chantilly was considering plans for a co-ordinated offensive on several fronts in the Spring of the following year. A key element in such an offensive would be a renewed Anglo-French drive on the Western Front. 1916 had seen the defeat of the Romanian component of the Entente but there was evidence elsewhere that the continued exertion of pressure on the Central Powers had sown the seeds of a military harvest which could be reaped in the Spring. Such thinking was far from being universally held in the corridors of political power where the perspective was frequently framed by an antipathetic view of the military mind. Ministers of State looking at the Somme through this lens saw their judgement irrefutably confirmed.

Lloyd George, in 1915 a member of the War Council which had approved the Gallipoli operation, was in November 1916 Secretary of State for War. He was deeply convinced that an alternative way had to be found to get into the heart of the Central Powers and bring about their defeat. The continuous battering at a bolted front door, as seemed to him the unimaginative, indifferently callous, even stupid, High Command directive for the Somme, convinced him of the inappropriateness of such methods, re-confirmed his vision of an Eastern approach and determined him on Haig’s unfitness to command. This depth of political/military cleavage was given awesome significance by Lloyd George’s assumption of the Premiership in December under circumstances which make quite as good a story as those which had seen Haig reach his position as Commander-in-Chief BEF twelve months earlier.

Lloyd George’s sudden turnabout as Premier, his temporary conversion to the idea of victory on the Western Front through a new deliverer, Joffre’s replacement as French Commander-in-Chief, General Nivelle, and the direct repercussions this would have for the BEF and its Commander-in-Chief in 1917–18. They are, however, deserving of one’s awareness as it is basically Lloyd George’s and Churchill’s verdict on the Somme, carried forward into the present by some, that we must address in any attempt to evaluate High Command direction of the battle.

The two political Titans, by definition conditioned to be reactive to opinion, trends, shifting ground, disappointments and quite naturally to the search for scapegoats as well as alternative, cheaper, shorter visions of how the war might be won, were to set themselves up against the military men while the war was being waged, most particularly in the case of Lloyd George. In their perception, the ‘Brass Hats’ exercised their authority with a total lack of imagination and a callous disregard for the human material put into their hands to win the war. For their part, military High Command did indeed think differently, being convinced that at this time of great industrialised nations with mass armed forces being locked in struggle, the war had to be fought as they were fighting it, by attritional methods to deplete the strength and will of the enemy.

What irony there is in that while the military men were grimly proved to be right, the politicians, in keeping with the post-war spirit of the times, wrote the more convincing self-justificatory memoirs and histories of the war, identifying the ‘villains’ responsible for its shameful cost and length. A battle won with a pen, casualties limited to reputations and a proper understanding of the war.

As weary British troops embarked on consolidation of their positions from late November 1916, two things were happening which in different ways illustrate some of the problems which require consideration in approaching a verdict on the Somme in its centenary year. First, Haig was penning his official despatch on the battle. It is dated 23 December 1916. In it he deploys the benefit of hindsight – what he had learned from his experience in directing the Somme Offensive – to underplay his pre-battle hope of a breakthrough, and, till at least mid-September, his retention of some hope of that breakthrough. If hindsight for the historian is at one and the same time his weapon and potentially his Achilles heel, then so it must be for the Commander-in-Chief. Certainly Haig’s failure to acknowledge in this official document that the first great offensive waged under his command had educated him in how this colossal struggle inexorably would have to be fought, – simply by wearing out his enemy – seems to diminish him as a man, but surely, if one were to believe him correct in his assessment, does the omission seriously diminish him as a Commander-in-Chief? That judgement that is less clear.

The second point is that as Haig was writing his report, the Germans were pressing on with the preparation of the new defensive line to which they would withdraw from February to April 1917. Well before this, in Germany on the Home Front, the exigencies produced by the war in general, blockade in particular, and not least the strain of the Somme, were stimulating strikes, disturbances and peace protests.

The Somme had played a major part in undermining German High Command in the West though it was the opening of a new front in Romania which led to Falkenhayn’s removal and Hindenburg and Ludendorff being summoned at the end of August to take over in the worsening crisis in the West. What weight may we place on this, on the withdrawal, and still later developments, in evaluating whether the British and French were indeed to have won the Battle of the Somme?

John Terraine maintained that the Somme in 1916, and Third Ypres in 1917, were essential elements in the August-November 1918 defeat of the German Army on the Western Front. His argument has been further developed in the tri-nation research of William Philpott’s history of the Somme, Bloody Victory – ‘[Attrition], loathsome as it may be, worked.’ The historian made the further point that Lloyd George, who had been pre-eminently in a position to halt such procedure in prosecuting the war, did little so to do until deploring the means after the war. Philpott might quite reasonably have added, as many would, that he ‘did nothing except consistently undermine in Westminster, Whitehall, with the Press and with French politicians and generals, the position and reputation of his own Commander-in-Chief BEF’, but Philpott is unequivocal concerning the strategy of attrition, originating from the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Cumulatively, the effects of attrition combined with repetitive and increasingly frequent battlefield defeats were to bring on the German army’s eventual collapse. The issues may not be easy to quantify but, as marshalled by these two historians, and others distinguished in the field, the argument convinces.

Some attention was given to the place of the battle in the generational passage of our history: what the Somme has come to mean to us and the extent to which that was a true reflection of the actual experience of the battle in 1916 and its significance to the outcome of the war. Here, an attempt will be made to restrict the perspective to the original setting. Was it a necessary battle; to what extent was there choice available to Haig over its location and timing; what can be said about the manner in which it was waged and the awful price? Was it unjustifiably prolonged and, within the 1916 time-scale circumscribed; was there identifiable profit from such expenditure of human and material resources? To some extent the answers to these questions have already been indicated, but they need summary and attention given to the further fundamental question of how the men of the units which saw prolonged service on the Somme coped with the experience in terms of their morale?

The reality of the constraint upon Haig’s freedom of action as Commander-in-Chief BEF, lay in the relative difference between the British and French material contributions to the Western Front in December 1915 when Haig was appointed to his command: in miles of front held, about 50 as against 400; in divisions of troops employed on the Western Front, about thirty-eight as against ninety-five. The disparity between the British and French commitment was so striking that there could be no question that the overall strategic direction would be in French hands. This situation, by definition paralleled in reverse for naval strategy, was formalised by the conclusions reached at the Inter-Allied Military Conference at Chantilly on 6–8 December 1915 and then at the end of the month by the instructions given to Haig by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.

First, at Chantilly, Joffre had secured unanimous support for what amounted to his strategic overview – concentration upon the main, rather than subordinate battlefronts, co-ordination of planned offensives for those fronts to be launched as soon as possible and designed collectively to be decisive. On 28 December, Haig received his instructions from Kitchener and they made it unarguably clear that British troops were in France primarily to combine with the French to defeat the enemy: ‘The closest co-operation of French and British as a united Army must be the governing policy …’ As John Terraine, long ago, consistently maintained, no matter what clauses followed about Haig not coming under French command, the reality of his terms of reference was caught in the expression ‘the governing policy’. Hence we have a uniform inter-Allied consensus for a co-ordinated offensive and it can be inferred beyond dispute that Haig would work with the French design and timing of that offensive on the Western Front. Furthermore, it would follow that a much heavier burden of such an attack would fall upon the BEF because the nearing readiness of the New Armies would enable the imbalance of the Allied effort on the Western Front to be considerably redressed. The Chantilly Conference had quite specifically referred to the need for the ‘wearing down’ of the enemy by operations conducted by those powers which had reserves of men, all this materially to help a concerted effort. In the West this meant Britain. There was no longer a reservoir of French manpower on which to call, and of course there is irony in the fact that the number factor dictated that strategy would be French-determined and yet it also dictated that the price in men would have now to be paid by Britain to a far greater extent than hitherto.

We have to accept then that there was no disagreement that a major offensive was needed and no possible issue over the fact that the BEF would foot the larger proportion of the bill. It cannot be seriously maintained that Haig’s belief that Flanders was where the ultimate decision might be won, made him obstructive over Joffre’s insistence that the offensive should be well south of where the BEF had so far undertaken major operations. What Haig wanted to do was to convert the idea of subsidiary wearing-out fights before such a great battle took place into the drawing together for more profitable use of all the resources necessary for that larger endeavour. To this end, attacks immediately prior to the general action would be justified as they would distract the enemy and draw in his reserves committing them to operations of secondary consequence; attacks launched earlier would be profitless.

In conference discussion with Joffre on 14 February, Haig’s point was conceded but the same conference also fixed the scene and the date for the Allied offensive – the Somme on 1 July. There is no need here to examine the reasons why Haig would have preferred Flanders: it is sufficient to say that Joffre required the Somme. Again there is an irony. Here on the Somme in an attritional battle, Joffre would be able to fix the British into playing a major part. Haig would be looking for something different, a front to be broken but, in truth, with no strategic objective behind that front. In Flanders there were two such objectives, Roulers and the ports of the occupied coast of Belgium. On the Somme there was nothing of similar significance.

In parenthesis, it is tempting to consider whether Haig’s lack of recognition for French achievements on the Somme, at the time and subsequently, something for which he has been criticised, had its roots in the British C-in-C having to dance to the French tune, being uncomfortable with this and with the fact that, in military terms, the French were at this time dancing the better – their artillery programmes and concentration, and their infantry tactics in the assault.

On 21 February, the German onslaught at Verdun made an indelible imprint upon all Allied planning for the Western Front. Haig had not yet jettisoned all thoughts of Flanders but such thoughts were held now under inescapable restraint. Readily he undertook what he had so recently refused, the immediate taking-over of the line held by the French Tenth Army. In French perception, the Somme, by its relative proximity to Verdun, could assist in the holding of the historic city; Flanders certainly would have no such effect. At a stroke, Verdun added a preoccupying urgency to all planning for the Somme and it would determine that a date earlier than 1 July might be contemplated for the opening of this offensive, a date later could not be. Haig, on 26 May, had made his preference for a later date clear to Joffre but he was not ungracious in accepting the priority of French need over British readiness for the battle.

The battle then had been judged necessary by French-led, inter-Allied agreement. It was given British Cabinet endorsement conveyed to Haig on 14 April. The location of the battle was decreed by Joffre, the timing decided by both Allied intention and German intervention. Haig’s role had been entirely proper – professionally rather sceptical but, from the reality of his subordinate position, seeking at this stage to raise the prospect above that of une bataille d’usure and of loyally concentrating the available resources for what was now a threefold concept – a major element in the co-ordinated Allied offensive planned for 1916, the very necessary rescue of an ally and the development of the possibility of a decisive breakthrough.

Concerning the way in which the battle was waged, the divergence between Haig and Rawlinson over the question of ‘breakthrough’ or ‘bite and hold’ has been stressed. In his book British Generalship in the Twentieth Century, E. K. G. Sixsmith suggested that Haig was in pursuit of ‘true strategy’ which of course sought surprise, and examined the nature of the ground to see which objectives, once taken, offered hope for exploitation. Even with the closeness of the opposing lines offering unpromising chances of securing surprise, we should remember that some strategic surprise was won. British military activity from the Belgian coast southwards did delay German realisation that the real effort was coming between Serre and Montauban and the Germans did not anticipate that the French would be able to take on any offensive role at all. A shock certainly awaited them on the French sector. Sixsmith is one of several authors who stress quite appositely that in the earliest stage of the planning for the Somme Haig had wanted an infantry advance led by lightly-equipped infantry patrols but his three Army Commanders had opposed this and Haig conceded their point. Sixsmith maintains that Rawlinson was more concerned with the means at his disposal and the method of attack and that while Haig was able to insist on planning for the swift seizure of some key objectives – Montauban for example – his inability to answer the problem of the enemy wire other than by prolonged bombardment led him largely to accept Rawlinson’s tactical approach. Hence, a preliminary bombardment that was long enough and heavy enough would leave the infantry with the reduced task of taking possession of destroyed defences and consolidating them against counter-attack. Successive waves advancing behind a precisely timed artillery bombardment which would lift exactly as previously decreed onto the next target, would be the subsidiary infantry role in what was basically an artillery battle. Capturing the first line of enemy trenches was not, however, to be the relatively simple task envisaged.

As recognised in all accounts of the battle, there was an insufficiency of guns, in particular of heavy guns, of high explosive shells and, we might well remind ourselves, that the instantaneous fuse, so essential for the destruction of barbed wire, was not available for 1 July. The artillery programme for the assault has been considered by many to have been inflexible and, given the known insufficiencies and inadequacies in the instrument of delivery, unrealistic. Furthermore, even if the plan were to have been the masterpiece claimed by a recent historian of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, General Sir Martin Farndale, there was a considerable variation in Corps and Divisional understanding of the programme, and in the capacity to implement it or willingness to implement it. The same must be said of the use of meteorological information and newly-developed techniques like reliance on the map for ‘predicted’ rather than pre-registered shooting. In the case of the New Army, the lack of experience at all levels in the science of gunnery was a very serious matter. Additionally, in the light of all this and the inability to locate and destroy German batteries, an insufficient awareness of the true strength of the German underground defence system and that the British bombardment was to be rendered still less effective by the high proportion of defective shells and worn or dated artillery pieces, there was still another fatal flaw. This was the failure to require the infantry to exercise speed, keeping up with the barrage and being in on the defenders before they manned their parapets. This was the only way in which some element of tactical surprise could be achieved and, as fate was to decree, it was also the only way there would be any protection to the infantry as the men were exposed crossing No Man’s Land. With too much faith put in the artillery completely to fulfil its role in the battle and no widely-held confidence that New Army infantry could operate in any other way than methodically walking across and occupying destroyed positions, over- and under-confidence respectively were to combine in the production of the tragedy of the first day of the battle.

There was more. For reasons of artillery observation, the French refused to countenance an earlier hour than 7.30 a.m. for the infantry assault. This compounded the problem on the British front where the artillery had not done its work effectively and that which would be clearly observed was not the German positions but the British infantry in their approach of them.

Hindsight compels us to witness and re-witness in our mind’s eye the awful inappropriateness of heavily-burdened men attempting to make measured progress across No Man’s Land in successive lines of companies in extended order, with the artillery not having been effective in protecting them. The issue of some battalions, and New Army battalions too, having been trained in different procedures and carrying them out successfully, has to be followed up with, ‘then why were not all the Kitchener men so trained?’

Contemporary source after source lays emphasis on the New Army’s unreadiness in terms of training for the assault they would have to make – that is of course in contrast to their exhibiting an outstanding readiness in terms of elan. Were the battalions of the Regular Army and of the Territorial Force required to attack using precisely the same procedure? No, but by whatever means the men of the BEF attacked north of Montauban, success was minimal and the price still dreadful.

It is difficult to make a convincing argument that the New Army infantry, given the chance of May/June training behind the lines in France, could have developed a real proficiency in advance, by detachments, in the lozengeshaped ‘artillery formation’ or by the Regular Army pre-war ‘fire and movement’ procedure to build up a firing line, platoons alternatively giving covering fire and then advancing as they themselves were given protection. High morale there certainly was but there was not the marksmanship to take advantage from such procedure and, in fact, the nature of the more elevated German positions, secure in their concreted depth also, was surely not going to be taken by such methods at this stage of the war with morale of the defender unbroken.

There is then a strong temptation to state quite simply that the German positions were too strong and the enlarged BEF not ready for the Somme when the battle had, for all the reasons previously stated, to take place. Battle experience in this ‘new’ world war was everything. By definition, Kitchener’s men had not had Neuve Chapelle or Aubers Ridge or the experience of the Battle of Loos as a grim guide and if High Command and its staff did indeed have such experience, the insufficiently-tuned instrument at their disposal was going to have to be played and there was not the rehearsal time for learning radically new techniques before the performance – Verdun saw to that.

A counter-argument can be developed but it leads to a quagmire for the politician. If it were to be maintained that in the development of appropriate tactical training procedures for the men of the New Armies, first in the United Kingdom and then in France, the Army authorities had shown a slowness to adapt to the changed circumstance of warfare on the Western Front, the truth of this in general terms could perhaps be conceded but behind this lies the harsh reality of the Nation’s unreadiness for the war in which it found itself. Partnered by and matched against huge conscript armies with their nations’ industrial systems more readily placed upon a war footing, Britain was paying a high price in every direction as she embarked upon what was needed, the fundamental transformation of her society, economy, institutions and Government to meet the National emergency of a European and World War. Would she have been better prepared, indeed might she have been more of a deterrent to German ambition to make or risk war had she possessed that which was unthinkable to the pre-war Liberal administration, a conscript army?

Yes, the infantry tactics used on 1 July proved on most sectors disastrously inappropriate. Some changes were made, most notably in the hour of launching an attack and in attempts to infiltrate No Man’s Land before the attack was delivered but the tactics remained vulnerable. It is surprising that Haig’s belief in the possibility of breakthrough was not translated into allowing a night attack on 15 September after the initial success achieved by such timing on 14 July. It can be added significantly, even if depressingly, that when new tactics were developed by all three major antagonists on the Western Front, it still needed special circumstances for them to be effective – first, and little surprise here, in the development of a new highly sophisticated programme of bombardment and second, in serious flaws in the defence of the objectives being attacked. Such circumstances were certainly not present in the Summer of 1916 on the Somme.

Returning to the question of the readiness of the BEF for the battle, several sources echo the Official Historian’s emphasis on the relative inexperience of some of the Corps and the Divisional Commanders in managing units of that size. In one important sense the lament is more anachronistic than a fair charge to be made against any individual or the Army as an institution – the sheer size of the BEF was unprecedented and there was by definition no earlier school of experience for the large number of senior officers required. This still leaves open the competence of those promoted to senior positions and here the Canadian historian, Tim Travers, brings some of his most savage criticism to bear upon the system of promotion in the ‘old army’ and upon Haig in particular. There is abundant evidence of the tensions which developed as a result of the Edwardian army having to digest the lessons of the Second Boer War and ready itself for war in Europe. The old ways survived in awkward juxtaposition with attempts to modernise, make more professional, and develop more technical competence. In such a setting, power, privilege and prejudice advanced the careers of some, arrested those of others. Those who progressed were not always those best fitted for the requirements of the new war. This of course was not a scenario unique to the profession nor to the period, as the world of industry, business, politics and education for example, across any time scale, could doubtless testify. Travers made the point that ‘a still largely traditional officer corps [attempting] to fight a modern [technological/firepower] war as though it were a fully prepared and professional group of senior officers and staff, led to a strong tendency to cover up errors during the war, and to achieve alterations in the subsequent military record and then in the Official History’.

There is some truth in this but if this were the whole truth one is left to wonder how the war was won. It has been argued that victory was earned to an overwhelming though inter-related degree by the Royal Navy, also that the psychological factor of the scarcely-tapped resources of the United States was the key. British skill in the realm of propaganda is stressed too (with just a touch of irony) but there is the need to explain the absence of a collapse in the attacking endeavours of the BEF in 1916 and in late 1917, the absence of a collapse as its soldiers desperately defended in the March/April 1918 crisis and then surely its leading part in the three months of hard fought unbroken victory terminating in the Germans suing for an Armistice. Can the military events following upon July 1918 all be attributed to a shrewdness of German High Command policy in withdrawal, French resurgence, American troop arrival in strength and the work of the Australian and Canadian divisions?

Returning to the military direction of the 1916 battle, it is possible that more could have been made from the success at Montauban on 1 July in conjunction with the adjacent French achievements. Perhaps Gough’s reserves should have been swiftly given the chance to prove themselves here. Rawlinson’s decision to halt and consolidate on the first objective was, some consider, all the more regrettable as Balfourier’s XX Corps on his right had also reached its first objective and was anxious to push on to Peronne if the British were also to advance. The northward direction of any exploitation developed here would have been a serious outflanking threat to German defences which were holding firm against frontal assault.

On two further dates, questions have to be raised over the seizure of opportunities or of the reality of such opportunities. On 14 July, it does seem that the cavalry was not in a position swiftly to exploit advantage, again on the right of the British advance. One is almost conditioned to deride the potential usefulness of cavalry in France and perhaps the opportunity of which some have written was but a mirage. Nevertheless the mounted arm was expensively, and hence it must be presumed, purposefully, maintained, yet here we have it ordered up too late and then from too distant an assembly station to have any real chance of fulfilling its purpose. This matter, of great moment or otherwise, lay within Rawlinson’s command.


The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered II

The other major consideration is over the employment of tanks on 15 September. Haig’s eagerness to use the new weapon is unquestionable and even after their patchy performance in initial battle testing, his faith in them is confirmed by his striking request, two days later, for 1,000. The charge against him that he used the tanks when he had too few to make an impact and that in using them he was conceding their surprise factor for small reward, does not really stand up against the dual need to use all means available to achieve a breakthrough while the weather held and the fact that the tank had to be proved in battle before mass production could be requested, never mind sanctioned. Where he might have been bolder and intervened in Rawlinson’s plans was in the failure to concentrate those tanks available and to use them in a favourable location in the role for which they had been conceived, breakthrough. Instead, they were carefully spread like some special seed that some might fruit. The role given them was to deal with strongpoints, not to force a way through. Perhaps their slowness and the small number which remained immune to mechanical disorder or becoming ditched made them unfit at this stage for anything more adventurous than was essayed but a case can be made against the way the tanks were initially employed and more particularly against the absence of proper artillery protection of their advance.

The time factor can be used on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there was the urgent need to use tanks almost immediately they arrived because so much was at stake in the effort to achieve strategic initiative, and then, essential battle-testing too, and on the other hand, there was artillery and infantry unfamiliarity with the new engine of war, the small number available, their mechanical unreliability and the inexperience of the crews. All the latter considerations counselled caution, retaining the surprise factor, addressing the problems known to be there and then launching a tank-centred decisive operation.

There were other general matters where tactical thought was developed slowly, like the way in which Lewis and Vickers guns might have been more effectively employed in a mobile attacking role. The same might be said for the need to train and utilise Stokes Mortar teams, but the second barrel of the double-barrelled shotgun charge against Haig for the Somme – the first aimed at the infantry tactics employed – was the prolongation of the battle when, to some at the time and to many who have written about it since, the offensive was maintained long beyond the point of any profit whatsoever. Built into such an indictment is the presumption, frequently stated, that Haig and his staff at their comfortable HQ were totally removed from an understanding of the actual conditions under which the men at the front served and that polished-booted, red-tabbed Staff Officers, coping with the inconvenience of the map obscuring the whisky decanter, drew neat lines which determined the fate of the men towards whom they were callously indifferent. Haig’s immaculate dress and stern gaze out of photographs, the setting for which is usually the steps of some splendid chateau, are mentally juxtaposed against images of men in the line and casualty statistics. Of course such visions derive from judgements already made, presumptions affirmed.

There is substance to the charge of the perceived remoteness of the staff once the important qualification is understood that the nearer the line staff work took place, the more difficult it was. Anyone who was momentarily to doubt this reservation has only to read Staff Officer: The Diaries of Lord Moyne 1914-18.5 Walter Guinness, the first Lord Moyne, was to be engaged in Brigade and Divisional staff work in the second half of the war and his diary documents graphically the well-nigh impossible circumstance for such work when under heavy shelling in a forward position. As it happens, there is too, a delightful illustration of the prejudice he met against staff officers when he himself was simply a regimental officer on the Somme. On 23 August, he wrote of the Adjutant of his battalion, the 11th Cheshires, a man who was a university lecturer in Agricultural Chemistry: ‘He hates and despises all staff officers, feeling no doubt that he has far more brains himself and says that there are many Double First men serving in the Armies who ought to be on the staff. With all his cleverness, however, his manners are such that what the staff might gain in brains, it would certainly lose in friction.’

It has been argued that the gulf between GHQ and the staffs of subordinate HQ lay not least in a combination of Haig’s closed mind and the fear he inspired. The nature of his taciturn personality and of his remote position at the apex of military authority certainly combined seriously to reduce access to him and there is little evidence to demonstrate that the men around him were endowed with exceptional ability or the capacity for innovative thought. On a point of detail, Haig’s keenness to use the tanks scarcely suggests a closed mind but the command structure, inter-communication, the exchange and discussion of ideas, implementation of change, the cooperation of individuals and of Staffs, were not areas in which Haig and the senior echelons of command achieved distinction during the central months of the war. Near the top of the pyramid, there were men whose work subsequently seemed seriously adrift like Brigadier-General John Charteris, in command of Intelligence, who fed Haig unwarrantably optimistic reports on the decline of German morale, but the point has to be made more general – there was simply an insufficiency of well-trained Staff Officers for all levels of this work in the hugely expanded BEF. The disappointing quality of their work on the Somme too frequently reflects this and not just at GHQ. From every point of view there was truth in Lord Moyne’s diary entry. Later in the war, New Army officers would increasingly break into the enclosed professional milieu of the Staff, but during the Somme, a natural prejudice felt by ‘one of us’, that is the Regimental Officer with his men in the line, against ‘one of them’, the briefly visiting Staff Officer, too frequently is evident. It was rooted in the different circumstances of their daily life and the idea of receiving orders from on high through the person of a polished superior being, who seemed to display an unfamiliarity with and a distaste for work at the sharp end of his orders. A discordant thought intrudes here: is this not a normal feature of ‘life at the coalface’ – how well thought of, is the Bishop on his rare visitation, the school inspector at his scrutiny, even the factory foreman on his rounds?

It is also perhaps fair to suggest that Staff Officers, unless by prior experience solidly grounded in regimental work in the line, might cocoon themselves within the idea that the Regimental Officer would have no idea of the burdensome and endlessly problematic nature of the Staff Officer’s work and this perception would hold a measure of truth. There are, however, numerous counterbalancing snippets in letters and diaries from officers and men paying tribute to the organisational work behind the assemblage of so many facilities, so much materiel and so many men of different units engaged in separate but related tasks before the onset of some major endeavour.

Field Marshal Lord Harding, a subaltern in the First World War, told of a lesson he had learned from the Great War was to avoid the gulf between the Staff and the Line which he had experienced in 1915–18. The Field Marshal did not serve in France but much has been written in support of this point. It may be considered however that the gulf was there almost by definition both by reason of the particular nature of the First World War and perhaps by the structure of any army at war. In that event then the missing element was High Command concern to stress the inter-dependence of each and a wider understanding by each of the work of the other. Staff Officers with regimental experience had this, but otherwise ignorance prejudiced the view across the divide. Tackling this in war may not have seemed a high priority and would not have been easy to organise. We can see with hindsight that it would have been beneficial.

It remains to be said on this matter that while Haig’s severest critics make no documented case against him of indifference to his men, the charge remains by implication. However, it simply cannot be substantiated; there is too much evidence to the contrary. From subaltern to general the man in command had men ‘to use’ in battle. For him to be unnerved by the full meaning of this, and for him to have given inadequate thought to the best employment of them to achieve the aims of the endeavour; these two factors together would show an unfitness for command. Perfection, freedom from error, and with tragic significance, freedom to operate outside the constraints of the warfare in which commander and men are engaged, this we cannot expect. Whether Haig were to have failed his men on the Somme will continue to be debated; the baser charge that he was indifferent to them, does not stand serious examination. As a liaison officer at GHQ, Charles Armitage, sharing responsibility for feeling the pulse of the men under Haig’s command, was infuriated by what he termed such a ‘wicked slander which has never been substantiated; the exact opposite is the truth’. By character, personality and upbringing, Douglas Haig was inescapably a product of an age which determined that his paternalistic attitude to his men would give rise among later generations with their different values and social norms, to a range of judgemental reaction – certainly, regret, probably, some lack of comprehension and, in all likelihood, scorn. Could or should anything different have been expected? A hundred years on, the ‘mateyness’ which society seems to expect between leader and led in any walk of life, frequently looks shallow, artificial and unrealistic to a discerning observer. No, in 1916, Haig showed that he had not got the ‘common touch’. In addition to the points already raised, he lacked an essential element in exhibiting it, verbal fluency. How extraordinary it would have been if he were to have had it. Perhaps he did develop something approaching it post-war with his work for the Royal British Legion, but that is another matter.

With German operations at Verdun diminishing rapidly as the Battle of the Somme maintained its momentum in July – on 11 July, Falkenhayn, the Commander-in-Chief, had ordered the suspension of offensive operations at Verdun – had not the Somme justified itself and hence could be halted during the latter part of that month? No, the offensive had been conceived as a huge co-ordinated Allied vision to wrest the war’s initiative from the grasp of the Central Powers and there was the continued belief in the possibility of achieving a breakthrough – 1 July at Montauban and 14 July had both indicated that such a chance might be there. There was something else, previously referred to, but deserving re-emphasis, the advance by the Somme of High Command education in the nature of the war in which they were engaged. Attritional erosion of the capacity of an enemy to continue the fight was not new. It was not new when it was waged by the North in the American Civil War, though it was then on an unprecedented scale, and new in the sense that the North had the basis of industrial power to forge the weaponry for this form of destruction of its adversary, but even if it were fundamentally built-in to Allied strategy as agreed in December 1915, it was to be a new experience for Britain in the following year.

The war had become one in which populous, industrialised societies increasingly utilised every fibre of their national resources. However, regardless of this, the current stage of weapon technology gave every advantage to the defender, in this case the Germans, who had advanced into Belgium and France, been checked and, preserving their 1914 initiative, had dug in. To attack them to throw them out of their gains meant challenging the approach to positions commandingly defended by concealed machine-gun and rifle fire supported from the rear by well-sited artillery. There was no flank to turn except by the huge gamble of seaborne invasion of the occupied coast of Belgium and so a fundamentally frontal assault was decreed by definition though the configuration of the line in some sectors seemed to offer flanks for assault – again frontally. With the Entente committed to attack and the Germans advantaged in their defensive posture, the Western Front had become a battle of will and materiel. For Britain, the Somme was the first major test. Gallipoli had devalued strategic alternatives and French requirements focused concentration upon Picardy. Even when the higher aim of breakthrough dissolved in frustration after 15 September, there could be little question of calling off the battle. Furthermore, in the turning of the screw upon the enemy, valuable objectives had been won in the south which invited exploitation to attack, in the flank, positions which were still resisting frontal assault further north. That this is not simply a Headquarters view, nor a retrospective view, is illustrated in the letter sent home on 30 September by the Medical Officer of the 10th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, C. K. McKerrow: ‘We still push ahead and kill many Huns. Our losses are smaller than at first and I really believe we are doing pretty well. It will be great if we can get Bapaume before the winter sets in.’

The twin arguments of maintaining the pressure and securing further tactical advantage were used in the attempt to sustain a momentum of attack which German resistance and worsening weather were combining to halt. As GHQ and Fourth and Fifth Army HQs weighed judgements based on weather reports, ground conditions, progress on the map, Intelligence gained from aerial photography and written reports, interrogation of prisoners and other sources, further factors were being evaluated. British casualty statistics, ammunition resources, troops in reserve, morale, the needs of allies and an awareness of wavering support and even opposition in Westminster and Whitehall; all this was being considered as the battle was prolonged into exceptionally adverse campaigning conditions. Gough’s keenness to attack has been mentioned and there is the possibility that Haig believed a success might refurbish his damaged reputation, even his command which he may have perceived as being under threat. Were Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt worth their price in November? From the privileged position of hindsight the answer may be in the negative. At the end of September or at some stage in early October, even in the then recognised attritional nature of this battle, there was evidence available on ground conditions alone that there was no profit in its continuance. In a sense, the battle was evidently won, with the aerial photographs indicating German preparations for retirement; however, does the boxer show readiness to halt his assault with his opponent clearly wobbling?

In a denial of access to post-December 1916 developments in assessing the Somme, what can be said about its balance sheet? German casualties could only be estimated, hence British statistics, however gathered or interpreted, lack a point of comparison. Certainly the manpower resources of the British Empire were deeper than the resources of their adversary, and the losses, dreadful as they were, would in a numerical sense be more than made up by the trained readiness of conscripts in 1917.

British losses in killed, wounded and missing have been variously estimated from figures of just over 400,000 to 424,000, the French at around 202,000. German losses may have been as high as 680,000 but there is no consensus over these figures. Even in an understanding of the nature of war and of this war in particular, there can be no minimising of the scale of the blight upon the young manhood of the British nation, the Empire and the other Allies – and of those of their antagonists. However, war is waged within the constraint or with the opportunity of available weapons and technology and the requirement to attack or defend with their attendant disadvantage or advantage – the awful figures simply represent the consequence of the military collision of Great Powers at this particular time. To extend the enquiry into the ultimate areas of responsibility for the actual outbreak of this terrible struggle or still more provocatively but tenuously into the hypothesis that if Britain were to have been better prepared militarily then might war have been avoided.

What is clear is that by joint endeavour France had been protected from the most serious threat both to her front and to the condition of her army since the disasters on the frontiers in 1914. German recognition that she could not maintain her existing position against sustained British pressure was recognised by the September 1916 commencement of the new defence line to which in February 1917 her troops began to retire. In this, Terraine saw an ‘unquestionable Allied victory, mainly a British one’ in that ‘it was a settled German principle not to retire if this could possibly be helped; the decision to do so at the beginning of February 1917 was dictated by one consideration only – the imperative need to avoid another Somme’. If, in view of what was known at the turn of the year, there were evidence for the High Command to claim, as Haig did in his Official Dispatch, that a full half of the German Army, the mainstay of the Central Powers, ‘despite all the advantages of the defensive, supported by the strongest fortifications, suffered defeat on the Somme this year’, then few should dispute that it had been a victory, terrible in its price, but a victory.

Of the men themselves – how had they endured the circumstances and avoided any vestige of a collective breakdown in discipline? The Somme, for the soldier of the New Army and to a large extent for the Territorial who served there, stands in many ways representative of the whole war. We have seen from letters and diaries the evidence of attitude and opinions before initiation into the reality of war, at the enlightening of a man’s ignorance and then during his prolonged exposure to the stress of battle. We have seen men being ‘educated’ by the Somme – tried and tested. The constituent elements which together determined their state of morale can be highlighted but before so doing we must remind ourselves that these elements would need different emphasis if we were to have the Regular soldier predominantly in our sights.

How were men, who were not by profession soldiers, motivated to accept privation and danger and then physically and mentally to exert themselves to do things which, before they had donned uniform, most would have considered totally alien – to fight and to kill? What factors gave a body of men a collective strength of will to strive to achieve a common purpose against opposition of whatever nature and what had to be in each individual, if not by nature then by implantation or constraint, to give the chain of collective will sufficient strength in each link?

If men were to be required readily to do things which did not come naturally to them and which involved their subjugation of every instinct to avoid danger and not think solely of self-preservation, then at the foundation there had to be a strong adherence to a cause which was consistently more inspirational than self. While a range of reasons impelled enlistment in 1914, for most men the bedrock of the decision to enlist was a belief in the case presented by poster and newspaper and from within, that King and Country had need of him. Unemployment, boring jobs, a desire for adventure, breaking away from current constraints, wanting to be with friends, fear of being left out, marginalised, yes, such factors were certainly there in varying measure for many in the queues at recruiting stations but that which drew everything together and for many men was itself the total almost tangible impulsion, was patriotism. It is not appropriate here to account for the springs of such an emotion, to look at education or the power of the press for example, but to recognise the beat of the nation’s pulse, remaining aware, as Peter Simkins properly reminds us, that ‘thousands simply appear to have succumbed to the heady atmosphere which enveloped them in the early months of the war, particularly as the national and local recruiting campaigns got into their stride’. There is no doubt at all that to be out of step with this mood invited external and internal pressure.

Patriotism as a basic element in the morale of a soldier was not going to be sufficient in itself nor of course was there a monopoly of it: field grey as well as khaki was drawing on it for inspiration. In 1914, it was a concept which may have had the personifying face of the King and Kitchener but held within its adherent’s perception, his hamlet, village, town, county, state within a Dominion, that Dominion itself, as well as the idea of Mother Country and of Empire which quite evidently influenced many who came from overseas in support of a call initially made from London. Symbolically it did not have to be London. A New Zealander on his way to war wrote: ‘After the horrors of Hartlepool and Scarborough, I am proud that I will have the chance of getting a little back on them.’ George Bird, a Royal Marine Light Infantryman, spoke for many in trying to get his family to explain to his sister the obligation which impelled him. ‘Poor Florrie, I was sorry to read of her crying about me. It is a matter of duty this war. I am out to save our home and you, the same as millions more are doing.’ Bird, a working-class lad, expressed his simple conviction powerfully; it matches nicely the more sophisticated analysis of a subaltern, O. W. Sichel, but we can scarcely deny the added significance of the latter’s judgement in that it came from a man who had been serving with the 5th Royal Warwicks on the Somme in November 1916: ‘After all this is a splendid cause, a magnificent race to be fighting for. Only he who comes out here can realise the greatness of England, the colossal strength of the Empire – the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that have been surmounted.’

However much it may be natural in any conflict situation and whatever may be said about the educational ideals which gave rise to it, the assumption of a moral superiority over one’s foe was a basic factor. It was rooted in the presentation to Britons of their history, raucously chorused in the Music Halls and now newly-proven by German beastliness to Belgians, the shooting of a nurse and a Merchant Navy captain and the sinking of a transatlantic liner. Such a sense of superiority was ample fuel for the engine of BEF morale. This is not to say that the patriotism of the citizen soldier was blazoned: it was felt. When superiority in materiel was added, as seemed the case in late June 1916, and perhaps in mid-September too, then confidence was further encouraged. If disaster were to strike, as it did on 1 July, if periods of protracted stress or misery were to erode that confidence in material superiority, there was still sufficient spiritual resilience. The cause in which they had their faith, retained its compulsion. The Somme of course soon shaved away from most men the expressions of patriotism still enunciated by Oliver Sichel but it left instead a resistant stubble of stoic acceptance of the need to do one’s bit, something wholly different in character from the disillusionment which was the focus of much post-war fixation upon the battle and devalued the endurance of the men who were there.

An additional element in the maintenance of a collective resolve was the special pride and sense of something to prove which animated Canadian, Australian and New Zealand units. It was a powerful competitive stimulant and perhaps particularly in the case of the Australians held a degree of discriminatory judgement against the English, conceived, justifiably or not, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. A similar sense of distinctive difference fuelling resolve lay in the far more ancient pride of Welsh, Scottish and Irish regiments and in the new element of identity in the battalions of Pals from towns in the North and elsewhere.

Regimental pride itself is of course fundamental in all considerations upon morale. Whether of far distant or more recent origin, a regiment’s past achievements raised high expectations of new honour and this was part of the unit’s mystique. It seems that not merely superiority over one’s foe is to be assumed, but over one’s allies and the regiment to left and right. For all its cumulative human tragedy, the Somme played its part in fusing identity with one’s unit. A subaltern, A. C. Slaughter, joining the 18th Battalion King’s (Liverpool) Regiment on 3 July, wrote home: ‘I feel proud of being posted to this Bn. after their work of the last 2 days. The only pity is that it is practically wiped out.’ Officer and man might express it differently but an undeniable pride in one’s battalion, battery or field company is consistently a part of the testimony of men enduring the battle. No silly claim is being made that this was unique to this war or to the British as distinct from allies or enemy but it was certainly intrinsic in upholding the performance of the BEF.

Of unsung but major importance to men of the BEF on the Somme, was the Army’s concern for the general welfare of its men in so far as circumstances permitted. Attempts were made to prevent units being exposed for too long a period in the line. There are numerous exceptions like that documented in William Strang’s diary of the 4th Battalion Worcesters during ten days at the beginning of July and again in October but the need for adequate sleep and a hot meal was recognised. Tributes to the work of men with the Army field kitchens and those bringing meals into the line are frequently recorded. There were rest periods out of the line and, though some were sullied for the men by labouring duties and further training, they provided opportunity for relaxation from the stress of the line, for recreation and the varied pleasures of welfare huts, concert parties and estaminets. In between two fierce actions in the autumn, E. G. Bates, the cheerful Northumberland Fusilier, saw the ‘Duds’ concert party of three officers and seven men assisted by Engineers in the construction of their stage and the setting up of lighting. ‘They had skits on all kinds of things including Chu Chin Chow. It was screamingly funny.’ Film shows, singsongs, band concerts, football and boxing matches were staged and billeting arrangements were at least better than sleeping arrangements in the line. Pay, more variety in food and optional extras, oeufs and frites, beer, vin blanc or rouge, letters and parcels to be received and letter-writing opportunities offered, baths, perhaps in the vats of a brewery, even some sightseeing, sexual release, just talking to women, all had their application towards a man’s sense of well-being.