Now, at my age, hour-long Youtube videos are, well, I vacuumed my apartment while trying to keep an ear on Rob Thompson's "By the Leave of the Ground: The Engineers at Third Ypres," so I'm a little hazy on the subtle sinews that connect the big ideas that the Ypres battlefield was more like a cityscape than a traditional battlefield; that it was vital to be able to move the artillery up, as loads are delivered on streets to addresses; that there was not enough labour/skilled labour to do this, and this is why Third Ypres was a botched battle; and that it was because reasons.
The specious "because reasons" is there because I am especially unwilling to reduce an argument that I didn't quite catch (it turns out that vacuums are loud! I wonder if someone out there has designed a technology that would put the speaker right next to your ear. That would make it easier to listen to all sorts of things while you're doing things. Hmm. Maybe I should patent the idea?) to some parody of what Thompson is really saying.
So let's detach the argument from Thompson and rephrase it as something that someone might say on the basis of the circumstances that Thompson elaborates: which is, put very briefly, that the engineers are neglected and stuff, because technocrats get the short shrift in every day's military in comparison with [in-group to be named later.]
Now, I've got no problem with excoriating military in-groups to be named later. I think that the Navy should get its hands off strategic air power, and that it was a bad day for American industry and trade unionism when Special Forces/Light Infantry were allowed to become the tail that wagged the Army's dog. If it turns out that the counterinsurgency doctrine approach doesn't work, and, at the moment, all signs point to "yes," it will prove to have been a bad day for assorted Third World playpens, too. Seriously, Gary Trudeau notwithstanding, who allowed the world to get away with calling occupied Iraq 'the Sandbox?'
But there's a big problem here: Or, rather, a lot of big problems: Kitchener. Roberts, Gordon, Wolselely, and for that matter Napoleon, Radetzky, Joffre, Lee. . . . It does not, on its face, seem as though the Victorian armies of Europe were ones in which military engineers and artillerists had to stand at the back of the bus.
That being said, from the creation of the office of Chief of the Imperial General Staff through to 1912, the office was held by cavalrymen (1, 2), two Riflemen, a Guardsman, Highlander, an infantryman, and a solitary engineer, and artillerist. It is a little difficult to make a statistical case with so small a sample, but let's take the critics seriously. This is too many cavalrymen, and, indeed, over the next twenty years we see engineers and artillerists take a more prominent place, and the cavalry vanish until Harding's appointment in 1952, and of course by his time the cavalry rode tanks, so that's all right.
On its face, the technical arms should dominate. Entrance into the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, which trained infantry and cavalry officers, was so competitive in the late Nineteenth Century that even one future CIGS couldn't get in, a not completely atypical story. Yet the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, was even more competive. At this point, one is obliged to point out that exam-taking doesn't necessarily prove anything, which is all very well, except that there are exams to be passed for promotion and for entrance into the Staff College, as well. The total number of engineer and artillery entrants into the College was capped before 1914 precisely to give the other branches a chance. And, of course, that was a problem, but certainly not an explanation.
As a first pass at the problem, cavalry is getting more prominent in the British Army in the years before 1914. There are explanations for this: above all, the Boer War, which gave cavalrymen a chance to shine. But there's more to it, and Exhibit A, above, a lavishly spread "shaded relief" map of China produced for Fortune magazine by Richard Edes Harrison, is supposed to be communicating my point visually right now.
So please do stare at it until it produces a new, non-verbally articulated understanding of the semantic unit "China" in your consciousness. I'd explain what you're supposed to be looking for, except that would be using words, and so defeat the point of the exercise.
(by the way, if you liked this map...)
The notion that the engineers are always striving upwards to their rightful place in the world is a powerful one of long standing, with a political agenda so strong that you can cut it with a knife honed on an Edinburgh Review. To make a long story short, having a reputation as an "experimentierte ingenieur" has been the second-best ticket to high military office after having the right relatives since before an Archduke famously described Marchese Francesco Borres in those terms to another in justifying the pay offer he'd made in 1655.
And while obviously you didn't go to engineer school if you had the good luck to be born into the house of Lorraine, that didn't mean that you weren't educated in the engineering arts. Sure, the cliche is that rich people don't cram, but here's the thing: we're not talking about rich young men on their own at Cambridge, looking for that darn Isaac so that they could throw him in the Eden for wrecking the curve on yet another geometry exam. We're talking about kids under instruction. It might be hard to tell yourself to study. Making the kids do their homework before they're allowed to play with ye old XBox is a quite different matter in which class is not necessarily implicated. It is true that engineer and artillery corps emerged and proliferated during the long Eighteenth Century, along with the Pioneers, Pontooners, Sappers, Staff Dragoons, and yet other now-forgotten real or nascent technical corps, but you have to take that back to the context of regiment patronship and the creation and exchange of social capital more broadly.
The Whig narrative is wrong, is what I'm saying. But also, in a more subtle way, right. Because the Eighteenth Century was the era of the emergence of the "civil engineer." We know the basic drill. Out of a complicated admixture of millwrights, instrument makers, ironmasters, mine supervisors and who knows what, there emerged in 1818 the Institution of Civil Engineers. Like military engineers, they built roads and bridges and earthworks....
But wait! Why did military engineers build earthworks, exactly? The answer is a point that tends to go astray in our conversations about the First World War, which notoriously manage to miss the point that wars have things called "sieges" as well as things called "battles." "Sieges" are when the enemy, instead of standing out in the open and fighting like a man, retires into a strong place, climbs up on the battlements, and cries out over the land: "I'm the king of the castle, and you're a dirty rascal."
You may not know that taunt, if you've never minded nephews and nieces on a playground, but, if you have, you will, like me, now remember the words of one of those annoying French public intellectuals, to the effect that a "fort besieged is a fort taken." The point here is not to bore your nephews and nieces until they go away. It's to tire them out so that your sister can have some peace.
This is, obviously, generalisable into strategy, but what it is not generalisable into is a discussion of the First World War, which is why people argue about whether the First World War was some great siege of the Central Powers, or not. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that while one of my favourite least-favourite military intellectuals, George Sydenham Clarke, was "an insensitive, uncouth, clumsy and enormously boring man" , his scientific conclusion of 1905, that all fortress building was futile and that the future would lie with armies in "entrenched camps" was vindicated in World War I.
Which, no. Many forts were besieged during World War I. Were they a waste? They were attacked, they absorbed enemy resources, they held out for a time, they fell. Vauban himself would ask no more of a fortress. On the other hand, once everyone had settled into tactics suited to the exigencies of technology in 1918, the armed lines of the Western Front were not camps, and they were not invincible, whatever the futile experiences of 1915--17 would suggest. Given the right means, they were swept away by one offensive after another. Sydenham Clarke's spiritual descendant, Liddell Hart, continued to proclaim that "frontal attacks" were futile in the face of modern firepower right into World War II, but he was wrong, and so was Clarke. Given the resources, frontal attacks work just fine, and flank attacks may well absorb more resources, but of a different kind.
Here's the thing. The boring old military engineers who designed fortresses did so with attrition of resources in mind. That could be men, but it could equally well be time and money. In fact, it was normally the latter. By making it necessary for the enemy to use siege artillery against them, they made it necessary for the enemy to make siege artillery free on the land.
This is the conjunction of the civil engineer and the military engineer. Thompson wants to talk about the "leave of the ground," by which he means that the artillery can only move if the ground lets it, and that it is the engineer's task to prepare the ground for the artillery. I want to talk about "making free on the land" because when I was 9, I spent a long weekend at the park in the Nimpkish delta, and experienced one of those non-verbal epiphanies when the visual world imparts an insight that is so very hard to articulate. I was standing on one side of an open field of hummock grass, and, because that open field of hummock grass was flooded by the tide with six inches of water over a bottomless silt, I couldn't cross that field. Someone could stand on the other side of that field, and taunt me, and it wasn't even playground equipment!
The play of water on land is a tolerable first take on reducing "leave of the ground" to "making free on the land." Water basically conditions just how crossable a piece of land is. Wolseley made his name in riverine lands, where great, impassible streams block roads that don't exist, anyway. So he took an expedition to the Red River by canoe, and then used the same watermen in his later expedition down the Nile. Roberts made his famous march on Kandahar by properly organising an animal train. That required thinking about road surfaces, which can be made too soft for hooves by too much rain, and too dry for the thirst of camels and mules by too little. Later, Wolseley cut his way to the Ashanti country through jungles nourished by rain. To make free on the land, you must conquer the land, situationally. It might be a matter of drainage, or of waterproofing, or even getting more water. And, always, it was about controlling slopes. At least outside the most heavily built-up areas, such as South Holland, until the electric city brought pump networks), you work with the basic principle that water flows downhill, and make downhill be the place where you want it. Hence, earthworks.
So here is the problem as I see it: how do you talk about hills? Big hills are reasonably obvious, but even very small hills are important. In the course of the Eighteenth and nNineteenth Century, surverying got very good and very scientific. The canned history of the topographic map says that the first topographic map series ever completed was 1788's national survey of France. The Ordnance Survey took the first third of the Nineteenth Century, and the Topographical Survey of India was over sixty years in the making, and is the subject of quite a good recent book that I haven't actually read and can't link to because this post is already fifteen minutes over time.
On the other hand, the Harrison map I posted above is supposedly part of Harrison's "invention" of shaded relief maps, which are semi three-dimensional projections of topographic maps intended to turn topopgraphical maps from conveyors of visual information into sensible conveyors of visual information. There's a lot that I could say about this, about the history of cartography and the nature of the engineer's imagination, but it comes down to this: it's hard to grasp the lay of the land.
Here's the thing, though. Once the railway came along, someone else did it for you. Railways run along "permanent ways." Unlike drove roads, that spread out to take in browse and then run narrow where the cattle can't be permitted to wander, changing with the seasons and hard-surfaced only for some traffic, since other traffic must go beside the hard surface in order not to ruin it, railways are narrow and straight. They take viaducts over hollows and cuttings through hills. As long as you are on a railway, you are free on the land.
This is the change that I am seeing here, the crucial one that mistakes the nature of Third Ypres and informs the choice of prewar Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff. For a generation, the Edwardians had lived in a world where grand strategy began with the assumption that the land was always going to be free to move around upon. Because, up until the moment when the troops were dropped off the end of the railway and into battle, it was free.
I could argue at much greater length about how this privileged a cavalry point-of-view in which what mattered was packing the most troops onto a given stretch of road, rather than the nature of the road itself, but I would be living a life of leisure if I did. So I'll boil it down. There was a general staff/cavalry revolution in military planning that does point towards the tragedy of Third Ypres. But it was not atavistic or backwards looking. It had come about in the previous twenty years as a result of the success and spread of the railway. It's a theory, and one that will have to do. (I have another, about how the round of waters was the way that Eighteenth century engineers understood topography, and which explains why millwrights are so important here, but, once again, I have to go to work.)