Trenchard in the Trenches

An earlier post on Trenchardism naturally prompts this early modernist to muse on the early modern art of bombing civilians. Consider it a late Christmas present.

Like many aspects of warfare, the early modern art of bombardment was quite similar to the theory and practice of its modern counterpart, only on a smaller scale. The practice of launching nasty objects over tall walls is as old as catapults, and it has always been easier to hit the broadside of a town than precisely strike a specific point on a wall. Almost as soon as gunpowder weapons made their appearance in 14th century Europe, warmakers envisioned their use against towns. As powder and projectiles increased in performance and availability, gunners targeted the inhabitants of fortified places as well as the walls they sheltered behind. Solid shot could pulverize stone walls, while iron cannonballs heated glowing red over an iron grate (“red-hot shot”) threatened to set buildings ablaze inside the town. In the 16th century, the parabolic trajectory of bombs fired from mortars made bombardment more efficient, particularly after bombardiers (eventually) figured out how to light the bomb fuse from the ignition of the main powder charge in the tube. Ever-growing arsenals, supplemented by yet more technological advances, significantly expanded the use of bombs throughout the 17th century: the French development of the bomb ketch under Louis XIV made coastal bombardments a more practical matter; howitzers’ arcing trajectories could also target the interior of a town; while the development of the man-portable Coehoorn mortar allowed thousands of double-grenades to rain down on a besieged garrison, and any unfortunate inhabitants as well. A few other “inventions” were even more fanciful. As one 1688 periodical reflected on the state of the early modern military art:
But this Age affords more refined Wits, and better fitted for Malice. They have invented Bombs, Balls and Carcasses, full of all nocent [harmful] things, Nails, Knives, Sharp-pointed Contrivances, Grapples, Pistols firing, and several other Diabolical Inventions; which shot up into the Air from the Mouths of the Brass Mortar-pieces, upon their falling burst with such a Violence, as immediately occasions a Total Ruine among the Besieged, and to their Houses; and when the Cities, are of a small Extent, their Havock and Destruction presently forces them to lay down their Arms, and no longer to resist their fury.
But of all Inventions of this Nature, that seems most marvellous of certain Mortar-pieces, which by the force of people and Instruments fill’d with Wind, throw certain great Bombs made of six round and Convex Iron Plates, wherein are contain’d twenty five persons well provided with Arms. These Bombs may be shot into the Enemies Fortresses four times in an hour, and by this means fill them so invisibly with such a vast number of Soldiers, (since twelve Mortar-pieces of the same Bulck will be discharg’d each time) that the Place will be presently taken; for their Sergeants can in an Instant draw them up in good order, and make them seize on the Sentinels and Guards, and by this means obtain a more certain Victory, then ever did the Romans by their Bucklers, or Clypeus Contextus, since they can enter the Towns without any resistance.” Early modern air cavalry, Trojan Horse style.

Bombardment technology developed slowly, but the justifications for the semi-indiscriminate attack on civilian population centers remained constant, and are familiar to us today. Most garrisons were quartered among urban civilian populations, and while mortar fire might have been relatively accurate, the ability to distinguish military from non-military targets within a town was limited. Nor was such discernment a priority, since early moderns believed that the bombardment of towns could achieve positive tactical objectives. First, indiscriminate bombardment was used as a threat – declare your neutrality, deliver up the demanded ransom, and nobody needs to get hurt. If compliance was too long in coming, or perhaps if a message needed to be sent, bombardment might serve as a punishment, witness Louis XIV’s 1684 bombardment of Genoa, an Italian port-state that had dared to assist France’s Spanish enemy. On a narrower tactical level, as our quote above suggests, targeted bombardment of a garrison’s barracks and posts might sap the defenders’ morale. But more widespread destruction could also cause the enemy harm – whether the intent was to burn the fodder magazines and mills within the town, or to create a more general conflagration that damaged the enemy’s ability to continue the war through lower tax revenues and destroyed infrastructure. In wars of attrition, such destruction could be its own objective. But, fortunately for contemporaries, this was not the age of the chevauchée: bombardment was rarely used with wild abandon, likely due only in part to the arguments of the cooler heads, who noted that destroying too many towns made little sense if the attacker intended to occupy them and extract their resources.

Even though early moderns refrained from spreading fire and death across the enemy’s lands as a matter of course (at least after the Thirty Years War), the tactical application of bombardment was standard practice. The need for speed encouraged most besiegers to accelerate their attacks by lobbing exploding carcasses in among the townspeople. Besieged burghers, after all, were just as ‘guilty’ for allowing garrison troops to continue their defense, even if they didn’t actively support the garrison. The suffering of innocents appears to have been a non-issue for most military practitioners well into the 18th century, and for many civilian observers as well. Neither Louis nor his Secretary of War Louvois apparently gave much thought to the civilian casualties caused by the bombardment of Luxembourg, nor did the English overly concern themselves about the citizens of Saint-Malo, Dieppe or Dunkirk – the inhabitants of these ‘pirate nests’ facilitated the war effort, and they further benefited economically from the prizes captured by French privateers.

Not even the Christmas season overrode such military expediency. Towards the end of December 1708 the Duke of Marlborough received a civilian deputation from the besieged town of Ghent (population 51,000) begging him to save their homes from destruction. Grinch that he was, the Duke informed them that “since they had brought this misfortune upon themselves by their own folly or negligence [Ghent had had a small British garrison in its castle that was surprised earlier in the year], they must either assist us against the garrison or expect we should use all manner of extremity to reduce them to their duty.” Red-hot shot pelted the town for several hours until the French garrison beat the chamade and negotiated their surrender. Civilian suffering wasn’t always the primary objective of early modern bombardment, but it often was a supplemental tactic. Humanitarianism rarely provided a check on such methods.

Same as it ever was, just on a smaller scale. Like modern airpower theorists, early moderns sometimes hoped that a massive bombardment of the enemy capital would quickly force them to their knees, and on rare occasions it might actually work (as with Genoa in 1684 and Algiers the same year). More often, however, early modern bombardment was intended to terrorize the civilian population on a city-by-city basis, usually coupled with an attempt to capture the town. As so often happens, military capability slides inevitably into military use, with theoretical limitations on war preempted by immediate military expediency. Whether a Coehoorn mortar, a B-29 or a Predator drone, it’s usually easiest to shoot first, and chalk up ‘collateral damage’ to the vagaries of war.

With my apologies–updates to the blog platform have made it more difficult to deal with images, which Dr. Ostwald has included in this posting on his own site.  They are great visuals that add a great deal to his point, so I respectfully direct your attention thataways.–M.S.

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Social war, now and then

[Cross-posted at Airminded.] The current conflict in Gaza has attracted much media attention for the so-called Twitter war being fought between the IDF and Hamas, or, more precisely, between the @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade accounts and their respective followers. Insults are traded back and forth, photos and videos of rocket attacks and air strikes and their purported results (sometimes quite horrific, be warned) shared and retweeted many times over, bloggers take up virtual arms on behalf of one side or the other. @IDFSpokesperson tweets a graphic claiming that ‘Hamas’ goal is to kill civilians'; @AlqassamBrigade one claiming ‘In Children’s Day: Israel killed 26 Palestinian children!’ This present form of propaganda war is sometimes (not always) presented as something new. Certainly the speed of communication and the ease by which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested is remarkable, but nothing ever looks completely new to a historian.

During the Blitz, for example, British newspapers and magazines were the medium by which both British and German propaganda messages regarding the mutual bombing war were passed to readers so that they could judge for themselves. In September 1940, The Listener noted that ‘German broadcasts continue to claim that only military objectives are being attacked’ by the Luftwaffe.1 By contrast, the Zeesen radio station was reported to have claimed that:

British pilots have received instructions to avoid carefully any kind of military objective and to concentrate instead on terrorising the German civilian population.2

As it was broadcast in English, this message was clearly directed at the British people themselves. Normally only those who owned a radio and were listening in on the right frequency at the right time would have received it, perhaps along with a few others by word of mouth. By reprinting it, The Listener was sharing it with a much larger audience (circulation was around 50,000 in 1939 but had risen to 129,000 by 1945). By reprinting it without editorial comment, it was trusting its readers to draw the right conclusions.

The Hydroairplane-Supersubmarine Threat to New York

[Cross-posted at Airminded.] Washington Post, 2 June 1918, SM1

New York waited for an air raid in June 1918. For thirteen nights from 4 June, much of the city was blacked out to avoid giving German pilots any assistance in locating targets to bomb. The New York Times reported the following day that:

Electric signs and all lights, except street lamps and lights in dwellings, were out in this city last night in compliance with orders issued by Police Commissioner Enright at the suggestion of the War Department, as a precaution against a possible attack by aircraft from a German submarine. A system for signalling by sirens in case the approach of aircraft should be detected was devised by the police and signal officers yesterday to warn persons to get under cover.1

While coastal and anti-aircraft batteries readied their guns, aviators went up to check the effectiveness of the blackout, resulting in its extension. After the third night, it was reported that

The lower part of the city was in almost complete darkness, the number of street lights being reduced and those that burned being dimmer. Every downtown skyscraper was almost entirely dark, the shades in the rooms which were lighted being drawn.2

City officials met to discuss other civil defence measures, including air raid sirens and shelters. A particular concern was the evacuation of skyscrapers during business hours:

It was pointed out that in case of such a raid in the daytime the danger of loss of life from panic in swarming down the stairs and into elevators would be greater than the danger of bomb explosions.3

It was decided that the best thing to do would be to designate certain floors as evacuation points. These plans were probably not put into effect, however, as the last night of blackout was 16 June; on 17 June all police precincts were ordered to ‘Resume normal lighting throughout the city until further orders’.4 There was evidently some embarrassment now, as the War Department and the New York Police Department each claimed that the blackout was the other’s idea. In any event, the exercise doesn’t seem to have been repeated.

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On Counterfactual History

For many years now I’ve been fascinated by counterfactual history. I make no claim to coming up with anything original by way of approaching it conceptually, but I’ve written a couple of articles about it for general audiences and contribute a “what if” column to each issue of World War II magazine. (So far I’ve published close of forty of them.)  I’ve also done workshops and team taught graduate courses on the subject with my colleague Geoffrey Parker

The genesis of my interest tracks back to a 1997 conference at Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, in which several scholars examined case studies concerning the rise of the West and key events that might have “unmade” it. The fruits of the study were published in 2006 as Unmaking the West:  “What If” Scenarios That Rewrite World History.  It’s the best and most accessibly written introduction to counterfactual history that I have yet seen.

Counterfactual history routinely gets a bum rap, mostly from people who haven’t taken time to explore it and reject “what if” scenarios out of hand.  One of the conference organizers, political psychologist Prof. Philip E. Tetlock of Berkeley, noted that many influential historians “have excoriated ‘might have been’ speculation,” adding, “The ferocity and stature of the critics are a bit unnerving.” Nevertheless, when historians explain why things happen they are implicitly employing a form of “might have been” history, for whenever they touch upon a key variable–an important decision-maker, social process, or even climate condition–they are in effect arguing that but for that variable, things might have turned out differently. Moreover, as the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper eloquently expressed it: “To assume that what happened was bound to happen is to beg the question of why it happened and to deprive history, at one blow, both of its lessons and its life. . . . If we are to study history as a living subject, not merely as a colored pageant, or an antiquarian chronicle, or a dogmatic scheme, we must . . . leave some room for the imagination.”

Counterfactual history is a good corrective to the tendency to see developments as “overdetermined.” “Few predicted World War I,” writes Prof. Tetlock, “the rise of the East Asian tigers, or the collapse of the Soviet Union but virtually everyone today–who claims professional competence in such matters–stands ready to trot out half a dozen ‘fundamental’ or ‘structural’ causes why these outcomes had to happen roughly at the time and in the manner they did. Indeed, given the overwhelming array of causal forces often invoked, it is difficult for some contemporary observers to resist the inference that the original historical players were a tad dense not to appreciate where events were heading. Creeping determinism emerges as a key obstacle to the time-honored objective of historians to see the world as it appeared to the decision-makers of the day, not as it appears now with the benefits and curses of hindsight.” By contrast, the counterfactual approach can help sensitize scholars to the role of contingency in the problems they study.

It can also encourage scholars to think more carefully about the assumptions on which their theories and historical interpretations rest. For example, Prof. Richard Ned Lebow notes that “apologists for the Soviet system insist that communism would have evolved differently if Lenin had lived longer or had been succeeded by someone other than Stalin. Attempts to address this question have not resolved the controversy but have compelled historians to be more explicit about the underlying assumptions that guide and sustain contending interpretations of Stalin and the nature of the Communist party and the Soviet state. Those assumptions have now become the focus of controversy, and scholars have looked for evidence by which to evaluate them. This process has encouraged a more sophisticated historical debate.”


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[Cross-posted at Airminded.] In the published version of his 2008 Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture, Richard Overy concluded that now

air power is projected for its potential political or moral impact. In Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan it is the political dividend that has been central to the exercise of air power, just as it was when Trenchard’s Independent Force flew against German cities in 1918 with the hope that a demoralised urban population might pressure the German government to make peace. In this sense it might be possible to argue, without stretching the history too far, that the RAF has begun to forge a new sense of identity in the past two decades more compatible with the traditions of Trenchardism.1

My interest here is in that last word, ‘Trenchardism’. Overy nowhere defines it — in fact, it’s the only time it occurs in his article — but as an airpower historian I have a pretty good idea what he means, despite the fact that it’s actually a relatively uncommon term. Marshal of the Royal Air Force (as he ended up) Lord Trenchard is well-known for his belief in strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, particularly through its effects on morale, and as the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff from 1919 to 1930 he was in a position to promote it. This sense of Trenchardism, something like Douhetism, seems straightforward enough, and it’s the sense in which I’ve encountered it in the secondary literature.2 But here I’m interested in other uses of this word Trenchardism: specifically the way it is used in a a Wikipedia article of that name which was created recently by Jo Pugh of The National Archives, who invites additions and comments (as discussed on Twitter).3 There, Trenchardism is taken beyond simply an enthusiasm for bombing, indeed beyond the military sphere entirely. The dilemma is that in so doing it risks diluting Trenchardism past the point of usefulness. But equally, it highlights a contemporary understanding of Trenchardism which is very different to that we understand now. Are they reconcilable? And if not, which should we prefer?

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Clausewitz and “The Women’s War”

As a faculty member some years ago, I sat in on a graduate readings course known as “Studies in Military Thought.”  It was like visiting the an old friend, since I had taken the course as an undergraduate and audited it as a grad student.  The subject du jour was Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist whose unfinished magnum opus, On War, is widely admired as perhaps the most perceptive discussion of the subject ever written.  Around the table the sentiment, at least among those who voiced an opinion, was that Clausewitz’s analysis was so robust as to be universal.  Thus, when I asked whether On War was applicable to non-state as well as state societies, everyone agreed that it was indeed applicable.  That went for every group from Al-Qaeda to the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, a group that lives and makes war in a fashion little removed from neolithic times.  Why?  Because violent conflict always has a purpose, and that purpose can always be defined as “a continuation of policy by other means.”

I didn’t really buy that.  More precisely, I didn’t think this was an insight that deepened our understanding of non-state conflict.  But I didn’t argue because a) it was someone else’s class, I didn’t want to hijack it; and b) the question mattered far more than the answer.  As far as I’m concerned it remains an open question.  In any event the discussion moved on–centered thenceforth, quite quickly and perhaps tellingly, on modern nation-states.  I thought no more about it.  But late that evening, as I sat down to address the reading for a course I was then auditing on women and colonialism, I saw that the first article was entitled, “‘Aba Riots’ or Igbo ‘Women’s War’?  Ideology, Stratification, and the Invisibility of Women,”  by Judith Van Allen. [Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay, eds., Women in Africa : Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford, Calif.:  Stanford University Press, 1976)].

It describes an episode in southern Nigeria in 1929.  Thousands of Igbo women converged on Native Administration centers (established by the British and run by Nigerian “Warrant Chiefs” appointed by the British).  They chanted, danced, sang songs of ridicule.  In sixteen instances they attacked Native Courts and in most cases destroyed them.  In a handful of instances they broke into prisons and released inmates.  The “disturbed area” covered 6,000 square miles and contained two million people.  The number of women involved was estimated in the tens of thousands.  The threat posed to British authority was serious enough that British District Officers called in troops to deal with it.  The troops fired upon the women, killed more than fifty, wounded about as many more.

Afterward the British called the episode the “Aba Riots.”  Among the Igbo, however, the event was known, then and later, as the “Women’s War,” a name Van Allen invites us to take seriously.  I’m glad to do it, but would Clausewitz?  Does it fall within “war” as he would define it?  And if not, does that serve as confirmation that definitions of war are inherently politicized (as Van Allen argues), or does the term have some objective meaning?  Was the violence employed by the women “a continuation of politics by other means”?  How meaningful could a Clausewitzian analysis be in the context of a society in which, as one analyst explains, “the polity or political system [was] not . . . a concretely distinct part of the social system, but rather a functional aspect of the whole social system?”

My own view, then and since, is that it isn’t meaningful, that the Clausewitzian concept of war was created in the context of wars between nation-states.  It is, I concede, a durable concept that can also apply to many internal wars, but scarcely all wars.  This raises a second question that has also exercised me over the years:  What are the proper intellectual parameters of our field?  Are they essentially defined by conflicts that fit the Clausewitzian paradigm?  If not, do they extend widely enough to include an episode like the “Women’s War”  If so, why?  If not, why not?

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