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.

One book

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

It’s been a good year for reading military history, but then it always is. If I had to recommend one military history book I’ve read this year it would be David Stevenson’s With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (London: Penguin, 2012). Stevenson’s previous book, 1914-1918 (published as Cataclysm in the United States), was a good survey of the First World War, even an excellent one; but it didn’t hint at the magisterial nature of this book. In fact, I was worried that With Our Backs to the Wall might simply prove to be a padded-out version of the 130-odd pages in 1914-1918 covering the same period. Of course my fears were groundless.

The first third of With Our Backs to the Wall provides the narrative backdrop for the rest of the book. Here, Stevenson explains the events of 1918: in particular the German gamble on the Western Front in the spring, the successful Allied defence and the ultimately even more successful Allied offensive leading to the Armistice. This section by itself is almost worth the cover price (especially if you bought it in paperback like I did): it’s easy to focus on the ‘classic’ period of trench warfare between 1915 and 1917 and forget the return to a war of movement in 1918. But where Stevenson really shines is in the following thematic chapters which explore how the war was fought in 1918, how it had changed since 1914 and why it didn’t continue into 1919, as was widely expected until the autumn. There’s something for everyone here: technology, intelligence, logistics, morale, finance, economics, gender. Of course the approach is necessarily largely synthetic, though Stevenson does often use primary source material to great effect. Each topic is treated in depth to a satisfying degree: even if you are familiar with the scholarship you are likely to find something worthwhile (as I did in the section on airpower), and if you aren’t you’ll learn a lot. But despite the density of the text and its length (nearly 550 pages excluding endnotes), I found With Our Backs to the Wall a compelling and even gripping book. Highly recommended. (But if it’s not to your taste, perhaps try Claudia Baldoli and Andrew Knapp, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy Under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945, London and New York: Continuum, 2012.)

So if you had to recommend one military history book you’ve read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

Piazza Fontana and Romanzo di una Strage

Major historical events often have to wait for years to receive serious treatment in historical film, especially in the case of controversial episodes that produce sharply opposing narratives of those events.

For the first time, the bombing in Piazza Fontana in 1969 is the subject of a major feature film, Romanzo di una Strage. A large bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in Milano on 12 December 1969, killing 17 people and wounding 88. The bombing shocked Italians and produced outrage across the country, a crucial moment in the so-called strategia di tensione campaigns of right-wing and left-wing radicalism and violence in Italy in the late 1960s.

Piazza Fontana launched a period of intensified political and social conflict, known as the Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead) throughout the 1970s.

Romanzo di una Strage (2012) is directed by Marco Tullio Giordana. The film focuses on the competing investigations, political murders, and cover-ups in the immediate aftermath of the Piazza Fontana bombing in 1969-1972. Giordana controversially places a sympathetic portrait of police commissioner Luigi Calabresi at the center of his political thriller. The Piazza Fontana case still remains unsolved today, despite several investigations, trials, and overturned convictions. The film posits its own theories on various threads of the complicated story, but hesitates to present its own definitive verdict on the case and the cover-up.

Marco Tullio Giordana explains his perspective in an interview published by Nouvel Observateur. Giordana actually witnessed the Piazza Fontana bombing from a passing tram and was interviewed by Luigi Calabresi as an eyewitness. It seems that Giordana’s personal experience strongly shaped the narrative structure and cinematography of the film.

The film’s interpretation of the Piazza Fontana bombing and its protagonists has provoked much interest and also sharp criticism. Republica TV published a video review of the film in Italian. Nouvel Observateur, Marianne, Libération, and Le Figaro provide reviews in French. For the reactions of Luigi Calabresi’s son, Mario, see a story in Corriere della Sera.

For context on the Piazza Fontana bombing and film representations of political violence in Italy during the Anni di Piombo, see: Alan O’Leary’s Tragedia all’italiana: Italian Cinema and Italian Terrorisms 1970-2010 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), Alan O’Leary and Pierpaolo Antonello’s Imagining Terrorism: The Rhetoric and Representation of Political Violence in Italy, 1969-2006 (London: Legenda, 2009), and Paul Ginsborg’s A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Romanzo di una Strage is released internationally as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy.

[Note that this article is cross-posted from my blog.]

OA? Oh no!

[The views stated here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Society for Military History or the Journal of Military History. Cross-posted at Airminded.]

While they only apply to journals published in the UK, the recommendations of the recent Finch Report on open access (OA) have some worrying implications for historians overseas as well as those working in the UK, especially if they are working independently of any institutional base. If adopted, they would mean doing away with the current subscription-based model of access to scholarly articles. Instead, articles published under what is known as Gold OA would be free for anyone to download (ideally, though there will likely be a transition period). The cost of publication would instead be covered by charges paid by the authors themselves, the so-called Article Processing Charge (APC). The Finch Report suggests an APC of £1450, and envisages that this would ultimately be borne by the universities who employ the authors, or by the granting bodies who fund them. The Cameron government has already accepted the recommendations of the Finch Report.

This is fantastic news for libraries, struggling with increasing subscription fees and reduced budgets. It would also make the results of research directly available to the wider public who currently need to pay a not-inconsiderable amount to download a scholarly article, unless they can get access through a public library. These two reasons, which provide much of the impetus for OA, are self-evidently good ones.

Independent historians (like me) will likewise benefit greatly from being able to freely download articles under Gold OA. But they will lose more than they gain. In general they cannot look to their employer to pay the APC for any work that they wish to publish in academic journals. Similarly, they are unlikely to have grant money to draw upon to cover the costs of publication. Most of the time, independent scholars would have to pay the APC out of their own pocket. It’s already difficult enough, and expensive enough, to do academic-level research outside academia; adding a £1450 charge for the privilege of actually publishing that research will make it effectively impossible for many independent historians. Perhaps some funding could be set aside for non-academics to draw upon for APCs, but any such scheme would likely be competitive and would at best mean a lengthy delay in publication; at worst, it would mean that research that has passed (or is capable of passing) peer review would not get published. Or maybe the APC could simply be waived, but somebody would ultimately have to pay it: if it’s the journal itself, that might make it harder for them to accept work from independent historians (though twenty-one leading UK history journals have already stated that ‘all our decisions about publication will be taken regardless of whether an author is able to pay an APC or not’).

There is also the impact on historians working outside the UK (again, like me), including those in academia. Research funding in the UK might be restructured around Gold OA, but it won’t be elsewhere in the world. Historians working outside the UK quite likely wouldn’t be able to draw upon universities or funding bodies to pay the APC. Even if they could, they might find it difficult to justify spending scarce funds to publish in the UK when they could publish somewhere else in the world. This is a problem for historians of Britain (yet again, like me) who naturally wish to publish in British history journals. But it’s also a problem for historians working on other areas who might wish to publish in, for example, War in History, Journal of Strategic Studies, or First World War Studies.

If implemented, the recommendations of the Finch Report would open access to research from the point of view of the consumer, but it would perversely narrow access from the point of view of the producer. In the sciences, where nearly all academic research is fully funded or carried out in universities, Gold OA will work wonders. It may well do so in the humanities too, but the collateral damage will be much greater. What is to be done?

Sceptical responses to the Finch Report from learned societies and scholarly journals include: American Historical Association; British Academy; International Society of First World War Historians; Journal of Victorian Culture; Royal Historical Society; and, as previously noted, the collective response from a number of journals (including First World War Studies). Most heartening is Past & Present‘s position:

We want to state clearly and unequivocally that merit will be the sole determinant of Past & Present’s decisions to publish articles.

Whether an author can pay an APC or not will be irrelevant.

We will accept APCs and will also publish the articles of authors who cannot pay APCs. This means that all authors outside the UK and all within can continue to be published free of charge in Past & Present.