A Tale of Two Tragedies

Photo caption: The 13-inch “Dictator” mortar used to harass Confederate lines at Petersburg in 1864. The use of ballistic artillery in the American Civil War would forecast the horrors of the Great War in Europe.

The horrors of cyber, biological, chemical, and unmanned warfare are coming to a city near you and the result will not be sanitized.

It is difficult to describe the pain of civil war. In nineteenth century America, we mobilized armies of boys for five bloody years to kill their fellow Americans over an idea. If Lee had been less of a genius or McClellan more of one, we may have been spared the pain of 32,000 casualties at Spotsylvania, 34,000 at Chickamauga, or 46,000 at Gettysburg. As painful as it was, we did not realize the effect our war would have on Europe. In so many ways, the American Civil War was a prelude to the mass industrial killing that would occur in places like Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres, and Ypres, and Ypres again. In that tiny Flemish town on the North Sea coast, all the demons of technology and tactics we unleashed in America in the 1860s came into their own. This is a story of that lineage.

Monument Crater Ypres
The Royal Engineer monument at Hooge outside Ypres in Belgium. The site is surrounded by the cratered remnants of numerous mine explosions.

The Gallery

General Sherman’s terrible march to the sea in May 1864 threatened to isolate General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a shrinking triangle between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Union Navy that ruled the coast. With the conditions set for the destruction of Lee’s Army, President Lincoln ordered General Grant to settle the matter by advancing on the Confederate capital, Richmond. Crossing the Rapidan River that same month, Grant found his path blocked again and again by Lee’s brilliant mobile defense; first at the Wilderness, then at Spotsylvania, North Anna, and finally at Cold Harbor where Confederate forces repulsed a brutal frontal assault by an army twice their number. Seeking to bypass his adversary, Grant secretly moved across the James River and attacked Petersburg, a key rail hub supporting Richmond. When the assault failed, the opposing armies settled into a bloody stalemate. Grant was looking for answers.

In the light of a flickering candle, Colonel Henry Pleasants scratched out a note to his uncle. “Today,” he wrote, marked the end of two weeks of subterranean toil. The former mining engineer from Pennsylvania had convinced General Burnside, against the objections of the Chief Engineer of the US Army, to let him build the mine in which he now sat. At 586 feet in length, the four underground galleries would soon be filled with enough black powder to blow a hole through rebel fortifications standing between Grant’s Army of the Potomac and the last supply line into Richmond. It was 23 June 1864. Fifty feet of clay and sand were not the heaviest weight on Pleasants’ shoulders. He was in charge of a tactical operation with the lofty strategic aim of ending the American Civil War.

When Burnside finally ordered detonation of the mine on 30 June, it resulted in what was at that time the largest explosion in history. Hundreds of Confederate soldiers were instantly “blown into eternity” as Pleasants put it, but the cataclysm did not bring the end of the war as hoped. Though supported by a 13-inch mortar called “The Dictator” – one of the earliest uses of ballistic artillery – attacking Union troops were routed when they became bogged down in the resultant crater. Counterattacking Confederates also fell into the hellish pit and fought hand to hand because they could do nothing else. Anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the hole was ripped apart by fire coming from friends and enemies alike 40 feet above. When the smoke cleared, 5500 brave Americans lay dead in a grave 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. Grant described it as the “saddest affair” he had witnessed in the war. Worse, the battle of Petersburg descended into ten months of trench warfare, the weapons and tactics of which would decimate Europe 50 years later.

March to Madness

The Great War was not supposed to end in the mind-numbing madness of the trenches. In August 1914 the Germans, the French, the British, and all the other Allied and Central powers marched to battle singing to its glory. Mobilization became a science of railroads, war bonds, and population resource control. Entire industries were turned into war machines and the political, economic, and financial systems that supported it all were finely tuned and well rehearsed. French doctrine at the time favored the offense, meaning French officers believed only by attacking could they achieve victory. But the doctrine contained two flaws that only the brilliant Allied commander, Marshal Joseph Jacques Joffre seemed to recognize.

The French Army consisted of seven Corps that held a line stretching from the Alpine foothills on the Swiss border all along the German frontier to the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons. Belgium was neutral and the French – unlike the Germans – resolved not to violate the tiny country’s neutrality. France’s forbearance deprived Joffre completely of the offense as a strategic tool. Worse, it trapped him in a lengthy defense that depended partly on the Belgian ability to repulse a German invasion, and partly on the speedy arrival of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to secure the Allied left. In August 1914, the Brits were late, the Belgians were crumbling, and the French were frozen into a poorly prepared and uncomfortable defense with an exposed flank…And the Germans knew it.

With the fall of the Belgian fortresses at Namur and Liege, the German 6th Army raced to its objective, smashing into the BEF just hours after its arrival at Nimy outside Mons. The date was 14 August 1914. Despite fighting a brilliant defense, the BEF was overwhelmed in a matter of days. On the British right, the French 7th Corps commander seemed paralyzed. He continually rejected orders to attack and began withdrawing under pressure, thereby exposing the British. Joffre ordered the BEF to hold despite desperate losses to its 1st Corps; orders that were countermanded by nervous politicians in London. Unable to stop the British or even his own French 7th Corps from withdrawing, Joffre recognized that the collapse of his left flank posed a mortal danger to the entire Allied army. He made a bold decision that saved France but doomed millions.

Breaking with French doctrine, Joffre ordered a withdrawal to the Marne River. He replaced the shaken 7th Corps commander and moved his reserve Cavalry Corps (a French Corps) to the British left. As the Allied armies absorbed the German onslaught on the banks of the Marne, their lines began to take on the familiar aspects of trench warfare. By late September 1914, their positions were fixed. From the Alps to the North Sea, the combined armies would not move more than a few miles for the next four years.

The map of northwestern Europe in 1914. These lines hardly moved despite four years of battle.

The historic Flemish town of Ypres was the Allied anchor on the North Sea coast. Defended by British, French, and eventually American units for four solid years, parts of the town had lived with the threat of German artillery for far too long. After three major assaults on the city and three major counteroffensives, the defenders at Ypres had witnessed the march of technology and tactics designed to make or break the stalemate. Artillery, the machine gun, the tank, and poison gas were all used at Ypres and all failed to make a difference.

Arriving in August 1918, American officers encountered a situation similar to the one their grandfathers suffered through at Petersburg. Trenches were defended by machine guns, bolstered by log-trellises called “abatis” or “cheval-de-frise,” and hardened by rock-filled baskets called “gabions;” precursors of modern Hesco barriers found all over Iraq and Afghanistan today. Harassed by high-angle artillery and poison gas, both sides were desperate to hold the line and break the stalemate. With trenches evolving into elaborate underground cities, both sides began undermining each other’s fortifications; excavating mines and counter-mines daily. On occasion, massive explosions punctuated the monotony of the constant artillery.

Unlike in Petersburg, the mines in Ypres did not backfire nor did they succeed. Ultimately, both sides detonated dozens of mines there, resulting in thousands of casualties with precisely zero tactical significance. The largest explosion in Ypres was a British mine in Messines with 26 galleries containing 454 metric tons of ammonium nitrate they detonated under German lines in June 1917. The explosion dwarfed the one at the Crater in Petersburg and came to symbolize the futility of the First World War.

Plus Ça Change…

Though Grant, Burnside, and Pleasants would have to wait ten months after the Crater for an end to war, Joffre was less fortunate. Despite all the death and the pain and the technological innovation that enabled it, the Great War did not settle the matter; that would require a second war, more terrible perhaps than the first. Like the cutting edge military technology of the First World War, the sophisticated weaponry of today was developed precisely to sanitize conflict, to prevent unintended casualties, and to limit the duration of suffering. But if the story of Petersburg and Ypres is any indication, today’s children will perfect the military technology of 2017 and use it to kill each other more efficiently in the future just as their predecessors did at Ypres…and at Petersburg, Agincourt, Gaugamela, Syracuse, and countless other battles before that.

If there are lessons to be learned from this history other than “war is bad,” it is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The marginal innovations we see on today’s battlefields will become central to victory tomorrow and there is no real way to prevent this renewed march to madness. Our warriors will sing the same songs to the glory of victory that their great, great-grandfathers did in 1860 and in 1914, only with new lyrics reflecting the latest weapons and tactics. Instead of artillery, strategic bombing, and trench warfare, we will learn the horrors of cyber, biological, and automated unmanned killing. Practice your singing voice because they are all coming to a city near you and the result will not be sanitized.

Stranger PicLino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He distrusts machine learning and the automation of killing.

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