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Is Mechanized Warfare more Humane?

[It requires a breadth of interpretation to see the connection between this excerpt from Gwynne Dyer’s illuminating 1985 book, War, and the stanza from William Blake’s poem, The Grey Monk, to which it is linked. In light of what Dyer tells us about the historical consequences of mechanized warfare, what seems to be vain is the hope that any technological innovation on the battlefield can either reduce the inherent destructiveness of war, or confer anything more than a short-lived military advantage to the side that makes the advance. “The hermit’s prayer and the widow’s tear” cannot, of course, bring an end to the fear of war, but neither can a race for technological innovation in some aspect of war—for example, an anti-ballistic missile system that can reliably shoot down incoming missiles.]

During the “twenty-year armistice” between the two wars, numbers of theorists worked on how best to exploit the mobility of tanks, and in 193941 it looked as if the Germans, at least, had found a foolproof formula. “Blitzkrieg” (lightning war) involved rapid penetration of an enemy’s front by a large force of tanks, closely assisted by ground-attack aircraft and followed by motorized infantry and artillery. Once through the defended zone, the tanks would push on at high speed to the enemy’s higher command posts and vital communications centres deep in the rear and spread chaos behind the front, which would then collapse almost of its own accord when the troops holding it found themselves cut off from their own headquarters and supplies.

Using the blitzkrieg formula, the Germans destroyed the entire Polish army in three weeks in 1939 at a cost of only 8,000 dead, and the following spring in France they were even more successful. Despite the fact that the French and British had more and on the whole better tanks than they did, the Germans’ superior tactics allowed them to conquer the Low Countries and France in only six weeks, at a cost of 27,000 dead, 18,000 missing, and 111,000 wounded. The continuous front and its slaughterhouse battles of attrition seemed a thing of the past. But it was all an illusion: what tanks had really done was just to set the continuous front in motion, with disastrous consequences for civilians.

No innovation in warfare stays a surprise for very long, and by the middle of the war, when German forces were fighting deep inside the Soviet Union, attrition had returned with a vengeance. The solution to the blitzkrieg tactic of rapid penetration was to make the defended zone deeper—many miles deep, with successive belts of trenches, minefields, bunkers, gun positions, and tank traps which would slow down the armoured spearheads and eventually wear them away. Sometimes the defense would hold; sometimes there would be a successful breakthrough, but even then, the continuous front would not disappear. It would roll back some dozens or hundreds of miles all along the line and then stabilize again.

The consumption of men and machines in the new style of war was enormous—the Soviets, for example, built approximately 100,000 tanks, 100,000 aircraft, and 175,000 artillery pieces during the war, of which at least two thirds were destroyed in the fighting—but the ability of fully mobilized industrial societies to absorb enormous punishment and still maintain production was seemingly endless. So was the willingness of whole nations in arms, stiffened by patriotism and propaganda and harnessed by totalitarian controls (which were imposed in almost every warring country regardless of its peacetime political system) to accept the most terrible sacrifices without flinching. The Germans ended up with two thirds of all males between the ages of eighteen and forty-five in the armed forces and lost three and a half million military dead, but their army was still fighting in April of 1945 when the two fronts facing the Soviet advance from the east and the Anglo-American advance from the west were practically back to back down the middle of a devastated Germany.

All this would have amounted only to a repetition of World War I with even greater consumption of material and higher military casualties (the notion that World War II was easier on the soldiers is peculiar to the Anglo-Saxon countries and France, whose armies were only fully committed to heavy fighting on a major front for about one year), but for the fact that the continuous front was now in motion. And as it ground across whole countries, it destroyed almost everything in its path.

Belgorod, a city in southern Russia, had a population of 34,000 people before the front moved east across it for the first time in October 1941—and that time it was lucky. Von Reichenau’s Sixth Army took it “on the run,” and although there were two days of fighting around the city, most of the buildings and most of the citizens survived. Twenty months later it was liberated by Soviet troops as the front moved west again after the Sixth Army was destroyed at Stalingrad, and again it was relatively lucky: the Germans did not have time to destroy it as they retreated.

But then Belgorod was retaken by the “Gross Deutschland” Division, at the beginning of the great German offensive around Kursk in July 1943, in which 6,000 tanks, 30,000 guns, and 2 million men fought along a front of hundreds of miles. When the German tanks had finally been halted by the deep Russian defenses, the Soviet counterattack began with 70 tanks and 230 guns to each kilometre, and in mid-August Belgorod was liberated for a second time, after street-fighting (or rather, fighting in the ruins) that killed another 3,000 soldiers within the city limits. And at the end of all that, only 140 of Belgorod’s 34,000 people were left; the rest were refugees, conscripts, or dead.

Belgorod had no military importance; it just got in the way. The front moved across it four times, and it was practically extinguished. And what happened there happened to tens of thousands of other towns and villages. World War II killed at least twice as many soldiers as World War I, but it also killed almost twice as many civilians as soldiers. It was the first European war since the Thirty Years’ War in which the civilian casualties outnumbered the military. Most of the civilians died more or less by accident, as an incidental by-product of the fighting: the continuous front moved through every city and hamlet in entire countries, sending tens of millions of civilians into flight as refugees or killing them in the rubble of their own homes. So great was the destruction and disorganization that the casualty figures are not reliable even to the nearest million, but on average the countries from Germany eastward, where the fighting was most intense and prolonged, lost about 10 percent of their populations killed.

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