How The Vanquished Saw 11 Major Historical Events
It's often said that history is written by the victors, but the cliché really doesn't stand up to scrutiny. History is written by historians, and many interpretations of the past exist. More recent conflicts, from the 1800s onward, have the benefit of providing a wealth of information from both sides: the winners and the losers.
This collection looks at how certain parts of major conflicts were seen in the eyes of the unsuccessful. Some are personal views of failed operations by the side that still prevailed, such as the attempts by Union generals to explain away their failings, while others are from the point of view of the vanquished. The German view of WWII and the memoirs of Confederate soldiers shed light on the institutional failures that led to their ultimate demise, while the French view of catastrophic 1940 offers a fuller picture of the conflict.
- Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H01758 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
Erich von Manstein is often credited with Fall Gelb (case or plan yellow), the audacious push through the Ardennes that knocked France out of the war in just a few weeks in 1940. On the Eastern Front, he was initially posted to the Southern portion of the invasion of the Soviet Union and managed to take the stronghold of Sevastopol. With the successes came promotion and closer proximity to Adolf Hitler, giving von Manstein a key insight into the inner workings of the German military in WWII.
The Führer's relationship with his generals was fraught with tensions that often stemmed from their very different experiences in WWI. Hitler was dismissive of the Prussian officers who never served on the front lines, while the generals saw him as a jumped-up corporal. While acknowledging Hitler had a certain eye for seizing tactical opportunities, von Manstein believed the dictator was simply out of his depth when it came to overseeing such enormous operations:
What he lacked, broadly speaking, was simply military ability based on experience - something for which his "intuition" was no substitute.
Von Manstein attributed Germany's failures in the war to Hitler's refusal to concentrate every available resource on key strategic objectives. Instead, he frittered away Germany's military strength on sideshows like the capture of Crete, which squandered one of Germany's best airborne divisions for an island of little strategic value.
For von Manstein, the Führer's main failures as a leader were threefold: he wouldn't take on the necessary risks to win because he lacked the military capacity; he feared the loss of prestige any setback would present; and his lust for power meant he couldn't let anything go.
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Marc Bloch: France Lost In WWII Because We Didn't Adapt After WWI
Such was the verdict of French historian Marc Bloch. He penned his account of France's disastrous participation in WWII in the immediate aftermath of the loss in his book Strange Defeat. He wrote it in 1940, but it wasn't published until 1946, after the war and Bloch's demise at the hands of the Gestapo.
The crux of Bloch's argument was that the French military had simply not moved with the times and was effectively trying to refight the First World War:
All of these officers had remained, though not always to the same extent, dominated by their memories of the last war.
The French had done most of the heavy lifting in WWI and suffered enormously for their efforts. The Maginot Line is often the butt of jokes from armchair historians with a shallow understanding of the wider strategic context. The purpose of the line was to buy time for mobilization and to ensure that in the event of war with Germany, the bulk of the fighting would actually be done outside of France in the Low Countries. France had spent much of WWI fighting to regain lost territory and was desperate to avoid doing so again.
The problem with the French wish to redo WWI was that the Germans weren't so obliging. As Bloch put it, the French "high command of old men" was bogged down by faulty teaching of history. While the Germans spent the interwar years innovating new methods of warfare, the French were too set in their ways. Even at the height of the crisis in 1940, the situation wasn't beyond repair if the French had been able to adapt. However, the rigidity of thinking allowed a tactical reversal to escalate into a strategic collapse.
Words written by Bloch in 1940, with the war still raging, proved incredibly accurate:
Whatever form the final triumph may take, it will be many years before the stain of 1940 can be effaced.
Heinz Guderian was a German commander who claimed a great deal of credit for the tactical innovations that made Germany's early victories possible. Guderian's self-serving but commercially successful memoirs paint a rather misleading picture of his outsized role in pioneering armored warfare. The self-appointed "father of blitzkrieg" pointed to the moment he believed Hitler passed up a glorious chance to end the war early in May 1940.
On May 24 of that year, Guderian's divisions were advancing rapidly through northern France and on course to beat the retreating Allied forces to Dunkirk. At the Aa River, he received an order from High Command that he described as having "the most disastrous influence on the future course of the war.” His divisions were ordered to halt and let the Luftwaffe finish the job. An earlier counterattack by the British forces was unsuccessful but had spooked the High Command. Fearing overextension, the panzer divisions were ordered to hold the line rather than press the advantage.
"We were utterly speechless," Guderian recalled as his men had to look on the as British ships, great and small, whisked the British Expeditionary Force away to safety. The High Command's order was rescinded two days later, but by then the vast majority of the BEF had gotten away. Guderian wrote that the capture of the BEF would have had a real chance of bringing the conflict to an end by forcing the British into a deal:
Unfortunately the opportunity was wasted owing to Hitler’s nervousness.
What might have happened if the BEF had been captured in May 1940? The loss of the army would have made it extremely difficult for Britain to carry on the fight, but not impossible. The British still had a huge advantage in naval power, and the Royal Air Force was at least the equal of the Luftwaffe. Crossing the English Channel would still have presented a major obstacle in the summer of 1940. A diplomatic solution would have been sought and with the army lost, it would have had a fair chance to succeed.
- Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R93434 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
Albert Kesselring was a Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall during WWII and was one of the officers charged with subduing the British Royal Air Force ahead of an intended invasion of Britain in the summer of 1940. Operation Sea Lion was the code name for the incursion that was planned but never took place. The German air force never managed to gain sufficient air superiority to allow German forces to cross the English Channel safely.
The Battle of Britain was the three-month campaign by the Luftwaffe to spearhead the intended invasion of Britain. The British had wisely invested in radar stations before the war and were also aided by large contingents of pilots from other nations. Poland was the largest contributor of pilots, with New Zealand, Canada, Czechoslovakia, and Belgium also providing significant numbers of airmen. The British government today recognizes 574 non-British pilots who aided the RAF.
From the German perspective, its air force had neither the tools to complete the job (a major lack of heavy bombers or long-range fighters) nor a coherent plan. The Germans also failed to ramp up aircraft production or the recruitment and training of pilots until 1941.
In his post-war memoirs, Kesselring describes the lack of commitment to the plan of invading Britain. Hitler feared the Royal Navy’s much greater strength would decimate the invading army before it could land. According to Kesselring, the incursions could have gone ahead if there had been sufficient will to see it through:
To sum up, the attempt may have been difficult, even very difficult, but it would not have been hopeless. Every undertaking is a risk, and needs, besides planning, relentless execution, and a certain optimism. Churchill fulfilled these conditions in the highest degree from the defense aspect. But I feel I can't say the same for the German commanders.
Kesselring argued that the Luftwaffe hadn’t been beaten by the Royal Air Force, but moved on to other priorities once the invasion of Britain was shelved. The unsustainable losses inflicted on the German air force by what Churchill later called “the few” tell a different story. Aircraft could be rebuilt, but new pilots took time to train, and later fuel shortages made it much more difficult to train new airmen to the same standards.
Joseph E. Johnston was a general in the Confederate Army whose propensity for retreat gained him a reputation for caution. Like other generals in the conflict, he spent his post-war years writing memoirs to repair his reputation and cast blame for his failings upon others.
In his summation of the causes of the Confederate loss, he rejected the common idea that the North's advantages of men and materials were just too great to overcome. Similarly, he cast doubt on the Southern perspective that the war was lost due to a lack of commitment and perseverance to the Confederate cause. For Johnston, the main problem was that the South entered the conflict without adequate preparation.
Had the South sold off its cotton before the blockade tightened and filled the treasury, the Confederacy would have been in a much better position to feed, equip, and pay the army. The failure to procure modern weapons in sufficient numbers meant the South started the war at a sharp disadvantage that only grew over time. By flooding the economy with worthless paper money, the poorer soldiers weren't paid properly and abandoned the army in droves toward the end of the war:
When a soldier's month's pay would scarcely buy one meal for his family - and that was the case in all the last period of 10 or 12 months - those soldiers of the laboring class who had families were compelled to choose between their military service and the strongest obligations men know - their duties to wives and children.
Johnston also had little good to say about Jefferson Davis and disagreed sharply with the president over strategy. Both blamed the other for the key loss of Vicksburg, MS, in 1863. While he might not have held his president in high regard, Johnston remembered the magnanimity showed by Union General William T. Sherman and would later serve as a pallbearer at the general's funeral.
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Napoleon: It Was Fate
Napoleon did not take his final defeat at Waterloo well. His army was held at bay by a coalition army led by Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington. The epic clash between two of history's most accomplished leaders was, even in Wellington's estimation, a very close-run thing. The timely arrival of a Prussian army late in the day turned the tide and allowed the coalition forces to claim victory.
After the defeat, Napoleon was exiled to distant St. Helena and had all the time in the world to ponder his final loss. He first blamed one of his subordinates, Emmanuel de Grouchy, for following the very orders given to him by Napoleon to pursue the Prussian army with a detachment of 30,000 men. He didn't arrive until after the battle was lost, which lead Napoleon to lament:
Had it not been for Grouchy, I should have gained the day.
Napoleon had little good to say about his other generals; he suggested they weren't themselves anymore, that age had softened them. He did not have much good to say about Wellington's skill as a commander, either. He pinned most of the credit on the army's courage and the arrival of Gebhard von Blücher's forces.
Speaking to Barry O'Meara, an Irish doctor who accompanied Napoleon to St. Helena, he made the fanciful prediction that historians would realize Waterloo would do little for Wellington's legacy. As for his own reputation, Napoleon was of no doubt he would be remembered for his genius:
Had I succeeded, I should have died with the reputation of having been the greatest man that ever existed. As it is, although I have failed, I shall be considered as an extraordinary man.
After blaming others for his failures, Napoleon eventually settled on a fitting explanation for his loss at Waterloo: fate. The words were written by Gaspard Gourgaud, a subordinate who joined Napoleon in exile, but came from Napoleon's lips:
All the probabilities of victory were in favor of the French. The combinations were excellent, and every event appeared to have been provided for: but what can the greatest genius perform against destiny? Napoleon was conquered.