Daily Archives: 6 April, 2010

Nerves and military history

So a couple of weeks ago I failed my driving test. Well, not so much failed, but flunked. Why? Well, I’m pretty sure I can drive well enough to pass, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone for it. To be brutally honest, I bottled it. I’m pretty sure that I failed before I’d even got in the car. It was nerves, no doubt about it. Which is confusing, as I tend to think that I ‘dont do’ nerves. I’ve stood in front of 100 people and talked for 90 minutes for heavens sake! So how come I froze on a driving test, that under normal circumstances, I should have walked?

So what’s this got to do with history, I hear you ask? Good point!

Well, history is full of examples of how nerves can affect the outcome of momentous events. We have this perception that nerves are a bad thing – if you suffer from nerves, then you’re obviously a weak person, surely?

The classic text on military psychology remains Lord Moran’s The Anatomy of Courage. As a Medical Officer in the trenches, Moran got to see at first hand the full range of human behaviour under unbelievably stressful and trying circumstances. His conclusion was that men who broke down were not weak, or lacking in moral fibre, but had simply used up their capital of courage. In many cases a spell out of the line for rest and recuperation did men a world of good, and they often returned good as new. Norman Dxon’s book The psychology of military incompetence expands on the mental aspect of war, as do Angus Calder’s Time to Kill, and The Sharp End by John Ellis.

Before D-Day in 1944, Montgomery asked for some veteran Divisions that had fought in North Africa and Italy to be returned to England. The 7th Armoured Division – the Desert Rats, the 51st Highland Division and the 50th Northumberland Division came back to England. Monty’s idea was that these experiences men would stiffen their inexperienced colleagues. In actual fact, after D-Day many of these veteran units struggled. Why? They were used to fighting in a completely different environment. And they had all expended a lot of bravery in Italy and North Africa. And they had all come home, saw their families, and were then asked to go out to fight again. No wonder they might have felt that they had done their bit. But once they settled down in Normandy and adapted, they ended the war performing finely.

Another story I have often heard relates to parachuting. I have heard i said on more than one occasion that if you are about to jump but are no longer nervous, then its time to stop. If you’re not nervous, then you might be careless, take risks and not heed warning signs. Of course jumping out of a plane is going to be nerve-wracking – it defies gravity and logic!

There are also examples of how nervous people falter at critical moments. Lietenant General ‘Boy’ Browning was described by a contemporary as ‘nervy and highly strung’. How is it then that he came to command such a critical operation as Market Garden? He had a fine record in World War One. But between the wars he seems to have immersed himself in drill and politicking – not untypical for a Guards Officer, and someone who was Adjutant of Sandhurst. Its also not unknown for someone suffering from nerves to find avoidance in something such as military ‘bull’. But Browning’s performance in September 1944 shows all the hallmarks of someone who was not exactly confident.

How do these stories relate to a failed driving test? Well, firstly that theres nothing wrong with being nervous, its a perfectly normal human feeling it happens to everyone, even superhumans. In fact if you’re going in to an imporant meeting, interview or test, and you’re not nervous, you should probably ask yourself why.

So how do you deal with nerves? The first step is accepting that they exist. Ignoring them doesnt make them go away. Secondly, do you try and relax, or psyche yourself up? I guess it depends on exactly what it is you’re nervous about. And different things work for different people. But good preparation should eliminate most of the things that you could be nervous about anyway – then theres only a tiny proportion left to luck.

It might seem slightly fanciful to relate my nightmare of a driving test to military history, but why not? Hopefully I’ve shown just how yo can draw inspiration from virtually any part of history. And for me, that is what history should be about.

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1st Hampshires at the First Battle of Ypres

The race to the sea ended at the strategically important Belgian town of Ypres, the last landmark before the North Sea coast. Both the Allies and the Germans began the battle offensively, seeking to defeat and push back the other. As the battle wore on, the British Army was increasingly forced onto the defensive against German attacks.

By nightfall on the 21st the Hampshires arrived at Ploegstreet, some 6 to 7 miles south of Ypres. The next day they relieved a Battalion of the Kings Own Regiment in the front line, remaining for a day, before moving to reserve trenches at a Chateau south of St Yves on 23 October. There they spent 4 days digging trenches.

On 28 October orders were received to relieve the Somerset Light Infantry. The whole Battalion went into the firing line, with a frontage Messines-St Yves-Legheer, and with the Germans 1100 yards to the North and East. After an uneventful day on the 29th, at daybreak on the 30th the Germans began a heavy bombardment, until later in the afternoon when German infantry attacked. The British opened fire, and the German attack petered out by dusk. Captain Harland was killed by Machine Gun fire, however, when some enemy managed to use dead ground close to C Company as cover. Lieutenant Trimmer was also killed.

The Hampshires were again heavily bombarded on 31 October from dawn. At one point German infantry attacked and managed to taking a trench occupied by 10 Platoon of C Company. The Platoon had held out against vastly superior numbers, but were forced to withdraw. Only one man – an orderly – returned to the rest of the Battalion. 12 men were killed, 1 officer and 20 men wounded, and 40 men were missing. C Company obviously bore the brunt of these losses, as during the night its 3 remaining platoons were relieved by the Shropshire Light Infantry.

The next day saw more prolonged artillery bombardments, followed by a strong German attack along the whole of the line. 20 men were killed, 19 wounded and 3 missing. One of the dead was a Portsmouth man – Private Charles Glenister.

The pattern of attacks was repeated on 2 November. 11 men were killed, 3 officers and 64 men wounded, and 7 men missing. Private John Copping, 28 and from Wheatstone Road, Southsea, was one of those killed. That night the Battalion was relieved by the Worcesters and bivouaced at Ploegsteert. They suffered once man killed there, Private William Harris. After a days rest the Battalion was back in the front line again at dusk on 4 November. The next few days were relatively quiet, with the only loss being an NCO who was killed by a sniper on 6 November.

On 7 November the Germans attacked again, this time attempting to capture Ploegsteert and outflank Ypres. A group of Germans consisting of one officer and six men managed to side-step the Battalion and reach Ploegsteert Wood. A Company was ordered to clear the woods, and suffered heavy casualties in doing so. 1 Officer and 16 men were killed, 3 officers and 18 men wounded, and 18 men missing. Lance Corporal Reginald Aspinall was among the dead. There was no fighting during 8 November, although the German snipers were very active – 3 men were killed and 4 wounded. 7 men were wounded by snipers on the 9th. From the 10th until the 14th there was a lull, with only one man being killed, 10 wounded and 2 missing. The man killed was possibly Lance Corporal Albert Brown. On the night of 14 November the Hampshires moved back to Ploegsteert.

The Battalion spent 3 days resting in Ploegsteert. This was well earned after the past 2 weeks heavy fighting. They were not entirely out of the firing line, as enemy shelling killed one man and wounded one other. The rest was short lived, however, for on the evening of 17 November the Battalion went back into the front line. 2 companies were in the firing line, 1 in close support and the other in reserve. The Battalion spent the next day repairing their trenches, which were in a deplorable state due to heavy rain. The rest of the stint in the front line prove to be uneventful, with only German snipers causing casualties. During the period a company of the City of London Rifle Brigade was attached.

The Battle of Ypres marked both the last attempt by either side to effect a decisive blow in 1914, and also the beginning of static trench warfare. Stalemate at First Ypres led to stalemate for the next four years, and thousands more deaths in the Ypres Salient and the rest of the western front. What can we learn from the experiences of the 1st Hampshires? Firstly, the appalling rate of attrition shows how by the end of 1914 the BEF had been virtually wiped out, the original regular soldiers being largely replaced by reservists. Notice also the heavy rate of loss amongst officers.

We can also see much about how the first world war was to be fought – warfare became less mobile, and more frequently troops are occupied with holding lines and repairing trenches. We see that artillery fire and snipers caused more casualties – even on quiet days, questioning the school of thought that most losses came through going ‘over the top’. We also see the beginnings of familiar trench warfare patterns – several days in the front line followed by several days rest, and the distribution of companies in the front line, in support and in reserve.

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