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John Keegan in his book Face of Battle describes the preparation for and the initial results achieved by the British in the Battle of the Somme in World War I. He noted that the most expert British Army analysts and planners applied their best knowledge of artillery fire and infantry tactics to ensure the British occupation of the forward German trenches — which were only 4000 yards away from the British trench positions.

An “elaborate artillery fire plan was developed along with a very simple infantry tactical scheme.” The British analysts figured that about a million and a half shells (only 20,000 were used by Napolean at Waterloo) fired over a week-long period and directed at the German trenches and some of the approach routes to those trenches, should “scythe flat” the enemy’ 8 barbed wire protection, “batter the German’ 8 artillery batteries into silence”, and “entomb the enemy’ 8 trench garrisons in their dug-outs”. Keegan notes that this army optimism was due to the fact that “it was a trusting army” which “believed in the superiority of its own equipment over the Germans”.

Then, after the week-long bombardment, a “barrage” consisting of a curtain of exploding shells preceding the infantry – with carefully timed “lifts” — could take the body of infantry it was protecting through the enemy positions in the forward trenches “without suffering a single loss from enemy infantry fire.”

Although the initial bombardment plus the “barrage” – some 2, 960,000 artillery rounds — were analytically shown to cut big holes through the German barbed wire implacements, bury the German infantry in their deep dug-outs and allow the British infantry to get to the German trenches unharmed, the assault by the British infantry across “no man’s land” on July 1, 1916, found most of the barbed wire as well as the Germans in their trenches still intact, and the German counter-fire devastating. The shrapnal shell of that period with its slow acting fuse tended to waste itself in the ground under the wire entanglements and the trench bombardment shells, although creating devastation and chaos on the surface, failed to bury the German troops. Keegan notes that, “The shell which the British guns fired at the German trenches, like those which a month earlier had broken up on the armoured skins of the German battleships at Jutland were the wrong set of projectile for the job.”

The great slaughter of British troops for the very little gained in occupying German trenches made this one of the greatest fiascos of warfare. Yet, the Bri~ish systems analysts had done a tremendous analytical job on the artillery plan — which was then accepted with considerable optimism by the British Army’s high command.

This ls a fable of weapons — weapons which were overrated as to their effects, and the systems analysis which proved the etfectiveness of the weapons. One might only wonder if our submarine weapons — the antiship Tomahawk with an armour piercing warhead, the MK 48 with only about pounds of high explosives, the stand-off ASW weapon with an even lighter warhead — aren’t causing similar delusions of effectiveness?

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