From Guillemont to Ginchy

16th

Not a photo of Tom Kettle

102 years ago on September 9th, 1916, the Irish 16th Division took the French villages of Guillemont and Ginchy from the Germans in an action that formed part of the Battles of the Somme.

Somewhere between those villages Tom Kettle died in a hail of bullets.

An intellectual, Barrister, Politician, Visionary and devoted Christian he is best remembered for the last three lines of the sonnet he penned to his daughter four days before he died.

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God; by Tom Kettle

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
to beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
in that desired, delayed, incredible time,
you’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
and the dear heart that was your baby throne,
to dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
and reason: some will call the thing sublime,
and some decry it in a knowing tone.

So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
and tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
but for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
and for the secret Scripture of the poor.

Happy Birthday Wilfred Owen

Owen

Born on this day in 1893 Wilfred Owen died aged 25, on November 4th 1918, one week before the end of the Great War.  This is his 125th birthday.

A thoughtful poet before the war Owen was denied a proper education by his family poverty.  He did not attain sufficient marks to win a scholarship.  When the war began he was a reluctant participant, but saw it as his duty to enlist which he did in October 1915.

He was commissioned as an officer in June 1916 and spend the months when the Battle of the Somme was raging in a training camp at Étaples.  He was brought up to active duty on the Somme in January 1917.  He underwent heavy shelling in January, was injured in March from a fall into a cellar.  Returned to duty in April, was hit by a shell in May.

Suffering from shell shock he was repatriated to Edinburgh to recuperate.  It was in Craiglockhart War Hospital that he met Siegfried Sassoon who became his mentor.  The pair went on to write some of the best anti-war poetry in history.  They saw it as their duty to expose the awful reality of war.  For me the poem below achieves this better than any other.

Dulce Et Decorum Est ; by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
and towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
but limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
but someone still was yelling out and stumbling
and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
as under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
behind the wagon that we flung him in,
and watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
if you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
to children ardent for some desperate glory,
the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Land Ship

Tank

Today is the anniversary of the appearance of the Tank in battle.  The British used them, in a limited capacity, in the Somme offensive.

The Tanks were not very effective.  Winston Churchill envisaged them as dreadnoughts, great armoured ships of the land which would devastate the German lines.  In reality there were too few, they were too unreliable and nobody knew quite how to use them.

That comes as no surprise.  The British army was all at sea in the early phase of the Somme.  The French were making excellent ground, eating up the miles and chewing up German lines.  They had learned their lessons well at Verdun.  They understood how to fight the industrial war.  Concentrated artillery wins the ground and the troops hold the gains.

The French learned the need to have specialist squads for different duties, who were well trained in the requirements of their role.  Riflemen to take the lines cleared by the artillery, light machine-gun companies to clear out strong-points and grenade companies to “clear-out” dugouts and trenches while the riflemen advanced.

The British had not absorbed these lessons.  They had not fought this type of battle before.  In their arrogance they did not listen to the French advisers.  The generals thought they knew what they were doing and the poor blighters on the front lines died to prove them wrong.

Blighters: by Siegfried Sassoon

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

A Vision of Success

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The game of chess is a very useful metaphor for strategic planning.  When you begin to learn chess you start by learning the way each piece can move.  Beginners think that the game of chess is about controlling the movement of pieces.

As an intermediate player you learn some of the strategic openings that are used to develop the game quickly and get as many pieces as possible into offensive positions.  A well-developed opening is often enough to defeat the beginner.  It is at this stage that you begin to realise that chess is not about controlling the movement of pieces.  Chess is about controlling the spaces on the board.

By controlling the space on the board, we reduce the potential for our opponent to catch us off guard.  This principle is common to all strategic planning, be it in a business or a military context.  We use formal planning frames or checklists to ensure that we have examined all potential threats and influences.  We can then eliminate them from our planning, or build the plan around them.

The difference between an expert player and an intermediate player is down to game strategy.  The intermediate player develops his opening well and after the first ten moves is probably on a par with the expert.  But at this stage the intermediate player often finds that they lose control of the play.  They are reacting to strategic moves by the expert and end up playing defensively.

The expert player begins the game of chess with a vision of success.  They can see the game through to the end, before it even begins.  Their opponent may play very well and frustrate the shape of the win, but the expert will revise as the game goes on, and will generally win as a result.

In business planning the same dynamic is true.  Some businesses follow the formal planning frames and develop a workable business plan, but not a winning business plan.  Excellent businesses start out with a vision of success and focus their planning efforts on achieving that vision.

An example of this can be drawn from the differences in approach followed by the Nationalists and the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.  These lessons were internalised by the Germans and used to polish their Blitzkrieg tactics.  The Russian tanks supplied to the Republican side were superior to the German and Italian tanks, but they were squandered due to lack of vision in battle planning.

Motorised armored columns can strike any defensive line and break through, if they do so in concentration.  The column then drives hard into enemy territory, cutting communications and causing confusion.  The attacking side know where they are going and what they are doing, because they are the ones making the decisions.  Once the motorised column has sown disruption in the lines the main infantry force can advance.  Defenders find themselves isolated as reinforcements are unable to move up due to the communications problems.  At the defending HQ the officers are assailed by a barrage of conflicting reports and struggle to piece together a picture of the battle.  Pockets of resistance hold out as defenders hold onto strategic towns or hills.  The advance moves past them, and a holding force besieges them to limit offensive sorties in the rear, and they are neutralised.  Everything happens fast.  Ultimately the only sane response for the defenders is to retreat to a defined holding point and regroup, losing ground and the troops in surrounded pockets.  This is classic Blitzkrieg.

The Russian generals in civil war Spain did not follow this pattern.  They mounted broad-front assaults.  Instead of concentrating their armor, they spread it along the line.  Whenever they broke through lines they insisted on reducing resistance in every strong point they encountered.  This gave the Nationalists ample time to mount a counter attack.  As a result they failed miserably in their attacks.

What is even more telling is that they failed to learn and adapt their strategy.  The Communist Commissars were more motivated to spread positive propaganda than to learn from mistakes.  As a result they painted defeats as victories.  When defeats could not be presented as victories they assigned blame to anyone but the Russians.  The outcome of this delusional approach was that the Russians continued with these tactics through the Second World War.  Millions of Russian soldiers died because Generals would not admit their strategies were at fault.

In a business context, if you are not the dominant player, there is a danger that you are reacting to the moves of the Gorilla in the market.  If you are dancing to a tune played by the big player you will never overtake them.  You must own your own strategies.  If you are the dominant player you must not fall into the trap of becoming entrenched and defensive in nature.  This will allow smaller players to nibble away at your share.

Before Action ; by William Noel Hodgson

… I, that on my familiar hill
saw with uncomprehending eyes
a hundred of Thy sunsets spill
their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
ere the sun swings his noonday sword
must say good-bye to all of this;
by all delights that I shall miss,
help me to die, O Lord.

Hodgson’s last poem, written on the eve of the Battle of the Somme in which he died.

Bastille Day

Today is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1798, the seminal action of the French Revolution.  The impact of that revolution continues to be felt today.  The French Revolution was an event that marked a watershed in world politics.  Prior to the revolution the affairs of the world were dictated by three broad conditions.

1.      God ruled, and understanding of affairs came from an understanding of the will of God.  

2.      In the Catholic nations the will of God was interpreted by the Pope.  A strong papal representation was present in all the Catholic courts of Europe.

3.      Monarchs took their authority from God, and ruled with divine right.

Now I know that the British out there are saying “wait a minute, we lobbed off Charlies head and did away with divine right way back in 1649.  Agreed, but you also restored the monarchy albeit in a far more controlled manner.  The rest of Europe was still lagging a long way behind.

After the French revolution the affairs of the world were dictated by a different set of conditions.

1.      The scientific method became fundamental to human endeavour.  Rational proof replaced fervent belief as the basis for understanding.

2.      Since religion is founded on belief and not on rational proof, the power of the church waned considerably in the affairs of men.

3.      The monarchy as a method for rule lost credibility with the passing years.  People realised that it was better to be ruled by logic and merit than by divinity and birth.

To avoid traffic jams of pilgrims entering and leaving Rome, Popes advised that pilgrims walk on the left side of the road.  The French in the revolution rejected the pope by instructing their troops to march on the right.  This is why some countries now drive on the right and others drive on the left.

The evolution of the European Union today owes its origin to the visions of Napoleon Bonaparte.  It was he who had the vision of a continental system with a single set of weights and measures and a single currency.

It took centuries for the changes wrought by the French Revolution to work their way through society.  The vision of a European Union was eventually realised only after the devastation of two world wars.

Bastille day 1916 was around the mid-point of the Somme Offensive.  In 1944 Bastille day was in the middle of the Battle of the Hedgerows, or the Battle for St Lo in Normandy, part of the Normandy invasion.

In 1998 on Bastille day my daughter was born and the Tour de France made its first and only visit to Ireland.

We as a society need to protect the values of the French Revolution.  We need to defend reason and logic over misinformation, propaganda and blind faith.  Too many good people died to give us rational democracy for us to give it away.  Protect your rights, protect your democracy, inform yourself, and for the sake of logic and reason, please exercise your vote!

Arms and the Boy:  Wilfred Owen

1 Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
2 How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
3 Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
4 And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

5 Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
6 Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
7 Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
8 Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

9 For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
10 There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
11 And God will grow no talons at his heels,
12 Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

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