Over the top
The British General Sir Douglas Haig knew how to fight a war. He was the head of the BEF, the British Expeditionary Force in France and he had been in the Army all his life.
Haig’s experience was not wrong, but it did him no good.
Since the time of Alexander, armies had pretty much lined up against one another and, after an encounter or two, the army that had more courage, advanced best and had the best tactics prevailed and took the field. It has been thus when Wellington met Napoleon at Waterloo; it had been thus when the Union met the Rebels at Gettysburg. Now the British had met the Germans at the Somme.
But the world had changed. A new piece of technology was about to make all of Haig’s many years of experience worthless: The machine gun.
Invented in 1881 by Hiram Maxim, the gun found its first real deadly ‘home’ at the Battle of the Somme. The battle, which took place in 1916, would cost both sides more than 1.5 million casualties. One battle. On the very first day, the BEF suffered 67,470 casualties. The carnage was almost incomprehensible. Yet the battle dragged on day after day after day. It was a meatgrinder from which no one could escape.
The problem was that a new technology suddenly impinged on old ways of thinking and combat, and the commanding generals lacked either the intelligence, the imagination or the sheer courage to depart from what they already knew.
Many would pay the price for this.
The machine gun brought the old ‘art’ of killing in warfare to an industrial process. The British might line up rows of well trained, well equipped ‘Tommies’ to bravely charge the German trenches. The Germans, however, had equipped their forces with machine guns. Simple to operate, relatively inexpensive, deadly. The Germans needed only to sit in their trenches, and when the British army came close enough…push the button.
Row after row of British soldiers were simply mowed down.
When the first waves of brave soldiers had failed to take the German line, the British command thought and sent another wave, and another, and another. Wave after wave were simply mowed down by the machines. It was brutal – pointless, senseless and endless.
By the end of the battle in late August, the British army had advanced their lines about 5 miles. In short, this meant that each centimeter of advance had cost two lives.
In the long run, the flower of a generation of English had been extinguished. In 1914, Lord Kitchener had raised a vast volunteer army. Full of enthusiasm, the best and brightest had volunteered to go to liberate France. Of those, the best, brightest and most eager were the first to go over the top and head for the German lines. It was all pointless.
What destroyed the British and the French and the Germans at the Somme, (as well as at Verdun, where the flower of France was wiped out in the same way), was not ‘superior tactics’. It was the injection of a new technology without a rethinking of process.
Technologies have an irresistible force.
You cannot argue with new technologies. You cannot force your will upon them. Often, they make a lifetime’s worth of experience worthless, and they easily wipe out old ways of working. You cannot simply ‘inject’ a new technology into old ways of working or thinking.
Obviously, the triad of simple video cameras, laptop edits and online video distribution are a new technology. Major media companies are run by those with the most ‘experience’. Yet, as at the Somme, experience can sometimes prove far more fatal than useful when the nexus of events is driven by a technological shift.
The Battle of the Somme shattered Britain. There are those who believe that the ultimate collapse of the British Empire globally occurred in France in that fateful summer. The British lost their best, and to some degree, their will to sacrifice for ‘God and Country’. Empires fall, but often the lynch pin of their undoing is some small and misunderstood piece of new technology, improperly applied.
See if our Media Empires do any better now.