Just as physics is not a list of facts about the world, history is not a list of names and dates. It is a way of thinking that can be powerful and illuminating.
Some things about physics aren’t well covered in a physics education. Those are the messy, rough edges that make everything difficult: dealing with people, singly or in groups; misunderstandings; rivals and even allies who won’t fall in line. Physicists often do not see such issues as contributing to science itself. But social interactions really do influence what scientists produce. Often physicists learn that lesson the hard way. Instead, they could equip themselves for the actual collaborative world, not the idealized solitary one that has never existed.
History can help. An entire academic discipline—history of science—studies the rough edges. We historians of science see ourselves as illustrating the power of stories. How a community tells its history changes the way it thinks about itself. A historical perspective on science can help physicists understand what is going on when they practice their craft, and it provides numerous tools that are useful for physicists themselves.
PHYSICS IS A SOCIAL ENDEAVOR
Research is done by people. And people have likes and dislikes, egos and prejudices. Physicists, like everyone else, get attached to their favorite ideas and hang on to them perhaps long after they should let them go…
Although I’m not likely to make history a career, I strive to learn as much as I can from those remarkable people who came before us. To see lost worlds through their eyes. They have many stories to tell, and lessons to teach. But we first have to be listening! A firm grasp of historical events is an important skill that even non-historians should cultivate.
Like the Medieval scholars, today’s intellectuals are narrowing the field of inquiry. The “frantic energy to know more and more about less and less,” identified by Russian sociologist Pitirim Sorokin a half century ago, has made academic life increasingly irrelevant to most people.
The successful invasion of Normandy may seem predestined today, but it certainly wasn’t on the morning of June 6th, 1944. The Germans and the weather weren’t the only problems for the Allies. In many cases, the Allies were their own worst enemies. For every Ponte Du Hoc, there was a Vierville Draw; for every Pegasus Bridge there was a Merville Battery, if not more, many more. The question isn’t really how they won, but how did they not lose despite themselves? Laziness, greed, incompetence, ignorance, poor staff work, etc, these were obstacles that were far different than German machine gun nests, but had to be overcome nonetheless.
These are the D-Day stories we don’t like to talk about, because they are the stories we fear to repeat, those that we inflicted upon ourselves.
The disasters of D-Days started even before the final go ahead by Eisenhower. The airborne landings, though absolutely necessary, were catastrophic. The SOE Jedburgh Teams dropped in on the night of the 4th found that many of their supplies parachuted in with them were stolen before they could be recovered, undoubtedly by the French Resistance who were the only ones who knew they were coming. Most Jedburgh teams were reduced to the role of poorly equipped cut off infantry, not unlike the paratroopers that followed them.
Almost none of the pathfinders of the airborne divisions marked their drop zones, and if they did, it was usually in the wrong spot. Only the chaos of the actual jump masked it. History has recorded that chaos as a positive for spreading the German defenses out, but it wasn’t so for the paratroopers that night. Fra fewer made it into the fight than myth and legend tells us. The fire in Sainte-Mère-Église caused the destruction of an entire airborne company after a pilot mistook it for the lights of the drop zone. And Sainte-Mère-Église, celebrated as the first town liberated in France, was only secured after the Germans pulled out to more defensible terrain: terrain that 82nd Airborne was originally supposed to secure in the first place, but couldn’t because it lacked the men to do so. Almost another entire airborne company drowned when its jumpmasters pushed them out over the flooded area. Another group of twelve paratroopers, lost, broke into a wine cellar and were found drunk two days later. Another pilot flew so low that the parachutes of his charges couldn’t open and one soldier on the ground, cursing the pilot, noted that they sounded like “pumpkins splatting on the ground”.
The most celebrated unit in the airborne invasion was E/1/506 who fought D-Day with just 14 men, out of 140. More joined later, but that doesn’t change the fact that Captain Dick Winters had to seize the Breucourt Manor guns, a company if not a battalion objective, with just 11 men.
Even those paratroopers that didn’t hide or wander and took the initiative, weren’t immune to human fallibility. One enterprising German unit captured over 50 paratroopers by using their cricket against them. When the challenge of “one click” got a response of “two clicks”, the American was quietly taken prisoner. Another group of 19 Americans was taken prisoner behind Utah Beach and subsequently killed in the invasion bombardment. One can only imagine the stories that haven’t been recorded.
The invasion itself was an unmitigated disaster for the French population of that stretch of the Norman coast. De Gaulle’s refusal to address his people over semantics in Eisenhower’s draft undoubtedly caused thousands of casualties among French civilians who ignored Eisenhower’s pleas to evacuate the coast. For every French civilian who proudly waved the tricolor during the bombardment, dozens, if not hundreds were killed or wounded. In Caen, the Gestapo executed every French civilian in the prison. The Hotel D’Normandie in Ouisterham collapsed upon its inhabitants and those who survived were nearly all killed ten minutes later when their cover was struck by the bombardment.
As the bombardment continued, the movement at sea from the transfer points to the beaches was beyond chaotic, much of it self-inflicted. In their arrogance, the Americans refused British help with navigational aids marking the beaches, such as prepositioned midget subs that successfully guided British troops to the correct destinations. They relied on patrol cutters to guide the landing craft in, almost all of whom got lost. A coxswain bringing in the rangers to scale Pont Du Hoc got lost and the rangers arrived 30 minutes late, well after the first waves hit Omaha. The rising tide was almost lapping the base of the cliff by the time the rangers scaled the heights. That there were no guns at the top was all that prevented a greater disaster on the Omaha and Utah beaches below.
Of the first three waves to hit the beaches at Omaha and Utah, only a single company, A/1/116th of the 29th Division landed at the beach they were assigned, and they were massacred for it. Tens of thousands of pages of orders and timetables and millions of man hours: useless and wasted. 8 of the 16 landing craft that carried Omaha Beach’s duplex drive tanks refused to land the tanks directly on the beach, even though the swells would obviously swamp the tanks further out. That the DD tanks would never make the 5000 yard swim to shore was obvious to all. Thirty tanks and their crews were forced out of the landing craft because the sailors refused to deviate from the plan. Not a single tank made it more than hundred yards out to sea, most just drove off the ramp and sank.
The 4th Infantry Division’s entire assault wave landed a mile and quarter south of where they should have been due to their coxswains following a lost patrol cutter.
The landings on the beaches, at Omaha in particular, were horrific, and the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan is tame in comparison. The entire bombardment over shot the beach defenses, despite spotter planes continually calling in “on target”. One British observer watched as an entire formation of B-17’s and B-26s drop their loads into the fields behind the beaches. “That’s a fat lot of use, all it’ll do is just wake them up.”
American and British intelligence missed the movement of the entire German 352nd Infantry Division into the beach defenses opposite Omaha until the 4th of June, and then decided not to tell the assault troops. Until the moment the ramps dropped, the men of the 1st and 29th Divisions expected to face the green conscripts of the 716th Division, not the tough and experienced 352nd battle hardened on the Eastern Front. One amazed German sergeant looking down on Omaha commented, “They must be crazy. Are they going to swim ashore right in front of our muzzles?”
One German private estimated he fired his rifle 400 times that morning, and hit someone more than half the time.
An entire LCI was destroyed when a single errant bullet struck a flamethrower tank and exploded. Men carrying a hundred pounds of equipment quickly found out that the weight doubled when it was soaked with sea water: something those who mandated the combat load would never have to experience. Many men drowned because they couldn’t get out of the water fast enough or were crushed when a swell pushed a landing craft violently forward. Most craft were stuck on a sand bar initially but as the tide rose they became increasingly stuck on the beach obstacles. The assault waves landed at low tide, but the rising tide became a problem: the landing craft and debris were inadvertently pushed into the mines.
Men who were too wounded to move forward quickly drowned. The flotsam and jetsam, and bodies, along the beach began to accumulate as the tide pushed it forward: crushing some, but forcing all into German fields of fire. An LCI was destroyed by mine, and became a plow as the tide pushed it forward onto the beach. The arrogant American refusal of the British offer of specialty engineer vehicles was paid in blood. Engineers got into fights with soldiers seeking scant cover behind beach obstacles they were supposed to blow, and in several instances detonated them anyway. Entire groups refused to move until the tide forced them to and there was at least one mutiny on the beach. Men spent hours digging in only to have the tide swallow them whole. Unwounded men got high on their own morphine, and waited for the water to end their existence before the Germans did.
On the relatively calm Utah, several men found a small remote controlled Goliath. They played around with the controller, amused by the little tank. Unbeknownst to them, it was packed full of explosives and they accidentally set it off, killing everyone watching.
On the British beaches, many troops landed, neutralized the beach defenses… and then dug in, awaited orders, and brewed tea. One unit even reveled in the fact that they were first British unit to brew tea in France. Lt James Doohan, the future Montgomery Scott of Star Trek, had to pull his pistol on his coxswain to get him to move toward the beach. Barrage balloons were set up on the beaches, which only acted as markers for German artillery. It would hours and dozens of casualties later before someone had the moral courage to cut them loose. Just off of Sword Beach, the Merville Battery was taken at great cost, then abandoned for fears of friendly naval gunfire, and subsequently reoccupied by the Germans. It wouldn’t be recaptured for another seven weeks. Allied bombers destroyed Caen, killing a thousand French civilians, and inadvertently turned it into a fortress for the Germans.
By noon, General Omar Bradley seriously considered sending troops from Utah to Omaha, or even pulling off of Omaha altogether.
Along the shingle on Omaha, one soldier wrote in his diary, “I prayed for the fourth time today, asking God, “Why do these things have to be visited upon men?”
Thankfully, some of those men persisted.
Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Out of every one hundred men in battle, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they the battle make. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others home.”
When teaching history, we tend to celebrate Heraclitus’ fighters and warriors. They make a good tale, but since they’re the only tales told, we also tend to ascribe their uniqueness to the mass. For every junior NCO or officer who led a few stalwarts up the hill on Omaha and cracked the German defense, there were a hundred down below just trying to survive. The stories of the others make us uncomfortable at best and embarrassed at worst. However, very little is ever learned in victory. And even worse, to ignore those stories does a disservice to the fighters and warriors that had to endure beside them. It also does a disservice to the system that produced them both as internal factors are almost always more important than external factors. The difference between a good unit and a great unit, between victory and defeat is sometimes as small as one or two more willing to fight. The fighters and warriors rose to the occasion despite themselves, their comrades, even those supposedly their betters.
As the memory of D-Day passes into history, to tell only 10% of the story is a travesty, and dishonest. One cannot fully appreciate their resilience unless you have something familiar to compare it to, that those stories are difficult to talk about should be immaterial. Those that didn’t live up to the almost impossible standards of conduct we set for June 6th 1944 nonetheless still showed up that day.
The disasters of D-Day are reminders that soldiers, sailors, and airmen are human and are subject to the same human fallibility as any other. Leaders, and historians, tend to fall into the assumptions that subordinates always followed orders, the plans were always perfect, and that luck was always in their favor. This is rarely, if ever, the case. Errors happen. Humans break, sometimes easily.
Egos have killed more people than bullets and shells.
But the fighters and warriors succeeded despite those working against them, even their own.
The U.S. War Department had different motives: the historians were to inform the soldiers and the nation as a whole, as well as the high command. Their narratives were to be comprehensive, impartial, and sufficiently authoritative to form an important source for the studies of future historians. In the meantime, short histories of operations, later called the American Forces in Action series, were to be published for the men who took part.
It was soon discovered that the type of history desired could not be written from the archives alone, despite prodigious record keeping. The paperwork of one division for a single week would fill a filing cabinet. The trouble was simply that the records constituted truth in parade dress. “On the actual day of battle,” Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton once reflected, “naked truths may be picked up for the asking; by the following morning they have begun to get into their uniforms.” The messages, intelligence summaries, field orders, operations reports, and all the other records still left huge gaps in the story of the action; they were often meaningless or misleading on the most vital questions. As a result, officers and enlisted historians were assigned to the battlefronts to see for themselves and write the first drafts of history on the spot.
In May 1814, Napoleon had abdicated and was in captivity on the island of Elba. King Louis XVIII was on the French throne, and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the victor of the Peninsular War that did so much to sap Napoleon’s strength the previous six years, was appointed Great Britain’s ambassador to France.
On a trip from Paris to Brussels on 19 May 1814, the Duke and his staff stopped to water their horses, and maybe have a drink or two, at the small Belgian hamlet of La Haye. To the untrained eye, the fields to the west of La Haye were not dissimilar to any others in Belgium or northeastern France. But to Wellington, they formed a perfect killing ground, and at the expense of his trip, the Duke spent several hours surveying the beautiful defensive terrain.
As they approached from the south, those fields formed a shallow gently rolling valley that gradually rose northward to a small escarpment, not even high enough to be called a ridge. The road from Paris to Brussels passed right over it. To the right near a marshy creek, the ten stout stone buildings of La Haye and the walled farm of Papelotte marked the valley’s eastern edge. On the western edge of the valley about two miles away, was the imposing compound and chateau of Hougamont and another marshy creek. Any attacker from the south would not be able to go around either of these obstacles. They would have to go straight up the valley and over the escarpment. And just off the road directly in the center of the valley was the walled farm of La Haye Sainte. These obstructions stood like three great bastions of a fortress. If they were properly held, troops could poor fire into any body of men that tried to pass by. At least one would need to be taken, preferably two, before any attacker could confidently proceed north to attack a main defensive line just behind these three formidable obstacles.
That main defensive line would normally be just below the crest of the escarpment, but to Wellington’s delight the ground sloped down again to a quaint village whose chimney smoke could just barely be seen from La Haye. On this reverse slope, any defending troops would be shielded from the worst effects of an attacker’s artillery, and moreover, any movement of reserves would be unseen behind the escarpment. Those chimney’s belonged to the thirty or so buildings in the village of Mont-Saint-Jean. So if an army did seize two of the bastions, survive any counterattacks, crest the inter-visibility line, survive the grapeshot from the cannon, survive the point blank fusillade from the waiting troops, and after all that then finally break through the solid wall of bayonets, those nice stout houses of Mont-Saint-Jean would be there to cover the defender’s retreat. Truly magnificent ground.
Instead of continuing, Wellington and his staff decided to dine at the inn in the village and discuss the “wonderfully delightful” defensive terrain they were on. Even though they talked for several more hours, it was still all theoretical: Napoleon was on Elba, and King Louis XVIII would never invade Belgium. After the impromptu training exercise and dinner completed, Wellington realized he was late for his engagement in Brussels and they hastily galloped north.
Two miles up the road was a larger town where his chief of staff originally wanted to halt for a bit that afternoon. As the Duke passed through he noticed its sign; it read, “Waterloo”.
He would have to stop there again sometime.
When the officer in the General Staff has received a good education in times of peace, in times of war he will quickly become useful in many roles. But without a good education in times of peace, an officer in the General Staff will never achieve anything significant in war. For the latter requires judgement, which is developed through repeated study of military incidents, and a great amount of past facts that we have to keep in mind. These are necessary if we wish, in all cases that occur, thanks to resemblance in circumstances, to be able to judge to some degree the success of an enterprise and avoid the mistakes experience could discover––if we wish to consult all the special circumstances and among the numerous possibilities to choose the most beneficial ones. Nothing in this case is more dangerous than one’s own experience without the understanding with which military history provides us. The few instances of this personal experience now become the yardstick, and all similar occurrences are judged according to them, even if the circumstances and the results are marked by a greater diversity.
I have often seen how deficient, in terms of providing advice, those perform who apply only the facts they have personally experienced. How uncertain and fearful they are in undertaking something the circumstances require, but they have never encountered in the span of their life. These people do not know what one should dare in war. Through reminiscences of a hundred possible but unlikely disasters, they make the general they support anxious. They would, perhaps, never dare an audacious thought because no similar case from history, crowned with success, gives them the necessary confidence. — GERHARD VON SCHARNHORST
The answer as to why we should study history, military history or strategic thinking varies from an intellectual exercise in its own right, through the need to know the story and on to Dominick Graham’s ‘spectrum of categories: entertaining, informative, descriptive, inspirational, critical, educational and prescriptive’.51 If we extend this to encompass the notion of history as an interpretation of the past in which a serious attempt is made to filter out myth and legend, the role of the discipline becomes both more demanding and more necessary. Given mankind’s continuing reliance on the use of force as an instrument of policy, our interest in the past is ever more important. We need to shed the myths, fables and legends, of which military history has more than its fair share, if we are to learn anything from history. Tradition and fable have often matured into the fault lines between nations and between peoples. If we are to have anything approaching a reasonable understanding of the complex situations in which we are increasingly likely to find ourselves, dexterity with the analytical tools provided by the study of history is essential.
In Seeley’s mind, the thing that made history worthwhile as an academic discipline was its status as a source of education for decision-makers and others involved in the public realm. Seeley did much to ensure that the curriculum at Cambridge largely echoed his vision. Of course, while Seeley expressed it in an undoubtedly provocative fashion, his argument had a long lineage, with roots deep in antiquity. The idea that studying the past could help one to navigate the present, and respond to future challenges, was an old idea, one that went back to Thucydides and Polybius…
It is one of the more welcome developments within a troubled modern historical profession that some scholars are fighting to reassert this conception of history. After decades of ever-narrower specialisms and esoteric topics, a growing number of academics have been pushing back and making the case for historians’ engagement with policymakers — or what has been termed “applied history”…
What exactly is it about studying the past that makes history so useful? Thankfully, the answer to that question can be expressed in a single word: imagination….
A historical cast of mind opens up, and fertilizes, one’s imagination. It raises awareness of the primacy of contingency and possibility in human affairs. It underlines the importance of improvisation and outside-the-box thinking. It brings home, painfully, the need to develop a keen sense of limits. It helps us to grasp the consequences of getting decisions wrong. It serves to illuminate pathways through dense forests. And, yes, it offers inspiration from past examples….