Refighting the Battle of the Somme – on the Dnieper

It has become fashionable in the US media in recent months to compare the ongoing war in Ukraine, Europe's biggest and bloodiest conflict since World War II, with the long drawn-out trench stalemate in World War I. This is all too true: But in precisely the opposite way than the hundreds of ignorant American pundits and politicians parroting this line imagine.

They believe Russia, with limited manpower, has been drained dry of both men and munitions by the war, and therefore the longer it lasts, the weaker Russia will become until President Vladimir Putin is toppled or the entire Russian state collapses forever. 

Mad and ignorant, indeed downright insane as this vision is, it is openly touted in neocon and neoliberal circles in Washington and especially in the Polish capital Warsaw, where demented delusions of supplanting Russia as the Master of Eurasia and Leaders of All the Slavs have reached messianic proportions.

In reality, however, the opposite is the case: A parallel with World War I exists. But it is not Russia that is going to be drained dry in a horrific bloodletting of its precious youth and manhood – it is the long-suffering Ukrainian people. 

The kleptocratic, corrupt criminal clique that leads them and their cynical – and deranged-supporters and enablers in the Biden administration and US Deep State are setting them up for an upcoming Spring Offensive. But Stephen Bryen, one of the finest and most outspoken and courageous of US military analysts identifies in his recent New Kontinent article as the particular brainchild of Under Secretary of State for Policy Victoria Nuland, warns that it will be a bloodbath in which yet more thousands, probably tens of thousands of young Ukrainian soldiers, most of them brutally conscripted against their will, will be slaughtered to no good purpose.

In other words, the coming spring offensive will not be the final straw that breaks Russia’s military back: It will break the Ukrainian people instead. 

It will not be the triumphant Big Push that Nuland and her fellow military ignoramuses imagine: It will be a rerun of the Battle of the Somme.

As a son of Northern Ireland I am particularly acquainted with the Battle of the Somme. As a young and teenage boy, 40 and 50 years after the event, I saw how the utter slaughter of the all-volunteer 36th Ulster Division who were ordered to march forward in the face of massed nests of machine guns without even any medieval armor starting on July 1,1916 was still only talked about in hushed whispers among all those who had lost fathers, uncles, brothers and countless friends.

The British Army suffered more casualties on the very first day of the battle than on any other occasion in its thousand-year long history. Yet General Douglas Haig, the brutal, unfeeling, psychopathic, and above all else rigid and dim butcher who ordered the attack kept it going for another five months. An incredible half a million British soldiers were killed or injured so grievously they died 20 to 50 years short of their projected life span from the injuries they received.

Yet even Haig’s mad and pointless butchery 107 years ago pales before the Grand Strategy projected on to the Ukrainian armed forces now by Nuland and her fellow armchair strategists. Haig’s headquarters at the Chateau de Beaurepaire just two miles outside Montreuil was miles from the horror and butchery of the Western Front. But Nuland and company are directing their imagined legions to pulverize Russia from Washington, DC, 5,000 miles from the frontline fighting.

The British Army on the Somme did not lack for heavy artillery or the shells to bombard the enemy: They started the battle with the longest, biggest bombardment in British military history. It was just that Haig and his favored top commanders were so stupid and incompetent they did not know how to use artillery effectively.

By contrast, the US industrial base has already been drained dry of available 155 mm mobile howitzers and ammunition and the Ukrainians, as Bryen documents, have already fired off prodigal quantities of ammunition from them.

Far from Russia being drained dry by the conflict so far, Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and his top generals have operated in a manpower-conscious manner far more reminiscent of Britain’s Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and the Soviet Union’s own greatest infantry general of World War II, Marshal of the Soviet Union Vassily Ivanovich Chuikov conducting the legendary defense of Stalingrad in fall 1942.

Montgomery, swept across 2,000 miles of North Africa in 1942-43 and then commanded the Anglo-American armies that smashed the Wehrmacht in the West in the Battle of Normandy in June-July 1944. He was famous – and beloved – for safeguarding and husbanding the lives and safety of his troops as much as possible and using steel and shells rather than blood to win his victories. 

Chuikov, whose achievement is now totally forgotten and ignored in the West, was also parsimonious with the lives of his men  – and women – soldiers and was beloved by them for the remaining 40 years of his long life.

Gerasimov too has emphasized the use of concentrated firepower and he has been endlessly criticized for his humane and tactically justified caution with the lives of his men, just as Montgomery was. 

Much of the caution and conservatism of Russian combat tactics has been attributable not just to the genuine effectiveness of US-supplied Javelin missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – for the Russians use UAVs too – but to caution in learning and applying the lessons that new technological breakthroughs have brought to the 21st century battlefield.

In any war, there are times to attack and times to stand on the defensive. Two of Germany’s very best World War I generals, Hans von Seekt and Wilhelm Groener were scathingly critical of the Kaiser’s revered top commanders in the West, Paul von Hindenberg and Erich Ludendorff for bleeding their own army and country dry with needless and disastrous endless attacks in 1918 when they could and should have stayed on the defensive and decimated the Allied armies as they had done on The Somme. 

Interestingly, Winston Churchill, in his enormous history of World War I, “The World Crisis” published through the 1920s, made this same criticism of German strategy.

Now Nuland, the Biden administration and their unthinking followers in the US Congress are urging the brave and battered, exhausted and increasingly ill-equipped Ukrainian Army to go charging forward to yet another slaughter against the best armed, equipped and now combat-experienced forces in Eurasia – and indeed the world. As Stephen Bryen rightly and cogently warned – this is a recipe for catastrophe – and despair.

Martin Sieff is a Senior Fellow of the American University in Moscow and former Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for International Reporting.