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Monday, September 14, 2015

Reading List: Mud: A Military History

Wood, C. E. Mud: A Military History. Washington: Potomac Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59797-003-7.
Military historians from antiquity to the present day have examined innumerable aspects of human conflict in painstaking detail: strategy, tactics, morale, terrain, command structures, training of troops, logistics, mobility, weapons, armour, intelligence both before the battle and after the enemy is engaged, and a multitude of other factors which determine the outcome of the engagement. If you step back from the war college or general staff view from above and ask the actual combatants in land warfare, from privates to flag rank, what they often recall as dominating their contemporary memories, it will often be none of these things, but rather mud. This is the subject of this slim (190 page) but extensively researched and documented book.

When large numbers of men, equipment, and horses (or, in the modern era, mechanised vehicles) traverse terrain, unless it is totally dry, it is likely to be stirred up into a glutinous mix of soil and water: mud. The military mind cannot resist classifying things, and here the author draws the distinction between Type I mud, which is “bottomless” (well, not really, of course, but effectively so since it is deep enough to mire and swallow up any military force which attempts to cross it), Type IIa, which is dominated by liquid and can actually serve to clean hardware which passes through it but may make it impossible to dig trenches or build fortifications, and Type IIb, which is sticky and can immobilise and render ineffective everything from an infantryman's entrenching tool to a main battle tank.

The book illustrates the impact of mud on land warfare, examining its effects on engineering works such as building roads and fortifications, morale of troops, health, and wear and tear and reliability of equipment. Permanent mud (as exists in marshes and other wetlands), seasonal mud (monsoons and the horrific autumn rain and spring thaw mud in Russia which brought both Napoleon and Hitler's armies to a standstill), and random mud (where a downpour halts an advance as effectively as enemy action) each merit their own chapters.

Technical discussions of the composition and behaviour of mud and its effects upon soldiers and military equipment are illustrated by abundant examples from conflicts from antiquity to the most recent war in Iraq. Most examples date from the era of mechanised warfare, but the reader will rapidly appreciate that the reality of mud to the infantryman has changed little since the time of Thucydides.

In Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut has one of his characters asked to solve one of the greatest problems facing Marines in combat: mud. The solution, ice-nine, is fantasy, but generations of Marines would probably agree upon the primacy of the problem. Finally the importance of mud in military affairs gets its due in this book. One hopes military planners will not ignore it, as so many of their predecessors have with disastrous consequences.

Posted at September 14, 2015 01:16