SSI Field Trip to the Somme

SSI Somme Field Trip

Three MStrat Students recall the SSI Somme Trip:

“On a drab and grey Friday afternoon in March we found ourselves standing in a hedgerow next to a farm looking at a large-ish copse at the far end of a field.  Except it wasn’t a hedgerow, it was the forward-most trench of the German Strongpoint defending Serre village on the morning of 1 July 1916.  And the copse wasn’t one large copse but four smaller ones – known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  This was the left hand flank (the German right) of the British attack on the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme where the British Army, largely made up of Kitchener’s volunteers formed into Pal’s Battalions, sustained nearly 60,000 casualties in a single day.  Over the course of the weekend we worked our way south, visiting the battlefields around Serre, Beaumont-Hamel and, finally, Thiepval where we laid a wreath from the students and staff of the Strategy and Security Institute at the imposing memorial.

A dozen of intrepid MStrat students took the opportunity of being in France to tour the battlefields.  Whilst many of us had been before, Professor Newton situated the battle in its wider strategic context and gave us a different view of the Great War.  Even if he did have a particular interest in resurrecting the reputation of the Generals… It was interesting to see the extent to which our understanding of what happened in the trenches is coloured by myth.  The portrayals of ‘lions lead by donkeys’ in films and TV shows like Blackadder and Oh What a Lovely War have had a lasting impact and overwritten what may be a more accurate portrayal of strategic leadership in 1916.

Kevin Myers, an Irish historian and journalist, took up this theme of building a myth as he explained how those Irish who fought with the Allies, have been written out of Irish history by successive waves of politicians and academics – despite many of the soldiers being Nationalists themselves.  The power of this narrative is striking, and fascinating how it endures a century on.

For all the understanding we developed of the wider ‘picture’ surrounding The Great War, you cannot escape the pathos of rows of, immaculately kept, white gravestones.  Many of the graves, particularly at ‘Sunken Lane’ the forming up point for the attack on Beaumont-Hamel, stood in clusters – in the beaten zones of the German heavy machine guns.  It does not take much imagination to visualize the ranks of men trudging across No Man’s Land and what they must have gone through.

It was a thoroughly valuable, fascinating and ‘enjoyable’ (if such a word can be used in such a context) trip brought to life and to relevance by our two excellent Tour Guides!”  Gavin Saunders

 

“Having been to the First World War battlefields on a school trip almost a decade ago, as many thousands of children will do so over the coming years to mark the anniversary of the conflict, a few recollections of the Somme stood out – bad weather, the perfectly conserved cemeteries dotted about the countryside, the vast expanses of openness, story after story of seemingly futile attempts to break the German line and, embedded in the psyche, the striking Thiepval Memorial.

This SSI trip now as a (hopefully) more observant MA student and soon-to-be platoon commander, confirmed these memories but also did much, much more.  Perhaps unsurprisingly the ability of General Newton to tie tactical, operational and strategic elements of the Somme together, along with the stories of individuals that really bring a battlefield tour to life, was remarkable – his descriptions of enfilading fire and beaten zones were somewhat more convincing than the valiant efforts of Miss Smith nine years ago. Likewise Kevin Myers powerful inputs on the myths surrounding the Somme were important in helping aid our understanding of the post-war narrative of the battle, and appreciating its place in British history.

As to be expected the sheer scale of the bloodshed is impossible to ignore.  While an overall view of the statistics is shocking enough, it is only when you walk along the headstones reading names, ranks, ages and inscriptions that the emotion tied to understanding that each grave relates to an individual story, of life and of death, really hits home.  Visiting the Thiepval Memorial will once again be an overriding memory of the trip. Laying a wreath from SSI to show our respect was a moving tribute and the image of General Newton and Gavin Saunders bracing up having placed a cross at the gravestones of two unknown soldiers of the Hampshire Regiment, a lineage I hope one day to join, is one that will undoubtedly remain vivid for some time.”  Daniel Hunt

“As a journalist, I’m well aware of the sacrifices the brave men and women of our Armed Forces have made over recent years.  I can vividly remember every single repatriation, inquest and funeral I’ve ever been assigned.  All were deeply sad occasions.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for the families and friends of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Perhaps the main thing I took away from the SSI trip to the Somme was the industrial scale of the killing that occurred during World War One. Of course, I had read about the horrors of the war at school but nothing prepared me for the sheer number of graves.  Each one marking a life cut short, a family bereaved and a community shattered.  Nowhere was this more evident than at the Thiepval Memorial; a huge dedication to the 72,000 missing British and South African men who died in the battles of the Somme.  It was an utterly overwhelming experience and a poignant reminder of what can happen when strategies fail.” Dominic Valitis

MStrat Student Trip to Brussels and Mons, Belgium 18-21 March 2014

The MStrat course recently undertook a field trip to Brussels and Mons between Tuesday 18 and Friday  21 March 2014.

The aims of the MStrat to Belgium were, among other things:

  • To gain an understanding of the institutional structure, policy-making and crisis-management processes, and main policy issues pertaining to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union External Action Service (EEAS).
  • To gain a non-NATO/EU perspective on the crisis in Syria, the Balkan region and Russia-EU relations, by visiting the Russian Permanent Delegation to the EU.

The MStrat trip was led by Dr. Sergio Catignani and accompanied by Dr. Daniel Steed and Ms. Roo Haywood-Smith.

Visit Highlights

The MStrat cohort visited NATO Headquarters where Mr Jonathan PARISH, Deputy Assistant Secretary General of the Defence Policy and Planning Division, spoke on the current political agenda and the future of NATO as well as on the key themes that the next NATO Summit in Wales will deal with this September. Moreover, Mr Patrick ANDREWS of Crisis Response Systems and Exercises, Operations Division gave a detailed presentation on NATO’s Crisis Management Operations and how NATO was currently reacting to the crisis in Ukraine.

Following the NATO Headquarters visit, the MStrat cohort was hosted by the Egmont Institute (The Royal Institute for International Affairs) in the Prince Albert Club, the Belgian Armed Forces’ All Ranks Club, where Professor Sven Biscop and Brig. (Ret.) Jo Coelmont gave respectively presentations on European Security and European Defence prospects during the “Age of European Austerity”.

The following two days saw the MStrat cohort visit the European External Action Service where, among others, Brig. Gen. Philippe Boutinaud, the Director of Cabinet of the European Union Military Committee Chairman, spoke on the EUMC’s role and decision-making processes and challenges particularly during international crises. Ms Joëlle JENNY, Director for Security Policy and Conflict Prevention, also gave a very insightful presentation on the ways in which the EU seeks to improve conflict prevention in global affairs particularly through upstream engagement activities and programmes.

At Supreme Headquarters Allied Europe, the MStrat cohort received several briefings including one on the workings of NATO’s Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Centre as well as how NATO is trying to improve its capabilities and activities relating to the comprehensive approach to conflict prevention and conflict resolution processes by British Army Brig. Gary Deakin and Dutch Ambassador Hans Wesseling. It also received a detailed briefing by a member of the European Union Staff Group on the EU’s “Operation Althea in Bosnia Herzegovnia” in order to prepare students’ for the next MSrat cohort trip to Bosnia Herzegovina, which is scheduled to take place in May 2014.

The MStrat delegation also had the unique privilege of receiving a detailed and lengthy briefing by the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, General Sir Richard Shirreff, on the challenges that NATO countries face over the coming years. He also spoke at length on the Ukraine crisis and the key decision point that NATO countries face today as a result of Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea. His comments on the Ukraine crisis were especially poignant given the fact that the previous day the MStrat cohort had visited the Russian Federation’s Permanent Representation to the EU, where the Deputy Permanent Representative, Mr. Sergey Kopyrkin, provided a Russian perspective on issues such as the Ukraine and Syrian crises and the Russian Federation’s future relations with the EU and its constituent member states in light of the Ukraine crisis.

MStrat Staff and Student Visit to SHAPE, Mons on 21 March 2014

 

Free access to ”‘Getting COIN’ at the Tactical Level in Afghanistan: Reassessing Counter-Insurgency Adaptation in the British Army”

For a limited time only, Routledge have selected Dr. Sergio Catignani’s article, ”‘Getting COIN’ at the Tactical Level in Afghanistan: Reassessing Counter-Insurgency Adaptation in the British Army”, for free access as part of their online journal compendium titled, Afghanistan: An Article Collection. So, if you do not have free access to the Journal of Strategic Studies, now is your chance to read his article at the bargain price of £0.

You can access and download the article by clicking on the image below:

 

 

SSI Director Professor Sir Paul Newton to visit Johns Hopkins University

This week SSI Director Sir Paul Newton will help teach on a John’s Hopkins University field trip to France where US students led by a Prof Eliot Cohen will explore the causes and conduct of the First World War. In the centenary year of the outbreak of the ‘Great War’, serious students of applied strategy still have much to learn from this tragic failure of the international system.

The following week, Exeter MStrat students will conclude their visit to the EU and NATO HQ in Brussels with a 48 hour field trip with Prof Newton and Irish journalist Kevin Myers to the Somme battlefield.

SSI-RUSI Partnership in Action

The SSI/RUSI partnership really came into its own again when Prof Mike Clarke led a discussion recently on strategy during the Cold War. The RUSI-SSI partnership adds a distinctive, sharp policy focus to the MA programme.

Later in the week, senior RUSI staff member and SSI Hon Prof Jonathan Eyal set out the causes of the Bosnia conflict. This provided a firm foundation for the MStrat field trip to Sarajevo in June. After the field work, SSI students will meet Lord Paddy Ashdown who played a key strategic leadership role in the Balkans: in that session they will jointly assess the prospects for security and stability in a volatile Region that, despite falling from the media headlines, is still critically important to European security.

Honorary SSI Professor Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus conducts video teleconference with MStrat Students

Exeter MStrat students had a fascinating, candid and free-ranging 90 minute discussion recently with ex-CIA Director and Honorary SSI Professor David Petraeus as part of their Iraq case study. The aim of an intensive week was to explore different aspects of strategy in reality, building upon the theoretical foundation laid in earlier modules.

The Iraq day included contributions from senior British diplomats, intelligence officers and Whitehall policy makers. The theme was the decent into chaos following the removal of the Iraqi Regime in 2003. At that time, General Petraeus – a tactical commander in Northern Iraq – presciently asked “tell me how this ends”.

SSI provides students with unique opportunities to explore diverse aspects of applied security strategy with academic experts and practitioners, tapping their exemplary insight.