What Makes One Battle Worse than Another?

GIs prepare to move out on patrol in the Hurtgen Forest.

So I have to admit that I was pretty proud of myself to have figured out how to conduct an opinion poll and put it up on this blog.  I usually think polls are rather stupid and not always as scientific as they are vetted to be, but I did it anyways. In case you missed it, my first opinion poll asked what America’s worst battle was during World War II. I received a few snarly comments both to the blog site and another account that is linked to this blog.  A few people demanded to know how it was possible to gauge “the worst” battle if I didn’t clarify what it was about the battle that made it the worst.  I purposefully did not clarify because I wanted to see what the readers thought, and then discuss it a little further in a future post, which is what I am doing now.  Of course any battle is going to be horrible, but there are some factors involved that can generally make one battle seem more “worse” than another.

Weather, for one, can really play a factor in battle.  One of the coldest winters on record hit Europe in 1944.  Allied troops, especially during the many Hurtgen battles and the Battle of the Bulge, suffered terribly from frostbite and trenchfoot, in many units causing more casualties than from enemy action.  Many GIs at the front had to make due with their summer uniforms and kits, since many in the high command thought the war would be over before the end of the year, and because higher-ranking officers were living it up in Paris while the privates, non-coms, and junior officers at the front were freezing and suffering miserably.

Terrain is another factor.  The Hurtgenwald was a dense 50-square mile forest that invited comparisons of  frightening old German folktales. Dark, scary, and foreboding, the Germans fortified and defended the Hurtgen, and wondered in amazement why the Americans attempted several times to attack straight through it.  Pre-sighted artillery shattered the often 100-foot tall trees, raining shrapnel down upon soldiers whom quickly learned to hug the base of a tree to better avoid the steel-and-wood splinters that showered down upon them.  Very few roads went through the forest, giving vehicles little room to manuever.  American armor, artillery, and air support played such a reduced role due to the terrain of the forest that the infantry often was without any support against deadly German fortifications, in a battle the U. S. Army quickly wanted to forget about after it was finally over by February 1945. Some 33,000 (12,000 KIA) casualties were suffered by the Allies, with some divison’s infantry regiments having turnover rates of 200%, meaning the men going into the battle became casualties, as did all of their replacements.  The Hurtgen was the longest battle in U. S. Army history and one of its costliest. 

Iwo Jima was another battle where terrain played a factor in contributing to the loss of over 6,000 Marines and Navy personnel.  The black volcanic ash on Iwo made it difficult for the Marines and their tank support to move well, while the Japanese soldiers were dug into the earth itself, attempting to fulfill General Kuribayashi’s admonishment to kill ten Americans before they themselves were killed. Naval and air bombardment did little to kill the Japanese defenders on Iwo, and Marines had to ferret out the Japanese defenders one-by-one, often using just their hand grenades, flamethrowers, rifles and machineguns. The Japanese garrison of 18,000 men on Iwo Jima was destroyed, with only 216 prisoners being taken by the Marines. 

Ego is one hell of a reason for soldiers to die, but in the above mentioned cases and several others, it is a big reason why men went to their deaths for objectives that in hindsight were arguably unnecessary or of little value.  General Douglas MacArthur, wanting to fulfill his promise to return to the Philippines, did just that beginning in October 1944, fighting his way up from Leyte to Mindoro to Luzon, causing over 60,000 American casualties.  Some historians argue the Philippines, like Iwo Jima, should have been bypassed, isolating the Japanese garrisons on these islands, in order to save lives and to focus on bringing the war to Japan itself.  General Mark Clark wasted many Allied lives in his determination to reach Rome, which he finally did on 5 June 1944, enjoying his accolades for one full day before the invasion of Normandy took the spotlight off him and put it squarely onto the campaign in France.

Lack of pre-war preparedness was a symptom suffered not just by the U. S. Army, but the Navy as well, which also caused a good number of casualties in the wars early stages.  The Japanese Imperial Navy had superior night-fighting capabilities, for which they trained before the war had even started.  The U. S. Navy did not train in night-fighting and suffered for it, such as at the Battle of Savo Sound in August 1942, in which the U. S. lost four cruisers and a destroyer, as well as nearly 2,000 sailors.  It wasn’t until the country could produce more ships, weapons, soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen that the tide began to turn.  But experience also played a huge role in winning or losing a battle.  Savo Sound and Kasserine Pass are two examples of battles in which little to no experience of fighting led to American defeats.  Poor leadership was also a factor, such as in North Africa, but to the credit of men like General George C. Marshall and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, those seen as incompetent or lacking imagination were usually quickly sacked and replaced by men whose leadership qualities were hoped to be more competent and aggressive. 

There are obviously several factors in each and every battle that make them diverse, with just a single component being added or removed that could make it seemingly “worse” than another.  The components can change due to a number of circumstances ranging from weather, terrain, logistics, casualties, or any number of various factors.  What ultimately makes a battle memorable is, of course, the outcome. Most people of the Allied nations, especially Americans, are proud to point out that we didn’t lose many battles during World War II.  And even the ones we did lose, we were able to avenge at a later date or at another place.  The victors of any war are always the authors of the histories of it, and their point-of-view often becomes slanted and engraved in stone.  Most historians know that the winners did not achieve their victories so easily, and questions such as what makes a battle “the worst,” while seemingly a waste of time, is at least an exercise in thought to bring some truth to bear over certain longstanding fictions.

5 comments on “What Makes One Battle Worse than Another?

  1. W. Scott Dillard says:

    I need a little context. What is your personal battle experience?

  2. W S Dillard says:

    Still awaiting a reply about your own combat experience. Having experienced combast myself I can use one vocabulary/way of responding to other combat veterans, another to those who have not.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Hi W. S.,

      I have never been in combat. I served in the Navy on a Gator Freighter in the Gulf during the Iraq War. I’ve seen missiles being fired from cruisers into Iraq and took photographs of our Harriers and Cobra helo’s come back after sorties to rearm and then fly off again. So I was essentially in the rear with the gear, despite trying to get to go in-country with the 24th MEU when they deployed to Naseriyah. My request was denied. I wanted off that damned ship that badly at that point!

  3. W S Dillard says:

    Is moderation the same as censorship?

    • navyphoto22 says:

      I apologize for the lateness of my response Colonel. I’ve been on vacation and my laptop’s hard-drive recently crapped out on me. I wasn’t ignoring you, just didn’t have access to a computer.

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