Of Achilles, Manstein and war

Tuesday, 12 January 2021 00:52 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

German Field Marshal  Erich von Manstein


If nothing else, our much troubled post-independence years have shown us the misfortunes that wars/insurrections can bring. When men cannot settle their differences amicably, weapons speak, wars happen; bringing violent death, destruction to the economic structure and the overall deterioration of social standards.

Geography has spared Sri Lanka much of the world’s war ravages; placed at the bottom of the huge promontory like Indian Sub- Continent, we are not in the usual path of galloping horsemen or marching armies. Our meagre resources, the oils, minerals and gasses are not sufficient to excite the greedy prospector and his mercenaries. The domestic market here is too small and poor for the robber baron to wage war for. World Wars have not touched us direct, nor have huge armies invaded us. Our own armies have not gone out conquering, we are not a martial race spoiling for a fight. Sometimes, it pays to be sparring in the ring meant for lightweights. 

Our wars, if we can call them thus, were domestic in nature; brother against brother, citizen versus citizen. In 1948 we were a peaceful and a relatively promising country. Only if the politics of the country was less grotesque, and its administration more apt, things could have turned out differently, Sri Lanka could well have avoided all the insurrections, death and destruction. But they happened; the country convulsed and bled for nearly four decades. 

In these warped years, a hitherto unwarlike people adopted awkward military postures, in the manner of the colonial powers. Unselfconsciously, the combatants mimicked Western military structures, ranks, organisation, regalia, down to the batman, the old British tradition of the manservant carrying the ‘pack-saddle’ with the officers’ kit. 

Even the ragtag LTTE had ranks like ‘captain’, ‘major’, and ‘sergeant’ among their array of unshod and unkempt teenagers, their radio communications were replete with ‘Tangos’ and ‘Charlies”! The two sides procured foreign made weapons, equipment and vehicles, had training in other countries, and massacred each other. 

Victor and vanquished

War is so fundamental to the human story; it seems even small wars do not fail to leave their mark on the collective psyche of the combatants. The victor, triumphant, celebrates; the soldier is honoured, there is praise, there is song. The vanquished is humbled, embittered; burying his dead discreetly, in a dishonourable grave. Some of the best literature we humans have penned: Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ the Hindu epic the ‘Mahabharata,’ Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace,’ Dicken’s ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ Erich Remarque’s ‘All’s Quiet on the Western Front’ were inspired by conflict, the blood and tears. 

Human conflict is not without its virtues and sins, even if observed in the breech. Evolved primarily among robust nations, with centuries of warring in them, these have now become solidified as rules of war, universally applicable. From the noble soldier much is demanded; strength, bravery, discipline, self-sacrifice being some of the virtues expected of the young man. Conversely, the coward, the laggard, the blabbermouth, the unfaithful, has no place, he is no soldier.

Homer wrote of the war of Troy a few centuries after these events are said to have occurred. They could well be all legend and imagination, yet the poet is not without judgment; the passions, the evils and the heroism of man.

Achilles, the invincible Greek warrior confronts brave Hector the noble defender of Troy in single combat. Hector falls, his corpse is initially desecrated by the jubilant Greeks. Overcome by remorse, Achilles agrees to a 12-day truce, to allow Troy to perform the traditional funeral rites for its fallen fighter. 

Did Achilles sense that he will soon meet Hector at the River Styx, where the earth meets the underworld?

Death is the inseparable companion of war, every battle’s constant shadow. Each warrior confronts the inevitable in his own way, common with his culture, intelligence and training. Some mourn death quietly, with dignity, others, with copious tears, loud lamentations and unreined emotion. Both grieve for the loss of a young life, taken by the violence of war.

German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein

In the assessment of most military historians of the Second World War, the German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was perhaps the most outstanding general of that colossal clash of men and material. Germany is no laughing matter, when the Germans go to war, the entire world shudders. The scale and sweep of that war does not allow for any single commander, however gifted he may be, to claim the sole honours of any battle; the proud German military tradition does not permit such flippancies. 

Nevertheless, the Manstein record in that war is exceptional; many a time, with lesser numbers, weaker forces, in strategically vulnerable situations, Manstein delivered victory or caused such damage to the enemy that they were unable to achieve their objectives. 

Born to a Prussian aristocratic family with generations of military service behind them (his father was a General of artillery while the famous WW1 Field Marshal von Hindenburg was his uncle), Manstein was no Nazi. However, when his country went to war he gave his all, serving the cause of Germany, professionally and very competently. 

The name of Manstein rings loud in many great battles of the Second World War; the 1940 German attack on France through the Ardennes, the 1941 drive on Leningrad, capturing of the great port city of Sevastopol, operation Winter Storm – the attempt to rescue the entrapped 6th army, retaking of Kharkov in 1943, Operation Citadel in the Kursk region, defensive battles in South Russia and the Ukraine 1943/44.

After Germany’s defeat, like most other senior officers, Manstein too faced charges of war crimes and was convicted of some of them. Many pleaded for clemency in his case, arguing that he was only a soldier fighting for his country. Among his stout defenders was the famous British military historian Liddell Hart who recognised the skills of Manstein and was convinced of his professionalism as a soldier. Even among the bitterest enemies there is honour and respect for a brave and worthy foe. It is known that Winston Churchill himself contributed money for the legal defence of Manstein (in the difficult post war years, it was impossible for the Germans facing charges of war crimes to raise the necessary funds for their legal teams).

It takes a great warrior, a Churchill, to acknowledge another.

At Manstein’s death, the German magazine Der Spiegel ran an obituary, observing “he assisted in the march to catastrophe, misled by a blind sense of duty…”

A poignant story

Manstein wrote several books on the war. His ‘Lost Victories’ is valued for its insights into many decisive battles of the war, from the German perspective. A most poignant story in this book is Manstein’s reaction to his eldest son’s death, who was killed in battle in October of 1942. It is illustrative of both the stature of the man, as well as the long and hallowed traditions of a martial race. 

“My last days on the Leningrad front were marked by the hardest blow that could have befallen my dear wife, myself and our children – the death of our eldest son Gero. He fell for our beloved Germany on 29 October, as a second lieutenant in the 51 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of my old 18 Division. I trust, as one under whose command so many thousands of youngsters gave their lives for Germany, that I may be forgiven for mentioning this purely personal loss here. The sacrifice of our son’s life was certainly no different from that made by countless other young Germans and their fathers and mothers. But it will be appreciated that there must be a place in these memoirs of mine for the son who gave his life for our fatherland.

“Our Gero, born on New Year’s Eve 1922 and killed in his twentieth year, had been a delicate child from birth. He had suffered from asthma from childhood, and it was due only to the constant care of my wife that he grew up fit enough to become a soldier.

“Gero was a particularly lovable child, serious, thoughtful, but always happy. After taking his final school examination, he expressed the wish to become a soldier, to join my own arm, the infantry, known in Germany as the queen of the battlefield because it has from time immemorial borne the brunt of fighting.

“So, having passed his school examinations, he joined 51 Panzer Grenadier Regiment in Liegnitz and went through the 1941 summer campaign in Russia as a private soldier. He was promoted corporal and won the Iron Cross for going back with other volunteers to pick up a comrade wounded on patrol. In autumn 1941 he was sent home to the officers’ school and in spring 1942 he received his commission. He was in action on the Lake Ilmen front as part of the 16 Army. I had the joy of seeing him when he visited me in my caravan during the battle of Lake Ladoga.

“Early on 30th October 1942, after the morning situation reports had been handed in, my faithful Chief of Staff General Schulz brought me the news that our son Gero had been killed by a Russian bomb the previous night. He had been on his way to the front line to convey an order to a platoon commander.

“Gero Erich von Manstein, as so many other young Germans, fell in action like the brave soldier he was. If one could speak of a young aristocrat in this sense, he was one indeed. Not only in outward appearance tall, slim and fine limbed with noble features, but most of all in character and outlook. We buried the dear boy on the shores of Lake Ilmen the following day. The padre of 18 Panzer Grenadier Division, Pastor Kruger began his oration with the words ‘A lieutenant of the Infantry…’”