Letters: Victory of the Somme

How the Allies turned initial defeat in 1918 into victory
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The Independent Online

Sir: I was pleased to see that The Independent marked the 90th anniversary of the Second Battle of the Somme ("The other battle of the Somme", 24 March). It does indeed deserve to be better remembered.

But the article was inaccurate in some respects. The German offensive of 21 March 1918 was not launched at Easter, which fell at the end of March in 1918 (a minor point, but once in print such "facts" are difficult to dislodge).

More seriously, while comparisons are not straightforward, it is misleading to describe the battles of 1916-17 as "even more terrible" than the battles of 1918. The daily loss rate for the final offensive in 1918 was higher than that for the Somme and Passchendaele.

Your description of Second Somme as "one of Britain's most calamitous military defeats" could be applied to the beginning of the battle – although even on the first day the Germans failed to achieve all their objectives – but it is wrong to see the whole of the battle in this light.

In March-April 1918, the German army did indeed make "huge gains" of territory, but that was won only at the cost of enormous and irreplaceable casualties and without separating the British and French armies, or making a decisive breakthrough, or capturing key transportation centres that might have crippled the British Army's ability to fight, or breaking the morale of the Allied forces. The ground captured proved impossible to defend.

Not surprisingly, many historians see the Spring offensive as evidence of the strategic bankruptcy of German High Command.

Winston Churchill, far from an uncritical admirer of British generalship, wrote that "the Germans, judged by the hard test of gains and losses, were decisively defeated".

Finally, it is right and proper to commemorate the fine achievements of the Australians at Villers-Bretonneux. But this should not obscure the fact that March-April 1918 was an Allied defensive victory in which key roles were also played by troops from France and various parts of the British Empire as well as from the British Isles.

Gary Sheffield

Professor of War Studies, University of Birmingham

Safe Iraq? Let minister try it

Sir: David Miliband claims that the Iraq war has brought democracy and security to Iraq. We should perhaps call his bluff and ask him to spend a two-week holiday with his family in a suburban area of Baghdad without special protection. If they survive unscathed, I will then start to change my opinion about this dreadful war.

I especially want to thank Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn for their excellent coverage of this conflict. Unlike the armchair apologists of the war, they have acquired, over several decades, an intimate and first-hand knowledge of the region, making them far more credible.

Philippe Bareille

Stevenage, Hertfordshire

Sir: Keith Gilmour (letter, 21 March) defends Bush and Blair for aiming to replace a "genocidal despot" and asks, "How many more innocent Iraqis might have died had Saddam Hussein been left in power to this day?" The question is rather how many more innocent Iraqis might still be alive.

The 2006 study by Johns Hopkins University, published in The Lancet, remains controversial but is probably the most scientific attempt to establish an accurate estimate. The study concluded that by 2006 some 655,000 "excess" deaths had occurred in Iraq since the invasion. Other estimates are even higher, and of course the killing continues to this day.

I don't know if this counts as genocide, but it is scarcely a ringing endorsement for the consequences of liberal interventionism.

Chris Webster

Abergavenny, Gwent

Sir: I cannot agree with some of your recent correspondents who have asserted that there is no need for a full inquiry into the Iraq war as we already know what happened (letters, 20 March).

However inadequate previous inquiries have been in bringing those responsible to account, they have unearthed much useful evidence for the courts of public opinion and of history. If another inquiry brings more evidence to light, it will have been well worth it, whatever the cost, because it will serve to facilitate the judgement of history and allow future generations to learn from the mistakes that have been made, if they have the wisdom to do so.

Peter Tajasque

London SW19

Sir: It is surprising that Robert Fisk, in his informative article on suicide bombers in Iraq (14 March), did not mention the Karum Puligal (Black Tigers) suicide cadre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Since 5 July 1987, when Vallipuram Vasanthan (alias "Captain Miller") drove an explosives-laden lorry into the Nelliady army camp in the Jaffna peninsula (killing 39 troops), more than 300 LTTE suicide cadres have detonated themselves against military and political targets. Their victims have included former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

What is interesting about the Black Tigers is that, unlike the Japanese Kamikaze pilots or the Arab suicide bombers, they are not motivated by religion – the LTTE is secular. Their motivation comes from the culture of obligation – sacrificing oneself for one's family and one's nation – developed by Tamil nationalists since the 19th century.

The LTTE developed the suicide operation into a fine art. Black Tigers may stay inactive for years, melting into the local population, until they are called upon to strike. It was one such "sleeper" who infiltrated the group around President Premadasa.

Suicide bombers in the Middle East have copied the "explosive jacket" used by Black Tigers. In fact the LTTE has been a major innovator in the field of guerrilla warfare. The Tigers were prodigious in developing improvised explosive devices (the IEDs which are so popular in Iraq).

Vinod Moonesinghe

Hokandara South, Sri Lanka

No return to the old feudal Tibet

Sir: I have followed, with some dismay, the unfolding "debate" about Tibet. It seems a one-sided discussion with nobody speaking in favour of Chinese rule

What would the ordinary inhabitants of Tibet prefer, I wonder, living as citizens of a prospering China or living on the breadline as over-taxed serfs to a monastic autocracy, which was the previous regime?

And why was it necessary for the Chinese authorities to send forces into Lhasa? Was it not to protect ethnic Han Chinese people and businesses, with no political or governmental connections, from being attacked and destroyed?

There seem to be thick rose-tinted spectacles being worn by many people who consider themselves qualified to pass comment on Tibet. How many of these commentators have been to Tibet? I have visited twice, as a backpacking tourist, in 2005 and in 2007.

I have the strong impression that Tibet is far better served under the umbrella of China than it would be by returning to some sort of religious feudal system.

In my eyes, Lhasa and Tibet no longer exist. They have gone the same way as Leningrad, the USSR, Kampuchea, Rhodesia, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. For Lhasa read Lasa, for Tibet read Xizang, as they are known in Mandarin Chinese, and long may Xizang prosper as a province within China.

Gary Minns

London SE1

Life without our rural post offices

Sir: It is claimed that small post offices with as few as 16 users a week are being closed ("Why close 2,500 post offices", 20 March). Around us, small branches are retained; busy branches are being closed since they do more business so lose more money.

Part of the problem is inept Post Office management, which has lost contracts and disallowed diversification. It is claimed that after the closures 95 per cent of the rural population will be within three miles of a post office. False; a closed busy post office will be replaced by an "outreach" service open for less than 10 per cent of the previous hours and at hours which can never be practical for most users.

I am sorry for Hammersmith and Highgate, but the closure of their post offices will not cause the closure of their only shop. Their public transport is good and they do not face a half-hour bus journey and a one-hour wait for a returning bus to post a parcel or buy food.

John Atkins

Northallerton, North Yorkshire

Sir: There's a lot of false sentimentality in all the sobs and tears about rural post office closures. As has been repeatedly pointed out, they can indeed have important social and welfare functions, but those were presumably always additional to the prime postal functions.

I cannot understand why the Post Office itself, and all those who profess to regret closures of small offices, have not pressed for them to be taken over and supported by the DHSS primarily as welfare outstations, which could then subcontract space for postal, banking and other public services, as well as offering general retail space.

There's far too much moaning on about preservation and conservation in UK Ltd these days; let's hear more about positive adaptation and evolution.

Alison Sutherland

Kirkwall, Orkney

Energy policy held up by a Whitehall war

Sir: The news that Defra is refusing to support the go-ahead for Britain's first supercritical clean-coal power station at Kingsnorth, against the recommendation of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR), has highlighted the urgent requirement for a Secretary of State for Energy back in the Cabinet. ("Cabinet split over new coal-fired power stations", 24 March).

Defra and the DBERR (formerly the DTI) have been locked in a Whitehall power struggle for years. This has led to crucial decisions on energy policy and future energy build either being delayed or dropped at huge cost to the taxpayer because of Defra's intransigence.

The promotion of policies which seek to guarantee energy security, tackle rising fuel poverty, support clean coal technology and the key issues of new nuclear stations are crucial reasons why a new Energy post should be created alongside re-emergence of the Energy Select Committee to scrutinise these policies.

The previous Energy Select Committee was axed in 1992 along with the Energy post in the Cabinet. Between 1979 and 1992, this committee produced valued and detailed reports which helped shape the future UK energy policy. It also provided MPs of all parties with a forum in which it could receive and cross-examine representatives of the energy companies and utilities.

This level of scrutiny and accountability has been lost as a consequence of the energy portfolio having been smothered inside the DBERR, with a Minister of State for Energy who is timetabled to answer only a handful of questions in the Commons once a month.

Tony Lodge

Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Studies, London SW1

This is just money down the pan

Sir: The BBChas reported that a Romanian parliamentary official, Mihai Unghianu, claimed there are not enough lavatories for the forthcoming Nato summit in Romania. Nato have asked the Romanians to install 1,000 toilets, one for every five delegates.

I have worked out that each day I spend about eight minutes in my toilet. If I add a few minutes for change-overs and a further 10 for a daily cleaning, let's say my toilet is in use for 20 minutes a day. In a 20-hour (we have to sleep) period that means my toilet could be used constantly by 60 (three visits an hour x 20) people a day. There are often five people in my home and our lavatory is empty most of the day.

I don't know who is funding these thunder-boxes, but they are not getting value for money; the word "waste" comes to mind.

Julian Sutton

Richmond, Surrey


Salute to a Lady

Sir: Jennie Churchill ("When mother knows best", 24 March) was not Mrs Churchill but Lady Randolph, because her husband was Lord Randolph Churchill. This was illustrated by the verse published when she remarried in 1900, after her first husband had died: "The papers give this information/ At Lady Randolph's own request,/ That now, her proper designation/ Is Mrs George Cornwallis-West."

Michael Watson

Hingham, Norwich

Ethics vital to the mix

Sir: The view attributed to a former chair of the Charity Commission that ethics should not be mixed with religion or politics ("Life with the disease", 24 March) cannot go unchallenged. Religion without ethics gives you al-Qa'ida; politics without ethics gives you Auschwitz. Far from being a "lethal concoction", the combination of ethics with religion and politics is one which we abandon at great peril to our humanity.

Michael Broadbent

Bishop Auckland, Co Durham

Support our Gurkhas

Sir: I was astonished by, but sympathetic with, Christina Patterson's report about the Ghurkas on Good Friday. I was even more astonished by Dominic Kirkham's letter of 23 March. Far from being "benefit whingers", these men deserve our loyalty and support for their previous endeavours on our behalf. I am sure that the likes of Wellington, Montgomery and Slim, if alive today, would agree with my view (and that of Nick Clegg).

Hugh Parkman

Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Fat target

Sir: I was surprised to read that the Government is contemplating allowing Virgin and McDonald's to sponsor NHS hospital wards ("Shake-up of hospitals will open door to McDonald's sponsorship", 20 March). But why stop there? Why not have a fast-food chain sponsor the army; intelligence officers could then establish a network of the outlets in enemy territory, thereby rendering its citizens obese. Perhaps Viagra could sponsor the stock market, ensuring shares would never deflate.

Patrick Reilly

Drogheda, Co Louth, Ireland

Bag of nonsense

Sir: I try my best to recycle, and I refuse plastic carrier bags. So you can understand my anger and dismay when I was told I was not allowed to use my reusable cotton bag at my local Primark store (Metrocentre, Gateshead). When I protested, I was told this was "store policy", and I could put my purchases in my own bag after I had left the store, and throw the plastic one away.

B Laycock

Newcastle Upon Tyne