Michael's Dispatches

Amber of War


image017-1000Dead Confederate Soldier in US Civil War. Rifle in foreground. Petersburg.

Artillerymen had a rough time.   During the era before recoil systems were built, when the cannons fired, they were prone to bury themselves deeply into the mud.  Accuracy was impaired and rate of fire reduced.

Cannons are difficult to drag through mud, and firing platforms had to be built, slowing maneuver.

Commanders often set the guns to skip shots off the earth. Balls will skip, skip, skip, leaving a trail of destruction for the unfortunate.  Cannonballs do not skip well off of mud, making them like giant rifles.

Likewise, infantrymen could not keep weapons clean, and morale suffered in mud.

image019-1000Death in the mud. Confederate Soldier. US Civil War.

image021-1000“The Battle of Mud,” at Passchendaele, Belgium. World War I.

Animals can often pull cargo where even the best vehicles fail.  In the above image, the high horse is standing on a corduroy road while the other is off road.  The image characterizes our mobility today.  We are mobile on predictable veins of travel that are readily disrupted.

image022-1000Endless miles of boardwalks at Passchendaele.

Troops who fought early in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars dealt more with mud on bases than more recent veterans.  For instance, today, there is a “The Boardwalk” in the middle of Kandahar Airfield, which leads to the pizza and coffee shops. The base has paved roads.  Gravel is abundant.  Toilets and hot water showers are available by the thousands, and so the realities of mud in Afghanistan are less obvious on the big bases of Bastion and Bagram.

Nevertheless, the annual floods still bog parts of some bases, if only briefly.  The famous “poo pond” at Kandahar Airfield has overflowed, along with countless Porta-Potties during rains, mixing excrement into the base mud.

Off-base is a different world, and there, mud and terrain are matters of mortality.

image024-1000Tramlines—small railroads—often are constructed to navigate mud. (Passchendaele. World War I.)

Our helicopters and the small scale of the war in Afghanistan may sweep the idea of mud out of consciousness, but then we are fighting an enemy with nearly zero air defense capacity, and our lines of logistics are short (after inside of Afghanistan) and reasonably accessible.

image026-1000Artillery and bombs churn the soil and can create tremendous mud.

Even today, a shot from a muddy position can bury the mortar tube, rendering it useless without painstaking extraction.

Commanders sometimes bombard battlefields or roads to create mud to slow the advance or retreat of the enemy.

With our current precision munitions, commanders can easily destroy sections of road in minutes.  There is no need to create muddy miles of road.  Small, carefully selected sections can slow or halt a convoy, creating a static target for the commander’s guns or aircraft.  In Afghanistan, our aircraft sometimes take out sections of trail to hinder enemy retreat.

image028-1000jpgMud dampens artillery explosives and can create ponds. (Passchendaele, Belgium.)

Men are captured like ants in the sap.  Soldiers literally disappear in mud and are never seen again.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Andy · 9 years ago
    This post I find particularly fascinating, due to its historical perspective.

    My Guard engineering unit actually excavated a road this past summer during Annual Training, for a Red Horse unit to pave afterward during theirs. The site was a Union bivouac during the Civil War. The elements hindered construction from time-to-time, and mud would bog down all but the most agile vehicles (but we finished). There were remnants of a Union corduroy road nearby, along with fighting positions and shelters.

    No way can a dismounted unit hump through the mud, without serious hindrance. Body Armor definitely isn't light. Perhaps, special wide-track footwear and treads (i.e. tires) need to be developed for our ground forces?

    My dad was a grunt platoon leader in '70. It's amazing how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Andy · 9 years ago
      I think the movie "Hamburger Hill" does a great job of portraying the conditions grunts went through during Vietnam. Watch that movie, and you'll see how the mud hindered the assaults time-and-time again.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Quin · 9 years ago
    Excellent article. One of your better ones and well worth reading. Now, if those who give the orders will take time to read it.
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    Tony · 9 years ago
    Sledge vividly describes mud in "With The Old Breed At Peleliu And Okinawa". This post reminds me of Thucydides' stories of helpless hoplites in their heavy panoply in rough country.
    Thanks for all the great work you do, Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    peter · 9 years ago
    Stalin said that General Winter and General Famine would stop Hitler. I guess he for got about General Mud. Here is an Abrams tank stuck in the mud.
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  • This commment is unpublished.
    leyla · 9 years ago
    As always, very informative and very interesting. You give insights to war that the average person wouldn't think of. Thank you for educating us on the aspects of war not talked about!
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    Kurt Olney · 9 years ago

    I am a landscape contractor in SoCal. I know a lot about soil, and alkalinity in the soils in the South West. Our soils are alkaline and I have had mud-clay soils chemically tear open the skin in my hand. Very painful. 5 years of landscape work in San Diego have given me the hands of a 100 year old man. Gloves are critical, and hand lotions are essential. Now tell that to a young man as I was told and and you don't believe in it. Time catches up. If you get cracking around the finger tips, use superglue to seal the cracks. Vaseline is cheap insurance. And in an alkaline clay soil region, the water is always hard. Aloe based hand cream is a must. I wish I had listened to this advice when I was younger.
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    Dashui · 9 years ago
    Chiang Kai Shek broke Chinese levys to cover his western retreat from the Japs. More than 1 million Chinese drowned.
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    BSJ · 9 years ago
    As a former 81Q, Terrain Analyst, I’m glad to see at least someone was willing to heed our warnings. But all too often that is/was not the case. Leading to the inevitable…

    Too often we were derided as useless REMFs. But troops died stuck in the mud we could have warned them about.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    D. Rose · 9 years ago
    Another example of mudding to stop the enemy is Field Marshall Rommel who flooded many of the Normady fields for three reasons 1) to cause paratroopers to drown, 2) create fields of fire for German troops ) to bog down the Allied advance.

    Those who do not learn from History...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Barnett · 9 years ago
    I deal with mud every day, in a different way. We use bentonite (a clay) mixed with water to create an extremely slippery mud lubricant used in drilling. A half inch of this stuff can stop a vehicle from moving, and if you slip in it, a broken leg or other injury is common. And when we pump this stuff into a hole and the hose breaks, the drill pit fills up, making an extreme drowning hazard for those in it (they are so lubricated with liquid clay, it's almost impossible to even get a harness on them... sometimes you have to try and float them out!). Interestingly, this mud is also the main ingredient in much makeup, both women's facial makeup AND camo stuff.

    When I wish to vacation from this mud, I go sailing through the Everglades in small boats... where I usually end up in Florida Bay, which is one giant mud flat... you can sink up to your hips in primordial ooze if you aren't careful.

    I can fully imagine just how treacherous mud could be on a battlefield, and history has indeed shown us over and over again how water mixed with soil can alter the outcome of a battle, a war, and of civilization.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave L. · 9 years ago
    Actually, that tank is a T-55, so it probably belonged to the communist Afghan government forces, or to one side or another in the civil war (still ongoing) that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The Red Army would have used newer tanks in the 1980s - T-64s or T-72s.

    For more on the mobility of vehicles versus animals, you should read some of the writings of Gen. John K. Herr, the Army's last Chief of Cavalry. He kept up the fight for the inclusion of horse cavalry in the U.S. Army through the Korean War.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Clay Stiles · 9 years ago
    I used to know a farmer who made a killing in the winter by diverting a spring so that the water ran over a "dirt" road. He then stood by with hos tractor - ready to pull anyone out who had the $20 it took to accomplish that. We got stuck once and my dad just thought "I am not payinh this!" After ruining the tailgate - and jacking the car up only to achieve a few feet each time - he succombled to the toll.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bob von · 9 years ago
    Forgive me if other readers already offered this example... but a friend of mine who did graduate work in military history explained a compelling theory of why the French knights lost the Battle of Agincourt... despite a 6:1 personnel advantage, heavy armour, superior training and weapons, the French knights fell to English long-bow archers because the mud slowed and tired them out...

    The muddiness of the battlefield was a key reason the French lost...

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeff · 9 years ago
    The Army does extensive mud testing. I have been out on some of these tests. The mud has to be just right. Each vehicle has parameters it must acheive in order to pass.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Laird · 9 years ago
      Dated a girl whose father drove prototype tanks (including the chassis that eventually became the M1) over crappy terrain to test them. Mud was his bane, and you could always tell the days he'd been 'mudding' - He'd kick everyone out of the house and just sit there in the living room, nursing a beer and a grudge.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MikeT · 9 years ago
    Kurt Vonnegut in the book Cat's Cradle has the Manhattan Project develop a different type of ice crystal at the request of the Marines who are sick of fighting the mud. Cue the end of the world.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lorenzo · 3 years ago
    Very nice post! I reawlly like your blog.You’ve doe a good job.
    Keep going...

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