Meet the German Empire’s WWI Herculean Heavy tank

Here’s what you need to remember: In some ways, the A7V may have contributed more to World War II than World War I, as evidenced by Nazi Germany’s armored tank designs of the era which were quite advanced compared to their contemporaries. Either way, the A7V makes for a fascinating piece of World War I history.

Quite a few military innovations made widespread combat debut on the various battlefields of World War I—including submarines, machine guns, airplanes, poison gas, and flamethrowers. But arguably among the most significant developments in military technology of the era was the tank.

The British fielded the first tanks in numbers during that war, sending their Mark I tank to the front lines. Though the Mark I kicked off a new era in warfare, theirs wasn’t the only tank of that war—nor was it the best.

The German Empire too fielded tanks during the Great War, and in some ways, their A7V design may have actually been better. The basic A7V design saw a large armored compartment mated to a caterpillar-type tracked chassis. Though the A7V as well as the Mark I rode on tracks, the British design saw its tracks slide unprotected over the top of the vehicle’s rhomboid shape, whereas the A7V’s track top was better protected inside the vehicle’s steel armor, similar to modern tank designs.

For the era, the A7V was massive: it stood nearly eleven feet tall, over twenty-four feet long, and weighed around thirty-three tons. Corresponding to its large size, the A7V was also heavily armed. While many modern tanks today sport one or two machine guns, the A7V packed a total of six MG 08s inside its armored hull, two to a side, and two at the rear. Furthermore, the A7V sported a 57mm main gun at the front, integrated into the A7V’s front hull glacis. 

Two gasoline engines propelled the A7V at speeds just above nine miles per hour, making the German tank one of the speedier tanks of the era considering its size. In addition, the A7V benefited from a spring-type suspension, aiding its cross-country capability. Despite the A7V’s engine output and suspension, the design was top-heavy and not particularly effective in off-road conditions. Several photos and videos of the A7V can be seen here and here. They give a good impression as to the A7V’s size and speed and are worth the watch.

Post-war, the A7V design saw further service in Germany during the civil unrest that roiled the country after the end of hostilities. The Freikorps paramilitary groups that proliferated after the war commandeered several A7Vs or A7V-derivatives, which may have seen some combat in the German capital in the immediate post-war era.

Of course, the German Empire did not build the A7V in sufficient numbers to turn the tide of the war in their favor—estimated A7V production numbers, around twenty, pale in comparison to the several thousand French and British tanks that saw service during World War I.

In some ways, the A7V may have contributed more to World War II than World War I, as evidenced by Nazi Germany’s armored tank designs of the era which were quite advanced compared to their contemporaries. Either way, the A7V makes for a fascinating piece of World War I history.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Image: Wikimedia.



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At Empire’s End | The American Conservative

The failure in Afghanistan is a rude awakening for America 20 years too late.

A U.S. Chinook military helicopter flies above the US embassy in Kabul on August 15, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

How do empires end? The answer seems to be what Mike Campbell says in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when he’s asked how he went bankrupt: “gradually, then suddenly.”

We’ve known for years that our wars overseas aren’t accomplishing their missions, that in Afghanistan we’d eventually have to settle for something less than total victory. Routing the Taliban and growing a Madisonian republic out of the desert sand long ago proved futile. Yet the images that emerged last weekend, helicopters rising portentously over Kabul while Afghans begged for mercy, have jolted the national consciousness all the same. In an instant, whatever remained of our imperial mirages blinked into harsh reality.

We thought we were a hyper-competent humanitarian empire once. No longer.

The key thing about our departure was not that we were leaving. We all knew that was coming even if the “when” was until recently a known unknown. It was that the Afghans proved so woefully incapable of defending their own country. The project of training the Afghan security forces, which spanned two decades and some $83 billion in taxpayer dollars, proved a ludicrous farce, as the army melted away before the Taliban’s onslaught. Taliban fighters were all but waved into Kabul. The head of security at the presidential palace even shook hands with the Taliban commander as he handed the place over.

The irony is pungent: We once talked about regime change like it was easy and seamless, only for the Taliban to go and make it look just that way. In fairness, even before American troops pulled out, the group was well-positioned. All the way back in 2017, it controlled or contested 40 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. It is thus a lie to say, as many hawks have, that a small contingent of U.S. boots was keeping Afghanistan safe, that the Taliban’s advance happened only in a post-American vacuum. Even prior to its regaining a foothold in Afghanistan, the group had been lurking just over the border in Pakistan, where it was protected by the regime in Islamabad. It was never really vanquished, despite our declaration of victory in 2001.

Still, the speed at which they were able to consolidate control was nothing short of astonishing. Two decades of supposed progress undone in a week. That’s how brittle the institutions we created ultimately were, moldering and cracking beneath a CNN-friendly facade of smiling burqa-less women. And while the Afghan war has been plagued from the start by disconnects between Washington and the reality on the ground, it isn’t like our policymakers didn’t know. The Afghanistan Papers, published by the Washington Post two years ago, revealed that top military and civilian leaders had long ago concluded the war was unwinnable. Yet they persisted anyway, lying the whole time, determined to keep the war machine spluttering along even as the conflict lacked any kind of telos.

Who is to blame for this mortifying failure? The Pentagon brass, for starters. And of course there’s the usual flock of war hawks: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Lindsey Graham. But I want to focus for a moment on a figure who hasn’t received as much attention. Barack Obama back in 2008 ran on a platform of taking the fight out of Iraq and back into Afghanistan. After he was elected, he inserted about 70,000 new troops into that supposedly more sainted theater.

This was, if nothing else, sharp politics, given that Americans associate Afghanistan more than Iraq with 9/11 and the national interest. Yet it also served to perpetuate a myth: that Afghanistan was the Good War, that it was conceived justly and was therefore maybe, just maybe, more winnable. I don’t want to oversimplify here: There really are stark differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet at least from a bird’s eye view, it is striking how frustratingly similar they look. The Iraqi security forces were crushed by ISIS; the Afghan security forces were crushed by the Taliban. The government in Iraq is a kleptocracy; the government in Afghanistan is also a kleptocracy (and a narco-state to boot). The conflict in Iraq looks endless; the conflict in Afghanistan might now end but only because the Taliban won.

This symmetry should show that the problem was never the tactics or the lack of commitment; it was our idea of nation-building applied across the region. What have 20 years of meddling in Afghanistan bought us? A government ranked as the fifth most corrupt on earth, an opium market responsible for 90 percent of the world’s heroin, guards who take bribes, death squads that execute children, armed forces useless without our air power, and the return of pederasty as a custom across the military and police. And then we scratch our heads and wonder how the Taliban gained ground so quickly. The reason is that they exploited frustrations over a feckless and iniquitous Afghan state that we spent $2 trillion and nearly 6,300 American lives installing and defending.

Still, at least it wasn’t a total loss. We did bequeath to Afghanistan a brand new natural gas filling station. Estimated price tag: $5 to $10 million.

The United States invaded Afghanistan to create a democracy and a stronghold against jihadism. Instead we ended up indulging one of our worst pastimes, bureaucracy. Our occupation became larded up with officers and administrators more interested in self-preservation and spending reconstruction funds than in telling the truth. It was this bureaucratic accretion that allowed for the “gradually”; the “suddenly” came when the truth could no longer be hidden. So it’s gone with American empire. Afghanistan was once referred to by the Persians as “Bactria the beautiful, crowned with flags.” Today, it’s better known for lowering flags than flying them, from the Union Jack to the hammer and sickle to, now, Old Glory.

This is a moment that cries out for retribution. Those who perpetrated the bloody fiction of a winnable Afghanistan ought to be hauled before committees; reputations should be ruined, egos deflated. Small-r republican government demands as much, lest our civil servants become, to borrow from Winston Churchill, “no longer servants and no longer civil.” Alas, one of the consequences of empire is that you aren’t a functioning republic anymore, that by necessity enough power accumulates in the executive as to place it beyond serious accountability. I’d like to think we might learn something from these dismal 20 years, but what reason do I have to be optimistic?





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Imperial Suicide: How the German Empire’s Navy Willingly Destroyed Itself

Here’s What You Need to Know: Ten battleships, five battlecruisers, four cruisers, and thirty-two destroyers were successfully scuttled. From the German point of view, the operation was an enormous success. The stain of surrender had been removed from the navy, at least. Hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, and many millions of German marks, slid beneath the waves as the fleet that Tirpitz had championed came to an end.

A little over one hundred years ago, the German High Seas Fleet committed suicide.

On June 21, 1919, the crews of seventy-four German warships attempted to scuttle their vessels in order to prevent the Allies from taking them. Over the course of a few hours, fifty-two modern warships sank. In the modern history of naval combat, there has never been an event as devastating as the self-destruction of the German fleet at Scapa Flow. The scuttling immediately became legendary, closing one chapter of German naval history and opening another.

Context

Shortly after the armistice that ended World War I, the Germans surrendered their fleet to the Allies. The British in particular very strongly believed that Germany should be deprived of her fleet at the earliest opportunity, in no small part because of the role of that fleet in Britain’s war calculations. In addition to concerns about militarist revanchism, the Allies also had to worry about communist revolution. The High Seas Fleet had experienced a mutiny in the last two weeks of the war that had spread across Germany and helped precipitate the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Allies had no interest whatsoever in watching the fleet fall into the hands of German revolutionaries so soon after the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia.

The terms of the armistice required the fleet to depart from Kiel for Scapa Flow. The Grand Fleet met the Germans near Kiel on November 21, 1918, and escorted them north to Scapa. For much of the journey, the Allied escort included American and French warships. The mere existence of the fleet posed a political problem. While many of the German ships were approaching obsolescence (less because of German workmanship than because of the rapid pace of technological change) some of the units were still worthy of front line service. France, Italy, and Japan all coveted the most modern German vessels, which included the super-dreadnoughts Baden and Bayern, as well as several modern battlecruisers.

Most, although not all, of the warships interned at Scapa Flow were veterans of Jutland, the colossal clash between the Grand Fleet and the High Seas Fleet. Relations between the Germans and their British hosts were periodically tense. Germany was forced to maintain upkeep for its crews and ships, including regular shipments of food. The persistent Allied naval blockade had combined with influenza to ravage the country, making even paltry deliveries of food a trial. Moreover, unlike their British, Japanese, and American counterparts, the warships of the High Seas Fleet were not designed for long-range deployment and habitation. The German sailors had few creature comforts, and morale reportedly bottomed out very quickly.

Event

With the Germans still in physical control of the ships, the Royal Navy understood that an attempt at scuttling might ensue. The honor of the German navy, the German Empire, and the war effort itself were at stake. The British had considered simply seizing the ships from the Germans, although this risked violating the armistice and at the very least would have led to bloodshed with the crews.     

Indeed, the Germans had prepped the ships for scuttling over the previous several months, removing doors and taking other steps to reduce watertight integrity. They waited for motive and opportunity. As the Paris Peace Conference dragged on, both the French and the Italians had made claims upon the fleet. As the deadline for signing the treaty approached, both the Germans and the British made their preparations, the latter to seize the ships and the former to scuttle them.

On June 21, a comedy of errors ensued. The signing of the treaty was postponed two days, although it is unclear how aware the German sailors were made of this fact. The British commander decided that the fabulous early summer weather offered a great opportunity for practice, and the bulk of the Grand Fleet left Scapa Flow for maneuvers on the morning of June 21. Only a few patrol and utility ships remained.

Admiral Ludwig von Reuter gave the order for scuttling, and every German ship obeyed. The British didn’t notice until around noon, when the battleship Friederich der Grosse began to list noticeably. At this point, the rest of the fleet raised the Imperial German Naval ensign, which the British had officially forbidden. At that point, the scuttling became a race between the water and the Royal Navy. The Grand Fleet, notified by radio of the sinking, began to return immediately. The few Royal Navy ships in attendance picked up survivors, but were unable to save very many of the sinking ships.

Aftermath

Ten battleships, five battlecruisers, four cruisers, and thirty-two destroyers were successfully scuttled. From the German point of view, the operation was an enormous success. The stain of surrender had been removed from the navy, at least. Hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, and many millions of German marks, slid beneath the waves as the fleet that Tirpitz had championed came to an end. When the German admiral was plucked from the sea, a tense confrontation with the Royal Navy Admiral Sydney Fremantle ensued. Von Reuter took full responsibility for the order to scuttle the ships, with Fremantle responding that the action as “an act of base treachery.” Nine Germans were killed during the fights that ensued following the return of the British warships. Mostly, this seems to have happened because the German disobeyed direct orders to stop scuttling the ships, but in a few cases, Royal Navy sailors may have taken more violent steps than were strictly necessary.

The super-dreadnought battleship Baden was beached, and later used for testing by the Royal Navy. Had the ships survived, several might have served effectively through the interwar period and into the Second World War. Baden and Bayern, modern super-dreadnoughts carrying 15” guns, were the equals of any battleships afloat, and could have served creditably in the French or Italian navies. The battlecruisers Derfflinger and Hindenburg would also have represented an improvement for a few different navies.

Recovery

Although some of the ships scuttled in relatively shallow water, the British initially expressed

little interest in recovery efforts. The Germans had, after all, solved a major political problem by eliminating a point of dispute between the victorious Allies. Refloating the battleships would only reopen the thorny question of which country was most entitled to them. Moreover, global scrap iron prices had plummeted at the end of the war as excess material flooded the market.

A few ships of the High Seas Fleet remained in Kiel, where they had steadily deteriorated in physical condition. The Treaty of Versailles parceled these ships out, but also prohibited the recipients from putting them back into serviceable conditions. Most were quickly scrapped or sunk as targets. The most famous of these, SMS Ostfriesland, became one of the victims of Billy Mitchell’s obsession with naval bombing.

A few years later, the Royal Navy determined that the wrecks had become a hazard to shipping. There was also renewed interest in acquiring the ships for scrap. An engineer named Ernest Cox eventually acquired the rights to several of the ships, and developed innovative techniques for refloating them. This involved patching the hull and pumping in air in order to provide flotation. Overall, Cox refloated thirty-three of the ships, including two battlecruisers and five battleships.

Wrap

Today, many of the ships of the High Seas Fleet remain at the bottom of Scapa Flow, where wreck-divers often visit them. Given the enthusiasm with which scrappers have taken to robbing the Pacific of naval wrecks, the vessels at the bottom of Scapa may soon be the last easily accessible ships of their era.

The destruction of the High Seas Fleet on June 21, 1919 still marks the greatest destruction of naval power in a single day in modern military history. In a few hours, Germany went from being a first-rate naval power (behind only the United Kingdom and the United States) to completely lacking a modern fleet. Memories of 1919 would color Germany’s efforts to rebuild its fleet in the 1930s, as well as British wariness about the expansion of German power.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article first appeared in 2019.

Image: Wikimedia Commons





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The German Empire’s World War I Heavy Tank was a Beast

Quite a few military innovations made widespread combat debut on the various battlefields of World War I—including submarines, machine guns, airplanes, poison gas and flamethrowers. But arguably among the most significant developments in military technology of the era was the tank.

The British fielded the first tanks in numbers during that war, sending their Mark I tank to the front lines. Though the Mark I kicked off a new era in warfare, theirs wasn’t the only tank of that war—nor was it the best.

The German Empire too fielded tanks during the Great War, and in some ways, their A7V design may have actually been better. The basic A7V design saw a large armored compartment mated to a caterpillar-type tracked chassis. Though the A7V as well as the Mark I rode on tracks, the British design saw its tracks slide unprotected over the top of the vehicle’s rhomboid shape, whereas the A7V’s track top was better protected inside the vehicle’s steel armor, similar to modern tank designs.

For the era, the A7V was massive: it stood nearly eleven feet tall, over twenty-four feet long, and weighed around thirty-three tons. Corresponding to its large size, the A7V was also heavily armed. While many modern tanks today sport one or two machine guns, the A7V packed a total of six MG 08s inside its armored hull, two to a side, and two at the rear. Furthermore, the A7V sported a 57mm main gun at the front, integrated into the A7V’s front hull glacis. 

Two gasoline engines propelled the A7V at speeds just above nine miles per hour, making the German tank one of the speedier tanks of the era considering its size. In addition, the A7V benefited from a spring-type suspension, aiding its cross-country capability. Despite the A7V’s engine output and suspension, the design was top-heavy and not particularly effective in off-road conditions. Several photos and videos of the A7V can be seen here and here. They give a good impression as to the A7V’s size and speed and are worth the watch.

Post-war, the A7V design saw further service in Germany during the civil unrest that roiled the country after the end of hostilities. The Freikorps paramilitary groups that proliferated after the war commandeered several A7Vs or A7V-derivatives, which may have seen some combat in the German capital in the immediate post-war era.

Of course, the German Empire did not build the A7V in sufficient numbers to turn the tide of the war in their favor—estimated A7V production numbers, around twenty, pale in comparison to the several thousand French and British tanks that saw service during World War I.

In some ways the A7V may have contributed more to the World War II than World War I, as evidenced by Nazi Germany’s armored tank designs of the era which were quite advanced compared to their contemporaries. Either way, the A7V makes for a fascinating piece of World War I history.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Image: Wikimedia.



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The Ghost of Empires Past 

Like Spain of old, America is overextended, committed to goals it lacks the power and money to achieve.

President Joe Biden was working late in his private office in the White House. At the end of the day his chief of staff had handed him a somewhat unfortunate report from the Justice Department. It seemed Hunter recently sold the Brooklyn Bridge to the president of Moldova for $30 million. “Damn fool kid,” the president muttered to himself. “It’s worth at least three times that.”

Someone was knocking at his door. Where was his staff? How did security let someone through? “Come in,” he said hesitantly. Maybe it was his wife, the doctor, coming to give him a pill. Or be one.

It wasn’t. Instead, in walked a dark-haired man of middling age, dressed in black with a white ruff around his neck and, alarmingly, a sword at his side. “Permit me to introduce myself to Your Excellency,” the visitor said, bowing elaborately. “I am the Count-Duke of Olivares. I was what you would now call the prime minister of Spain through much of the first half of the 17th century.”

Biden hit the panic button under his desk. In an instant, the room was filled with Secret Service agents, guns drawn. “Get this nut case out of here!” the president barked. “Who let him in? He’s got a sword, dammit.”

“Um, who, Mr. President?” asked an agent, looking around puzzled. Olivares smiled. “Him! That guy!” yelled the president, pointing. “Um, Mr. President, we don’t see anyone,” said the agent. Oops, thought the president. “Oh, OK guys, I guess I just nodded off again.” Better to be nuts than to be thought nuts, said Biden to himself. “No problem, Mr. President,” the agent said. “I do the same thing all the time.” As they left, Biden thought he heard one say to another, “Bats in the belfry again,” but he wasn’t sure.

“OK, Mr. Olives or whoever you are, what’s this all about?” asked a peeved president. Olivares again bowed and scraped. “I am the Ghost of Empires Past, the Spanish empire to be precise,” he said. “When I rose to power, Spain was the world power without peer, the only hyperpower, if you will. By the time I fell, Spain was in an accelerating downward spiral that ended in a change of dynasties. Part of my penance for my failures is to warn others who are following Spain’s course. Regrettably, I must tell you your United States is now my Spain, without our good manners.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” grumbled the president. “Permit me to draw your attention to some unhappy parallels,” explained the count-duke. “Like Spain, America is overextended, committed to goals it lacks the power and money to achieve. We set up a Baltic fleet while the Dutch controlled the Straits of Gibraltar; you attempt to bring peace and order to Afghanistan when you cannot provide it in your own cities. We could not pull back because the reputación of the monarchy was at stake; your term is ‘credibility.’ What do you think Cervantes was talking about when he wrote of tilting at windmills? But at court, now in Washington as then in Madrid, anyone who mentioned the unfortunate contradictions was banished. In my Spain, even the simplest activities required so many people, so much ceremony, that eventually nothing moved. As you might put it, vast inputs brought only tiny outputs. It reached the point where the king’s entourage was so vast he could no longer leave Madrid.”

“OK, that I get,” said Biden. “I can’t walk out the back door to take a piss behind the bushes without them locking down half the city.”

“It is all very familiar to me,” replied Olivares. “I could move in tomorrow. Spain once had a great army,” he continued. “It did not lose a battle for a century. Our Armada awed the English as it swept up the Channel in perfect formation. But we did not adapt to changes in war, and others did. Soon we found ourselves defeated everywhereRocroi remains a painful memory, beaten by those French putibut no one dared suggest our officers were not up to the job. That would have offended their honor. In the end, we just accustomed ourselves to losing. Wars, elaborate courts, and overextension cost money, lots of it, more than even wealthy Spain possessed,” the count-duke said. “So we borrowed abroad and debased the currency at home to maintain a false prosperity. Being a monarchy, Spain could and did repudiate the debt. That option is not open to you, so you will have to inflate your way out of it instead.”

“Keep your voice down, dammit,” said the president. “If a reporter hears that, Wall Street will go nuts. Everybody knows it but no one dares to say it.” “All so familiar to me,” laughed Olivares. “Truly, su casa es mi casa.” “Here’s what I don’t get,” said Biden. “Didn’t you see all this happening? Why didn’t you reform, take a different course?” “For the same reason you do not, Your Excellency,” answered Olivares. “Of course we saw Spain was in decline. We had almost an industry turning out proposals for reform, arbitrios we called them. Some probably would have worked. But none could cut through the interests at court that lived off the country’s decay. At one point I put my formidable weight (in both senses) behind a set of reforms. In the end, one made it through: we abolished the ruff, this thing around my neck.”

“Then why are you still wearing it?” Biden asked. “As part of my penance for my failure as a statesman. And it itches like hell,” replied Olivares. “OK, so what’s the bottom line here?” asked Biden. “What do you expect me to do?” “Do?” laughed Olivares. “You? Mr. President, I did not get into town on the last mule train. I know you will do nothing. That’s how you got where you are. Your predecessor tried to do things, and look how it ended for him. No, Mr. President, you will do nothing. A new dynasty will, an American fourth republic.”

“Then why have you bothered telling me all this?” an impatient Biden asked. “So you know why your neck itches,” replied Olivares. Biden looked down and saw he too was now wearing a ruff. When he looked up again, the count-duke was gone.

William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Lind’s most recent book is Retroculture: Taking America Back.





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