What we learn from history is that people learn nothing from history

Although this quote is sometimes attributed to Otto von Bismarck or the well known playwright, George Bernard Shaw, it actually originated from the philosopher, Georg Hegel.

However Shaw expanded a bit on the theme as follows: If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.

In fairness, people do learn something from history, although the paradox of the phrase grabs our attention and makes us reflect a little on the meaning.

Closer to the truth is what Santayana had to say: those who cannot remember the past are destined to re-live it.

And this anonymous saying can be appended to it: Wise people learn from other people’s errors; intelligent people learn from their own; fools never learn.

Are we all such hopeless fools? Is humanity so stupid? Can’t we learn from the experience of the past generations? Why?

We do not learn from history because we are not educated from history; our schooling is abstract, bygone and irrelevant, full of artificial century yardsticks and pompous dates of battles and opportunistic monumental events with no connection with our life, understanding and concerns. There is an apparent elimination from the history books of that wise narration of concrete human experience which constitutes practical wisdom. As for the wide picture allowing the common individual to understand how relative are in fact some of the things taken today for granted and eternal, that scope is equally absent.

Besides the events on record, where is the way people lived the events, the way they understood them?

What did actual people do to cope with those events, so typical and so many times repeated?

The facts of life learned, the ways of the world, the narrations of why and how errors and successes came to be, do not get to us. The savoir-faire, the life-saving ideas and skills of the key situations and deeds – all those precious and meaningful patterns and insights that made lives and cost lives in other times do not seem worth to recall. No branch of science owns them.

Wisdom extracted from the past is not considered a part of the historical record. In fact, who cares to define “wisdom”, what proved wise in the past for individuals, for nations or at least for whatever the authors believe to be the good life and “Progress”?

These are all profound questions that I had never really considered, until fairly recently. I never studied history at school. I only did the basics until I was able to choose the subjects that I wished to study. And none of the subjects I chose to study was history!

History crept up on me, stealthily and slowly, in my middle-aged years. I cannot really say why or how this happened….it just did.

I began to enjoy reading books, mostly non-fiction, of events and characters of the 20th Century. The more I read, I more I wanted to read. I spiced this up with the odd, good historical novel by well known authors. I discovered that my interest centered on European military history and European politics.

Among my favourite authors, Anthony Beevor and Stephen Ambrose stand out.

One of the best books I have ever read is “A Band of Brothers” by Stephen Ambrose. The book relates the true story of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, US Army from the time that they trained in the USA until the end of the Second World War. This book is remarkable in many ways. Firstly, if it had been a novel, many of the accounts narrated in the book might have been thought to be a little too far-fetched to be believed. But it was all true! Retold by the men who were actually involved. And these men were not professional soldiers. They were young, inexperienced conscripts. Secondly, apart from relating historical, wartime events, the underlying theme of the book is about true leadership, courage and comradeship among men, in the most trying of circumstances. This is the best book about people management that I have ever read. It should be required reading in every single university management course.

I always enjoy reading Antony Beevor’s books. His specialty is military history and his books are considered to be some of the definitive works on the events of the Second World War. He has a natural and easy style of writing that makes dry historical narrative and facts become interesting and educational. He also manages to describe the way that the events impacted on the people involved in a way that clearly shows the brutality and futility of war. In addition, Beevor does not hesitate to state his opinion or give moral judgements, based on his extensive knowledge and background. Some of these opinions have been very controversial, but at least they force a reader to take up a point of view, to agree or disagree. There is much we can learn about mankind’s folly in the past.

One thing that always catches my attention in these books are accounts of incidents, although perhaps apparently insignificant at the time, that made such decisive impacts in the future. You will find many such instances described in the books of these two brilliant authors. Here is one of my favourites:

The weather forecast that saved D-Day: the story of Group Captain James Stagg

Group Captain James Stagg was the Chief Meteorologist to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). He had three forecasting teams reporting to him. The British Met-Office, which fell directly under him, the American forecasting team, led by Stagg’s deputy, Yates, and the Admiralty forecasting team.

Every day, Stagg gave a consolidated weather report from his three teams to Eisenhower and his subordinates.

Operation Overlord, D-Day, was scheduled for Monday, June 5th.

The weather was still good, Stagg reported, but there was now, he warned, a small risk of deterioration in conditions. Eisenhower pressed him again for a long term forecast. How was Monday June 5th, seven days from now, looking? “Possible or not possible?” he asked.

Stagg found himself squirming yet again for an answer. He understood why Eisenhower and his staff were asking but he also understood that they were unlikely to appreciate why he couldn’t provide a solid answer. “At this time of the year,” he reluctantly conceded, “continuous spells of more than a few days of really stormy weather are infrequent. If the disturbed weather starts on Friday it is unlikely to last through both Monday and Tuesday; but if it delayed to Saturday or Sunday the weather on Monday and even Tuesday could well be stormy.”

Stagg stressed that this answer was based purely on a general view of the weather so far in May and not on any specific data. But the assembled commanders seemed happy nonetheless.

As the days passed and more reports and data from aerial patrols and Task Force 24 had begun to filter in, to Stagg’s eye none of it looked very promising. Bad weather was coming. This was very bad news indeed as Stagg had already hinted at with his general comments to Eisenhower previously. If bad weather hit on Sunday, it was unlikely to clear up in time for D-Day and that would mean a postponement.

Eisenhower had been busy with the final preparations for the invasion and so Stagg’s next briefing with the Supreme Commander was postponed until Friday morning. As Stagg looked at all of the weather charts, he could see that the weather for D-Day on Mon 5th was not looking good.

“In all the charts for the last 40 or 50 years I had examined,” he would later recall in his autobiography, “I could not recall one which at this time of year remotely resembled this chart in the number and intensity of depressions it displayed at one time.”

Stagg’s opinion was shared by the Met-Office forecasters. However, the American team did not agree. They were forecasting good weather for D-Day. With the Admiralty forecasters refusing to commit to the weather either improving or worsening, Stagg was either going to have to present a divided opinion to the Supreme Commander or pick a side.

After some thought, Stagg decided that a divided opinion would be worse than useless. This was something that General Bull had confirmed when Stagg had hinted to him that there might be a dispute between the forecasting teams during a conversation the previous day.

“For heaven’s sake Stagg” Bull had exclaimed, more in worry than anger, “get it sorted by tomorrow morning before you come to the Supreme Commander’s conference. General Eisenhower is a very worried man.”

Stagg knew that Eisenhower’s worry stemmed from the fact that in order to meet the 5th June target date, now barely sixty hours away, the general had already began to order his men and supplies to leave their bases and head to their embarkation points. Very soon ships from ports as far away as Belfast and Scapa Flow would begin to move south to take part in the assault.

Both Eisenhower and Stagg were running out of time.

The weather, Stagg told Eisenhower, was continuing to deteriorate. It was still impossible to predict accurately what conditions would be like on Monday and Tuesday but the signs were increasing that winds may be as high as Force 5 and the clouds low.

As he was talking, Stagg could not help but frequently glance out the window. Neither could the assembled staff. The sun was coming out and it was a lovely day.

Eisenhower and his staff took the news without comment. They agreed to reconvene and discuss things further that evening.

Stagg and his deputy, Yates, had argued strongly on the way over to the meeting about revealing to the Supreme Commander that the weather forecasting teams were divided in opinion. Yates insisted that Ike and the others needed to know. Stagg overruled him, and reluctantly Yates had agreed to comply.

As they left the meeting, Stagg made his excuses and broke away on his own to take a walk through the grounds of Ike’s headquarters. He needed time to think.

“Was it fair to the Supreme Commander to withhold the cleavage of opinion from him?” He later wrote when describing that lonely walk. “Yes. I argued with myself: ‘General Eisenhower has big enough problems of his own… We have no brief to make his task more arduous than it manifestly is.’”

The problem, Stagg realised, was that there wasn’t just a lack of consensus, but that he firmly believed from his own reading of the data that the American forecasters were wrong. As long as the Admiralty team refused to commit to a forecast, then he reasoned that he could, in good conscience, convey the majority belief to Eisenhower as if it represented the whole. As long as no one questioned in detail what the view of each team was, then there would be no doubt cast on his analysis. However, if the Admiralty’s view shifted in support of the American team’s forecast, then he would be forced to either side with the minority view, or deliver an opinion that he firmly believed would lead to catastrophe.

Besides, just how much of his belief was based on the data, and how much on a subconscious tendency to trust his old colleagues at the Met-Office more than the Americans? And if that wasn’t enough he was worried about Yates. Stagg knew that he was placing his deputy in an increasingly difficult position. Technically, Yates was in command of the American forecasting team and Stagg knew that Yates both trusted their ability and felt duty bound to support them as their commander. Right now Stagg was asking him not only to go against that, but was also asking his deputy to trust Stagg’s belief that they must present a consistent world view over Yates’ own belief that this was wrong. It was an enormous ask of the man, one that grew larger by the day.

Pushing these thoughts to one side, Stagg spent the rest of the day in the weather hut. The Met-Office team had indicated that they would be pushing for new data before another conference call took place between the three teams that afternoon. Stagg wanted to spend as much time as possible going through all of the data himself and trying to come up with the best answer.

Things were about to get even worse. The Admiralty forecasters admitted that they now believed that what the Americans were saying was at least partially correct. Stagg’s worst case scenario had happened. He firmly believed that the Met-Office forecasters were right, but it was now two against one. The American and the Admiralty forecasters believed the Invasion should still go ahead. However, the Met-Office forecasters continued to disagree. During all of the discussions, Yates remained ominously silent.

The debate between the teams carried on for an hour and a half, but no consensus emerged. In the end, both Yates and Stagg nearly arrived late for their evening briefing with Eisenhower.

In that meeting, Stagg once again told Ike and his staff that the situation was unchanged. As a noticeably uncomfortable (to Stagg at least) Yates looked on, Stagg insisted that it was still impossible to make an accurate call on the weather for D-Day, but that such signs that existed suggested that conditions were deteriorating, not improving.

After the meeting, as Stagg was heading to his quarters, he bumped into General Morgan.

“Good luck Stagg;” The General told him, aware that tomorrow would be the moment of truth for the meteorologist. “may all your depressions be nice little ones.”

“But remember,” he added, after a slight pause, “we’ll string you up from the nearest lamp post if you don’t read the omens right!”

Stagg did not sleep well that night.

The next briefing was scheduled for the evening of June 3rd. As Stagg waited in the hall for the meeting to begin, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, the Overlord Air Force commander, approached him.

“What the devil has been going on behind the scenes in recent days, Stagg?” asked Tedder. “Will you please tell me?” Tedder explained that he had been up at Bushey Park that morning to meet with General Spaatz, commander of all the USAAF in England. Whilst he had been there, Spaatz and Tedder had decided to call in on the American forecasting team and they had shown them their forecasts – forecasts that ran counter to the general image of pessimism that Stagg had been presenting.

“Now tell me Stagg,” Tedder insisted, gently, “just what has been going on around you?”

Stagg’s blood ran cold.

“I’m afraid the weather centers haven’t quite been seeing eye to eye in recent days.” He answered, slowly and carefully. “The American’s techniques have led them to be more consistently optimistic than I have thought to be warranted, and I have taken the responsibility of toning down their contributions to the forecasts which I have been bringing in to you there. I’m sorry if the Americans feel that I have not given their views the consideration they deserve; but I can assure you that nothing would have made me happier than if I could have accepted their forecast of weather for the week-end and Monday.”

Tedder looked at Yates, who was standing next to Stagg. Yates looked at his superior, then at Tedder, and nodded his agreement. Unbeknown to those present, Yates had just previously spoken with his forecasters and asked them to come into consensus with the other forecasters and to support Stagg.

“For everybody’s sake,” Tedder said, looking back at Stagg with his voice level, “let’s hope it will turn out alright.”

In the conference, Stagg explained to Eisenhower and his commanders that the weather had turned against them. A high-pressure system was moving out and a low was coming in. The incoming depressions would cause disturbed conditions in the Channel and assault area throughout the 4th and 5th of June. The weather on D-Day would be overcast and stormy and winds of up to Force 5 would hit the beaches and surrounding area. The clouds would be low and thick with limited visibility and it would rain both here on the British coast and in Normandy. Worse, the situation was deteriorating so rapidly that forecasting more than twenty-four hours in advance was highly undependable.

Throughout the briefing Eisenhower remained quiet, his chin resting on his hands and his eyes firmly fixed on his meteorologist. As Stagg finished, silence descended.

Leigh-Mallory, broke it. He asked Stagg what the conditions would be for his bombers and fighters. A 2,000ft layer of cloud would obscure the ground, Stagg said, somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000ft. Another layer would exist at about 11,000ft.

Admiral Ramsay, the man tasked with seeing the Navy fulfill its obligations to the invasion, asked whether there would be high winds on Monday and Tuesday. Stagg confirmed that this was their forecast.

Eisenhower listened to his staff’s questions and Stagg’s answers, and then turned to Stagg himself. “Last night you left us, or at least you left me, with a gleam of hope. Isn’t there just a chance that you might be a bit more optimistic again tomorrow?”

“No sir,” replied Stagg

Thanking the weathermen for their input, Eisenhower dismissed them and asked them to leave the room. As they turned to depart, however, Tedder spoke up. “Before you go, Stagg,” he said, “will you tell us whether all the forecasting teams are agreed on the forecast you have just given us?”

Stagg paused. He remembered that Yates had shown his support for him in front of Tedder, just an hour earlier before the conference. Realising just how much he now owed to his deputy, he turned to Tedder and replied.“Yes sir. They are.”

With that Stagg and Yates left the room. A few minutes later General Bull joined them and told them that inside they were debating whether to have a postponement.

Stagg nodded wordlessly and turned to leave. As he did so, Tedder approached him. “He turned to me,” recalled Stagg later, “and, smiling, said, ‘Pleasant dreams Stagg.’” Tedder lit his pipe and walked off.

Above them, the sky was almost clear, the air calm and quiet.

It was too early to make a final decision, but word had to go out to the American navy carrying Bradley’s troops to Omaha and Utah Beaches, since they had the farthest to travel. Eisenhower decided to let them start the voyage, subject to a possible last-minute cancellation. He would then make the final decision at the next weather conference to be held the next morning.

At 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 4th, Eisenhower again met with his subordinates at Southwick House in Portsmouth.

Stagg said the sea conditions would be slightly better than anticipated, but the overcast sky would not permit the use of the air forces. He told them nothing had changed from the forecast given the night before. After an hour and a half discussion, the Met-Office and the Admiralty forecasters said that bad weather was imminent over the Channel, while the Americans said that it would remain clear.

“The sky outside here at the moment,” Admiral Ramsay said, “is practically clear and there is no wind. When do you expect the cloud and wind of your forecast to appear here?”

Stagg knew that his forecast was being accepted with some doubts. “In about 36 hours”, he said.

What Stagg did not disclose was that another report had come in just minutes before the meeting, from HMS Hoste, that suggested that the weather front seemed to be moving faster than expected. If that was the case, then the weather might clear briefly in a few days time. It was too early to tell if this was the case and Stagg wanted to have more information before he was prepared to commit himself.

It was now decision time and Eisenhower permitted Stagg and Yates to stay in the room.

Tedder and Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory wanted a postponement.“No part of the air support plan would be practicable.” Leigh-Mallory said. Tedder agreed.

Admiral Ramsay reluctantly concurred. If the forecast was correct, the seas would be too rough. Ramsay said the navy could do its part but remained neutral when asked whether or not the whole operation should go ahead.

Montgomery said that he disagreed with a postponement. He pointed out that while they were speaking, ships and landing craft had already begun to depart from their harbours. Various plans and deceptions had been prepared and were in place. To postpone now would risk chaos or, worse, German discovery of their intentions. If low clouds were going to be a problem, forget the Air Force and the airborne assault, he said. They should go ahead with the Invasion as planned.

“Jesus!” Eisenhower shouted at Montgomery, temporarily losing his calm, “Here you have been telling us for the past three or four months that you must have adequate air cover and that the airborne operations are essential to the assault, and now you say you will do without them!”

Regaining his composure, Ike summarized their position. Overlord was being launched with ground forces that were not overwhelmingly powerful. The operation was feasible only because of Allied air superiority. If he could not have that advantage, the landings were too risky. He then asked if anyone present disagreed, and when no one did he declared: “we will postpone OVERLORD for twenty four hours.”

The message went out to the whole naval fleet by prearranged, coded signals. Displaying superb seamanship, the vessels turned around and steamed back to their ports, through rough seas and strong winds. There they refueled and prepared to sail again the next day.

That evening Eisenhower ate at Southwick House. After dinner he moved into the mess room. Montgomery, Tedder, SHAEF Chief of Staff Walter B. Smith, Ramsay, Leigh-Mallory, and various other high-ranking staff officers were already there. The wind and the rain now rattled the window frames in the French doors in staccato sounds. The mess room was large, with a heavy table at one end and easy chairs at the other. Two sides of the room were lined with bookcases, most of which were empty and forlorn. A third side consisted of the French doors; the fourth wall was covered with a huge map of southern England and Normandy, filled with pins, arrows, and other symbols of Allied and German units.

At 21h30, Stagg came into the mess room to give his latest forecast.

“Gentlemen,” said Stagg, “since I presented the last forecast some rapid and unexpected developments have occurred.” Stagg proceeded to explain.

“The reports coming in from HMS Hoste and Blacksod Point increasingly suggest that the bad weather is moving through the Channel faster than was expected. There is still more bad weather to come, but that is following slowly.”

“The stormy conditions now battering the coast would continue through Sunday as expected, but would start moderating on the Monday. By Tuesday, June 6th, it now looked like that it might be clear; as would be the next day. The wind over Normandy would abate. The bombers and fighters ought to be able to operate on Monday night, June 5th through to Tuesday morning, June 6th, although they might be hampered by a bit of cloud. Indeed, if their forecast was right, the conditions would be as close to perfect as they could hope for, under the circumstances.”

Eisenhower said that he needed a two day window. Stagg conceded that this might be possibly the case.

The temptation to postpone again and meet the following morning for another conference was strong and growing, but Ramsay put a stop to that idea by pointing out that Admiral Alan G. Kirk, commanding the naval task force, “must be told in the next half hour if Overlord is to take place on Tuesday, June 6th. If he is told it is on, and his forces sail and are then recalled, then they will not be able to be ready for Wednesday morning. In that case, a further postponement would be for at least forty-eight hours.”

Everyone in the room knew what Ramsay was saying. If they started, and then postponed again, they would lose any chance they had for the invasion to go ahead at this time. The window of opportunity would be lost and then they would have to wait until at least the middle of June when the conditions would be right again.

Whatever Eisenhower decided to do would be risky. He began pacing the room, head down, chin on his chest, hands clasped behind his back. Ike watched the rain and the wind raging outside. The weather that, had they proceeded the previous day, would now be wrecking his invasion fleet. He looked up at Beddell-Smith.

“Looks to me like we’ve gotten a break that we could hardly hope for,” said General Beddell-Smith. “It’s a helluva gamble this.”

Eisenhower turned to Monty.

“Do you see any reason for not going on Tuesday?” he asked.

Montgomery straightened up, looked Eisenhower in the eye, and replied, “I would say – Go!”

Eisenhower nodded, and looked at Tedder. Tedder again indicated he thought it chancy.

Finally Eisenhower halted, looked around at his commanders, and said, “The question is just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there?

If there was going to be an invasion before June 19, Eisenhower had to decide now. Smith was struck by the “loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision was to be taken by him, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his individual decision.” Looking out at the wind-driven rain, it hardly seemed possible that the operation could go ahead.

“I am quite positive that the order must be given”, said Eisenhower.

Ramsay rushed out and gave the order to the fleet. More than five thousand ships began to prepare to leave their harbours and head towards France.

Eisenhower went back to his quarters and slept fitfully. He awoke at 3h30. A wind of almost hurricane proportions was shaking his trailer. The rain seemed to be traveling in horizontal streaks. He dressed and gloomily drove through a mile of mud to Southwick House for the morning meeting. It was still not too late to call off the operation.

Stagg said that the long-range prediction did not look good, but that the break he had been looking for was on its way and that the weather should start clearing up within a matter of hours.

A short discussion followed, Eisenhower again pacing, shooting out his chin, asking opinions. Montgomery still wanted to go, as did Smith. Ramsay was concerned about proper spotting for naval gunfire but thought the risk was worth taking. Tedder was ready. Leigh-Mallory still thought flying conditions were below the acceptable minimum. Everyone had stated their opinion.

“Well boys, there it is,” said Eisenhower. “I don’t see how we can possibly do anything else.”

Ike looked outside. It seemed that the rain had stopped and the wind was not as strong as before. Finally he turned to his Chief Meteorologist.

“Well, Stagg, we’re putting it on again: for heaven’s sake hold the weather to what you’ve told us and don’t bring any more bad news.”

Stagg left the room. No new weather reports would be available for hours. The ships were sailing into the Channel. If they were to be called back, it had to be done now.

And The Supreme Commander was the only man who could do it.

Eisenhower thought for a moment, then quietly but clearly said, “OK, let’s go.”

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About Peter Smith

A "foot-soldier" in the wider Post Capitalism Movement. First task - keep spreading the words of change, hope & inspiration.
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3 Responses to What we learn from history is that people learn nothing from history

  1. Patrisya says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog. It seems you put so much work into each post. You write beautifuly and content is very interesting. Great job!

    Like

    • Peter Smith says:

      Many, many thanks for your kind and encouraging comments.

      I write for fun and enjoyment, although I believe passionately in the subject-matter and there is an underlying serious tone to what I wish to say. I seem to have found a style of writing that works for me and it keeps me inspired and motivated.

      Whether anyone reads what I write is largely irrelevant, although I must confess to having a secret thrill whenever I see a “liked” gravatar.

      Liked by 1 person

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