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August, 1914 and Confirmation Bias (Rhythm of Testing)

On August 24, 2014, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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People following me on Twitter know that I regularly, though not always, tweet something about an event that occurred in history that day.  People paying attention have noticed that this month, August, I have paid particular attention to August of 1914.  This month marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.  Many Americans look at this as an interesting but relatively minor footnote that only touched the US much later.  This is unfortunate.

This war tumbled empires, shattered people’s concepts of surety and security, and marked the shift of the order of the world.  Former colonies soared to importance.  Australia, New Zealand, Canada and a little country called the United States all found themselves thrust into the limelight where European powers thought they alone held sway.

Much of this was due to the events one hundred years ago this month.  There are lessons we  can learn today from these events as testers and as citizens of the world.

Belgium

Much has been said by popular historians on the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife.  On a simple timeline, this prompted demands and ultimatums and threats – and as national figures refused to back down from the brinksmanship they played a part in creating, nations declared war on each other on a scale that had not been seen since Napoleon’s near conquest of Europe.

Then there was Belgium.  The young King Albert, trained in statecraft as well as military matters feared that if war came, it would roll through his country as so many other wars had in the past, from Julius Caesar to Napoleon.  Countries that were pledge to defend Belgium’s neutrality were pushing themselves and each other toward war.  Germany, France, Britain, Austria all had pledged to preserve and protect Belgium’s neutrality under the Treaty of London of 1839.

When Germany ordered mobilization on August 1, Belgium ordered its forces to mobilize, with the order taking effect at midnight.  Soldiers reported to barracks, reserves were called up and vigilance was increased along all of Belgium’s borders.  The standing policy and agreement was that if any country should invade Belgium, the guarantors of her neutrality would come to her aid.

Germany issued an ultimatum to King Alfred that her soldiers allow German forces to pass through Belgium to invade France.  Alfred refused.  His fear was simple, if Germany won the war, how likely were they to honor their promise of withdrawal after they violated their promise to not invade?

Germany invaded Luxembourg on August 2.  Germany declared war on France on August 3.  That same day, August 3, Belgium refused Germany’s demand to allow German troops to pass through Belgium. 

August 4, Germany invaded Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany for doing so.

Albert disagreed with many of his generals who insisted that offensive operations were  key to victory over Germany.  Many modeled their thinking on the French plans, which called for massive assaults against German positions to drive Germany out of Alsace-Lorraine (lost during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870) and defeating German offensive operations by attacking German bases.

Albert insisted on defending the forts on the frontier and defending key cities as long as possible, and keeping the field army as an Army in Being on Belgian soil.  Thus, the German offensive would hit abd be delayed by fortifications, while his main forces finish equipping and preparing for battle.

Neither the Germans nor the French expected the Belgians to put up any kind of meaningful resistance.  The Belgians were, in the eyes of the “Great Powers” an inconsequential force.  They were the Hobbits of the Middle Earth of Europe in 1914.

France

French pride was injured in the short, painful Franco-Prussian War where the main French forces were surrounded and defeated in a massive double encirclement at Sedan.  It was a humiliating failure.  Since then, the French military establishment had looked forward to restoring their honor and the glory of France.

At the front of their minds was restoring to the French nation the provinces taken by Prussia after the French defeat.  They longed for the day they would march in triumph and retake their lost territory.  They longed for the day they could invade Germany and slice off a portion of German territory in retribution.

In doing so, their plans were all of the offensive.  Plan XVII called for a massive invasion of Alsace-Lorraine and then sending overwhelming numbers into Germany proper.  They would pull divisions from their territories in Algeria to make this happen, along with mobilizing as many reservists as possible.  Those who spoke of concerns about the defense of France and Paris in particular were viewed as defeatists if not out and out traitors.

Commanders spoke of élan and cran and the pantalon rouge as the keys to French victory.  If the Germans massed their main offensive to try and attach the French flank, then there would be fewer Germans to resist the French onslaught aimed at Metz.

The French Commander, Joffre, was so adamant in this that warnings and messages from Belgium on the size of the German attack into Belgium were dismissed as coming from unreliable sources.  People fighting the enemy in front of them were considered less reliable than people making plans to fight an enemy they were not yet ready to face.

Finally, a cavalry unit was sent forward to look for evidence of this massive invasion into Belgium that Albert and the Belgian commanders were frantically sending messages about.  The cavalry found little to support the claims.  This was mostly the result of effective screening by German cavalry to offset the efforts of the French.  IN short, the French cavalry failed to recognize that they were being themselves screened by German cavalry.  If there was no “massive invasion” happening, there would have been fewer Uhlan regiments present.

They saw, but did not observe.

The day after the French emissary told the Belgian high command that they were mistaken in the size and scope of the German incursion, Belgian cavalry units, fighting dismounted, defeated a large force of German Uhlans at Haelen.  Four days later, the last of the forts around Liege fell to the Germans who brought up massive artillery to destroy the defenses.

August 21, before the French attack at Charleroi could begin, the Germans launched their own massive attack.  Lanrezac succeeded in saving his army of 15 divisions, by withdrawing instead of following orders and attacking the 18 German divisions as he was facing.

Britain

In spite of joint operation plans with France, Britain was not as willing to jump into the fray as any of the major belligerents.  Instead, the Royal Navy was mobilized to protect the English Channel and keep sea lanes open.  The stated intent was to ensure that none of the navies of nations who went to war would be in a position to harm her shipping or harbors.  In reality, the intent was to help protect the French coastline and ports in case there was a need to send troops to Europe.

Where the governments of Germany, France, Russia and Austria-Hungary were  united in their desire to go to war, Britain was not.  The government face a very real threat of loss of confidence if war was entered into without an overwhelming reason.

The only way to ensure support for war was if Belgium was invaded.  The Germans did that on August 4.  Britain declared war and mobilized her army.  The German Chancellor was astounded that Britain would go to war over “a scrap of paper.”  She did.

Of the countries in Europe, only Britain did not have conscription for military service in 1914.  Any force sent to Europe would be volunteers.  The British Expeditionary Force sent to France on August 7 consisted of some 80,000 men.

They met the German army in force at Mons, on August 23, three days after German forces occupied Brussels, the Belgian capital.  The British forces were heavily outnumbered, with German forces having twice as many pieces of artillery.  In spite of this, the British held the German advance and inflicted extremely heavy casualties on their opponents.

The Germans did not expect the British to put up much of a fight.  There is a tendency among armies and nations to judge opponents by how they behaved in their last conflict.  The idea that someone learned something seems a revolutionary concept.  Encountering a skilled, well trained and motivated opponent when one expects an inept one tends to shatter more than the idea that something will be easy.

It can also shake the confidence in your own abilities, despite whatever exhortations leaders make to the contrary.

By the end of August 24, the German infantry soldiers knew they were in for a harder time than they had been led to believe.  Within a matter of weeks, the people of Germany, France and Russia would know that the quick war they all expected was an illusion.

Lessons

King Albert of Belgium steadfastly held on to the idea that a free and independent Belgium needed an army in the field, holding a tiny portion of Belgium.  Without that, they would be at the mercy of the German invaders, or possibly worse, their Allies.  He also knew that if his small army could delay the German advance, he could gather support from around the world.  If he could hold on long enough, that support would manifest itself in untold millions of soldiers.  He expected his country to be brought to the brink of utter destruction by resisting.  He had proclamations issued to all the towns and villages saying to turn in all weapons before the Germans arrive, lest the owner be killed.  He expected war to be made on the civilian population.  I am not certain if he expected war to be made in the way that it was. 

Kaiser Wilhem II, Moltke and Falkenheyn of Germany all expected Belgium to not resist.  At the most, they expected a token form of resistance and described this as soldiers at the frontier firing rifles into the air and others lining the roads as the German columns passed by.  When the Belgians fired their weapons, it was anything but in the air.  They did not behave as expected.  The brutal reaction of German forces (there is no other word to describe it) in Belgium was perhaps worse than Albert feared.  He described the potential reaction to Belgian Resistance as “crushing.”  It certainly was.  Additionally, they expected the British forces to fold up easily and leave the French to their fate.  They found it hard to believe that England, a fellow “Germanic” country, could really make war on Germany.

Grand Quartier Général, the French High Command, the whole thing, refused to argue against Joffre’s insistence on attack.  The organizational culture refused to consider the possibility of error.  This nearly lead to a complete disaster.  They were saved by a handful of officers in the field who saved their commands and France, even as they sacrificed their careers and in some cases, lives.

General Sir John French and H. H. Asquith of Britain managed to get a functioning and capable force into action in Europe in time to prevent a total collapse of the Allied lines.  Asquith demonstrated the stereotypical British habit of muddling through toward an end.  French had a nasty habit of not letting facts confuse him once his mind was made up.  However, both managed to get a coherent force into place and gain enough time for a larger, more substantial force to become available.

This was partly through the efforts of Lord Kitchener, the first serving officer in the Cabinet since the time of Charles II, he became Secretary of State for War (and the image of recruiting posters with his stern face looking out with the motto “Your Country Needs YOU.”  He also horrified members of the War Council the first day by saying that Britain needed 70 Divisions, not the 6 that were available in August of 1914, and the current professional force should train the new recruits.  He also said it would take at least 3 years to get that number of adequately trained solders ready.

King George V of Britain played his own part in keeping focus on what was needed.  By calling for protection of “small nations” against invading hordes (actually, “Huns” which was the term Wilhem II used in reference to his own army – he could have chosen a better word, but landed there time and again) King George demonstrated his own model of courage, even when it was his children and relatives who went into harms way.  (Much can be taught to today’s leaders in many countries, I think.)

Lieutenant Maurice Dease, V.C., 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers who manned a machine gun at Mons when all solders in his section were killed or so severely wounded that they could not handle the weapon.  Only after being wounded five times, when he was unable to operate the weapon, would he allow himself to be evacuated to a hospital.  He died of his wounds, but helped save his Battalion and gained the thing the British needed most right then: time.  

Private Sidney Godley, V.C., 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, who took over from Lt Dease after he was mortally wounded, and continued operating the machine gun for 2 hours while the Fusiliers, and the rest of the BEF retreated.  He continued to do so, despite being twice wounded, until he ran out of ammunition.  He then dismantled the gun and threw the pieces away, to prevent them being captured.  He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp.

And Testing…

Each of us has our own biases and beliefs. We have the choice of working hard to set aside those biases and examine the evidence in front of us, or we can dismiss the evidence as wrong or from unreliable or irrelevant sources.

We have the choice of looking at what is , what an impartial observer might note, or what we wish it to be.  In the end, testers are bound to observe how software is currently functioning.  Then we can ask two important and related questions:

Is this what I could reasonably expect to see?
Is this a problem?

After we consider those, we can then provide a reasonable evaluation of the software.  If people do not want us to consider these questions, they are taking on the role of the various command structures from August of 1914, who could not bring themselves to believe what was unfolding in front of them even as their plans and dreams of glory ended in the bloody mess at the Marne.

 

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