Collections: No Man’s Land, Part II: Breaking the Stalemate

Last time, we introduced the factors that created the trench stalemate in the First World War and we also laid out why the popular ‘easy answer’ of simply going on the defensive and letting the enemy attack themselves to death was not only not a viable strategy in theory but in fact a strategy which had been tried and had, in the event, failed. But in discussing the problem the trench stalemate created on the Western Front, I made a larger claim: not merely that the problem wasn’t solved but that it was unsolvable, at least within the constraints of the time. This week we’re going to pick up that analysis to begin looking at other options which were candidates for breaking the trench stalemate, from new technologies and machines to new doctrines and tactics. Because it turns out that quite to the contrary of the (sometimes well-earned) dismal reputation of WWI generals as being incurious and uncreative, a great many possible solutions to the trench stalemate were tried. Let’s see how they fared.

Before that, it is worth recapping the core problem of the trench stalemate laid out last time. While the popular conception was that the main problem was machine-gun fire making trench assaults over open ground simply impossible, the actual dynamic was more complex. In particular, it was possible to create the conditions for a successful assault on enemy forward positions – often with a neutral or favorable casualty ratio – through the use of heavy artillery barrages. The trap this created, however, was that the barrages themselves tore up the terrain and infrastructure the army would need to bring up reinforcements to secure, expand and then exploit any initial success. Defenders responded to artillery with defense-in-depth, meaning that while a well-planned assault, preceded by a barrage, might overrun the forward positions, the main battle position was already placed further back and well-prepared to retake the lost ground in counter-attacks. It was simply impossible for the attacker to bring fresh troops (and move up his artillery) over the shattered, broken ground faster than the defender could do the same over intact railroad networks. The more artillery the attacker used to get the advantage in that first attack, the worse the ground his reserves had to move over became as a result of the shelling, but one couldn’t dispense with the barrage because without it, taking that first line was impossible and so the trap was sprung.

(I should note I am using ‘railroad networks’ as a catch-all for a lot of different kinds of communications and logistics networks. The key technologies here are railroads, regular roads (which might speed along either leg infantry, horse-mobile troops and logistics, or trucks), and telegraph lines. That last element is important: the telegraph enabled instant, secure communications in war, an extremely valuable advantage, but required actual physical wires to work. Speed of communication was essential in order for an attack to be supported, so that command could know where reserves were needed or where artillery needed to go. Radio was also an option at this point, but it was very much a new technology and importantly not secure. Transmissions could be encoded (but often weren’t) and radios were expensive, finicky high technology. Telegraphs were older and more reliable technology, but of course after a barrage the attacker would need to be stringing new wire along behind them connecting back to their own telegraph systems in order to keep communications up. A counter-attack, supported by its own barrage, was bound to cut these lines strung over no man’s land, while of course the defender’s lines in their rear remained intact.)

The way I want to set this up is in the terms I most often hear these questions asked: the earnest and quite reasonable question by students, “didn’t they realize that X could have broken the stalemate?” in which ‘X’ may be any number of ideas, technologies or tactical innovations.

Back to the trenches we go!

Via Wikipedia, a 1916 photo by Ernest Brooks showing the First Lancashire Fusiliers moving in a communication trench. J.R.R. Tolkien served with part of this regiment in the 10th Service Battalion; their casualties at the Somme were severe.

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(Also, please see the first post in this series for a short, selected bibliography of the sources I am working from)

Didn’t They Realize: Infiltration Tactics!

One way to respond to a novel tactical problem is with novel tactics. And the impetus for this kind of thinking is fairly clear: if your own artillery is the problem digging you into a hole, then find a way to use less of it.

The mature form of this tactical framework is often called ‘Hutier’ tactics, after German general Oskar Emil von Hitier, though he was hardly the sole or even chief inventor of the method. In its mature form, the technique went thusly: instead of attacking with large waves of infantry which cleared each objective in sequential order, attacks ought to be proceeded by smaller units, carefully trained with the layout of the enemy positions. Those units, rather than having a very rigid plan of attack, would be given those general objectives and left to figure for themselves how to accomplish them (‘mission tactics’ or Auftragstaktik)1, giving them more freedom to make decisions based on local conditions and the ground.

These elite spearhead units, called Stoßtruppen or ‘Stormtroopers’ were well equipped (in particular with a higher amount of automatic firearms and hand grenades, along with flamethrowers). Importantly, they were directed to bypass enemy strong-points and keep moving forward to meet their objectives. The idea here was that the follow-up waves of normal infantry could do the slow work of clearing out points where enemy resistance was strong, but the stormtroopers should aim to push as deeply as possible as rapidly as possible to disorient the defenders and rapidly envelop what defenses remained.2

Via Wikipedia, German stormtroopers. Note the satchels full of grenades, hardly standard equipment for soldiers in the era but quite useful in the initial assault.

These sets of infantry tactics were in turn combined with the hurricane barrage, a style of artillery use which focused on much shorter but more intense artillery barrages, particularly associated with Colonel Georg ‘Breakthrough’ Bruchmüller. Rather than attempting to pulverize defenses out of existence, the hurricane barrage was designed merely to force enemies into their dugouts and disorient the defenders; much of the fire was directed at longer ranges to disrupt roads and artillery in the enemy rear. The short barrage left the ground relatively more intact. Meanwhile, those elite infiltration units could be trained to follow the creeping barrage very closely (being instructed, for instance, to run into the shell explosions, since as the barrage advantages, no gun should ever strike the same spot twice; a fresh shell-hole was, in theory, safe). Attentive readers will recognize the basic foundations of the ‘move fast, disorient the enemy’ methods of the ‘modern system’ here.

So did infiltration tactics break the trench stalemate? No.

First, it is necessary to note that while infiltration tactics were perhaps most fully developed by the Germans, they were not unique to them. The French were experimenting with many of the same ideas at the same time. For instance, basic principles of infiltration were being published by the French General Headquarters as early as April, 1915. André Laffargue, a French infantry captain, actually published a pamphlet, which was fairly widely distributed in both the French and British armies by the end of 1915 and in the American army in 1916, on exactly this sort of method. In many cases, like at the Second Battle of Artois, these French tactics bore significant fruit with big advances, but ran into the problem that the gains were almost invariably lost in the face of German counter-attacks. The Russians, particularly under Aleksei Brusilov, also started using some of these techniques, although Brusilov was as much making a virtue of necessity as the Russians just didn’t have that much artillery or shells and had to make due with less and Russian commanders (including Brusilov!) seem to have only unevenly taken the lessons of his successes.

The problem here is speed: infiltration tactics could absolutely more efficiently overrun the front enemy lines and even potentially defeat multiple layers of a defense-in-depth. But after that was done and the shock of the initial push wore off, you were still facing the same calculus: the attacker’s reinforcements, shells, artillery and supplies had to cross broken ground to reach the new front lines, while the defender’s counter-attack could ride railways, move over undamaged roads and then through prepared communications trenches. In the race between leg infantry and trains, the trains always won. On the Eastern Front or against the Italians fighting under the Worst General In History at Caporetto (1917), the already badly weakened enemy might simply collapse, producing massive gains (but even at Caporetto, no breakthrough – shoving the enemy is not a breakthrough, to qualify as a breakthrough, you need to get to the ‘green fields beyond’ that is open ground undefended by the enemy), but against a determined foe, as with the 1918 Spring Offensives, these tactics, absent any other factor, simply knocked big salients3 in the line. Salients which were, in the event, harder to defend and brought the Germans no closer to victory. Eventually – often quite rapidly – the front stabilized again and the deadlock reasserted itself. Restoring maneuver, the actual end-goal of these tactics, remained out of reach.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Western_front_1918_german.jpg
Via wikipedia, a map of the German 1918 Spring Offensives, showing the large salients pushed into the Allied lines. No breakthrough was achieved, merely a large shove.

None of this is to say that infiltration tactics were useless. They represented a real improvement on pre-war infantry tactics and continue to serve as the basis for modern infantry tactics. But they could not break the trench stalemate or restore maneuver.

Didn’t They Realize: Tanks!

Where the Germans tried tactics, the British tried tools. If the problems were trenches, what was needed was a trench removal machine: the tank.

In theory, a good tank ought to be effectively immune to machine-gun fire, able to cross trenches without slowing and physically protect the infantry (who could advance huddled behind the mass of it), all while bringing its own firepower to the battle. Tracked armored vehicles had been an idea considered casually by a number of the pre-war powers but not seriously attempted. The British put the first serious effort into tank development with the Landship Committee, formed in February of 1915; the first real tanks, 49 British Mark I tanks, made their first battlefield appearance during the Battleo f the Somme in 1916. Reliability proved to be a problem: of the 49 tanks that stepped off on the attack on September 15th, only 3 were operational on the 16th, mostly due to mechanical failures and breakdowns.

Via Wikipedia, the British Mark 1 Tank. Slow, vulnerable and without a turret these early tanks had extremely short operational range and were very prone to breaking down.

Nevertheless there was promise in the idea that was clearly recognized and a major effort to show what tanks could do what attempted at Cambrai in November of 1917; this time hundreds of tanks were deployed and they had a real impact, breaking through the barbed wire and scattering the initial German defenses. But then came the inevitable German counter-attacks and most of the ground taken was lost. It was obvious that tanks had great potential; the French had by 1917 already developed their own, the light Renault FT tank, which would end up being the most successful tank of the war despite its small size (it is the first tank to have its main armament in a rotating turret and so in some sense the first ‘real’ tank). This was hardly an under-invested in technology. So did tanks break the trench stalemate?

No.

Its understandable that many people have the impression that they did. Interwar armored doctrine, particularly German Maneuver Warfare (bewegungskrieg) and Soviet Deep Battle both aimed to use the mobility and striking power of tanks in concentrated actions to break the trench stalemate in future wars (the two doctrines are not identical, mind you, but in this they share an objective). But these were doctrines constructed around the performance capabilities of interwar tanks, particularly by two countries (Germany and the USSR) who were not saddled with large numbers of WWI era tanks (and so could premise their doctrine entirely on more advanced models). The Panzer II, with a 24.5mph top speed and an operational range of around 100 miles, depending on conditions, was actually in a position to race the train and win; the same of course true of the Soviet interwar T-26 light tank (19.3mph on roads, 81-150 mile operational range). Such tanks could have radios for coordination and communication on the move (something not done with WWI tanks or even French tanks in WWII).

Via Wikipedia, the Renault FT, probably the most advanced and successful tank of the war, nevertheless with extremely limited capabilities. No faster than walking speed, with very limited range, a crew of only two and a very limited 37mm main gun this was the best that the engineering of 1918 could realistically do.

By contrast, that Renault FT had a top speed of 4.3mph and an operational range of just 37 miles. The British Mark V tank, introduced in 1918, moved at only 5mph and had just 45 miles of range. Such tanks struggled to keep up with the infantry; they certainly were not going to win any race the infantry could not. It is little surprise that the French, posed with the doctrinal problem of having to make use of the many thousands of WWI tanks they had, settled on a doctrine whereby most tanks would simply be the armored gauntlet stretched over the infantry’s fist: it was all those tanks could do! The sort of tank that could do more than just dent the trench-lines (the same way a good infiltration assault with infantry could) were a decade or more away when the war ended.

Moreover, of course, the doctrine – briefly the systems of thinking and patterns of training, habit and action – to actually pull off what tanks would do in 1939 and 1940 were also years away. It seems absurd to fault World War I era commanders for not coming up with a novel tactical and operational system in 1918 for using vehicles that wouldn’t exist for another 15 years and yet more so assuming that they would get it right (since there were quite a number of different ideas post-war about how tanks ought to be used and while many of them seemed plausible, not all of them were practical or effective in the field). It is hard to see how any amount of support into R&D or doctrine was going to make tanks capable of breakthroughs even in the late 1920s or early 1930s (honestly, look at the ‘best’ tanks of the early 1930s; they’re still not up to the task in most cases) much less by 1918.

Didn’t They Realize: Airpower!

What about, instead of going through the trench lines, we went over them?

There are two directions to take airpower here: tactical and strategic. One wasn’t ready then (but would be by WWII), the other still hasn’t managed to accomplish its stated objectives yet, but continues to over-promise and under-deliver results.

Let’s deal with tactical airpower first. The first function aircraft were put to in WWI was reconnaissance. In 1914, that might mean locating the enemy in a fast-moving battlefield, but as soon as the trench stalemate set in, reconnaissance mostly meant identifying enemy buildups along the line and – still more importantly – serving as spotters for artillery. It wasn’t a huge cognitive leap to go from having aircraft which identified targets for the artillery to thinking that the aircraft could be the artillery. But as with tanks, the technical limitations of the platforms in use meant that actually meaningful close air support was still two decades away when the war ended. The rapid development of aircraft in these early days means that there is a truly bewildering array of aircraft designs in use during the war, but the Farman F.50 is a good sample for what the most advanced bombers in common use looked like towards the war’s end. It carried a maximum of 8 44kg (352kg) bombs under the wings, which were dropped unguided. With a maximum speed of less than 100mph and a service ceiling under 5000m, it was also an extremely vulnerable platform: fragile, slow and with a relatively low flight ceiling. The French mainly used bombers at night for this reason.

Via Wikipedia, a Farman F.50 in the United States Army Air Service (though the Farman was a French design). Introduced in 1918, this was one of the most advanced allied bombers in the war.

But how much airpower does it take to really move a division out of position? In 1944, at the start of Operation Cobra as part of the Normandy breakout, it was necessary for US forces to move the powerful armored division Panzer Lehr out of its prepared positions outside of St. Lo. Over the course of a hour and a half, the U.S. Eighth Air Force hit Panzer Lehr with approximately three thousand aircraft, including 1,800 heavy bombers (each of which might have had bomb-loads of c. 2-3,500kg; the attack would have been the equivalent of about 13,000 Farman F.50s (of which only a hundred or so were built!)). By this point, even medium bombers carried bomb loads in the thousands of pounds, like the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, with a bomb load of 3000lbs (1360kg). This was followed by a hurricane artillery barrage! Despite this almost absurdly awesome amount of firepower (which, to be clear, inflicted tremendous damage; by the end of Operation Cobra, Panzer Lehr – the heaviest and most powerful Panzer division in the west – had effectively ceased to exist), Panzer Lehr, badly weakened was still very capable of resisting and had to be pushed out of position by ground attack over the next three days.

B25 Mitchell - Chino Airshow 2014 (14033501440).jpg
Via Wikipedia, a B-25 Mitchell Bomber, one of the most common American medium bombers of WWII, introduced in 1941. While only a medium bomber, it nonetheless had 2.5 times the speed, more than four times the range, flew twice as high up and carried about four times the bomb load as the Farman F.50. While only 200 F.50s were built in WWI, the United States built 9,816 B-25s alone.

Needless to say, nothing on offer in 1918 or for a decade or more after, was prepared to offer that kind of offensive potential from the air. That kind of assault would have required many thousands of aircraft with capabilities far exceeding what even the best late-war WWI bombers could do. Once again, while close air support doctrine was developed with one eye on the trench stalemate and the role airpower could play in facilitating a breakthrough and restoring maneuver (either by blasting the breakthrough or – as in Soviet Deep Battle doctrine – engaging enemy rear echelon units to bog down reinforcements). But the technology wasn’t anywhere near the decisive point by 1918. Instead, the most important thing aircraft could do was spot for the artillery, which is mostly what aircraft continued to do, even in late 1918.

But that’s tactical bombing against military targets. What about strategic bombing against civilian targets?

The first efforts at strategic bombing were made in WWI, though once again the technology wasn’t ready. The range for fixed-wing aircraft was still very limited; the aforementioned Farman F.50 had a range of only 420km, nowhere near enough to really bring entire countries under the threat of bombing. Dirigibles – zeppelins – could manage much longer ranges and the Germans did attempt to bomb British cities with them starting in 1915. The problem was that once aircraft powerful enough to climb to the zeppelin’s altitude were developed, the slow and fragile zeppelins were sitting ducks: lighter than air airships could hardly be armored, after all. Moreover, the bomb loads of zeppelins had always been far too low to make effective strategic bombing possible beyond the initial shock of it.

What no one could have known in WWI was not merely that the technology for effective conventional strategic bombing wasn’t ready, but that it would probably never be ready. Interwar air-power theorists, seeing the potential of strategic airpower to bypass the trench stalemate by flying over it began to try to work out how this would be done. Giulio Douhet (1869-1930) argued that future wars would be fought and won in the air, with fleets of bombers using high explosives and chemical weapons to massacre enemy civilian centers, until civilians forced their governments to surrender. Douhet was not alone; his vision of airpower as shared, for instance, by the ‘father of the RAF,’ Hugh Trenchard (1873-1956).

This concept, ‘morale bombing’ as it is sometimes called, probably deserves its own post discussing its failures. But in brief, the concept was tested, with far larger amounts of bombs than Douhet or any other interwar theorist could have ever dreamed of, during WWII. The argument by air theorists that high altitude bombers could not be stopped was proved false when the British did exactly this, stopping German bombers over Britain in 1940. Moreover, terror bombing against civilian targets in Britain didn’t lead to surrender, but hardened resolve. Likewise, ‘morale’ bombing against German targets by the allies didn’t lead to surrender, but hardened resolve. Later efforts to demoralize the North Vietnamese through a American bombing campaign in the Vietnam War didn’t lead to surrender, but hardened resolve. More recent efforts to demoralize or destroy terrorists and the Taliban through the use of airpower hasn’t lead to surrender, but rather hardened resolve. Likewise, efforts by the Syrian Regime to defeat various opposition groups in Syria through the use of chemical weapon-based terror bombing didn’t lead to surrender (siege-and-starve tactics did), but hardened resolve.

It turns out the fundamental premise of the entire idea of morale bombing – that being bombed will make people want to stop fighting – was flawed. Morale bombing has been, depending on how hard you squint at the US air campaign over Japan in WWII (including the use of nuclear weapons) successful either once (out of many attempts) or never. In most cases, the sustained bombing of civilian centers has been shown to increase a population’s willingness to resist, making the strategy worse than useless.

The case for strategic bombing against industrial targets is marginally better, but only marginally. While airpower advocates, particularly in the United States promised throughout WWII that bombing campaigns against German industry could lead to the collapse of the German war machine, in the end many historians posit that the real achievement of the campaign was to lure the Luftwaffe into the air where it could be destroyed, thus denying the German army of air cover and close air support, particularly on the Eastern Front. Some dimunition of German industrial capabilities was accomplished (though it is not clear that this ever approached the vast resources poured into producing the large numbers of extremely expensive bombers used to do it, though the allies had such an industrial advantage over Germany, forcing the Germans to fight in expensive ways in the sky was a winning trade anyway), but the collapse of German industry never happened. As Richard Overy notes, German industrial output continued to rise during strategic bombing and only began to fall as a result of the loss of territory on the ground. Needless to say, ‘strategic bombing can sucker the enemy into wasting their close air support’ was not the result that airpower advocates had promised, nor could it have broken the stalemate.

I don’t want to oversimplify the continued debate over the efficacy of strategic airpower here too much so let’s just say that the jury is still very much out as to if strategic airpower works even with modern technology; it certainly wouldn’t have worked with WWI era technology.

So What Broke the Stalemate?

In a word: attrition.

But only after all of the other alternatives were tried. One reason I want to go through all of the embryonic, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time solutions like this is to stress that at least some generals in WWI were desperately searching for something, anything that could help them win the war in a way that didn’t simply involve brutal attrition until one side ran out of men. Their efforts laid the groundwork for the modern system of warfare which would eventually make the trench stalemate a thing of the past (or at least a thing of less developed armies), but that modern system with its full technological framework was two decades away when the war ended. None of these solutions actually broke the stalemate.

Via Wikipedia, a chart from L.P. Ayers, The War with Germany: A Statistical Summary (1919) showing the impact of attrition on the front-line strength of the German forces. The precipitous decline at the end is not only a result of battlefield losses but also demoralization, desertion and surrender.

Instead what happened was that the German Imperial Army reached the limit of its resources in both men and material. Food shortages had plagued the Central Powers since 1916; aerial bombardment may not damage morale, but hunger certainly does. The British blockade also meant severe shortages in industrial productions. The primary reason Germany’s experimentation with tanks in WWI was so limited (with only 20 of the German A7V tanks built) was that Germany simply could not afford to be so profligate with scarce steel. Meanwhile, when it came to men, the entrance of the United States into the war created an obvious problem: German victory over Russia created only a narrow window of manpower advantage on the Western Front. Germany would either have to win in that narrow window or be in a position where eventual defeat was inevitable, whether the German army broke in 1918 or 1919 or 1920 or 1921 (Ferdinand Foch, in 1918 the supreme commander of allied forces, in his planning assumed the allies would have to hold on in 1918 so that the decisive final battles could be fought in 1919 and the war might end in 1920).

That isn’t to say that battlefield tactics hadn’t improved. Quite to the contrary, 1918 saw both the Germans and the Allies deploy far more effective systems for assaulting trenches, though I would argue that it was actually the French who came closest to having the matter as figured out as one could have it with the equipment of 1918. The French method, termed la bataille conduite (‘methodical battle’) has an understandably poor reputation because this method failed so badly against the technologies of 1940 but as we’ve seen that was quite a different technological environment than 1918.

On the defensive, the French had adopted many of the same principles of the German defense-in-depth we’ve already discussed. On the offense, they came to favor (particularly under the influence of Philippe Pétain4 and the aforementioned Ferdinand Foch) an offensive doctrine designed to maximize France’s position in an attritional contest: that is to limit losses and maximize enemy casualties while still taking and holding ground. The system favored limited ‘bite-and-hold’ attacks, ideally limited such that the attack stopped before triggering the inevitable German counter-attack. Remember that it was when the attacker ran out of steam and the defender’s counter-attack came that the casualty ratios tended to shift to favor the defender. In French thinking, the solution was just to not reach that point.

Instead, the French came to favor – and they British and Americans picked up the same method by the end – elaborately prepared small offensives. The elaborate preparation meant planning out the attack carefully, using shorter but carefully planned hurricane barrages (all of this planning, of course took time) and then seizing the enemy’s forward positions and just their forward positions. Instead of then trying to push through – the old French notion of assault brutal et continu (‘brutal and continuous’ – a ‘keep up the pressure till they break’ method) which Robert Nivelle had favored – methodical battle focused on ‘bite-and-hold.’

Once you hit your limited objectives in that first rush where enemy resistence is disoriented (from the short, hurricane barrage) and weaker – and thus where the casualty ratio favors you – you stop and begin fortifying your position. You dig those communications trenches, move up your artillery and brace for the counter-attack. By the time the enemy realizes you aren’t going to attack his second or third line positions (and trigger his devastating counter-attack), you are dug in and prepared for his attack (the hold part of ‘bite-and-hold’). To reestablish defense in depth, the defender now has to back up to establish new lines to the rear (or launch his own fresh offensive, but by late 1918, the Germans were too weak for this). A long series of such attacks – with significant intervals for fresh careful planning and stockpiling resources – could slowly but surely lever your opponent off of key positions, one by one. It would also preserve a favorable balance of casualties, ensuring that in the end, the enemy runs out of men and shells before you do (that is the ‘rupture’ that Joffre had always hoped for, but which arrived but two years too late for his career).

Such a slow, expensive, bloody and unglamorous strategy was in some ways only politically possible once, by 1918, it had become apparent that all other options were exhausted. That said, to argue that this bite-and-hold operational doctrine broke the trench stalemate is probably not fair either. The progress of allied offensives in 1918 was extremely slow by even the standards of 1914. The German Spring Offensive was well and truly done in July and the Allied offensive picked up in August and ran through November as fast as it could (with Foch doing everything short of getting out and pushing the offensive to try to speed it up) and yet the final allied positions by November were not even in Germany. Even at its greatest distance in 100 days of unbroken victories by a force with materiel and numerical superiority, the front moved less than 100 miles and the overall casualty ratio was roughly even (around a million on both sides).

Western front 1918 allied.jpg
Via Wikipedia, a map of the allied Hundred Days Offensive, showing the relatively limited progress in that period (though of course compared to the previous four years, this was tremendous progress). Had this rate continued (rather than the war ending) it might well have taken another year or even two merely to push into Germany proper (though the allies by this point certainly had the will to carry that out if necessary).

On the one hand, the later myth that the German army hadn’t been defeated in the field was nonsense – they had been beat almost along the entire front, falling back everywhere. Allied victory was, by November, an inevitability and the only question was how much blood would be spilled before it happened. On the other hand, had the German army opted to fight to the last, that victory would have been very slow in coming and Foch’s expectation that a final peace might wait until 1920 (and presumably several million more dead) might well have been accurate. On the freakishly mutated third hand, it also seems a bit off to say that Methodical Battle had won the day; it represented at best an incremental improvement in the science of trench warfare which, absent the blockade, potentially endless American manpower and production (comparatively little of which actually fought compared to the British and the French, even just taking the last Hundred Days) and German exhaustion might not have borne fruit for years, if ever.

All of which is to say, again, that the problem facing generals – German, French, British and later American – on the Western Front (and also Italian and Austrian generals on the Italian front) was effectively unsolvable with the technologies at the time. Methodical Battle probably represented the best that could be done with the technology of the time. The technologies that would have enabled actually breaking the trench stalemate were decades away in their maturity: tanks that could be paired with motorized infantry to create fast moving forces, aircraft that could effectively deliver close air support, cheaper, smaller radios which could coordinate those operations and so on. These were not small development problems that could have been solved with a bit more focus and funding but major complexes of multiple interlocking engineering problems combined with multiple necessary doctrinal revolutions which were in turn premised on technologies that didn’t exist yet which even in the heat of war would have taken many more years to solve; one need merely look at the progression of design in interwar tanks to see all of the problems and variations that needed to be developed and refined to see that even a legion of genius engineers would have required far more time than the war allowed.

It is easy to sit in judgement over the policy makers and generals of the war – and again, to be fair, some of those men made terrible decisions out of a mix of incompetence, malice and indifference (though I am fascinated how, in the Anglophone world, so much of the opprobrium is focused on British generals when frankly probably no British commander even makes the bottom five worst generals5. Most lists of ‘worst generals’ are really just ‘generals people have heard of’ with little regard to their actual records and so you see baffling choices like placing Joseph Joffre who stopped the German offensive in 1914 on such lists while leaving Helmuth von Moltke who botched the offensive6 off of them. Robert Doughty (op. cit.) does a good job of pointing out that men like Haig and Foch who were supposedly such incompetent generals in 1915 and 1916 show remarkable skill in 1918).

But the problem these generals faced was fundamentally beyond their ability or anyone’s ability to solve. We didn’t get into it here, but every conceivable secondary theater of war was also tried, along with naval actions, submarines, propaganda, and internal agitation. This on top of the invention of entirely new branches of the army (armor! air!) and the development of almost entirely new sciences to facilitate those branches. Did the generals of WWI solve the trench stalemate? No. But I’d argue no one could have.

  1. Because it doesn’t fit anywhere else, I want to make a rather long note here. There is an odd tendency which I find quite frustrating, in which military concepts, unit designations and terminology from other languages are all translated into English when used, except for German terms. I suspect this has to do with the high reputation German military thinking holds in among the general public and some military practitioners. I do not share this view; both the German Imperial Army and the Nazi Wehrmacht (another term we never translated yet we feel no need to call the French army l’armée de terre) managed to lose the only major wars they were in, leading to the end of the states they served. Both armies were capable at some things and failed at others; their record certainly does not make German some sort of Holy Language of War. Nevertheless, where German technical terms are notable, I will include them so that the reader will know, should they encounter them elsewhere, that this is a term they are already familiar with, albeit in translation
  2. It should be noted that the emphasis here remained on envelopment and destruction rather than on disorientation. The latter is a feature of subsequent systems based on German maneuver warfare, but was not a goal of the doctrine itself initially.
  3. a salient is a bulge in the line such that your position is bordered by the enemy on three sides. such positions are very vulnerable, since they can be attacked from multiple directions and potentially ‘pinched off’ at the base
  4. I would be remiss not to note that perhaps never was a First World War reputation so completely ruined by post-war actions as that of Philippe Pétain
  5. My own list would be Luigi Cadorna, Conrad von Hötzendorf, Enver Pasha, Samsonov and Rennenkampf in a joint award and then either Robert Nivelle or Helmuth von Moltke the Younger depending on my mood
  6. In his defense, the Schlieffen Plan was always unworkable but Moltke’s generalship was still poor; he panicked and lost his battle while Joffre kept his head and won his.

236 thoughts on “Collections: No Man’s Land, Part II: Breaking the Stalemate

    1. One (admittedly Anglocentric, given it was written by a British Lieutenant Colonel) source I’ve found that hits along similar points is Gordon Corrigan’s “Mud, Blood, and Poppycock”. He takes a very similar view that some generals were bad, but really they had no reasonable way to win aside from attrition.

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