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.
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?


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.

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

  1. My one caveat is that ‘bite and hold’ did actually ‘win’ the war. When the Allies breached the Hindenberg Line in the Hundred Days Offensive they had broken clear through a series of static positions at multiple points, taken 6,700 pieces of artillery and had cut railway lines vital to supplying German forces. The strength of long-established trench systems was also their weakness – like fortress walls, they could not be easily moved or re-established once breached (trenches yes – their supporting communications and above all their artillery and supply depots not so much).

    The Allies would certainly have had to pause for two to three weeks to establish supply lines, but once that was done there was nothing to stop them going on to the Rhine. The German request for an armistice recognised this (although it was also done to ensure that the blame for defeat fell on other shoulders than the High Command’s).

    1. All excellent points. But I would argue that the Germans had shot their bolt with the Spring Offensives. The Black Day made that apparent even to Ludendorff. The Doughboys were arriving in force 200K or more per month, and the Allies didn’t have to worry about a naval blockade. While Allied casualties weren’t light ( especially in the AEF, but much of that was caused by rookie mistakes), the advantage was now with the Allies.

  2. > let’s just say that the jury is still very much out as to if strategic airpower works even with modern technology

    Depends on what you mean by “works”…

    NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 was generally considered a humiliating effort where the serbs outsmarted NATO at every turn. Also, Serbia’s GDP suddenly went from 19.4 billion USD to 6.8 billion USD.

    1. Critically, Serbia (FR Yugoslavia) capitulated without NATO needing to conduct a ground invasion.

      Granted, they were up against a military with hundreds of times their GDP, but that hasn’t stopped us from losing wars before…

      The upshot is that if a modern military with air superiority isn’t too concerned about hearts and/or minds, and just wants to knock out all of somebody’s bridges and shut off all their electricity, they can absolutely do that.

      In WW2, bomber crews would take more losses than the targets they were bombing, but it’s a whole other ballgame now.

    2. Airpower alone can’t win a war, but it can certainly shift the balance of power. What Bret doesn’t mention is if without airpower German industry would’ve increased, since it could have capped German industrial capacity by forcing them to rebuild.

      1. Depends on what you mean with “shift”. I don’t think strategic bombing of industrial assets tipped the balance of power from Germany to the Allies. The US always had a vastly superior industrial capacity and were going to win a war of attrition… eventually. In that situation, throwing man-hours (in the form of bombs) at the enemy in order to cost them man-hours (in rebuilding efforts) may help you win faster, but it’s not in any way a “killer strategy” that can break a stalemate or even turn impending defeat into victory.

        1. Martin Caidin has an excellent short book on the Schweinfurt Raid in WWII and the cost-benefit ration was um, not great. The US Bombing Survey also has a wealth of information on the subject of strategic bombing.

      2. Still the distraction of resources from the only place Germany could conceivably win the war or not loose it on the Eastern front is more than just distracting its air arm. All the heavy and light flack guns aimed at bombers and all the copious consumption of ammunition by them (and operating personal) were also not fighting Russia. Politically as well the Bomber offensive was something tangible the Western allies could politically so Stalin did not start to think the US and UK were just bleeding Russia.

        1. My biggest issue with the “distraction of resources” –> “loss of the Eastern front” argument is that it ignores the problem of logistics, which was Germany’s biggest issue on the Eastern front. They didn’t have the roads when and where they needed them, they didn’t have railroads, and every kilometer they advanced eastward meant spending more and more gallons of petrol they also didn’t have to get their supplies to their armies.

          The airpower and industrial issues were a factor, but the ability of Russia to make use of the vast amounts of land, and the lack of oil on the German side is what decided it. Once Russia stopped standing in place and getting encircled by the German army, any ability to win quickly was lost. And there was no way for Germany to win slowly.

          Even if the allies had left most of the industrial base alone, there was no way for Germany to get the supplies they had where they were needed because Russia had done such a good job of sabotage, and because the roads and rails weren’t up to handling that amount of traffic.

      3. I read an analysis of the allied strategic air campaign by a Swiss military historian years ago, whose name escapes me, that pointed the campaign was a major factor in the Germans losing WWII because:

        It forced the Germans to devote a large amount of resources to air defense. Tens of thousand so anti air artillery pieces, thousands of anti bomber fighters, hundreds of thousands of men manning and supporting that and many millions rounds of ammunition. All of that could otherwise have been used against the Russians on the eastern front.

        Additionally that the bombing did also degrade German industrial production by some amount and also affected their transportation efficiency.

        I don’t recall ever seeing anyone make the point about the amount of resources devoted to German air defense anywhere else. Maybe because Americans focus on their part of the war in the west and see the eastern front as a side show – instead of the larger part of the German war effort and eventual loss that it wa.

        1. Another knock on effect was that the western allies had the resources to both spend and conserve. The Bombing fight also forced Germany into a fly until you system for pilots (which is why their ace totals are so high). Experienced pilots/crew were not sent back somewhere to train new pilots/crew. Even by the battle of Britain Germany started raiding it trainers for experienced pilots/crew and cutting back on training hours. Germany and Japan both started out with a first mover advantage but their pipeline of aircrew was really thin and they never fixed that. It was an area where attrition at first and than just being out matched really provided results.

        2. I suspect it’s one of those cases where ‘it sure made it easier, and probably quite a lot, but may not have changed the actual outcome’. Russia’s relocation of much of its industrial base beyond the Urals, their development of a considerable industrial advantage and the sheer size of Russia means that I’m not sure all of Europe would actually have beaten the USSR in the long run, but they certainly came out of the war stronger than they would have otherwise- without the bombing campaign they might not have seized so much territory post war, or, in the worst case, where they were forced to go 1-on-1 with an entirely fascist controlled mainland Europe, might have pulled a Britain and won the war only to fall apart in a kind of slow-motion explosion of (entirely justified) independence movements. Britain essentially ceased to properly function as a world player after WW2, despite what our nationalists would have you believe.

    3. The Kosovo Liberation Army was something like 20,000 fighters (hesitate to call them soldiers, as that implies much more training, unit cohesion, and cooperation than demonstrated), who did fight, mostly guerilla war but occasionally occupying territory- the year before the NATO intervention they briefly occupied ~40% of Kosovo, before the Serbian army massed and pushed them back.

      The fact that NATO was merely intervening to support troops already in combat on the ground was critical. The Serbs were fully capable of spreading out their forces and having them be immune to NATO bombing (a tank that is turned off with good cover is basically not going to be seen by airpower, and if you can’t see it you can’t kill it), but it is useless for conducting counter-insurgency. The Serbs faced a chose in the Kosovo war: mass their army, smash the KLA and get hurt by NATO, or disperse their army and be vulnerable to KLA ambush. So there were troops on the ground, just not NATO forces. This is broadly similar to the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, I should note.

      The key point that meant Serbia went quickly and quietly, though, was that Russia was so weak that they could not provide the traditional diplomatic protection that they had been giving to Serbia for almost a century. A stronger Russia, (even the relatively weak one today, leave alone the USSR of the 1980s) probably provides enough support (military and political) for Serbia to keep Kosovo.

    4. Sebia throwed the towel as her allies (Russia) were to feeble to aid her and her enemies were not intent on destroying the Serbian state. They did put a good show so that the army, the state and the nation will not loose its reputation and they could re-conquer Kossovo.

      Air power could not destroy the armed forces of modern states (Iraq, Serbia, Syria) nor of insurgent ones (ISIS, Taliban, Hutis in Yemen). The morale bombing was also not very effective in those cases. Afganistan was bombed for for almost 10 years and morale dread was supreme yet the Taliban did not lack recruits.

      All these wars were won with ground forces. The greatest threats to the talibans were the initial assaults from Northern Alliance and afterwards the US Army surge ordered by president Obama.

  3. Wrt the first footnote: could the fondness for German terminology in modern MilHist circles be a product of Clausewitz’s fame as the author of On War?

    1. That is where it starts, but the Western world has never recovered from the shock of 1940.

      Do bear in mind that as late as 1939, the French army was considered one of, if not *the* best army in the world, an accolade earned in the blood and mud of the Western Front of the Great War. And then the German Armed Forces shatter that army in less time than it took to prep a Great War offensive.

      I will note that the reason I use Wehrmacht is to clearly distinguish *that* army, with its responsibility for some of the most horrific war crimes ever, from the post-war Bundeswehr, but that’s specific to those two words. I’m otherwise not fond of leaving German words in an English text – although doing so may aid communication. “1st Panzer Division is here, 1st Armored Division is there” immediately communicates that one of those formations is German.

      1. I do note that the Wehrmacht isn’t the army; It’s the military apparatus of nazi-germany as a whole. (including the air force and navy, but, because nazis can’t fucking organize, not certain other bits)

      2. Another example of your last sentence is calling Soviet infantry divisions Rifle divisions rather than (mis)translating them as infantry divisions. Also the practice of many authors of referring to German military formations with written numbers (Fourth army) or roman numerals (XXI corps), while referring to the Soviet formations with numbers (4th Army, 21st Rifle corps).

  4. I used to be of the opinion (less than a year ago) that Strategic Bombing had worked the one time with Japan, but Shaun’s excellent and in-depth video on the subject ( quite thoroughly convinced me otherwise. Strategic Bombing (if we assume that the goal of it is to hasten the end to the war and not just inflict economic damage for the sake of it, in which case sure it works fine) has worked exactly never.

    1. Does Shaun’s video talk about the firebombing of Japan(I haven’t had the time to watch it all yet), or is it only about the atomic bombs? That’s the one case of Strategic bombing that I heard of that might have played a role, but I have not read a historian’s perspective on the subject yet.

      1. Yes, it talks about the firebombing of Japan, as well as a containing a more extended discussion of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of morale bombing in general (26:48). It’s necessary background for understanding the atomic bombs after all.

    2. I think there’s one, untested case where strategic bombing would have worked. And that’s a general nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States. And I am just as glad that we have to theorize on the outcome of that one without any hard data.

      1. It depends whether “it worked” covers case of “enemy is dead, lets ignore that we also died”.

        As far as I know, a general nuclear exchange between USA and USSR would be loss for both of them. And everyone else too.

        1. It depends on what your assumptions are about the end result, and the war’s objectives. Power’s “two Americans and one Russian alive = we win” and similar “acceptable losses” theories in the 1980s (however obscenely immoral and stupid) were based on valid facts. The USA’s population was (and is) more dispersed than Russia’s – not if averaged over all the respective countries’ territory, but setting aside the almost empty Siberian wastes most of Russia’s population is clumped in a handful of cities. Russia is much more northerly, so nuclear winter would hit them much harder. And capitalism is objectively better than communism at economic growth, so the USA’s survivors and aligned countries that didn’t get nuked would recover faster. (You could also argue that American individualism makes for better survivors after state institutions collapse, but it’s just as easy to make a case that it results in fighting over limited resources, and a collectivist mentality makes for necessary cooperation with tough decisions.) It seems a reasonable conclusion that more Americans than Russians would survive, and so that the world arising from the ashes of WWIII would adhere more closely to Western than Soviet values.

    3. Although it seems like relatively small effort of seeding the Japanese waters with air dropped mines might have at least starved them badly enough to seriously weaken their defenses to invasion. Starvation does eventually break morale. The attacks on Japanese supply lines, including that mining campaign which largely choked off what was left of their coastal shipping, were ruining their ability to feed themselves. (IIRC as it was the US occupation forces had to ship in a lot of food to prevent widespread starvation over that first year or two)

      1. Sure, you can starve people out. For a nation with arable land, this is not guaranteed to force a total capitulation, but with Japan’s situation it might have come fairly close.

        But that’s slower, has more risk of surprising changes to the strategic situation(Japanese nukes, an American/Soviet split, etc.), and frankly is also a lot more brutal towards civilians than the bombing was.

        1. In any era that comes after the adoption of artificial fertilizers, a country’s ability to feed its full population on its own arable land while under siege is negligible because the population is sized to fertilizer-assisted agricultural yields. In any era that comes before the adoption of artificial fertilizers, a country’s ability to feed its full population on its own arable land while under siege is negligible, because all of the soldiers would have to drop arms and work the fields.

          1. There are often luxury agricultural products that are eliminated when a nation is under siege that allows it to survive with greatly reduced agriculture production.

          2. @abystander
            Japan was long beyond that point in 1945. Poor Japanese already had no meat/fish and too little vegetables when Pearl Habour happened. Hell, Japan suffered it’s last famine in the thirtees.

            It got even worse by the fact that most of Japans agriculture were on Hokkaido, but most of the population on Honshu. Also the harvest of 1945 was bad. I have read numbers of only around 2/3 of the required rice to feed the population for a year, existed in Japan. And most of that was on the wrong island-.

        2. > Japanese nukes

          This was not a viable risk. Unless it would last for decades, like with North Korea.

          1. Oh, we know that now. But some wacky surprise in a similar vein would be a risk that they probably have no desire to take. Why would you?

    4. Causing economic damage can hasten the end of the war. As professor Devereaux said, what broke the stalemate was the economic damage of the blockade reducing the effectiveness of the German Army in WW1 . Yes the war could have been won without strategic bombing, but it seems reasonable to think that reducing war material helps reduce the resistance to front line operations.

  5. One can quibble about some of your interpretations about the effectiveness of bite and hold, which is essentially a variation on fire an maneuver: fire to pin, then assault to take the position, thereby taking down the enemy defensive position. The hold only in WW1 being a limit set by the technology, and the historical course of the war.

    It’s a matter of perspective.

    I largely agree that the evidence supports the idea that the French were the real innovators of infantry tactics, and took the British tank development and made the first step towards what we see today. But the British were no slouches either, changing infantry doctrine too, and developing a working armored fighting vehicle.

    I too am always amazed at how the German high command and its military is lauded for its prowess.

    But, one General I’m acquainted with explained that its the flexibility of German high command to hold out against superior forces that is what makes them appealing. That, and all the self aggrandizing memoirs of German generals.

    Still, it’s all about the narrative. However smart looking, or ferocious monsters are, the heroes defeat them, which is what I suspect drives the mythology of the German superiority. But what do I know?

    1. I think your final remark about the narrative is right on target — I believe our host himself has written at some point about the tendency of Romans (one Julius Caesar in particular) to aggrandize their defeated opponents in order to make their own (military) accomplishments sound all the more impressive. (Using our understanding of the ancient world to interpret the modern one? I’m sure our host would approve…)

      Perhaps we should even extend this line of thinking to explain the observation of our host that in the Anglophone world the Allied generals are more often the target of criticism than their German counterparts: after all, if incompetent individuals were more likely to be found amongst the latter, then what does that say about the fact that it took four years to win the war?

      I think our host has argued convincingly why the (technological) circumstances were such that not even the most brilliant general could have significantly altered the course of the war, but then again the whole point of this short series was that this insight is missing from the popular conception, hence the need for a myth about prevailing against a superior foe despite supposedly poor leadership.

      I guess it also plays up the qualities of those millions who died in the field: perhaps it is more palatable to think that some of their deaths could have been prevented by more capable generals instead of having to acknowledge that the war was always going to be the meat-grinder it ended up being?

      Anyways, long-time lurker and first-time poster here — thank you once again for the interesting read!

    2. I think your next to last paragraph catches it. The German army, by the end of both World Wars, was in an utterly impossible strategic situation, one that no amount of operational or tactical brilliance could salvage.

      One can (and should) argue that the General Staff and OKW were utterly miserable at strategy and grand strategy, but I would argue that the German rep for being fantastic at the operational and tactical level is well-earned. What needs to change in the popular imagination is the notion that the Allied countries only defeated Germany by dint of superior numbers and resources rather than those factors serving to aid the Allies’ improvements in tactical training and operational planning.

      Overlord was probably as complicated and difficult to plan out as Barbarossa, and accomplished it’s objectives just as well. The difference was that the Allies had the resources to follow up after not being as successful as they hoped they would be, and the Germans did not.

      1. There’s a line from Cryptonomicon (referring to WWII) that I find apt
        The Allies “worshipped” Athena and the Axis “worshipped” Ares in their respective doctrines.

        One example I like to use – the Germans messed around with guided air-to-surface missiles, buyt never fielded enough of them to matter. The Americans developed VT fuses *and then fielded them en masse* to enormously improve their AAA effectiveness and their ground artillery airburst effectiveness; as force multipliers

        Or the Americans inventing Time on Target and doing as much “precalculation” as possible so as to allow effective Forward Observation by any random Joe with a radio.

    3. Also, as with Petain individually, so with the French military generally: the failures of 1940 color people’s perception of their earlier military performance.

    4. It is not obvious to me that the German high command and military of the world wars are lauded for their prowess. You very rarely hear German admirals or air force generals praised in Anglophone sources. At least, not more than their Anglo-American equivalents.

      You hear German ARMY generals praised. And only army generals, on the whole. And probably they did have better army generals than the British and American Armies. Those armies expanded much more, from a smaller base than the German army during the wars themselves, so you might expect them to have had more trouble finding experienced, able people to fill command and staff slots.

  6. a few typos

    Oskar Emil von Hitier => Hutier
    barrage advantages => advances
    Battleo f the Somme => battle of the
    the same of course true => might miss a ‘was’ there

    While only 200 F.50s were built in WWI => it’s contradicted by that other statement ‘of which only a hundred or so were built!’

    1. Few more:
      “Oskar Emil von Hitier” -> “Hutier”
      “hardly an under-invested” -> “under-investment”
      “The sort of tank… were a decade or more away” -> “was” (or “sorts”)
      “Once again, while close air support…” -> “again, close” (or re-drafting)
      “denying the German army of air cover” -> “army air” (or “denuding”, perhaps)
      “Some dimunition of” -> “diminution”

  7. Essentially airpower is supply, reconnaissance or over-the-horizon artillery, with area denial for the opponent’s own airpower being the role of interception and aerial combat. Which is why I fail to believe in the sanity of Anti-Satellite weaponry let alone their advocates – reconnaissance and communications are the only possible military roles for satellites, unless you plan to trigger the Kessler Syndrome, whereby you achieve a victory Basileios Pyrrhos would be proud of, and stick your foot in your mouth and shoot yourself in said foot. (Kessler Syndrome is that phenomenon whereby you trigger an avalanche of space debris such that it locks you out of your own orbits … Pyrrhic Victory by another name. Anyone arguing otherwise is either self-deluded or intent on lining their pockets with the contents of your own pockets.)

    So we know artillery itself did not win any victory against opponents already prepared against it – Napolean Bonaparte won battles with artillery because his opponents were not prepared; General Freyberg won the battle of El Alamein because behind his artillery, he had superb troops and General Rommel didn’t have supplies. So airpower by itself is a casualty multiplier. It does not itself win victories.

    1. DEW could allow for blinding or destroying enemy satellites without destroying your own via shrapnel, this then could lead to an arms race where satellites are equipped with defences against lasers.

      Ultimately resulting in the USS Enterprise facing Baoshan on the dark side of the moon.

    2. “reconnaissance and communications are the only possible military roles for satellites”

      Reason enough to make their destruction one of the highest priorities at the start of any future war.

    3. “Which is why I fail to believe in the sanity of Anti-Satellite weaponry let alone their advocates – reconnaissance and communications are the only possible military roles for satellites…”

      How does this follow? All sides in WWI put enormous effort into shooting down enemy air forces which only filled one of those roles. Why would a modern army not try to deny information and communication to its enemy?

  8. Concerning the failures of methodical battle in the opening phases of WW2: I came across a lovely paper a few years back which is available online.

    It argues, and quite well I think, that the failure wasn’t exactly in methodical battle come 1940. Rather, it was a panicked reaction to the German campaign in Poland, especially how Luftwaffe assets paralyzed Polish attempts to move reserves into breaches to plug them. This was seen as invalidating one of the core principles of methodical battle, and practically overnight, you saw a massive revamping of French doctrinal systems to try to meet the perceived failure of the current doctrine. Incidentally, questions like “Can the Germans really use air power to smash us as badly as they smashed the Poles since our own air forces are much better than what the Polish have” never seem to have been seriously grappled with.

    What the end result came out as was a hodepodge mess of frankenstein doctrines badly glued together in the spring of 1940, which predictably did very poorly.

    1. Well, that, and an operational plan that didn’t include “what happens if the Germans run multiple armored divisions through an area that we’re not really going to defend and bring the hammer down on an army comprised mostly of reserve infantry divisions.”

      1. It’s actually worse than that. Because of the doctrinal shifts, the old “Let’s keep strong reserves to to be rapidly deployed to somewhere the Germans break through” was essentially thrown out the window, and almost all reserve formations were merged into the front line to have a “Let’s try to keep them from breaking through anywhere”.

        But the poor operational plan was a direct result of a set of doctrines that called for incredibly bad operational plans, in part because their premises were ridiculous.

        1. Churchill’s history of the Second World War (obviously going to be self-aggrandizing, but hear me out) has a passage where Churchill recounts having gone over to France just after becoming Prime Minister- that is to say, May 15, right as the German invasion was breaking the lines- and looking at a map of the French deployments and going “where is the strategic reserve,” and basically being told there was none, and being stunned by the idea that one was neglected.

          I’d always thought that might be exaggerated… maybe not so much?

          1. The French had over 16 divisions in Georges’ strategic reserve for the Northwest Front. The issue was that they were committed piecemeal and ground up instead of constituting a decisive force. Very little could be done without approval from the high command and it took over 2 days for reports to filter up to Gamelin and Georges and then orders to work their way back down. This meant that once the line was breached they were unable to react effectively to German mobility, especially due to panic at the top ranks – orders were given slowly, but they were also commonly retracted, leading to even greater confusion and delay.

      2. The German plan called for the attacking force to form into columns well over 100 kms long along a small number of narrow roads. If the leading elements had failed to break through rapidly, or the full French air force had been thrown in, or traffic management had failed, it would have been an epic disaster.

    2. Yes, the French doctrine of 1940 was awful. But the Dyle Plan was truly execrable, and that was the key factor. They failed to recognize the Germans’ ability to move through the Ardennes, covered that sector with third-rate troops with no mobility, and then walked the rest of their army into a fire sack.

      Once the Panzers hit Sedan and crossed the Meuse, the French and British forces in Belgium were doomed.

      1. With all due respect, I very much disagree. The failures of the Dyle plan were direct consequences of the failures of French doctrine and an inability to make plans that were militarily practicable because their assumptions were all wrong. It wasn’t just a failure of the Germans ability to move through the Ardennes. It was a failure to believe that any breach in the line could be reacted to in time, which led to a “necessary” attempt to repulse them at the first line in all instances, which in turn meant that the sorts of formations that could quickly react to unexpected developments were merged into frontline units.

        The Ardennes penetration was not instantaneous. French aerial reconnaissance spotted elements entering the Ardennes on the night of May 10th, Sedan was not struck until mid-morning on the 12th, and even that was only by the forward elements of the German forces; a lot of Panzer Group Kleist was stuck in logjams along the poor roads of the Ardennes. A WW1 army could have gotten at least basic defenses up and running in that day and a half once it became obvious where the Germans were likely to go. The newly “I shot myself in the foot and proudly” methods adopted by the French in 1940 could not.

        1. I mean the Deuxième Bureau was so colossaly wrong (1.5x the number of German divisions, between 2x and 4x the number of tanks and planes) on German strength it’s barely believable. With that kind of (dis)information it’s easy to panick and take bad decisions.

        1. Funny thing, I know another alt-history on the subject, although it is in French, centered on the idea France keeps fighting on after losing the Metropole. They have been pretty methodic about the researches done on the subject, enough at least they got to publish two books going until May 1942 (moment when their version of Barbarossa happens):
          The website goes up to 1944 so far.

          Funnily enough, they mention the Bataille conduite in one annex article about Allies strategy, and how updating it with WW2 tech would lead to something getting closer to the Soviet’s Deep operation mentioned here than, welp, the godawful mess Germans called Maneuvre warfare.

          1. Is that one published in English as France Fights On, by chance? FFO is mentioned a lot in the comments to Blunted Sickle, though I haven’t read it myself.

          2. Answering to Alsadius just below (for whatever reason, the site isn’t letting me do so): I understand both timelines had the same origins, but divergences in opinions and analysis of data led to both stories to take on some differences with time. FFO also was pretty much dead last time I saw it, while La France continue is still very much alive.

    3. Having read a few very detailed acounts of the May 1940 Campaign my own impression was that the problem ‘was’ the French doctrine, and especially the implicit assumptions it made about time to respond. The French generals, working off WW1 methodical battle playbooks were reacting in increments of half-days, and the Germans, using radios, command vehicles and missions order/auftragstaktik methodology were pushing command decisions as far forward as possible and reacting in increments of 1 to 2 hours. This meant that in this case they really did get inside their opponents’ OODA loop. The French units being sent into battle by the high command were almost everywhere arriving at a situation very different from the one that had been briefed. They were trained to get new orders in such a situation, and those orders would again be useless by the time they arrived. Most painfully critical armored divisions were moved forward so slowly that they were bisected and destroyed while still in march columns, by German brskthrough units.

      1. Nations draw different lessons from wars. For the French, after the experience of Verdun, it was decided that a belt of powerful fortresses would stop any future German offensives. The Belgians came to a similar conclusion with Eben Emael. They never figured that gliders might land on top of the mighty bastion. As for the French, the Ardennes was considered impassable to tanks, at least in the early thirties. When it comes to the interwar years, a lot of doctrine is developed several years in advance. It’s hard to change course, especially with the rapid turnover of ministries in the Third Republic.

  9. Thinking about these two posts I wonder how much of an impact the increasing industrial military production during the war had on stifling the effect of any tactical innovation. By the time you’ve worked out how to deal with some artillery and some barbed wire and some machine guns the enemy has built another factory to build more of them. Industrial production increasing faster than tactical innovation?

    Also, sorry to be That Guy, but Zeppelin attacks were on British cities not English cities. I’m typing this in a park in Edinburgh not far from where a couple of bombs landed in 1916.

    Thank you for a fascinating pair of essays. I’m looking forward to hearing about Luigi Cadorna.

  10. There are a couple of reasons that we don’t translate German military terms into english, in no particular order:
    English is (in part) a Germanic language, so the german terms fit our grammatical structure
    English is (in part) a Romance language, so they’re not cognates to English terms
    (Yes, these are mutually contradictory – is English, does contradict normally)
    There’s a LOT of german-authored military theory works that are seminal – Clausewitz is at least as well known as Sun Tzu, if not more so.
    And, not for nothing, the German Military from 1870 on is viewed as being able to punch well above their weight class. (“is viewed as” is doing a lot of lifting there)

    1. Well, the Germans could punch above their weight class. The problem with punching above your weight class is that your ability to take a punch back is usually considerably less than that of your opponents.

    2. We’ve borrowed “je ne sais quoi” into English. We can borrow anything else. Non-Germanic grammar is no barrier.

      1. Quoting James D. Nicoll:

        “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

        1. English is five minature mechanical lions who have joined up and stolen a trenchcoat and are wandering around saying “hello fellow languages” before stealing the other languages stuff

        2. I love that line.
          My Dutch grandfather described English as easy to learn because it stole vocabulary from all over.

        1. You don’t even have to use (negation) – you can translate it both literally and figuratively as “I don’t know what”

          1. “Don’t” is “do not”. In “I don’t know what”, the verb is “do know”, and the first word of the verb comes right after the noun, in accordance with Germanic word order. Placing a non-verb in that position turns it into word salad.

        2. Would you say “I not know what” in English?

          Also, we don’t say it as a sentence in English. We treat the entire phrase as a single long noun.

          1. “He has a certain je ne sais quoi” is the usual context I see it in, and an English “He has a certain I don’t know what” would be essentially identical. The only real difference is the helper verb “do”, but even that’s masked by the contraction into “don’t”, which makes the difference pretty trivial.

          2. “I’n’t know what” (Ahnt-naow-wat) is common to several English vernaculars, yeah. I endorse your broader point though, the most accepted English translation would have it “know not what” or “knows-not what”.
            Which is a very important and influential Nirvana lyric, among other uses; by no means obscure.

          3. Plenty of “english” phrases are treated as single units, grammatically. We don’t tend to crush the words together like German does, but even though we leave the spaces in, we do construct compound nouns.

            And, yes, I’d say “I know not what”, though usually because I’m being deliberately “poetic,” and not in the same place I’d use “je ne sais quoi”

          4. “And, yes, I’d say “I know not what””

            That’s not the French word order. You put the verb right after the subject. That’s German word order.

    3. English grammar is a lot closer to French grammar than German in my experience, especially when considering word order. As someone who learned German first I couldn’t believe how similar (and easy) French was in comparison.

      I don’t think it matters much either way, since what we borrow are mostly nouns that fit in English sentences no matter where they might come from. We use plenty of French terms (“ancien regime”, “coup d’etat,” etc.) in other spheres.

    4. The use of German terminology is hardly limited to military matters, either. I’m reading a book right now on a Qing Chinese literary figure, where the authors of said book like to talk about that guy’s weltanschauung rather than his worldview.

      1. German for philosophy and military, French for government, law, and cooking, Russian for… uh… commie stuff?

        Also, a bunch of terms stolen from the colonized peoples, on top of more literal stealing.

          1. That may have been that common experience meant they already had the term for the thing, and didn’t need a Welsh or Scottish one.

          1. Tsar/czar, politburo, balaclava, pogrom, troika, sable, shaman, gulag, bridge (the card game), commissar, balalaika, taiga, tundra, mammoth, agitprop, …

    5. English is (in part) a Germanic language, so the german terms fit our grammatical structure

      That doesn’t really make any sense. I mean, yes, English is at base a Germanic language, but individual German words don’t “fit our grammatical structure” any more or less than words from French or Italian (or Japanese or…). It’s not like we still have the triple-gendering of nouns and adjectives that German has, for example. The only things that might aid with the adoption of foreign words would be the absence of phonemes, or combinations of phonemes, that aren’t present in English.

      Arguably, since so much of English vocabulary is derived from French (or from Latin), it’s easier for French terms to slip into English and not be seen as obviously foreign. E.g., “barrage” apparently comes straight from the WWI French term tir de barrage, but I suspect that for most English-speakers it looks like just another English word. Whereas German words — especially multisyllabic technical terms — don’t look like English words, and stand out as “foreign”. Which might explain part of the appeal in academic or quasi-academic contexts, actually.

  11. On footnote 1: while I agree that German is the only language where military terms are left in ‘foreign language’ (italicized and non-translated; for comparison, the only Russian term I can think of which is *occasionally* untranslated is *Maskirovka*), Brett uses a ton of French terms without translation too. The difference is they’ve been part of English so long we consider them normal words: envelopment, salient, artillery, combat, and tons more. Similarly, do these date from a time when French thinkers were commonly considered the pinnacle of military science?

    Also, for non-native speakers: how many English terms are used untranslated in non-English languages? For example, Russian adopted “tank,” while German and French stuck with more descriptive terms unrelated to the English.

    1. Post-war and Interwar, quite a few. “Star” translates to “celebrity”, computer (and related, e.g., hard drive), radar, sonar, laser (most of my compatriots don’t know the last three are acronyms), carport, a ton of business lingo, e.g., kick-off, shareholder, audit.
      Plus at least one English-sounding word that’s actually German, “Handy” for mobile phone. Yes, j know that’s also an English word, but with a completely different meaning.

      1. Sometimes the borrowing is rather amusing: an Australian friend informs me that although most Australians don’t particularly understand baseball, most Australian teenagers know the meanings of first base, second base etc.

  12. The 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.

    Oh Dear. No blitzkrieg with those! I can see why nobody was terribly impressed by early tanks.

    1. The Mark A Whippet, designed for mobile fighting during and after a breakthtough, performed somewhat better at 8 mph. Whippets didn’t have the cruising range for a strategic breakthrough, but during the Hundred Days Offensive they repeatedly achieved enough penetration to suppress the German artillery.

    2. Indeed, if you read H.G. Wells’s “The Shape of Things to Come” (1933), the para-World War Two he envisions has tanks being easily defeated by static obstacles.

      1. If you read Orwell on H.G. Wells, you learn that all of Wells’s predictions were colored by his bizarre fantasies of a world composed primarily of rational hedonists. I hope our own military planners aren’t planning for that world, which doesn’t exist and almost surely never will.

  13. I have no real opinions on WWI generals, except to say that Ferdinand Foch’s Wikiquote page contains some *fantastic* lines. Even in translation!

    Man reads like a Hollywood script.

    1. Adrian de Wiart and “Mad Jack” Churchill were both essentially action heroes, or the war version of Evil Knievel.

      Both complained that they were cheated of more fighting, and de Wiort in particular, well. Let’s quote his Wikipedia :

      He was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; was blinded in his left eye; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor declined to amputate them. Describing his experiences in the First World War, he wrote, “Frankly I had enjoyed the war.”

      Oh, and he went on to fight in WWII, already missing an arm and an eye.
      (Poland, Norway, Yugoslavia, Italian PoW, & China.)

      1. Bill Maudlin describes some soldiers of that principle in Up Front. They tended to have interesting peacetime jobs: swamp hunter, or Mafia bodyguard.

  14. It seems that strategic warfare might run into the same problem as chemical weapons. If you have the capability to destroy an enemy’s industry and kill enough civilians to matter, you’re probably going to get more bang for your bomb attacking military assets and infrastructure. No need to break the enemy’s will to fight if you can eliminate their ability to.

    Regarding strategic bombing in Germany, I believe that defending against it consumed enough resources to constitute another front for the Germans. One should count not only the factories needing to be rebuilt but also the AA guns, ammunition and manpower required to attempt to blunt the attacks.

    1. It is true that the Soviets would probably not have enjoyed having the Germans be free to take all the shell production that was historically fired straight up at Anglo-American bomber forces, and instead make their best effort at dropping it all on the Red Army’s heads.

      The Red Army might well have won anyway, but nobody likes it when the enemy has an extra jillion tons of shells and guns to fire them out of.

      1. The problem with this line of thinking is the assumption that the Germans would have been able to move all of those AA guns and ammunition anywhere. The massive sabotage and the terrible roads to begin with, made it very difficult to move alot of those resources to the Eastern front. It may have slowed things down for the Soviets in ’43-’44 as the fight started moving back towards Germany, but it wasn’t a deciding factor.

        1. Some of the production could be used to improve transportation infrastructure to move the rest of the guns and shells.

          And by the same reasoning the landings in Europe in 1944 weren’t a deciding factor, but the surely merit mention as a material effort in Germany’s defeat.

  15. My interpretation of why certain terms of war and units are preserved in English is if they are associated with “the enemy”.
    For instance Wehrmacht, Blitzkrieg, Kamikaze, Grand Armee, Impi, mujahideen are all terms in English, despite perfectly understandable alternatives existing.
    I believe these terms are preserved as part of the “Othering” that goes on in war, making the institutions and actions of the enemy sound inherently foreign, even if equivalents exist in English.

    1. As a hypothesis ‘othering’ appears very attractive. With one fell swoop we can turn people into things. However, the theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny because linguistic growth is full of historical example of names that are an tautologies made up of words that all mean the same thing.

      Examples of such tautology is Laacher See aka Lake Laach or Laach Lake all meaning”lake lake,” and another example is the Mekong River, which is “river river river”

      So while ‘othering’ is a thing, and despite the argument that there are other perfectly understandable alternatives, I will stand by the tendency of the English to absorb other language’s words is a more likely driver of the acceptance and use of these terms.

      Arguably, and by that I mean I’m just offering a re-framing of driver of this process, I suggest one could see this process as diversifying the language through inclusion rather than exclusion.

      1. Or Qart-Hadast (Carthage) “New Town”, having a colony called Cartagena (“Cartago Nova, new new town) having a spinoff latin-american city called (for a while) Nuevo Cartagena (“New, new New town”)

  16. For your point about untranslated German terms, I think we do that for terms in other languages from other eras. It’s common to call Napoleon’s army La Grande Armee and talk about Cuirassiers untranslated, rather than calling it the French Army and Heavy Cavalry, respectively. Same goes for some Roman terms (gladius instead of short sword, arguably Legion itself), greek terms (hoplite, phalanx instead of spearmen and pikemen)

    Frankly, seems to me that the words that don’t get translated are just whatever the early historians of this conflict or that found most impressive and cool to keep untranslated, same as you get from cookery or art or film snobs

  17. Great post! I would just have a minor quibble in regards to Cambrai in 1917, its real innovation for the British (in my eyes) was less the tanks and more the duration and weight of the artillery bombardment that was made possible because of pre-ranged artillery fire. The tanks were able to follow that up, but it wouldn’t have been possible imo without the preregistration that didn’t require actually ranging your shots ahead of time.

    Oh, and that supposedly “outdated” things (ie Cavalry) still had quite the role to play in the 100 Days!

    Excellent post none the less, well written and I also totally agree about German terms. I mainly study submarine warfare and “U-Boat” (which is a partial translation anyhow!) annoys me to no end. We don’t say “sous-marine” or “sottamarina” in English, we have “sub” or “submarine”!

    1. Well I-Boat was used for Japanese submarines. I don’t know if Italian submarines were referred to by other names.

  18. As regards the reputation of *any* WW1 generals, I’d suppose that those reputations are almost uniformly terrible
    (with special venom reserved for our own side) for two reasons (loosely cribbing from Keegan here)

    1. The ‘optics’ of WW1 division and above generalship are just appalling. They more or less *had* to stay 5-10 miles back to co-ordinate the artillery and reinforcement flows that actually made the difference, whilst sending thousands of men forward to gruesome deaths. Prior to 1900 generals would usually take lots of risk (see the American Civil War general fatality list) and after 1935 stuff like command vehicles and propaganda techniques made it workable to be *seen* to be near the action, for media purposes. But WW1 generals more or less couldn’t be seen as anything other than monsters
    2. This was gravely added to by the fact that after the first year, the only generals still left were the kind of men who could *bear* to sit at the back and knowingly send thousands of young men to gruesome and not very meaningful deaths. The other kinds of general were swiftly rooted out. There’s a word for the kind of man who can manage the brutal experiments mentioned in this newsletter, while remaining broadly sane: an asshole.

    1. Were WWI generals that much hated at the time?

      From the French perspective, Pétain was very much loved by a large part of the population, as evidenced by the roles he took after the war. (Granted a part of his good reputation was consciously build by himself after the war).

      My high school memories are kinda foggy but I also remember pictures of French generals walking through the trenches to ‘share’ some of the suffering of the common soldier. Considering that some 42 French generals were killed during the war, the risks were real.

      At least in France it’s also important to consider that popular perception of WWI generals was soiled by WWII Pétain ; I don’t know much about other belligerants though.

    2. I’m not really so sure on the second point, approximately 80 British generals were killed in the war – (and many more wounded) because they were taking risks! The British High Command had to specifically order that Generals stop acting recklessly after in only a few days, they lost EIGHT Generals at Loos.

      Of course, that didn’t stop a lot of them!

    3. JohnT wrote: “As regards the reputation of *any* WW1 generals, I’d suppose that those reputations are almost uniformly terrible (with special venom reserved for our own side)”

      In my experience, Australians love John Monash – he’s on our currency – but British generals are deeply suspect.

    4. tldr, In 1928, when the Great War has brought a decade of peace and a bit of prosperity, it seems justified, at least to the victors[1]. In 1948, when 1914 marks the start of three decades of horror, the First World War is a catastrophe.

      The generals (at least those who won) seem to have been mostly beloved by the men who actually fought, even after the war ended. The popularity of Hindenburg and Luddendorf in Germany famously plays a key role in the rise of the Nazis. Petain’s immense personal popularity was the only reason he *could* betray his country so gravely in 1940- anyone less popular suggesting such a surrender would have immediately lost the support of the people and the rest of the government. Haig’s funeral in 1928 was a gigantic state event with multiple Princes in his procession and huge crowds turned out because he was quite popular.

      World War 1 at the time it was fought was tremendously popular with the public (at least in France, the UK and Germany- obviously in Russia by the end of the Great Retreat in 1915 the war was very unpopular, and I have no idea what the popularity of the war ever was in the Ottoman or Hapsburg empires), in large part because they believed it was going to make the world safe for patrie/democracy/whatever the Kaiser was. Even socialists, who in 1913 were largely committed pacifists who supported international labor solidarity against the oppression of all governments everywhere reasonably enthusiastically supported the war in 1914. It was only in hindsight, after the Great Depression and World War Two turned the meaning of World War One to ash that the war became the by-word for incompetence, futility and failure.

      There is also the rising tide of anti-war public opinion (one I’m very much in favor of, incidentally). It is difficult to make the argument that World War Two was a mistake, because the Nazis were obviously an enormous evil who needed to be destroyed, and it really does seem like that would only happen at the barrel of a gun. But something like the recent Warhorse can make the broader anti-war argument by focusing on World War One. And that means that something like Blackadder Goes Forth, which is trying to make that argument, needs someone like Melchett, and so… there goes Haig’s reputation.

      [1]: Even though Italy was technically on the winning side, thanks to Cadorna the country felt like it lost.

      1. I generally took the gripping hand to be the underpinning thing that holds stuff up so that the one hand and the other hand can even be contemplated to be used to manipulate it.

  19. Under “Infiltration Tactics” one might add the introduction of man-portable mortars such as the Stokes mortar beginning in 1915.

  20. One thing I find curious is why the Germans so heavily discounted the Americans not once but twice. Often I have read what Prof. Devereux says here, that Ludendorff realized that the growing American presence left him a narrow window to stave off inevitable defeat. But earlier in the war, and again in 1941, the Germans seem to have had no qualms about antagonizing the Americans. You can say that Hitler was a madman, but why didn’t he face huge resistance from his advisors to declaring war on the US?

    In fact, given the substantial German-American population, the hostility to Britain among a significant number of American voters, and the general American aversion, especially in 1940, to overseas military involvement, it would seem that a competent German campaign of diplomacy and propaganda could have kept us neutral in both wars.

    1. IIRC from Adam Tooze, Hitler was aware that the US was rebuilding its armies, and could see no advantage to waiting until America was all ready for war when the U-boat arm, at least, could strike first off the American coast.

    2. Above I mentioned that the German high command in both world wars was absolutely terrible at strategy and grand strategy. Part of this can be seen in how the men in charge completely miscalculated what America’s grand strategy was and its capacity to implement it.

      Both times, the men in charge basically regarded the US as a nation of shopkeepers that would not bestir itself to fight, no matter the provocation. What they did not understand was that America would not let another country become a regional hegemon, and we are not nearly as peaceable a people as we like to pretend we are.

      1. But once America was a belligerent, Ludendorff took them seriously. Why didn’t the German general staff in 1941? That goes beyond “terrible” at grand strategy to “not even trying.”

        1. Hitler had a theory that he would fight the US after building a Navy. But when the Japanese attacked he believed they could provide the naval force to defeat the US.

          That being said, this is the same mind that thought, “hey let’s send a few million guys through the Russian fall mud season to winter outside Moscow.”

          The Germans had a number of truly revolutionary military thinkers. Hitler was not one of them.

        2. They were victims of their own success. Ludendorff knew that the American reinforcements would come across the Atlantic to friendly French ports and already-established logistical arrangements. The Germans in 1941 knew that American forces would have to make amphibious landings under hostile fire, which is more difficult to pull off by at least an order of magnitude.

          They were also hubristic enough to think that if THEY couldn’t set up the conditions for such an operation to be successful, then no one else could either.

    3. Hitler saw – quite rightly – the Lend-Lease Act as a de facto declaration of war. It coupled essentially limitless US money and production to Soviet and British Empire manpower. Throw in the Hemispheric Protection Zones and the declared intention to get supplies through against German opposition, and war was inevitable.

      Support for isolation can be over-stated. The US public was deeply hostile to Nazism and supportive of both Britain and the USSR. The US constitution gives undue weight to entrenched minorities, so Roosevelt had to manoeuvre around some senators, but her knew he had solid backing.

      1. The amount of aid from Lend-Lease in 1941 is a rounding error compared to the amount given from 1942-45, as well as direct American military support against Germany. Even if it was a declaration of war, it was a soft one, and the Germans were (thankfully!) foolish to let it turn into a full-fledged war.

        1. If the Germans had won the battle of the Atlantic, it would not have been a bad decision at all.

          Conversely, if the Germans had left the US coastline unmolested until the US was fully rearmed and then declared war on Germany, everyone would be saying how stupid Hitler was not to cut it off from the rest of the world when he had the chance.

        2. The key term in Lend-Lease was that payment was postponed until after the war. In both wars Allied industrial capacity was enormously augmented by purchases in the US (this was one reason Wall St was heavily in favour of US entry into the war in 1917 – they faced ruin if France and Britain lost and were unable to pay). In World War I Britain financed much of the war effort by liquidating the large portfolio of international financial assets built up over the previous century. This was not an option in WW II – by 1941 they were close to the end of their ability to finance the war. Lend-Lease committed the US to pay as well as produce. It put paid to any German hope of being able to outlast Britain.

          By 1916 and by 1941 large chunks of US industry were devoted to filling orders from London and Paris.

    4. Why Hitler decided to go ahead and declare war on the US is somewhat of a mystery. I think he legitimately believed that he was close to winning the war against Russia, which meant that all that was left was a weakened Britain to fight. If / when they managed to defeat Britain, then the Atlantic is just as large a barrier to American intervention in Europe as it would be for Germany to invade the US.

      As far as his advisors, at that point none of them would have dared to argue long against anything Hitler wanted to do. And they were too focused on Russia to give it much thought, IMO.

  21. I agree that on a weight of explosive dropped basis a Zeppelin doesn’t make a good bomber, but what about the effect of keeping military forces away from the front in France? All the guns, planes, and men kept in England to defend against a zeppelin attack could have made the occasional raid worth the loss to the Germans. I’ve never seen any analysis on that though.

    1. Seems only a step removed from:

      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.

  22. One idea on the theme “bite and hold” tactics (almost) solved the problem of trench war: Could it be just an illusion? All tactical innovations during the WW1 met their countermeasure (as partially described in this article). Maybe “bite and hold” tactics just came as the last of the series of innovations and was lucky, because the war ended before the Germans were able to find the countermeasure – which, however, could have had totally different reasons than that of “bite and hold” tactics being so effective. I would argue, that the reasons could have been exhaustion of German power (not only manpower, but industrial, economical… etc power) and the rise of the Allied power (USA). Maybe, had the Allies used tactics of 1915 or 1916 in their push in 1918, they would prevail as well (arguably with greater casualties). Or, had the Germans really fight to the end, they would stop “bite and hold” type of advance in second half of 1918 by some well conceived counter measure and we would be speaking about some totally different “winning” tactics of WW1 today, which was employed at the end of war, in the autumn of 1919…

    1. One thing of note is exactly HOW badly the germans lost the materiel war, IIRC, the French alone outproduced the germans handily. (to be fair, partailly because they could rely on imports in a way germany couldn’t for other goods)

      1. And yet it’s still remarkable how France really became the “arsenal of the Entente,” especially when you consider how the Germans occupied much of the industrial regions in 1914.

      2. One of Belgium’s problems was that the artillery they ordered from a German firm before the war was not delivered.

    2. The Panzerfaust of WW2 was something that in 20/20 hindsight was simple in conception and relatively easily produced. Against the comparatively primitive tanks of WW1 and at the close range trench warfare created, they might have been devastatingly effective.

  23. After WWII, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey held an extensive investigation into whether the bombing campaigns were actually effective. Interviewing many Japanese citizens, they found that “Sixty-four percent of the population stated that they had reached a point prior to surrender where they felt personally unable to go on with the war. Of these, less than one-tenth attributed the cause to military defeats, one-quarter attributed the cause to shortages of food and civilian supplies, the largest part to air attack.” (p.21) but in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “Twenty-nine percent of the survivors interrogated indicated that after the atomic bomb was dropped they were convinced that victory for Japan was impossible.” (p.25) They found that morale was very bad in areas that were not bombed, which they attributed partly to migration out of the cities and partly to the bombers flying overhead with no visible opposition. (p.21)

    This suggests a strategy of dread bombing rather than terror bombing. After air defenses have been neutralized, bomber formations parade over as many towns as they can before dropping their loads on military targets or even remote fields.

    However, the report called out specific successes in targeted strategic bombing. The bombing campaign achieved a sort of air superiority checkmate by destroying aircraft engine production (p.16). The firebombing of Tokyo was of great importance because it crippled Japan’s radio and radar production. (p. 18) But the most effective attacks were on shipping, “In the Survey’s opinion those air units which had anti-shipping attacks as their prime mission and employed the required specialized techniques, equipment and training achieved against ships the best results for the effort expended.” (p. 11) This crippled production more thoroughly than any direct bombing would have, “Most of the oil refineries were out of oil, the alumina plants out of bauxite, the steel mills lacking in ore and coke, and the munitions plants low in steel and aluminum.” (p.19)

    In hindsight, they concluded that a more focused strategic bombing campaign that focused entirely on transportation could have utterly crippled Japan’s industry and fighting strength with only about one-fifth of the volume of bombing actually employed. Attacks on bridges, ferries and the Kanmon tunnels “would have reduced Japan to a series of isolated communities, incapable of any sustained industrial production, incapable of moving food from the agricultural areas to the cities, and incapable of rapid large-scale movements of troops and munitions.” (p.19) In other words, most of Japan could have been knocked out of the war without a surrender by rendering it strategically irrelevant.

    All page numbers hitherto quoted are from the Summary Report, Pacific War; after this point, they’re from the Summary Report, European War.

    Germany’s political situation was such that the civilian public’s will to fight was irrelevant to the outcome of the war. Terror was achieved. “In a determined police state, however, there is a wide difference between dissatisfaction and expressed opposition… However dissatisfied they were with the war, the German people lacked either the will or the means to make their dissatisfaction evident.” (p.3)

    The allies tried and failed to achieve the same air superiority checkmate by destroying aircraft production. (p.6) The Germans had too much extra manufacturing capacity. (p.7) Instead, the checkmate was achieved by bombing chemical plants to cripple aviation gasoline production (p.8) which also caused a shortage of explosives and in particular flak ammunition. (p.10)

    The most effective strategic bombing was, like Japan, aimed at transport. “The attack on transportation was the decisive blow that completely disorganized the German economy. It reduced war production in all categories and made it difficult to move what was produced to the front.” Their rail network, which was responsible for a majority of freight traffic, had been so damaged that it had difficulty even supplying itself with coal. (p.13) The transportation difficulties were so severe as to precipitate a general economic collapse (p.13). Based on this report, I think the collapse of the land war was an effect rather than the cause of the total economic dysfunction.

    The common theme between both reports is that the main advantage of strategic bombing is disruption of the target’s transportation and energy services, which limits their ability to apply the rest of their infrastructure to military ends. It doesn’t matter whether the average civilian feels like surrendering, if he or she is totally cut off from the seat of government. It doesn’t matter how much industry you have if materials can’t be acquired and products can’t be distributed. If you lose transportation and energy, you are no longer an industrial society and can no longer wage an industrial war for any length of time.

    1. In addition to the destruction of Japanese ship building, the some 60% of all ships sunk during the war were Japanese freighters in the Western Pacific. The destruction of the civilian Japanese society was so complete that mass starvation (in the millions of individuals per year) didn’t end until the 1950s. Embracing Defeat.

      The definitive film of the Japanese civilian experience of the war starts with the main character starving to death in a Tokyo Subway during the occupation. Grave of the Fireflies.

      Between air power and naval isolation, Japan was destroyed and unable to project power beyond their shores.

    2. The problem with focusing your destruction on the enemy’s rail lines and bridges is that you need those same rail lines and bridges when you are advancing. Part of the D-Day preparations were commando forces dropped behind the German line to take hold of key bridges, so that retreating Nazi units couldn’t blow them up!

      1. Also, you need to be able to hit a target the size of a rail line, rather than aiming for the entire city surrounding a rail junction. That means daytime, lower flying raids which are more dangerous. Which the RAF did not want to do.

  24. The problem with ideological fanatics is that they usually pick other ideological fanatics as advisors. In WW2, Hitler and his advisors were laboring under the delusion that America was a Jewish puppet, so it was really only a matter of time before Germany ended up at war with them anyway. Plus, American anti-submarine operations in the Atlantic were proceeding unimpeded by the technical state of neutrality. Hitler thought that abandoning the fiction of peace between the US and Germany would allow his U-boat commanders to really take the gloves off, and they did (for the first few months). But the Allied industrial, numerical, and technological superiority was too much.

    Also, a “competent German campaign of diplomacy” is almost an oxymoron when discussing early 20th c. Germany.

    1. I see bandied around on alt-history sites frequent questions that go along the lines of “If Hitler did X, could he have won the war?” Most of the time X is a pretty good suggestion but these inflection points generally are shot down with the simple logic, “A regime capable of doing X, is also one that isn’t stupid enough to get into the war in the first place and, as such, would have no need to.”

    2. German diplomacy was, in fact, rather efficient in pre-WWI Turkey, and also in South America. The strategic level communications were terrible, because Wilhelm I was a bombastic idiot, Weimar Republic an international outcast and Hitler a froathing maniac. However, the tactical execution of day-to-day diplomacy by Auswärtiges Amt was not bad.

      1. Worth noting is that the German diplomatic successes in Turkey were as much a product of the Ottomans going “any port in a storm, and this is the only one that isn’t hostile” as German diplomatic competence.

        As to South America, I don’t think the area ever really captured the attention of Kaiser Wilhelm or Adolf Hitler and their cronies, which meant that the professionals could do their thing.

        Which brings us back to the discussion up thread: Germany has tactics and operations down, strategy and grand strategy not so much.

  25. 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.

    You have to hand it to early-20th-century Germanies—they lost their wars more gloriously than their enemies won.

    Or maybe terms like Stoßtruppen and Weehrmacht stuck around in the Anglophone world because people like making period Germans (mostly Nazis) into villains, so German military terms are more familiar to Anglophones than, say, French ones?

    This concept, ‘morale bombing’ as it is sometimes called, probably deserves its own post discussing its failures.

    It probably looks successful if the morale bombings you’re most familiar with involved two cutting-edge weapons dropped on a nation already trying to surrender.
    (Personally, I’d argue that the US would have probably broken the Japanese Empire well enough without dropping a single bomb on Home Islands population centers, and maybe without dropping any on industrial targets. The focus on the nukes provides a powerful narrative, but reality is boring.)

    1. As someone else pointed out above, a lot of French military terms got brought into English during the nineteenth century–elan, esprit de corps, abatis, etc. We just don’t think of them as French loanwords because they’ve been part of English for longer than living memory.

      This despite the fact that of the three wars (the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, and the Franco-Prussian War) that France fought against peer competitors during the nineteenth century, it lost two of them.

      1. Yes, the nineteenth century French lost two out of three wars, and the twentieth century Germans two out of two. Nonetheless, what Bruce Catton said of Pickett’s charge applies: “But the way it was tried still commands attention.’

  26. Great post Bret. Two points:
    1) Why was the Eastern Front significantly more mobile than the Western Front. Was it simply a matter of a bigger space to maneuver? Or was it due to less potent firepower from both sides?
    2) From reading Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destructions, he points to the strategic bombing of industrial targets in the Ruhr as severely impacting the German war effort until the Allies decided to switch to trying to bomb Berlin (to “crush” the morale).

    1. I study Eastern front of WW1 and frankly find it confusing to understand, how you “Westerners” perceive it. When you speak about Eastern front being more mobile than Western, do you mean the period 1914-1915 (when this is undoubtly true), or 1916-1917 (when the Eastern front was as far as I know as static as Western front had been from 1915)? In a sense, the trench stalemate just arrived a year later (autumn 1915) on the Eastern front then on the Western.

  27. One thing that you don’t mention here is that the bite and hold operations especially require enormously detailed and effective staff work. In the modern US army parlance (this is probably a massive anachronism because I simply don’t know how staff was actually organized in WW1), the S2 (Intelligence) has to find exactly where the strong points in the front line are (to suppress and then seize), where the reserves are (so they know where the counter attack will come from), where the enemy artillery batteries are (to supress), etc. The S3 (operations) has to actually plan the details of where the troops and equipment will be at H-Hour, how they will get there, where the reserves will stage while they wait for the initial assault troops to go over the top, what routes they will march to their new locations, who will guide them, etc. S4 (logistics) has to figure out how all the food and artillery shells get to their new positions across all of the shell craters. S6 (comms) has to hand out pigeons, train runners, lay comms wires, distribute radios, etc. (S1 is personnel- roughly HR, and S5 is All of those teams have to work together, across a wide variety of disciplines, to make this sort of an attack a success.

    All of them have to be highly skilled and experienced in positions that don’t really readily map to civilian life. This is especially obvious in the British Army. You can trace from Neuve Chapelle and Loos in 1915 through all-of-the-Somme-after-July-1 through to the seizure of Vimy Ridge that the UK/Empire forces are getting better at staff work, and that these bite-and-hold tactics are working better and better- though the successes are also marked by total failures like July 1 1916 and especially Passchendaele where the staff work fell apart. By 1918 the staff are fully trained and much more effective, and the German army has suffered such morale collapse, that the Hundred Days offensive doesn’t have those notable failures.

    This staff work is especially important for the UK (and America, though they played only a small role in actual combat) because the French and Germans started the war with large conscript armies that had a hundred divisions worth of staff already in place, while the much smaller, colonial focused professional armies of the English Speaking countries had only about a few divisions worth of staff, and had to create the rest on the fly. So the continental armies had a large group of soldiers already trained and working as S2/3/4/6, while Kitchner’s Pal’s had to build those skills from nothing.

    1. One reason Monash was so successful was that he was a civil engineer, with a lot of experience in building large things. He approached his operations in the same spirit – very thorough reconnaissance, detailed planning, plan communicated, revised and rehearsed at all levels, and then guided through in stages, monitored and adjusted as needed. By the Hindenberg Line it was sufficiently embedded that new operations could be planned and executed very rapidly. But, as you say, it too years to reach this point.

    2. This is true but also I absolutely did mention this? Note:
      “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 “A long series of such attacks – with significant intervals for fresh careful planning and stockpiling resources”

      This wasn’t the place to go in depth on staff-planning but when I am talking about ‘elaborately prepared offensives’ the staff planning is what I mean.

      1. Fair. I just felt that the (English speaking army in particular) lack of good staff was a reason that bite and hold was infeasible before 1917 (too many screw ups for a tactic that requires repeated small successes to build) and that that was not really a point you made- that good staff work is just like sufficiently effective tanks- not something that existed in 1915.

      2. Point taken. Worth adding that some Allied generals noted that what was achieved in 1918 – however carefully planned – would not have been possible against the German army of 1916. The years of attrition had taken their toll on guns, munitions, food, morale and numbers.

        1. This concession seems to vitiate your contention in the very beginning of the thread that “bite and hold” tactics won the war. Those tactics were an effective way of mopping up an enemy that had already lost, just as atomic bombs were an effective way of forcing the Japanese to recognize their defeat.

          1. The tactics of 1914 or 1916 would not have prevailed even against the German army of 1918. In that sense the combined package won the war – be enabling the Allies to force through German defences in depth. But great power wars are not won by any single element – to be a great power is to be able to resist enormous force (even France in 1940 was able to insist on considerable concessions in regard to the fleet and its colonies). Germany in 1918 was not able to recover from the blows inflicted in the 100 Days. In 1916 it would have had the political will and the reserves to make a make a longer fight of it.

  28. When talking about air power, you only write about bombers. Can you say why fighters could not be used to break the stalemate, by strafing the enemy when they counterattack after an offensive?
    If the fighter’s flight path is parallel to the enemy communications trench, and the fighter is flying above that trench, then by angling downwards the fighter should easily mow down enemy troops rushing to take back their old forward position.

    1. Not even close to have enough airplanes for this tactics to be practicable on large enough scale. Also, weather, night… Airplanes were absolutely unable to work in certain weather conditions and without clear sight it was impossible to fulfil the mission you propose.

    2. Airplanes were used in “tactical” (ground attack) roles; one reads of the dropping of sabots for example. But for a variety of reasons they weren’t game-changers. For starters they were slower and virtually unarmored so much more vulnerable to ground fire, especially if they flew low. And trenches zig-zagged precisely so it would be difficult for any enemy fire to sweep down them. Basically this goes under “airplanes weren’t advanced enough yet” along with tanks, motor transportation and field radios.

    3. In general, gun-equipped fighters don’t really have enough firepower, and on top of that they have difficulty holding it on ground targets for any significant period of time, because they need to change direction before they hit the ground. If I can only deny a trench for 20 seconds, then my enemies can wait me out. For fighters, the only other option, and one which a few pilots did employ a few times to comical effect is essentially to toss hand grenades out of the cockpit.

      On top of that, it’s surprisingly hard to hit small targets with aircraft. One of the maxims of air combat (which I routinely violate in computer games, and it makes me a worse fighter pilot than I could be) is “Get close. No, closer than that.” The reason for this is that your target really is quite small, and despite the gunsight, you’re basically shooting from the hip with how you can maneuver fixed weapons. And besides, if you’re shooting a target at, say, 100 meters, that’s probably less than 20 plane-lengths even in WWII. It’s really close.

      In WWI there’s an extra problem that the weapons they’re mounting aren’t much bigger than the ones deployed with the infantry, and the airplanes are quite literally glued together out of cloth. Even if you assume the engine block is bulletproof, a flying machine gun nest is a much more exposed target than an entrenched one.

      1. “a flying machine gun nest is a much more exposed target than an entrenched one.”

        The aerial equivalent of “a ship’s a fool to fight a shore battery”

        (Which, incidentally, applies to some other discussions in this thread)

        Both problems were solved by guided missiles; but not until after WWII

  29. I’d point out that the Downfall papers from the Imperial Japanese and US high commands have been out for years (cf Richard Frank, 2001). The argument here is what would have happened if the Allies had invaded Japan in 1945. Turns out, with the documents declassified, that both sides had planned for the same invasion. So, with no surprises, that’s 6 million-ish dead on the Japanese side, some big chunk of a million dead on the allies side. The Japanese calculated that the US wouldn’t want to pay the butcher’s bill and would leave the Hirohito on his throne with an armistice. Since that particular option was polling around 25% in favor with the US public (not clear if the Japanese knew this), it might even have worked.

    The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed that, especially when the US propaganda-bombed with a list of cities that would be hit next, ending with the Imperial palace and Tokyo. The Japanese had done enough nuclear research to understand rapidly what they’d been hit with. They assumed (wrongly) that the US could pull off its promise (it was a bluff, we didn’t have enough bombs), and therefore concluded that their bloodbath as defense strategy wouldn’t work. So the Emperor surrendered, and his loyalists quashed the inevitable coup attempt, so the surrender stuck. Since Japan seems to have gotten away with perhaps one-tenth the casualties from the nukes that they would have gotten from invasion, perhaps the imperial leadership made the right choice in the end?

    I share the skepticism of strategic air war, but that’s the case for Japan, as I’m sure quite a few here know. Go get Frank’s book and read the actual reports of what the people were thinking at the time.

    I’d also suggest that if you want altwar/bloodbath, imagine a world where the nukes didn’t work, Downfall happened, and the US and USSR a decade later got into a nuclear exchange over control of Japan without having a good idea what nukes actually did to cities. Things could always be worse.

    1. Nuclear weapons had to be used at least once. It’s the only way to prove how devestating they are and to frighten people off using them again.

    2. Note that “Japan surrendered due to Hiroshima and Nagasaki” is not actually true, or at least it is incomplete.

      As far as I know.

      1. Arguably what the bombs did was provide Hirohito with a face-saving excuse to surrender; in other words their impact was political.

      2. I think a lot of people want it to be actually about the entry of the Soviets into the war, but I think their logic is unconvincing. It was a factor because it both showed they’d lose the continental land war and that the 3rd party peace broker they were hoping to have in Moscow wouldn’t help them. However, it was the atomic weapons were what forced the War Council and the Emperor to see they both had no cards left to play and they now had a psychologically palatable way to justify surrendering. Even then, surrender was a near run thing.

        So I’d see it about 1/3rd Soviet entry, 2/3rds atomic weapons.

        1. The atomic bomb could do nothing new to the Japanese. They were expecting to be pounded by American air power and the Americans could do the job with conventional planes.
          The Japanese exit strategy was to give Manchuria and North china to USSR in exchange for its support at the negotiation table. The Soviet invasion robbed the Japanese Empire of these assets and also of any illusion that the Soviets will act as friendly neutrals.

          1. The Japanese were split on the exit strategy with half the cabinet choosing fighting to the death before the dishonor of unconditional surrender. Emperor Hirohito broke the tie in favor of surrender. Whatever his reasons he did reference the atomic bomb in his surrender speech to the Japanese people.

            “Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

  30. Bret, extremely layman question barely related to this topic as I’ve been reading through the archive just now- In what scenarios was a longsword (as in not a Roman Gladius or a greatsword) an effective and widely used weapon? From what I have read and my own intuition, a longsword seems to be a very ineffective weapon. By the time that chainmail became widely used, which seems to be quite early development, any slashing weapon seems to be ineffective, and spears seem to be the obvious choice as a stabbing weapon. So why is the long sword the ubiquitous symbol of pre-gunpowder/close-ranged weapon?

    1. A bit off topic, but here goes: So first thing’s first, when we say ‘longsword’ what is meant is a predominately two-handed sword which could be wielded one-handed in a pinch. The fantasy convention that a ‘longsword’ is the name of the standard one-handed sword is incorrect (we generally call those ‘arming swords’ or ‘war swords’). Nevertheless, for this question, they share a set of advantages, keeping in mind that an arming sword, while shorter, would have been used on the battlefield generally with a shield.

      The advantage that the longsword (or the arming sword) has is first that it is a sidearm, making it easier to carry as a backup weapon (or easier to carry out of battle). Second, it is handier in very close combat than a spear. Finally, it is a versatile weapon. You can thrust, cut or inflict blunt trauma with a longsword, depending on the strike used and the stance you are in and the weapon remains useful from striking distance (‘within measure’ in fencing parlance) all the way to a grapple on the ground. So while it is relatively rare for swords to be used as primary weapons, as a backup weapon (or a personal defense weapon outside of battle since no one wants to carry a spear going grocery shopping), swords – be they two-handed or one-handed – presented a lot of advantages.

      That’s the short answer, at least.

    2. I’d argue the most common foot soldier’s weapon in that period is the spear (if using a shield) or some form of hafted weapon (pollax, bardiche, halved, glaive, etc.), partially due to cost (decent swords are labour-intensive, hence expensive).
      A proper sword, however, was also a mark of status (only for nobles), and a useful secondary battlefield weapon, giving it a degree of social status that it has never lost.

      That’s beside swords being effective enough against mail – the mail will stop the edge from cutting, but a sufficiently powerful blow can still break bones. It’s no accident plate defences develop first for knees and elbows.

      1. Swords continued to be carried as secondary weapons (and, depending on where you draw the line between “Sword” and “knife” are still carried today) for a long time.

        I’d also note while most of the time these kinds of swords wre used as backup weapons, but there are examples (cavalry armed with swords, for instance) of them being used as the primary weapon, though that is largely outside of the time period.

        1. Not just swords, knuckledusters and clubs. Some of those clubs had a strong resemblance to morning stars. Robert Graves even saw some trench raiders with pikes. Marcellus Wallace talked about getting medieval in the mid 90s. Those fellows in the Great War were waaaay ahead of him!

          1. Also a spade is something that’s usually part of the standard package, especially in WW1 and has uses outside of combat

      2. A proper sword, however, was also a mark of status (only for nobles), and a useful secondary battlefield weapon, giving it a degree of social status that it has never lost.

        I wonder whether the sword’s iconic status also has to do with the fact that it is exclusively a weapon, unlike a spear or bow that might also be used for hunting, or an axe that might also be used for woodcutting (of course a lumberjack’s axe and a battleaxe look different, but it’s still the same kind of weapon/tool). The only peacable employment for a sword, on the other hand, is to beat it into a plowshare.

      3. Sword as a mark of noble status is a bit over done as a meme. Sure, it applies in the more metal poor Viking age, but in the later middle ages the cost as gone down enough that your upper middle class semi-professional can have one. Also, by this period every decently equipped man is carrying weapons designed only for fighting, a little that can be mistaken for dual use implements.

        I think also the movement to longer swords is related to that improvement in metal available in another way. A two-handed sword becomes a lot more advantageous when your armour becomes good enough that you don’t feel like a shield is an absolute necessity anymore.

  31. Excellent article, as always.

    One aspect that I find impossible to find any in-depth discussions is why wasn’t WW1 navy utilized to bombard enemies’ operational depth, or get involved in combined-arms campaigns.

    There was a plan for amphibious landing during the Battle of Passchendaele, but that only involved navy landing the infantry to do the fighting, not dreadnoughts and monitors shelling German positions.

    Naval firepower is also suspiciously missing in the descriptions of the Race to the Sea.

    Was there any hard “physics-of-the-battlefield” factor that prevented naval involvement on the Western front?

    1. There are bunches of reasons. First, engaging shore-based artillery with ships is almost always a losing proposition unless you have wild, over-the-top superiority in naval assets, a thing which the British never had due to the High Seas Fleet.

      Second, the maximum range of the largest, newest naval gun the British had available (the 15-inch MK1s on the brand-new-in-1914 Queen Elizabeth class) was 19 miles. The western front was 440 miles long. And a significant amount of that range will be used up by the fact that you are not beaching the most modern battleship ever built in order to fire.

      More broadly, some efforts at coastal shelling were made, but they were limited by the fact that both the Germans and the British had fleets, both had mined their own coastlines to restrict the movement of the others (particularly submarines and torpedo boats). Sitting off an enemy coast and shelling was a tremendous potential risk if you couldn’t achieve untroubled naval superiority, and neither side ever did. You are rolling the dice with a massive, expensive military asset (the loss of too many of which will just straight up lose the war as the British) in order to drop some overpriced shells on cow pastures; it’s just not a good bet.

      Compound that with the fact that there wasn’t much of value in the last 4.5% of the front and you can see why the most that was ever contemplated was attempting am amphibious flanking maneuver, which was rejected (sensibly) for the fact that you’d never be able to hold the foothold they’d make unless you also had a breakthrough on the front on land which never came.

      1. Is that so? It might be that I only ever read about successful engagements because most ships weren’t foolish enough to undertake a losing fight \ a ship taking on ground batteries and getting sunk doesn’t make for much of a story, but it feels like a standard land-sea engagement had two components:
        1. It’s a lot easier for a ship to maneuver and find a favorable angle from which to strike at artillery on land than the other way around.
        2. It’s a lot easier for a ship to maneuver and land a party of marines in the rear \ flank of a battery than for the land-based forces to board the ship.

        (At least, that seems to be the prevalent scenario for most of the 19th century?)

        1. Fortresses are such that a favorable angle will do you little good. From any angle, they are better defended than a ship can possibly be.

          1. Plus, in the age of sail not only were ships hampered by the limitations on maneuverability due to wind, but also it was practical for land artillery to use heated shot while seldom so for ships.

        2. To my understanding, “we do not engage shore emplacements with ships” was somewhere in the doctrine of just about every navy in both world wars. The issue is that a pre-sighted gun in a concrete bunker has a massive advantage over a ship which can sink. Add in torpedos and mines and it gets worse.

        3. I’d guess the 19th century had various instances of European ships having guns that outranged non-European shore guns, making naval bombardment feasible in a way that shouldn’t be overgeneralized.

          1. This^

            Any 19th century ship engaging a fort probably does so because the fortifications \ artillery are obsolete and out-ranged, whether belonging to a non-European power or located in a backwater.

            Which does not, in and of itself, necessarily guarantee success, as the British and French have learned at Petropavlovsk, or as the German would learn at Drøbak Sound a century later.

  32. Hello Bret,
    Excellent work, sir! My sister told me about this site, and I’m glad she did. I really enjoy your blog.
    Just wondering if you’ll be discussing unity of command, or the lack thereof. How much impact did Foch have as Allied generalissimo?

  33. As pointed out, we DO use a whole lot of french military terminology more or less untranslated, you even use a lot of it yourself! (barrage, trench, counter-offensive, enfilade, combat, esprit-de-crops, artillery, are all more or less french)

    I do wonder how Stosstruppen becomes “Stormtroopers”, though. The german translates roughly to “thrust-troopers”. (german *does* use “Sturm” for assault or storming a position, but seemingly not in this case)

    1. As far as I can gather (from German Wikipedia, so please correct me if I’m utterly wrong) the term was never Stosstruppen, it was Stosstrupp which translates roughly to shock- (or thrust-) squad. The Stosstrupp was a tactic that was employed by specially trained and equipped battalions called Sturmbataillon or, collectively, Sturmtruppen, i.e. storm- (or assault-) troops.

      1. Looking at my German-English dictionary, Trupp (plural Trupps) means troop, gang or squad. Truppe (plural Truppen) has a very similar meaning, to the point that I wonder why they’re separate words.

  34. It’s a little odd to put Samsonov and Rennenkampf on your bottom-five list right before saying Haig and Foch were unfairly maligned for their early-war conduct. Who’s to say the Russians wouldn’t also have proven themselves in 1917 or 1918?

    1. Might have, but didn’t. How much weight should a historian give to speculations and alternate histories? These men must be judged by the legacies they left behind and the actual records of their service. Perhaps the Russian Civil War robbed them of their ability to redeem themselves; but perhaps if Russia, either under the Czar or under a democratic govt or under a communist one, had remained in the fight there would have been no need to develop new tactics and the ability to pressure the Central Powers from two sides at once would have been sufficient.

    2. My understanding is that Haig and Foch’s armies survived their errors, but Samsonov and Rennenkampf’s did not. On the face of it, the errors of the first pair were less serious than those of the second.

  35. The use of air power to induce surrender worked for the Germans more than once before they tried it on the UK. One of the reasons Hácha signed his country away to the NatSocs was Goring’s threat to use the Luftwaffe to flatten Prague, and the surrender of Fortress Holland a few years later was largely attributed to the German ability to inflict massive civilian casualties from the air, without any sufficient means for the Dutch to resist due to a lack of sufficient numbers of modern fighters.

    1. While the entire British psyche is built around Blitz resolve memes, recently declassified reports from the height of the battle of Britain suggest that many industrial cities had citizens on the edge of breakdown and Churchill was incredibly unpopular.
      Once the Luftwaffe bled out and the tide of war turned, everyone recalls the time with rose-tinted glasses.
      Bangor university (Wales) has good studies on this

      1. Yes. Harrison’s Living Through the Blitz, which draws on contemporary Mass Observation diaries, is an excellent corrective to later nostalgia – and a useful reminder of the fallibility of memory.

  36. Two typos:

    as the barrage advantages — advances

    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 (). — This isn’t a sentence.

    One comment: US response to 9/11 could also be considered “oops, hardened resolve”, as could later Afghan reactions to US bombings, though I’m not sure the US was *trying* to break morale; still, bombing civilians didn’t make friends.

  37. I know foot infiltration of light infantry to disrupt defensive and artillery positions in the first three lines has been discussed here(primarily useful as a measure to reduce the required severity of barrage needed to take a position), but what about parachute infiltration of infantry?

    The primary problem discussed appears to be that while it was possible for an overland infantry or infantry/armored attack to win the race to the parapet of the first trench, it was impossible for such a force to win the race to the rail links in the rear.
    Yet an airborne force just might.

    Couple a major insertion of sacrificial paratroopers to disrupt enemy communication links and rail centers, and thus delay their reserves arrival, with efforts to make the transportation of artillery forwards easier(crater minimization techniques in the assault, maybe gas on the one or two of the times a given transformative development in gas technology can have a decisive effect before the enemy adapts to it and it becomes effectively useless compared to explosives, maybe increases to the number of motorized gun-tractors), and it might be possible to punch a salient all the way through enemy lines and allow cavalry to spread out and maeneuver again.

    By pressing the attack as fast as infantry can move, and slowing how quickly trains can move, maybe something could have been achieved?

  38. Could paratroopers have changed this equation?

    The primary issue as presented is that it’s impossible for an infantry or early armor offensive to win the race to the reserve/rear line artillery positions when they’re being compared to enemy trains that are also racing for the reserve positions to reinforce them.

    Suppose a slow infantry/armor assault took place, using all available technology and technique to speed it up, crater mitigation tactics(tanks, infiltration troops, certain sub-types of barrage), to allow artillery and shells to be better moved forwards to assault the enemy rear positions/hold those forward enemy positions that have been taken, and it was coupled with efforts at dropping infantry behind the enemy to slow and disrupt their reserve movements and communications.

    How much slower do enemy reserves have to be before the slow movement of WW1 technology assaults the trench lines become fast enough?

    And I know the parachute was only first used by soldiers during this war, the invention of paratrooper units would not occur until the second world war, and the Germans still failed to realize that they could have been dropped to disrupt rail links and supply depots for much of the war, instead using them for surprise attacks or to infiltrate immediately behind a position that was also being conventionally attacked, or to invade Crete that one time.

  39. Doomdomedude & 308924810a: Given the difficulties airborne troops experienced in World War Two, I doubt they would have been viable in World War One. Even the largest aircraft in WW1 had limited carrying capacity compared to a C-47. Field radios that allowed units to coordinate and link up weren’t there yet. And airdropped troops in any event suffer from the basic problem that if the breakthrough doesn’t come off, they are then cut off behind enemy lines to inevitably be captured or killed. I would categorize paratroops as yet another nascent technology that just wasn’t mature enough in WW1 to be a game changer.

  40. A comment on the Moltke/Joffre comparison (and borrowing heavily from AJP Taylor): not long after the First Marne, it became apparent that Moltke, given the superiority of the defensive discussed at length here, had actually done much better than he had any right to expect — taking all of Belgium and a big chunk of France, before bogging down. Joffre could have prevented this calamity by simply digging in along the Franco/Belgian border, or even better, digging in somewhere in the middle of Belgium and meeting the Germans there. Ironically, Joffre was was proclaimed a hero even though he had fumbled away this opportunity and almost put the Allies in a hole too deep to recover from. Meanwhile, Moltke was sent home in disgrace and died before the year was out. The fact that Moltke could not accomplish the impossible, conquering France short of a complete collapse of French morale, should not put him in the “worst generals of the war” category (although I might put him there for his role in starting the war).

  41. “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.”

    Before today, I’ve never even *considered* an alternative interpetation of the use of nukes in WWII. American propoganda has been so drilled into my brain by the school system that I had an absolute belief in the narrative that the atomic bombings forced a Japanese surrender. I didn’t even know that the Soviets had declared war on Japan at all, let alone on the very same day as the Hiroshima bombing.

    1. My take is that the atomic bombs didn’t force a surrender; that was already in the air. What they did was give the Emperor and the surrender faction a face-saving excuse to override the die-hard fanatics: “How can we hope to fight an irresistible superweapon?”

  42. I assume you’ll never read or write this but I offer it as a sacrifice at the altar of pedantry nonetheless. I ask in return only that you think favorably of me and my descendants.

    Regarding your footnote, we absolutely do not translate many European names. You’re one of ti only people I’ve heard refer to as FSB or GRU. We have a word for Russian covert operations. Spetznaz.

    We call the English forces Special air service.We don’t call them the American Green berets, that would be stupid. We call Napoleon’s army “Le Grand Armee” whenever we aren’t using the term “levee en masse”. Ji, panzer, Katushkya, samurai, Lancers. All of these are foreign military words for which we either don’t often use, or are just English words at this point despite not being close to start. I’d bet a decent fraction of all American males can tell you what a Katuskhkya was but ask them about MLRS Or even multi rocket launcher systems directly and you’ll get a blank look.

    Military stuff is culturally specific. You have to admit, calling the KGB the “Russian CIA” or the German Luftwaffe “the Nazi Air Force” is a much less nuanced communique then what’s communicated by knowledgeable folks who refer to them. There’s a reason it ought not to be translated.

  43. This may have an obvious answer I’m simply missing but was there a significant factor preventing the allies advancing up the German coast? There your artillery can sail along the coast and lob shells in from off-shore, with a gun attached to a battleship being able to outrace the train much better than one on foot, and hopefully lasting long enough for other artillery to move forward. Or was this simply unreadable as the advance would be too narrow and vulnerable to being cut off if it was more than a slight Salient.

    1. The coast was mined and small torpedo boats could easily dash out of small ports on the coast and sink your battleships, which were very vulnerable to close-range torpedo attacks.

      1. Bean over at Naval Gazing has touched on this a number of times. Factions in the Royal Navy wanted to to this, but the German Navy was capable of preventing it for pretty much the entire war

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