Doctrine Pt. 1



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode 17. Now if you are listening to this from the normal History of the Great War feed, please do not adjust your antenna. This is a special preview episode of what you can find on the Patreon feed by supporting the podcast. This is the first episode, an introduction really, to a 5 episode series that will play out over the coming months for Patreon subscribers. This series will be focusing on one very important topic, military doctrine, and especially how it changed during the war. At the start of the war Germany, France, and Great Britain all went to war with roughly the same doctrine. All of those countries had studied the wars of the late 19th century and all drawn surprisingly similar conclusions. They also shared another similarity, none of them had greatly changed their training manuals for about 50 years, or at the very least since the Franco-Prussian War. They had massaged them, perhaps changed some of the emphasis, but they remained largely the same. This would put all three countries at a disadvantage when the war started, and I believe that their performance is better predicted by their chosen role in the war rather than what their armies doctrine was. During this episode we will discuss how these countries came to form their military beliefs, the problems that they would soon need to solve, and how they tried to solve them. We will then look at what they needed to do to solve some of the tactical problems in front of them, especially around launching successful offensive operations on the Western Front, even if they themselves did not know what those were. We will then close out this episode by looking ahead and roughly mapping out what the next 4 Patreon episodes look like.

Way back in the first few episodes we discussed briefly how all the countries thought they would be fighting the war once it started. Then over the course of the Patreon episodes discussing the usage of Cavalry and Tanks during the war we discussed these ideas quite a bit more. Because of this I won’t spent too much time today on the subject, but I thought it would be good to give a bit of a summary. When Europeans looked at previous wars they focused, quite rightly on recent conflicts that were close to home and for Europeans this meant they placed a lot of emphasis on the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Both of these war, but especially the latter, would dominate the planning and practicing that the armies of Europe would do for the next war, and no country was this more true in than France and Germany. We will dive deeper into precisely how this affected both countries and their militaries but in both cases the military leadership drew some wrong lessons for these wars. For the Prussians it made them believe that their speed of mobilization, deployment, and how fast they could launch their first attack was the most critical component to successfully launching an offensive campaign, because it had been in 1870. For the French it was much the same, they believed, after a decade or so detour into defensive minded strategies, that they had to attack and attack quickly. However, one of the more abstract ideas that the two wars perpetuated, and there would be nothing to dispel these thoughts, had little to do with actions on the battlefield and far more to do with strategic and political maneuvering. On both sides of the Franco-German border military leaders did not see wars and their war plans as a way to execute some set of political objectives, if they did then there would have been multiple different plans for different situations and goals. Instead they only had one plan to be used regardless of the situation. This fact was due to the belief that if the military could win a big sweeping war against their enemies in these giant battles of annihilation, which of course they would win, of course, then any political considerations were irrelevant because the politicians could just sort things out over the smoldering course of their enemies. This belief can be seen in both the German move through Belgium, which was their only war plan , and the French thrust into Germany further south, once again their only war plan that they had for a war with Germany.

We now move on to discussing some of the problems that all of these nations would face during the war. Without a doubt the most enduring memory of the First World War is the trenches on the Western Front. Depictions of the battles that took place at places like Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele dominate the histories. All of these battles, and of course many more all came about because of the deadlock that evolved in northern France and Belgium. It was a truly horrible experience for all involved which of course leads to the next logical question, was this situation inevitable and could they have fixed it. Often the end result of these questions is to blame the generals, why did they not see the problems? Why did they not have a solution? This is where there is serious danger of being blinded by hindsight. We know that by the end of the war the French, British, and Germans were all capable of making great progress in their offensives but the war of 1918 was very different than the war of 1914, and even 1915 and 1916. When the war started few generals thought that the war would become a stalemate and so they were most unprepared for that eventuality. Beyond that they were flying by the seat of their pants on how to fix the problem. However as we look back the situation seems destined to be just as it was due to three critical problems that would turn the Western front into such a stalemate. The first problem was the sheer size of the armies involved. Since their last test in 1870 the armies of both Germany and France had grown much larger in size, by a factor of million of men. This simply meant that when moving armies there were more men to move, and there would be more men in their way to stop them. These larger numbers found themselves in something that did not change at all since 1870, the geography of Western Europe. Western Europe had been the stage of many wars, and many battles, and in one very specific way it had not changed in millenia, it had not gotten any larger. The armies of Europe were like a child that was growing bigger but still wanted to sleep in their small infant bed. It just kept getting tighter and tighter and no matter what they did the bed wasn’t going to get bigger. To give an example of why this was problematic, and why the Western Front was different than other fronts in the war lets look at a single division on the Eastern and Western Fronts. In 1917 a German division on the Russian front would occupy about 30 kilometers of the front, a pretty decent width, wider than some of the larger offensives in the West. However, in the West that same division would occupy just 2.5 kilometers of front, less than a tenth of the space. The second primary issue revolved around firepower, which I think is the one that probably gets the most attention. With machine guns and artillery playing a larger role in the fighting there were simple more bullets and shells on the battlefield. This did not preclude offensive actions, especially in the minds of military leaders before the who, many of which believed that the increase in firepower would give the attackers the same advantages as the defenders. While this would not be a true statement early in the war, by the end it was true. The firepower greatly increased on both sides, the difference being that the attackers learned how to better used the firepower that they had available to them. Regardless of how much these problems changed how the war was to be fought neither of them either separate or together would have caused the stalemate. They only resulted in that stalemate when combined with the third and final problem an acute lack of tactical mobility. Tactical mobility, or the mobility of units in the attack, was much the same as it had been a century before, or even a thousand years if you want to stretch it. Throughout all that time the speed of the attack was the speed of a man on foot. However during the previous century strategic mobility had seen a drastic increase. All of the armies of 1914 utilized railroads to allow them to move quantities of men and material that would have been unthinkable in earlier wars. This allowed them to reinforce and reposition their troops quickly and easily. When this strategic movement was combined with the relative lack of tactical mobility it was impossible for an army to execute a strategic breakthrough, or really any advance beyond the range of their artillery. This lack of mobility was a problem that would only be partially solved before the end of the war and would only truly be solved in World War 2 and later. However, the tactical mobility was increased enough to make later offensive work when combined with all of the other realities of 1918. These three concepts I think encapsulates most of the issues that the World War 1 commanders were dealing with, and that they would either have to solve or just remain content with bludgeoning their armies to death against one another.

While the armies in the war never stopped actively trying to find new solutions to the problems in front of them they are often criticized, or at least their commanders are, that they did not learn anything, or did not learn quick enough, during the war. When you look at the period between 1915 and 1916 it is easy to come to that conclusion. During these years both the French and British repeatedly hurled themselves against the German lines. Each time they changed their plans and their tactics, generally by pouring more artillery and more ammunition for that artillery onto the battlefield, however it all seemed to be for naught since they were not getting the results that they expected. Unfortunately for the two armies they were stuck in a loop that they could just not quite get ahead of. This was a phenomenon much like we discussed on a smaller scale between the 6th and 7th battles of the Isonzo during a recent mainline episode. The British and French would figure out a better way to do something in one attack, but before they could then attack again to put this lesson to use the Germans would introduce something that either countered the change or at least lessened the impact of it. This kept real progress just outside of the French and British grasp, and it kept the Germans just one step ahead, at least for awhile. They were benefited in this quest to stay one step ahead by a few wrong paths that their enemies travelled down on their path to success. I do want to point out that even though these attacks were in the classical sense failures, they did not reach their objectives and they did not count as a “win” for the attackers they were still having effects. The first was that these attacks were costing the Germans a lot of troops, and the prices paid in these early battles would come back to haunt the German army later on. The other effect these attacks had is that by the end of 1916 the British and French actually had a pretty good idea what they had doing, and while they still could not break through the German lines they were quite good at attacking, causing a number of German casualties roughly comparable to their own, and then also capturing a bit of territory to go along with it. This was especially true for the French, and in many cases the British after bloody July on the Somme. They were able to do this through proper coordination between their air forces, infantry, and artillery a coordination which was not a fluke and that they could replicate it in each attack to capture the first few German positions. Trying to push further was still mostly outside of their grasp, because that is when the lack of mobility came to be a problem, but they could at least consistently take some ground and kill a lot of Germans. Of course the Germans were not sitting on their hands and they saw what was happening, which resulted in their complete change in defensive tactics in the winter between 1916 and 1917. During this time they changed for their previous tactics of strongly held front lines and instant counter attacks to a new elastic defense method that spread out their strength and negated most of the tactical gains that the British and French had made up to that point. Another often overlooked fact is that the French and British did not have a great place to try out new tactics and new ideas other than in these larger Western Front offensives that they could only launch a few times a year. The Germans would be constantly experimenting on the Russia and later Italian fronts, giving them the ability to try out ideas without necessarily revealing them to their enemies. They could then bring what they had learned back to France and Belgium for use on the primary front. There are of course of a lot of other nuances that we will not go into right at this moment when it comes to what the armies learned during the war and how they used those lessons to adapt, we will instead hold off on those discussions until later.

Of course, as we look back on the war we not only have what the armies were thinking, learning, and doing but we also have a pretty good idea of what they needed to do to solve some of their problems, information that they of course did not have. This means that we have to be careful when judging the decision makers, since we are operating with far more information than they were, however it does provide a good case study when it comes to how armies adapt in a complex, high stress, environment. It also provides fertile ground to look at how leaders adapt and change their assumptions and tendencies when they start off with many incorrect assumptions and must learn and integrate new ideas to try and move towards a doctrine that will eventually win their side the conflict. The concepts that, looking back, seem to be critical for the armies of World War 1 are nicely outlined in Michael Hunzeker’s excellent dissertation that is titled Perfecting War: The Organizational Sources of Doctrinal Optimization, in this work he outlines three concepts. The first of these is assault tactics. This means irregular, dispersed formation of infantry that are trained and empowered to initiate small unit actions on their own. They would bypass strong points and push deep into enemy territory to disrupt the enemies ability to respond. While these type of troops would become famous with the German Stormtrooper it would be used by several armies during the war, but it was also the exact opposite of where the armies started which at the beginning they were trying to use large units en masse to try and break through enemy positions. The second critical concept is combined arms. Here the armies had to find a way to not just use artillery, machine guns, infantry, airplanes, tanks, trench mortars, gas, and countless other weapon systems on the battlefield but they also had to determine how to use them together to consistently produce maximum effect. The final concept was a better way of defending against the enemy, preferably an elastic defense in depth. This meant arranging defesnes in a preplanned, preconfigured way in which they could absorb as much punishment as possible, both from the artillery and the infantry, and still bounce back in a controlled and precise manner. This was again very different than when the war started, at which point defenses were often ad hoc and very brittle since most defenders manned the front lines and were vulnerable to artillery. This was difficult to move away from since defense in depth required the defenders to willfully give up territory to the enemy under the assumption that they could then regain it in future counter attacks, which meant breaking the bedrock belief for what men should do on the defensive before the war, which was to hold every piece of ground to the last man. All three of these concepts would need to be discovered and perfected by each army, or at least they had to become proficient enough to not let them pull down all of their efforts. As it was, two of the three armies being discussed would have all of them figured out by the end of the war.

So, this has been a much longer introduction than I initially planned, but hopefully it provides some good bedrock for our discussions that come next. Over the next 3 months we will be taking each of the three Western Front armies in turn by looking at the French, then the Germans, and then the British Army. For each of these nations we will attempt to answer three questions. First, how they came to their military doctrine with which they started the war, second how and why they changed these practices during the war, and then we will take stock of where they were at by the end of the war. We will then have a 4th episode where we can take a step back and do a bit of comparing and contrasting between the three armies. This final episode will also be an episode where I will answer any questions that anybody has about the items that we are discussion, or just in general about how the armies fought during the war. I am quite excited for the next few Patron episodes, and I hope you are too, I hope to have the episode on the French army released by the middle of June. Thank you for listening, and if you enjoyed this episode, you can find more like it over at