Doctrine Pt. 2



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 18. This week we continue our investigation into the doctrine of the various armies around Europe during the war. We are going to start with the French because I find the French interesting. They bore the brunt of the fighting for the Entente for most of the war, however more emphasis is often put on the British and their adaptation, or failure to adapt, to the conditions on the Western Front. We are also going to start with the French because we will be using them as a deep dive into the situation in an army in Europe before the war, and we will have different focuses with the other episodes and other armies as well, what I mean by this is that we will spend most of our time today discussing the evolution of France’s strategy before the war, and then also touch on how it evolved during the war. As we discuss the development of this doctrine I hope you can keep a few things in mind while making your own judgements and conclusions. First of all, coming into the war they were making the same decisions and judgements as everybody, all based on very little real world data and practice. It had been 40 years since a real war occurred in Europe after all. Second, just because the French failed horribly in their opening attacks during the war does not necessarily mean that the entirety of their theories and practices were wrong. One large mistake on the battlefield can mask many good decisions made along the way, which is something we will get into in more detail here in a bit. Third, one of the prevailing images of the French during the war is the endless assault on trenches, with massive failures every time. However, in the pre-war years as they were planning and equipping their army they did not plan on attacking these kinds of objectives. They were planning on a war where most assault were on hastily fortified positions in areas with at least some natural cover and this would set them up for a rude awakening that would take time to adapt to. Fourth, and as we discussed in some detail last episode, since all of the armies were affected by all of these incorrect assumptions what really mattered was how they adapted once the war started, and in this case the French did not do a very good job. Over the course of the war they would fail to implement several of the big innovations that other armies found like infiltration tactics, and by the end of the war they were also behind in defensive doctrine. This was an issue because in the last several months of the war, or even year of the war, the French mostly stopped innovating, a trend that had its roots in the mutinies of 1917. After these mutinies the responsibility for most attacked passed to the British and later Americans and the French army leadership stopped experimenting with new methods and theories. This is why during this episode you will notice that our discussions will trail off as the war progressing and as the French really stopped making meaningful changes for us to talk about. You will notice in our episodes on the Germans and British that it will be the exact opposite, making for interesting comparisons.

We begin our discussion today where you have to start any discussion of French military theory and practices before the first world war, the Franco-Prussian war. Before the Franco-Prussian war the French still relied heavily on massed columns of men charging forward with fixed bayonets. They were firmly in the mass school of operation, which I guess means this is a good time to introduce the two man schools of through in military though in Europe before 1914. The first was the mass school, those who favored a more traditional approach to infantry combat. This theory is best summarized by taking a lot of men and throwing them forward against the enemy positions and hoping that they can push through to their objectives by shear force of inertia. The thought was that if you had enough men who were willing and able to push through with their attack they could simply overwhelm the enemy with their bodies. The believes in this method also believed that the increase in firepower that was happening at this point in history did not necessarily change the basic equation. On the other side you had the people who would fall into the firepower school of thought. They basically believed the opposite of what I just explained. They believed that the increase in firepower from innovations like machine guns and rapid firing artillery made the more traditional theories of military science completely out of date. They believed instead that men should be pushed forward in smaller, more dispersed units to reduce the effectiveness of firepower and they also put increased emphasis on junior officer autonomy and small unit tactics which would be supported by all of the firepower available. These would be the two schools of thought that would drive discussions before the war and you will note that they both dealt mostly with how to launch attacks, because everybody thought that attacking would be required. During the Franco-Prussian war both armies were still using the same sort of mass tactics that they had been using for generations however the Prussians almost always had more firepower due to a combination of their infantry rifles and artillery pieces, both of which were generally superior to the French versions.

After the defeat at the hands of the Prussians the French would spend the next 40 years planning, training, and preparing for just one thing, a war with Germany. After the embarrasment which was the Franco-Prussian war there was a period where all French military theory was based around the defensive, however this did not last very long. There is at times the assumption that the French during this period were chasing the Germans, trying to imitate their plans and tactics but this is not completely accurate. They certainly spent a lot of time learning about what the Germans planned to do, obviously this information would help them in the event of war, however they did not believe that the Germans were necessary superior in their theories and plans and should be imitated, even after their good showing in 1870. Until about 1911 there was an emphasis on something called the Defensive-Offensive pattern. At its most basic level this meant that the French, with their smaller population size and possibly slower mobilization schedules would be forced on the defensive early in the war. However, as soon as the German advance had spent its strength then the powerful counter attacks would begin. They never wavered from their idea that while firepower, especially as it increased, could cause casualties, decisive results would still come down to infantry assaults. It would be these infantry assaults that would drive the Germans back into Germany and hopefully win the war. I find this Defensive-offensive approach interesting because it is almost exactly what happened in 1914. Sure, the French would first attack but to no avail, then they would be forced back onto the defensive until the German attacks were spent, at which point they then attacked back at them for several years. An interesting counterfactual could revolve around what happens if the French did not launch any attacks at the beginning of the war but instead stood on the defensive, avoiding all of the casualties, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands that they suffered during their attacks.

Central to the evolution of military thought during this time period was the role and effects of the growing firepower available to the armies. The proponents of mass pulled heavily from historical tradition for their beliefs however over the last few decades of the 19th century even they were forced to take a good hard look at some of the advances in technology. At the beginning of this time period the volume of fire that could be generated was dictated by infantry with rifles, but even those were getting better with more distant engagement ranges and much more accuracy. Because of this and other advances the French actually began a slow and steady move away from a strictly massed infantry attack and instead began to focus on ways of mitigating the advantage that an enemy would gain due to this firepower. This meant an increased emphasis on cover, concealment, night attacks, dispersion, all ways of reducing the impact of firepower on attacking formations. I think that this is an interesting development because this represents a curve away from where the French were in 1870 and then also a different spot than they would be in 1914, for reasons we will discuss here in a bit.

I have not yet mentioned artillery, something that has played a central role in our podcast since the very first episode because the French really did not discuss it much either, at least in their infantry regulations. There were very few references to artillery in the French infantry regulations of 1900, preventing a standardization of how the infantry and artillery should work together on the battlefield. This would all begin to change in 1897 with the introduction of the famous French 75mm artillery gun. Part of the reason that this caused a change in the French regulations was that before the 75 was introduced the artillery was, for lack of a better term, rubbish. Since the French had been using the old style of cannon without a recoil mechanism which had to be re-aimed after every shot it greatly reduced the amount of effective fire that could be laid on a given target. Many theorists at this point considered a battery of machine guns to not just be better than a battery of artillery, but better by a factor of around 9 to 1, which is a lot. This prevented the artillery from being a truly useful tool on the battlefield but this would change completely with the 75. Over the course of the 10 years before the war the French would become extremely confident in the their 75s, they believed that its ability to rapidly lay shells on a given target, through the utilization of its recoil mechanism and breech loading, would allow it to rule of a battlefield. In fact, this would cause the French to greatly overestimate the power of this gun, which would be pretty much the only one they would have in 1914, and this would cause some issues early in the war.

Before we get into specifics let’s talk just a bit about what the French thought the next war in Europe would be like, obviously these assumptions would drive many of their decisions that they made before the war. The French firmly believed, and they were joined by other countries in this belief, that the next European conflict would be short and would probably be decided by the first few battles. This drove them away from a purely defensive strategy, a movement that would gain its greatest momentum right before the war started. Part of this calculation was from the belief that not attacking would make the country look weak which is a good if non-specific reason to attack but there were also other more concrete concerns. One of these was rooted in the classic maneuver warfare set of concerns. It would be very bad if the French army got outflanked, and there was a concern that if the French generals were too timid and defensive minded then they would be outmanuevered, outflanked, and surrounded by the more energetic and aggressive Germans. There was also an issue of concentration. Defenders, by necessity, have to defend the entire front, at least early in the war before the area of enemy concentration was known. However the attacker can concentrate his army at will meaning that they can always have local superiority. There was no way to prevent his from happening, but since the French would be mobilizing less men that the Germans it was a concern that if they stood on the defensive they would simply be overwhelmed by a few concentrated German attacks and would not be able to respond in time. The final factor was one of railway tables. Due to the complexity of mobilizing the ever growing European armies the railway timetables continued to get more and more complex. This meant that if an army wanted to be as efficient as possible when getting men to the border they needed a very rigid plan to do so that could be planned literally years in the advance. This made it almost impossible to improvise on a large scale. The Germans would use this as an excuse as to why they had to invade Belgium in 1914, that is what the plans said, that is the trains they had, and that is where those trains were planned to go, to change it would be a nightmare. Similar issues were at play for the French army. It would be a challenge to quickly move a large number of troops from one area to another to meet an energetic attack. When you combined all of these issues and beliefs into one you could only arrive at one answer, all of that preplanning and mobilization time should be spent preparing to launch a massive French attack. That way even if the Germans attacked somewhere else they would just be trading one area for another.

Before discussing the doctrine of 1914 let’s look at a previous revision of French regulations. For the purposes of this discussion we will be looking at the French 1895 regulations which is a good snapshot of what the French regulations looked like in a time before artillery and offense a’ outrance began to take over French policy. This version of the regulations called for a four phase attack. The first phase was the approach which was really just getting in contact with the enemy and moving to a position where the French unit would want to attack from. During this time the commanders would keep the men in tight formations, which were better for organizing and moving them on the march. They would use these same formations and groups when moving towards the enemy but they would try to use some cover, however the goal was to move fast, so that was always the first priority. The second phase as the deployment. During this phase the commanders would get their troops ready to attack. They were not supposed to do this until their men could return fire against the defender, a distance which lengthened in the late 19th Century basically every time a new rifles was introduced. A critical piece of these regulations was that it did not dictate which type of deployment the officers of the attack should use or how they should proceed with the attack. There was instead an emphasis on making sure that the terrain was used as much as possible to gain an advantage and that tactics should be dictated by the enemy positions and dispositions. The third phase was then the skirmishing and closing with the enemy. The general recommendations was the infantry should deploy into a firing line at about 600 meters then move forward in bounds while returning fire at the enemy until they were 200 meters away. Again this was up for change by the officer on the scene depending on the specifics of the situation. The final phase was the assault. Here the commanders were told that they should not assault the entire enemy line at once but should instead seek out weak points in the line where they should move their reserves to and launch assaults. They should launch their assaults with the goal of capturing critical objectives while also maintaining fire superiority which should allow their troops to move around the battlefield. In these regulations there were some pretty large omissions, specifically the lack of discussion about artillery and machine guns, in 1895 these were infantry regulations that were based on the premise that they would be fighting infantry only battles. These were reasonable regulations, other than the omissions of course, and it is interesting to see pieces discussed like the autonomy of officers at the front to guide their own attacks given a set of objectives and the critical role that fire and moment played in the attack. These would be concepts which would be washed away on the battlefields of 1914 and would not really return for the French and British armies until 1917.

As we move into the changes in the French doctrine in 1913 it is important to introduce a few thought leaders who would influence policy. Foch, Joffre, de Castlenau, and Louis Grandmaison were all influential in rewriting the French regulations of 1913 and they would use it as an opportunity to promote their all offense, all the time, theory of how to wage war. These were also the leaders of the army in 1914, the Grandmaison being I think the only person we have not discussed in some detail, he would the Joffre’s chief of operations when the war began. While these regulations were adopted by the army and they sought to indoctrinate all of the officers it was not universally seen as the correct move, many generals were hesitant or mistakenly misinterpreted the regulations as written.

The regulations of 1913 and 1914 committed the French army to the attaque a’ outrance or attack to excess. However there were some prerequisites that were thought necessarily before the attacks should be launched. First was that the commanders should attempt to maneuver to the flanks and to use cover to mask these movement, a front assault should be avoided, but critically if that was all that was available it should not prevent the attack from being launched. Second a skirmish line should be sent out first which would advance in bounds to pin down the enemy, then fire superiority should be gained to cut off the enemy for reinforcements. These fire would come in the form of infantry fire, machine guns, and of course the 75. Finally, the infantry, having been imbued with the belief that their bravery and sacrifice would guarantee success, would be told to press forward at all cost at a density of about one man per meter of attack. The hope was that this density would give the power that was needed. Behind the front line, which would actually be made up of two ranks of men, there would be another line. These men would be used to fill gaps in the front line and then to launch attacks against a hopefully confused enemy after the front lines hit them. While all of this would happening the artillery would be firing in close support of the infantry, using direct fire, with the goal of disrupting the enemy line of resistance and making it as unpleasant as possible for them to continue to fire on the infantry. The theory was that the pre-attack artillery fire would not even take that long, maybe a quarter of an hour, and then the artillery would continue firing as long as it was possible while avoiding the attackers. Once the attack was in full force the men were told to press forward, not to worry about the flanks or unit cohesion but instead just to push for deep objectives as hard and fast as they could. The French also pushed decision making authority down to the junior officers who would be leading small units at the front to empower them to keep attacking to maintain the impetus of the attack. The crazy thing about these regulations, as written, was that they were decent if the assumptions under which they were built were true. If the artillery was sufficient to disrupt the enemy, if the enemy was not strongly fortified, if the infantry moved forward in a reasonably dispersed manner with multiple lines to keep the attack going, and critically if they were able to punch through the first set of enemy defenses and keep going independently, if all of these ifs happened then the attacks would look a lot like the German attacks later in the war. Unfortunately, those ifs would all end up not happening.

In these theories there were some good bits, but there was quite a difference between having them on paper and putting them into practice. To explain why this would be so difficult we have to take a step back and look at the French army in 1914. The French army was made up of 2 year conscripts, this was the system that was put in place by the 1905 Military Service Law and while there was some discussion of expanding it to a 3 year enlistment it had not been done. Because of the short time that the conscripts were in the army the men that were in a normal active duty French unit were often made up of more than 50% of first year trainees. For example in an infantry company there could be 225 enlisted men and just 7 career officers, which meant that 120 of those men might be in the first year, and even the officers would have largely varying levels of experience and knowledge. The final part to consider is that very few of these men at any level had any real battlefield experience. This made it difficult, or impossible, to pull of the complicated skirmishing, reinforcing, and attacking maneuvers that were required for the French tactics to succeed. Even in peace time maneuvers, when theoretically the army had the best chance of performing well, man officers and units were found to be severely lacking and unable to consistently perform the concepts set forth in the regulations. This would be noted in the five years before the war, with even the last set of fall exercises, in 1913, showing the same failures that had been happening for years. The inability to use the doctrine that was set forth caused many of the problems that happened in 1914. Many French officers, due to lack of training and knowledge, took the easy pieces of what they were told, attack, attack at all costs, attack and eventually you will win and discarded the more difficult pieces like maneuvering, cover, flanking, achieving fire superiority. It is very possible that this reduction of tactics down to their most basic was just as responsible for the French failures of 1914 as the actual doctrine was. Then there was a tendency of officers, when in a stressful situation, to pull more power and knowledge towards themselves instead of putting faith in their subordinates. When push came to shove officers wanted their men closer, under more control, not spread out and on their own. This was true at all levels of command, although it manifested differently at each level. I do want to make it clear that I do not actually blame the front line officers and men who were reducing the tactics in this way, since it was done at a mass level in almost all units it can only point to mistakes made by those higher up the chain of command both in instruction and training. But of course the regulations were not blameless for the failures. There were contradicting facets of the doctrine set forth to the army. It both tried to acknowledge the critical role of firepower on the battlefield, with the skirmish lines and attempts to achieve fire superiority, while also making it clear that the shock value of the infantry assault would still win the day.

Before we move on, I want to touch briefly on the bayonet. The bayonet is a weapon that is associated with the first world war in a very negative way, with mental images of men going over the top with bayonets on the rifles to die to machine gun fire. The question of course becomes, was it a viable weapon during the first world war, and if not why were so many countries still using it. Well the first reason was that it was still believed that the bayonet attack, executed by men brave enough to carry the infantry charge through to the finish, was still a viable method of attack. I have often criticized the European countries on this show for now paying attention the Russo-Japanese war and not learning anything from that conflict but in this case they did actually pay attention. During that war there were several very successful bayonet charged and this seemed to prove that the bayonet was still a viable answer for the infantry who were encountering increasing amounts of firepower. There was also a second, more psychological advantage to having the infantry equipped with the bayonet. When a soldier has a bayonet mounted on a bolt action rifle it is often in his best interest to charge forward to use it instead of trying to use his rifle. The hope among commanders was that this would propel the infantry through the deadly fire zone of the enemy whereas items like rifles, grenades, and machine guns made them want to stop and take cover. This psychological benefit is the main reason that the bayonet would survive for so long on the modern battlefield, far past the point where it was truly a useful tool on the battlefield. It would be used by all armies during the war, and even it was not the most effective weapon system it would still hearten the soldiers who had them and put fear into the enemies.

We now, finally, arrive at 1914 and the start of the war. Joffre had put in place his plan, Plan 17, with which he would hurl the French armies against the Germans to the south of the Argonne forest on the border shared between France and Germany. We all of course know that the Germans were going through Belgium. There is a lot of discussion that could be had about the mistakes made by Joffre in launching these attacks, but we are going to table that discussion for now and take our discussion several steps down the ladder to the officers at the front. Here officers were found to be greatly lacking. Officers, from Generals to Company to Battalion commanders simply ignored many of the prewar regulations. Their army was full of men, all with extremely high morale, that would not be a problem for the French, however since they ignored many of the regulations they quickly began to have problems. One bit that they ignored the most was the need of getting fire superiority before launching an attack, through a proper coordination of artillery and infantry. This allowed the Germans to fire down upon the waves of attacking infantry without even the need to really keep their heads down, which made all of their fire accurate and deadly. Preventing these problems probably would not have made the attacks successful, but it probably would have saved a lot of French lives, and in those early weeks the French casualties were staggering, causing Joffre to begin making changes in Mid August to try and begin to stop the bleeding. These changes ran into three problems that were a direct result of the pre-war choices made by the French. As the classic saying goes, the French went to war in 1914 with the army it had, not the army it wished that it had, even if in this case that still would not have been the one that it needed. First, in 1913 the regulations had relaxed the requirement to establish fire superiority when attacking. This was a huge problem in 1914 and had been removed before the war out of the belief that it would slow the attack too much. This relaxing of requirements then had to be reversed once the war started, but then it was difficult to get all of the army on the same page. The second problem was the 75, which while fantastic for open battles, was found to be severely lacking on the fortified battlefields of 1914, let alone what would come later. The final problem was the lack of artillery shells, which was a problem for all of the armies of 1914. These problems would be solved over time, however what was not solved was a wrong turn that the French took early in the war. Before the war they had tried to give a good amount of initiative and autonomy to their officers at the front. They wanted them to aggressively pursue offensive opportunities, not to sit at the front and wait to be told what to do, but this policy was about to change. The officers behind the front believed that the problem was in the execution of the attacks that they had ordered, not that their tactics were wrong, and so they began increasing the amount of dictation and exact planning that was done. This would just increase as the number of officers trained before the war began to dwindle as so many were killed. The second line and reserve officers had much less experience and it was longer since they had been in active training. This resulted in the concentration of control, just like had been done at the front in the early attacks only brought up the chain of command and institutionalized in the French army. Soon entire offensives were planned around precise objectives and time tables, with one failure along the line creating a cascading effect along the front. Other armies would find this method of planning to eventually be a mistake, but far too late for the French army.

Throughout the course of 1915 the French Army and Joffre would try and figure out a way to solve all of these problems and to try and fix them at the front. Joffre’s preferred method would land on a methodical battle which had both deep and strategic objectives but attempted to achieve them through a lengthy series of attacks, not one big attack. This concept would be implemented through a series of changes throughout the year. This process would begin on January 2nd with a memo that was sent out to all commanders. Within this memo Joffre encouraged his generally to meticulously plan their battles and to attack on a wide front. Now we know that this was the wrong path of innovation to go down. Over the next 3 years the French would try time and again to execute this style of attack, slow, methodical, on a wide front. What they would find is that there was just no way to keep an attack going, no matter how much they scaled up the number of men used or the amount of artillery they had they still ran into the same problems, the Germans could simply reinforce their defenses before the French could continue attacking. We know that this was the outcome, however in 1915 the French saw it differently, at Artois and Champagne throughout the year they saw that sometimes if they used enough artillery they could make a little progress, but then if they used more artillery they could make more progress. With these pieces of data the way forward seemed obvious, just keep scaling the artillery up and the gains would follow. Unfortunately this would not be correct.

The French doctrine, other than scaling up, did not see any large changes until Neville took command in late 1916. Neville had a new plan, sort of. His changes revolved around the idea of forgetting about deep objectives and instead just planning for a series of methodically planned attacks with nearby objectives, then launching these attacks again and again. Eventually these constant attacks would get through the enemy defenses and into the open, then things would change for the better. This had been worked on by Neville at Verdun where he had launched similar attacks on a much smaller scale, he believed that the theory was sound and could just be scaled up as much as required. However there was one big glaring insurmountable problem. The entire concept, which Neville called a Rupture Battle, relied on the French being able to reorganize and launch another attack before the Germans could respond. This had been possible at Verdun, where by the time Neville was attacking the Germans were already pulling out resources to move to other parts of the front. However, when the Germans actually cared, which they would on the Chemin de Dam it would be a different story. It did not help that the Germans had switched up to a different defensive style, with elastic defense now the name of the game many of the changes and adaptations that Neville had made from the previous style of attacks were pointless since the Germans had altered their style, we will discuss this change next episode but in summary it made it much more difficult to succeed by using smaller attacks with shallow objectives since the entire defensive scheme was designed to absorb small losses of territory then counter attack to drive the enemy back. Unfortunately Neville would move forward with his attack and almost break the French army in the process.

After those attacks the French would finally shift from the strategic offensive, which they had been on since the start of the war, to the strategic defensive. Petain implemented an elastic defense in depth and suspended further large attacks as he tried to nurse the army back to health. The French would experiment with concepts like assault troops, which were all the rage in 1918, but it would not be something that they would implement on a large scale. Essentially the French were about fought out by 1918 anyway and were now moving into a support role as the British and Americans took over the main role of attacking on the Western Front. This change was necessitated by the fact that the French army strength had fallen from 2.2 million to 1.6 million men at the front over the previous year. So instead of launching more operations the French took it upon themselves to equip the American forces now arriving in large numbers, and this occupied a good portion of French equipment output for the year.

To summarize, the French had come into the war with an idea of how to fight it. It had been somewhat correct, with an emphasis on small unit autonomy and the movement of control as far down the chain of command as possible this would be coupled with the goal of achieving fire superiority to create an environment where an attack could be successful. However, the difficulties of training units to execute such attacks made them change it up, and to bring control higher and remove autonomy from units at the front in favor of meticulously planning their attacks. This would make them less flexible even as the armies around them in 1917 and 1918 were becoming more flexible. Next episode we will jump into the army of the French nemesis, the Germans, to see how they adapted to the changing nature of battles on the Western Front during the war.