Doctrine Pt. 3



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 19. This episode is going to cover the German Army and their doctrine, and specifically the evolution of that doctrine during the War. Now, I feel like I am not speaking out of turn by saying that the German Army is generally pretty well thought of by most people when they look back at the events of the First World War. The reasoning for this is easy to see. In the east they vanquished all of their enemies, Russia, Romania, Serbia, all fell to the German Armies, sometimes with a little help by the Austrians. Those victories always look impressive due to the sheer number of men that their enemies had. In the West, after 1914, they were able to withstand 3 years of the best that the Entente could throw at them. Even if they were not all clean cut victories, and then there was that little Verdun adventure, they at the very least held onto the ground that they possessed. All of these facts can easily be used to paint a very pretty picture for the German Army, their skills, and their doctrine during the war. However there was not anything super human about it, and they certainly did not have all of the answers to the problems posed by the war. In his work Perfecting War: The Organizational Sources of Doctrinal Optimization, Michael Allen Hunzeker would say that the “German army was not necessarily more creative, original, or innovative than its adversaries.” In fact there were a few things that the Germans in some ways just lucked into during the war, or advantages that they gained only after paying great costs that just so happened to work out for them. As we discuss the various innovations by the Germans over the course of this episode keep in mind a few of these advantages. First, the Germans had the ability to test ideas and experience different things in the environments of the Eastern Front instead of being confined almost entirely to the Western Front like the British and French. Second, the Germans had no political need to attack on the Western Front for most of the war, a freedom denied to their enemy at a time when trying to attack presented a plethora of challenges, why this was so important is something that we will discuss during this episode. I don’t want to sell the Germans too short though, they did have a few things that they were much better at than their adversaries. They were just straight up better at documenting and discussing lessons learned at the front. They were just straight up better at transforming ideas that came out of those lessons and turning them into good doctrine. They were just straight up better at keeping ahead of their enemies, if only by a little bit. However, all of these advantages were not enough to produce the only thing that mattered, victory. At the end of the day the Germans would not be able to solve the greatest problem of the war, cracking the Western Front, not in the heat of August 1918, not in the hills around Verdun in 1916, and not in the frantic attacks during the spring of 1918. Every time they tried to achieve a great victory in the west they failed, they were just fortunate enough to not have to attempt it very often.

The German tactical doctrine before the war was trying to grapple with the same problems facing everybody else. Beginning in the late 1800s the role of firepower and mass on the battlefield would be a topic that would fluctuate back and forth in the German regulations. For example in 1906 their official manual was still sort of a mess. It identified the need for attacking infantry to first achieve fire superiority and the need to win the firepower battle before finishing the attack. However, it also said that it was bad to wait too long for the charge to happen since it would make the infantry too complacent. Exact definitions of what was too late was a bit hard to come by. As for the specifics of what the attack should look like, those details also fluctuated. By 1908, which was the last big revision of the doctrine before the war, the goal was to get within 160 yards with a good amount of spacing, somewhere between 2-4 yards between soldiers. After getting that close the infantry would begin their final assault along with fire support from artillery, machine guns, and any other method of fire. It was clear in all of this that the infantry was the decisive piece of the puzzle and everything else was secondary. I want to point out these details not because they are revolutionary, or even truly interesting, but precisely because they are neither of those things. The German prewar doctrine was different from the French only due to somewhat meaningless detains. They made the same errors and the same mistakes as everybody else. Too much reliance on infantry fire, not enough emphasis on how the infantry would interact with the machine guns and artillery, not enough consideration for the firepower that the enemy would have.

There were a few things that the Germans did have right though. Although at first glance they would not seem to make much of a difference right at the beginning, and in one instance, of a certain turn to the south leading von Kluck’s army to the east of Paris, it would actually harm their efforts. I am of course referring to a certain amount of decentralized command. This had been the practice of the German army for years before the war due to concerns that they had about logistics and communication. Moltke simply did not believe that it would be possible for High Command to properly control all of the fighting along what would eventually be the entire front. Because of this concern the only thing that could be done was to push overall decision making down the ladder. This did not go too far down the line, and it only reached the upper areas of the officer corps however it would give the ability to the Army commanders to run their armies as they saw fit. The General Staff would therefore depend on the army commanders discussing matter amongst themselves, with the Chief of the General Staff acting as a coordinating element. During the first world war the Germans would have to continue this trend by pushing autonomy down through the ranks, however their longer history of some sort of decentralization would help them in the quest to push command authority as far down the chain as possible to allow for greater tactical flexibility. Eventually the Germans would be pushing autonomy down to the individuals. This is not the only path that they could have chosen, in fact the French taught a similar style before the war, with junior officers given autonomy during the attack however during the war instead of continuing this trend they pulled it back and went the opposite by greatly recentralizing after 1914. One benefit of this decentralization, and one that I think can be easily hidden, is the role that it plays in learning lessons about how to fight the war. When you empower men at the front, or near the front, to do what they think is best you can get a lot of variation, a lot of experimentation. Just trying new stuff can be really important when you do not know the answers to the problems in front of you, but it is critical to be able to take those lessons learned, often in failure and costly in lives, and make sure that it informs decisions in the future. This is another advantage that the Germans had over their adversaries, they were better at assessing their performance and making adjustments when required. Much of this ability was rooted in the General Staff who before the war served this purpose as an advisory body. They would take information gained from fighting or maneuvers, analyze it, and provide recommendations and give advice to everyone involved. The commanders were then obligated to go along with that advice.

Much like the other armies, in 1914 the German army emphasized the attack over almost anything else. This fact would be identified by Crown Prince Wilhelm as one of the reasons that the Germans took so long to adjust to the new reality of warfare. He would say after the war that “The underlying cause of this dull-wittedness in becoming adapted to the form of tactics during the First World War must have lain in the very thorough and somewhat one-side methods of training in peacetime, in which defense, as a method of warfare utterly foreign to the German spirit, was treated in a somewhat step-motherly fashion” Overall, the opening battles, at least at a tactical level, did not greatly defy what the Germans expected. It showed that a powerful offensive was capable of making progress, at least for awhile and then those attacks bogged down when they got further and further into enemy territory. I realize that I just got done praising the German ability to analyze failure and enact changes to counter it, but I am going to go against that here. When looking at later attacks on the Western Front by the Germans, especially those launched in the spring of 1918 there seems to be one critical lesson of 1914 that was forgotten. In a war with armies the size of those during the first world war, even in 1914 when they were smaller than in 1918, the attacking men, who had to walk their way forward to continue the attack, would simply wear out before a true breakthrough could be achieved. It happened in August 1914, with von Kluck’s men literally falling asleep on their feet, and it would happen again in 1918.

1915 was a year of learning for the Germans. After they had decided to take the defensive in the West for the year they settled into withstanding whatever their enemies threw at them, and they knew that there would be attacks. In retrospect we know that the battles o the year would be tiny compared to what would come later, but they were larger than anything seen before. They also began a multi-year process of learning, digesting, and then disseminating new lessons to the German armies and soldiers. They would experiment with various defensive techniques in the West, and with various offensive doctrine in the East. Then they would begin the habit of distributing memos summarizing what had been learned in these experiments, and what the best practice was for the armies moving forward. This would become more critical as the war progressed and more drastic changes needed to be made. In the west the year would be all about the defensive though, and when the year started the Germans were still using the old style of defense. This meant that many commanders never even bothered creating secondary lines and instead massed most of their men in the front lines. These men were then told to hold that line at all cost. These commanders had the same concerns that the French would when it came to having multiple lines of trenches, they believed it would make retreat too appealing or their men. This mindset would slowly change over the course of the year and before the big spring battles many areas of the front had defenses that extended up to 2.5 kilometers in depth. However the men in the front line, and those immediately behind, were still told that they were to hold their positions at all cost. After Loos in late September this began to change. In order pushed down from the top the German high command changed doctrine and told the commanders at the front to only man the front lines lightly, and to make the main line of resistance some ways behind. They did not give exact distances for this main line of resistance since it should be placed in a way to reduce artillery observation like on the reverse slope of a hill if possible. With the growing threat of Entente artillery it was hoped that this would reduce the number of casualties from shelling. By the time of the fall offensives in Champagne this system, along with defensive works up to 8 kilometers in depth, were in place. They might not have known it at the time, but this change as just the very beginning.

1916 was the year of the battles, and during our episodes on those battles I feel like we discussed the doctrine at that point pretty well, so I will not be going too deep into the weeds on it during this episode. The most important and lasting effects of those battles, for the Germans anyway was that at Verdun it was proven that no matter how much artillery you have you cannot guarantee success using old offensive tactics, a different method had to be found. At the Somme it was proven that if the German Army did not find a different way of defending they were going to be bled white by the more numerous Entente armies. Both of these would affect the thinking and doctrine for 1917 and beyond. Before we get to those later years lets talk about another change in the German doctrine in 1916 that would have an effect on the next 2 years of war, and it had to do with artillery. The most important officer when it comes to the usage of German artillery in the waning years of the war was Colonel Georg Bruchmuller. He would very precisely design the artillery programs for the Germans, which would be used so famously during the spring 1918 offensives. His plan called for four phases in the artillery barrage. The first was not even related to the guns but was instead an extensive aerial reconnaissance to determine enemy positions. The second would be a hurricane barrage right at the beginning to catch the enemy of guard. The third would be a shift to other targets for the artillery to hit like enemy strong points and the enemy artillery. Finally, the artillery would lay a creeping barrage in front of the infantry to act as a curtain as they attacked. Unlike the Entente bombardments in 1916 Bruchmuller believed that these artillery actions should be short in duration “In a fire action of a few hours only, the complete destruction of the enemy trenches, a complete harassing of rear areas, etc. could naturally not be achieved. This was not at all contemplated. We desired only to break the morale of the enemy, pin him to his positions, and then overcome him with an overwhelming assault” This went against the doctrine of the French and British who in 1916 were still trying to use their lengthy bombardments to completely destroy the German positions. This mindset, that the artillery was not there to destroy every single enemy position but instead to make the enemy soldiers unable to meet the assault was a lesson that the French and British would take a long time to learn. Oddly enough Bruchmuller’s beliefs were much closer to what all the armies had in their pre-war regulations. Before the wr the artillery in all of the armies was not seen as the decisive arm, there was no though to the artillery destroys the infantry occupies, instead the artillery was just there to soften up the defenders a bit before the infantry attack. Sure, Bruchmuller would have orders of magnitudes more guns and ammunition than even the most ardent artillery support could have hoped for before the war, but his goals were exactly the same as those from before the war. Bruchmuller also believed that the infantry and artillery should work much closer together than they had in the past. He believed that the best chance for success required the infantry to trust the artillery and therefore he went to great lengths to share information in detail with the infantry that his guns would support. These details included precise timings and targets, how things were to be done, and he would even take questions from the infantry on any topic. This went a long way to melding the artillery and infantry into one fighting force.

During the winter of 1916 to 1917 the German army adopted a new defensive doctrine which was based on the idea of a more elastic defense. This was done due to the entente tactics of 1916 which by the end of the year were somewhat effective, not at necessarily taking a lot of territory, but in killing a lot of Germans. This change in doctrine began when Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over command in late 1916. After taking command Ludendorff would right that “on the Eastern Front we had for the most part adhered to the old tactical methods and old training which we had learned in the days of peace. Here in the west we met with new conditions and it was my duty to adapt myself to them” It was clear that the Entente would almost always have more men and material, at least as long as the Russians were in the war, and because of this the German Army needed to find a way to try and preserve at least some manpower while also countering what the Entente had gotten so good at in 1916. This meant getting better at avoiding those massive artillery barrages that hit any troops in the front line so hard. They had also gotten good at causing enough destruction with that artillery that the first few lines of German trenches could be taken before the German counter attacks began. This caused the Germans to give up one concept which they, and everybody else, had held since the beginning of the war. They were going to have to, at least temporarily, give up territory voluntarily. This was a concern, territorial losses were nothing to scoff at even from just the propaganda perspective, and many commanders were hesitant to make any change that might reduce the fighting spirit of the troops or that might make them too passive. However, these concerns would all have to take a back seat to the more pressing issue of manpower and the ridiculously high attrition experienced during the 1916 battles.

The desire to change doctrine had been an idea that had predated Hindenburg and Ludendorff taking command and many officers on the Western Front knew that something had to be done and they began to push for changes. This began in the Operations Section, a group of officers that were sort of a clearing house for ideas, opinions, and information from the front. They took all of the ideas and opinions and tried to mesh them together with the numbers and evidence that they had from the front to developer a new set of tactical principles. These principles would then be finalized by Ludendorff and his staff and then distributed to the army as a whole for implementation. The first of these documents pertaining to the new elastic defense in depth was called The Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare. This document, with alterations along the way, would be the guiding document for the German defensive doctrine for the rest of the war. One important feature of this document is that while it spent a lot of time discussing how the defense related to the enemy at no point did it mention that keeping territory was an objective, a completely turn-around from earlier in the war.

These new tactics meant that the Germans would no longer put their greatest strength in the front lines, or even in a line behind it, it would instead be spread out over three successive zones. How these were to be constructed was outlined in the Principles of Field Construction which was released in late 1916. The three zones would be the outpost zone, the battle zone, and the rearward zone. The outpost zone would be thinly held by troops mostly just there to keep an eye on the enemy before the attack and then to maybe slow them down when the attack started. This was then followed up by the battle zone, which would extend up to 3 kilometers in depth depending on the terrain. This zone would be based around machine gun nests and other fortified positions which were ideally to be placed on the reverse slopes of hills or other concealed areas. This arrangement lowered the effective range of the machine guns, which they would be firing into a hill, however previous battles had shown that it was better to minimize the damage from artillery, and to maximize surprise, rather than have long distant engagements. The practice of moving from the trenches and into shell holes, basically sperading out as much as possible during an attack was formalized, having been first used by Germans on the Somme as a matter of necessity. To give some idea of how the troops were arranged and their density one regiment would be positioned in depth to occupy all zones. 1 Battalion would be placed in the outpost zone and in the forward area of the main line of resistance, another would be used to fill the rest of the battle zone, then a third would be in reserve in the rearward zone. That makes it so that roughly 1/6th of the troops were in the outpost zone at any given time. The entire plan was based around constructing a defense the minimized risk from artillery and that would bend but never break. A key part of this plan was rapid, effective, and constant counter attacks on the enemy, especially once they began to advance past their own artillery fire.

To make these counter attacks effective it was necessary for authority to launch them to be pushed down through the ranks. To try and accomplish this the Germans made their changes of command a bit more fluid than they had been previously. The key to this idea was that, for example, a battalion commander in the lines would take over command of any unit sent to his sector during the battle. This prevented any confusion as a new commander was brought up to speed on the situation and oriented to the area, and it also prevented any coordination problems. When two divisions were placed one behind another, like for example when they were expecting an attack and were prepared to launch a counter attack, the divisional headquarters would be placed in the same area preventing any communications problems when it came time to commit the reserve division into the fight. Overall, the entire emphasis was on doing whatever it took to make sure there were immediate and well thought out counterattacks by all units, with officers told explicitly to not wait for permission from their commanding officer before launching these attacks. It was hoped that by giving officers this freedom they would be better able to take advantage of favorably situations in front of them, instead of wasting time waiting for permission. These changes, with autonomy continuing its trend downwards, would mirror the changes made to the German offensive doctrine in 1918.

Creating a good plan and putting it into place are two very different things. In this case the Germans were helped by a few things that they did. The biggest was how they gathered information for these new changes. They solicited feedback from all of the army commander and when the finalized information was then sent down to them they were able to see some of their ideas and information being used to create the new doctrine. This gave them a feeling of ownership and assisted in getting buy in from the commanders. The Germans were also at this point beginning to introduce more light machine guns into their infantry units, and reorganizing their basic infantry building blocks. Both of these changes were designed to increase the firepower available to the basic German infantry unit, the section, a critical aspect of giving these smaller units as much autonomy as possible. The first test of these defensive tactics was at Arras in June, when the German defense had issues during this attack there was some concern that the entire scheme was wasted effort, 6 months down the drain. However it turned out that the units in this area of the front had not actually implemented the plan correctly. As the year progressed the doctrine would show its value with Crown Prince Wilhelm giving it credit for getting the army through the defensive battles of 1917 intact.

In 1918 the German Army would become synonymous with just one thing. It would go on to influence military doctrine all over the world, it would take a special spot in popular culture, and it would even lend its name to some very poor marksmen a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away. I am of course talking about the famous Sturmtruppen, stormtroopers. The origins of the assault tactics used by the stormtroopers when they took their moment in the spotlight in 1918 began much earlier. In May 1916 a tactical manual was written by a then Captain Rohr and it was called “Instructions for the Employment of an Assault Battalion” the contents of which were based on the experiences that Rohr had as part of an experimental Pioneer unit. This unit had spent the year testing out different assault tactics with a special emphasis on switching up both the tactics and the equipment of the infantry. In a change from earlier setups not every man had a rifle, some just had grenades, some carried captured Lewis guns. In his article The Perfect Sturm Innovation and the Origins of Blitzkrieg in World War 1 John F. O’Kane would go on to describe some of the other changes in equipment “The heavy leather “jackboots” long associated with the German infantry were replaced. Lighter and more durable lace-up leather boots were used by the Austrian mountain battalions were chosen. The field uniform was reinforced with leather patches on the needs and elbows to facilitate crawling. Because the hand-grenade was now the weapon of choice for the individual stormtrooper, the leather belt and shoulder harness used to carry ammunition were replaced with an over-the-shoulder bad for carrying more grenades. Even the standard-issue 1898 Mauser carbine was replaced with a lighter version of the same weapon” The manual that Rohr wrote was read by Ludendorff who liked what he saw and when he and Hindenburg took over command in August 1916 he ordered more assault units to be created.

The theories behind the assault battalions would spread to other armies over the next two years. The Austrian army would begin experimenting with the concept by giving some of their units more weapons and more training. By the end of 1917 every Austrian division would have a battalion of these troops, and they would be receiving better rations and better pay. The Italians would also get into the assault troops game in 1918 with their Arditi units. On the German side, by the end of 1917 they would have enough stormtroopers either already trained or about to be trained to use them in a large attack. The belief in the German General Staff was that this was a piece of the puzzle that had been missing from all of the previous attacks by other armies. This would be the piece that would let the Germans win the war. The entire German army was reorganized with men hand picked, supplies prioritized, to make sure that there were enough stormtroopers for the upcoming attack. The definitive publication by the German army on the subject of assault tactics would be published on January 1, 1918 called The Attack in Positional Warfare. This was a refined and polished version of all of the concepts that Rohr had published back in 1916, with updates based on experiences at the front. It would be printed and distributed to every officer down to the battalion level.

The new doctrine emphasized the critical importance of coordination between all military arms. It devoted a fifth of its length to the role of air power. It recognized the role of artillery, not destroy the enemy but instead to disorientate and distract with everything coming back to the infantry in the end. “The momentum of the infantry must not be dependent on the barrage, but vice versa, otherwise the dash of the infantry will be checked in the rigid curtain of fire.” The infantry would be arranged in several waves, and their goals were to push forward as far and as fast as they could. Here is Timothy T. Lupfer from his work The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War “The first wave was an infantry probe (from the accompanying division) whose purpose was to identify enemy positions for the next wave, about 250 meters behind. The second wave consisted of the elite storm companies and the flamethrower section, with additional infantry support from the division. This second wave attempted to penetrate the enemy zones by pushing through weak areas to envelop enemy positions. Supporting these efforts was third wave, about 150 meters behind, which contained the storm battalion’s heavy weapons and similar additional support from the division. The third wave provided fire to support the forward movement of the storm companies and to protect the flanks of the penetrations. Behind these waves followed the remainder of the accompanying division, which reduced pockets of resistance bypassed by the storm units, provided reinforcements, and maintained the momentum of the attack. " There would be no stopping, there would be not waiting for units on the flanks or from behind. The forward units were to push forward until they could not continue.

The performance and effects of these tactics on the British will be well documented in later episodes but in short they rolled over the British positions very quickly, and then did the same to French defenses later. The stormtrooper legacy is one of fearsome attacks that made incredible gains. However, to purchase these gains there were some critical, unreconcilable prices to be paid. The first was that it quickly became clear that it was impossible to keep the forward units supplied. The German supply system had to move out over the battlefield as the forward units pushed forward and while the Germans were first class when it came to supply troops in their own trenches and when moving men and supplies around behind their lines on rail lines, they found it much more difficult to project those supplies forward. There were no rail lines over the battlefield, and building them would obviously take too long. This issue was bad enough, and was one of the big reasons that the strategic successes of the attack could never turn into victory, but it was not the only problem, and not perhaps the most important. The other issue was one of casualties. By their very nature, while the stormtroopers could produce results, they could only do so by also sustaining extreme casualties. For the German army of 1918 the casualty rates that were being inflicted on these troops were simply unsustainable. They were even worse than simple statistics though because the assault battalions had been made up of hand-picked men who were the cream of the Germany army. They were the youngest, fittest, smartest, best trained troops that Germany had, and by using them as a spearhead for the attack many of them were decimated.

The stormtrooper tactics of 1918 would go on to shape a century’s worth of small unit tactics, and it would certainly play a role in shaping the doctrine of the next war. The German military of the 20s and 30s would pour over the results of 1918, and when they went to war some of their greatest thought leaders would draw inspiration from them. The difference was that instead of men on foot they had men in Panzers, and far more mobile artillery. The concept of how the stormtroopers were supposed to work in 1918, and how they could not quite get the job done due to the limits of human endurance, would not be a problem in the mechanized wars that were on the horizon.