Doctrine Pt. 6



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode 22. We have come now to the end of our episodes on the evolution of doctrine during the war. Over the course of the last 5 episodes we have talked about British, French, German, and Austrian preparation and persecution of the war. During our introduction episode, which was episode 17, I said that we would attempt to answer these three questions for each country “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.” With this in mind I am going to answer these questions again, but instead of focusing on each country I will instead be comparing and contrasting the various countries around Europe who all had to try and solve some of the same problems. We will then close out this episode by discussing some of the misconceptions about the war that seem quite pervasive, lions led by donkeys, the superiority of the German soldier, and other such beliefs. I have really enjoyed creating these episodes on military doctrine, it is probably my favorite set of Premium episodes so far. For those who are curious, next month we will begin a series on Artillery during the war where we dive deep, much like we have with cavalry, tanks, and railways already.

Leading up the war each country had to try and determine how they were going to make war in the future. Every country had roughly the same inputs. They had the experiences of Europeans in the Boer Wars, the Russo-Japanese War, the Balkan Wars, and of course the Franco-Prussian war. What I find to be surprising is that all of the countries came up with roughly the same answer. Every country came to the conclusion that the offensive was the only path forward, and that the offensive must be pursued at all cost. This was not an incorrect evaluation, if you look at wars throughout history, from ancient times until today, it is often the case that the army that can maintain the initiative and keep the enemy on their back foot often comes out victorious. There were facts that the military leaders in every country did not consider, although it manifested in different ways. The first of these facts was simply the number of men that would be involved, far more men than any armed conflict in history, and this would affect the situation in ways that they could not account for. For the Germans the piece that they overlooked was how vast of a distance would have to be covered to try and surround an army of millions. In previous smaller wars the Schlieffen plan may have been sufficient, but since the French army was just as numerous as the Germans and they had the advantage of interior lines, they were able to move troops around faster than the Germans could advance. For the French they also did not fully comprehend the size of the armies during the war. They believed that by attacking through Belgium the German army South of the Ardennes would be too weak to meet their offensive. They were also incorrect, even with the needs of the Eastern Front the Germans were more than capable of standing against the French attack, in many ways they were too strong in the south, robbing the right wing of the troops that they needed. For the Austrians it meant that that the Russians would be able to absorb the Austrian offensives, almost regardless of how successful they were, and then the Austrians would be in trouble. For the British, well they just did not have enough men in the military, and they would have to fix that very quickly. In each of these situations the commanders were not able to fix the problem, the problem that the enemy simply had too many men for the traditional battle of maneuver, wearing down, and then decisive attack. This inability to determine a solution would lead to the French and British attempts at breakthrough battles, and then the German attempts at Verdun where they tried something at least a little different. The evolution of the Entente attacks was evidence of them trying to figure out the solution to the problem, they first just tried scaling up everything, the number of men, and the amount of artillery while the Germans tried something different at Verdun, counting on the artillery to slowly wear down the French before the infantry even attacked.

Speaking of artillery, every country would discount the role of the heavy guns in the next war. Even the Germans who were more prepared with large artillery guns only created them because they had some specific obstacles in mind that they were going to use them on. They knew that they would have to batter their way through the Belgian fortifications right at the beginning of the war, and possibly French fortifications after that. This led to the creation of some of the massive siege guns that were used at Liege, Antwerp, and Verdun. Just like the French they believed that it would not be the large guns that would be used after these fortification lines were breached, instead they believed it would be the job of field guns after that. This led the French to create the 75mm gun, the best field gun before the war. But these guns would be the wrong guns for the war ahead, and they would be firing the wrong kind of ammunition, with far too much faith put in the power of shrapnel shells which would have almost no effect against men in trenches. Before the war no army put too much time into a job that would become synonymous with artillery during the war, cutting barbed wire. Cutting the wire would be an area that would require a lot of thought and practice once the war started, and it was barely considered before the war. The British, for example, would not truly figure out how to break down the wire until 1917. Everybody knew that they were going to use barbed wire for defensive purposes, and knew that the enemy would as well, but nobody ever thought that the war would slow down enough for the enemy to pile up the amounts that would happen by the end of the war.

That is enough talk about the situation before the war, the important part is what each nation did once the war started. The first thing to discuss is the ability of each army to test new ideas. The French and British get a lot of criticism for their role in the war, of these huge attacks on the Western Front. One of their biggest issues was how difficult it was for them to test new ideas on the scale on which they were required. By the end of 1915 they had made one mistake that would doom them to 2 years of failures, the simple misbelief that bigger was better. Due to this belief they robbed themselves of the ability to rapidly test new ideas and to iterate on those ideas. 1916 is a great example. The British, and the French without Verdun, would have spent the first half of the year, or the first 9 months as originally planned, preparing for one attack. This attack would end up being based on false assumptions and unobtainable goals, but because they both believed that it was only through these massive attacks that they could achieve victory they would only have one real chance to try it in 1916. When it failed, and to be clear the battle of the Somme as originally envisioned as a breakthrough battle would fail by the end of September, they would have to wait 9 months to try again in the spring of 1917. This restricted their ability to test and evaluate new ideas. They believed that small attacks could not teach them anything because it was only large attacks that would make a difference. The German army on the other hand had multiple opportunities to test and try new ideas. Sure they did not attack in the West but the Russian, Romanian, and later even the Italian front would provide them with multiple opportunities to test their theories away from the bloodletting in the West. For the first 3 years of the war they would launch multiple attacks every year on the Eastern front, against an admittedly lesser foe than the French and British. They were then able to learn things from these successful attacks, something that the Entente could only learn through failure. They were then able to turn these successes into meaningful change in their military due to the strength and power of their General Staff and their institutional learning concepts. They were also benefited in 1917 and 1918 from being able to bring in generals who were not shaped by the problems of the Western Front. The Eastern Front was so different than the West that generals had completely different experiences there. This meant that they came to believe different ideas and could bring those and a new viewpoint to the situation in the West. Sometimes this worked, like Bruchmuller and the artillery and the move away from the long bombardments and unachievable objectives of the artillery, some of it less so. This is why I personally do not think replacing General Haig for the British, or Joffre earlier for the French would have made much of a difference. The one example we have of that kind of change resulted in Neville, really just a carbon copy of 1914 Joffre. If Haig would have been replaced it probably would have been by a General that held mostly similar beliefs. The Germans were able to bring in people like Ludendorff who, even though he had a lot of problems, at least brought in different views, widely divergent from what came before. I do not really want to oversell this ability to learn and adapt though. The fact remains that regardless of the progress they made by 1918 the Germans had not solved the major problems of the Western Front. They had found some ways to crack the door open, infiltration tactics being the primary reason, but they never could open it all the way. I like to describe it as, by 1917 the Entente had solved step one, how to attack the first few trenches, capture, and hold them. By Spring 1918 the Germans had solved step 2, how to keep that attack going to get past the enemies trenches and to continue to push forward for while. The British would also solve this problem in a slightly different way in 1918 through their use of Tanks, planes, and other forms of mechanization. However, no army of the First World War was able to figure out step three, how to turn that advance into any kind of strategic victory. As it was many of the countries would reach the end of their abilities to wage war before an answer was found. The French would run out of manpower and by the end of the war their country as a whole would be exhausted. The Austrians would run out of food and material, their men would be starving at the front wearing out their uniforms with nothing to replace them with. The Italians would similarly be running out of men for the front. The Germans would put everything they had into the 1918 offensives, and after they failed they would be lacking men, food, material, and the societal will to continue. The British would be less effected by some of this, but without the Americans they could not have won the war alone in 1918 and probably would have been out of men in 1919 as well. It is this last problem that I believe to unsolvable with the tools available to the armies of the first world war. Some of the armies had pushed their technology as far as they could in 1918. While the French, Italians, and Austrians had all made improvements in their military it would be the British and Germans that were the standouts. The Germans had introduced infiltration tactics. This was the best possible way to use infantry for a breakthrough, and they nearly achieved one. These tactics would be the genesis of infantry tactics in future wars as it provided them with more mobility and did not simply rely on mass to breakthrough an enemy line. The British took a different path and instead optimized around mechanization. This can be seen in many battles of 1918 not just from the British but also from the Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians. By starting to solve the issues around getting tanks, planes, infantry, and artillery to their maximum potential on the battlefield the fighting of late summer 1918 was the genesis of a combined armed doctrine that would be the root of the doctrine of the Second World War. Unfortunately for the armies of 1914 to 1918, no matter how much any of the armies optimized, learned, applied those lessons, and improved their abilities they were still restricted by the technology of the time. There was simply no way to move the number of men necessary for a strategic victory forward fast enough to achieve it. That is the true reason why the first world war was one of attrition, and why it had so many casualties for so little gain.

Before we end today I want to address two specific misconceptions and myths about the war that hover around the doctrine of the various countries involved. The first is the classic “lions led by donkeys” idea. This is the classic saying that is usually applied to the British army that the men were brave and smart but the men leading them, especially back at headquarters were idiots who had no idea what they were doing and uselessly pushed the men into the slaughtering fields. This is a narrative that was pervasive after the war, but it is also something that has less support among historians than it once had. It is one of the many ideas in history that while now discredited among historians holds on among the stories of the war. Now, I want to make it clear that the British leaders absolutely made mistakes, and those mistakes cost thousands of lives. They also were not as quick at adapting as they probably should have been. However, they did evolve, and just as fast as their peers. The exact same leadership that oversaw the great victories of 1918 had been the leaders of the great defeats of 1916 and 1917. Haig and Rawlinson had been there on the Somme, they had been there at Passchendaele but they were also there at Amiens and through the 100 days. While it is easy to criticize and judge these men based on hindsight, they should instead be judged against their peers. The French, Germans, Americans, nobody solved the Western Front. The German generals had victories, but those were almost all in the East where their technological and industrial capacity gave them just as much of an advantage as the British and French would have had against similar opponents. The British army improved over the course of the war, and that improvement came both from the bottom, with more capable small unit tactics and officers, but also from above from Haig’s support and push for tanks to Palmer’s development of bite and hold attacks. They made mistakes, but due to the problems we discussed previously in these episodes, they probably was no way around these mistakes, they were not geniuses, but they were no donkeys.

Our next myth is one that I struggle without sometimes when it comes to how I present information on the show. This is the myth of the general superiority of German troops. This is a myth that goes beyond just the scope of World war 1 and also bleeds into the second world war, and it is one that I have fallen into the trap of perpetuating, almost by accident. There are stories of small numbers of German troops holding off large numbers of British on the Somme or the French in Champagne, but these are not where the greatest part of this myth comes from. It would be in the East that these types of stories and these stereotypes are the most pervasive. Generally they are based around the stories of Tannenberg, with the Germans soundly defeating 2 Russian armies, both bigger than the German forces, or maybe the 1915 offensives that soundly defeated the Russians and pushed them out of Poland, or in 1916 when just a few German divisions saved the day against Brusilov. But when hearing all of these stories it is important to remember that the typical German infantryman was no better than those they were facing. This idea, that the German soldiers were better, stronger, braver, was all part of the propaganda campaigns, which were racially motivated, to promote the idea that Germans were just better than the lesser slavs in the east. This was used before World War 1 by the Germans, was certainly utilized during the war, but would find its darkest iteration between the wars and then during World War 2. The entire driving force behind the Nazi movement was around how superior the aryans were when compared with other races, and they used stories of the German soldiers and their victories over the hordes of Slavic soldiers as part of their narrative. The fact does remain that the Germans were successful in the East, and this cannot be denied, but this had far more to do with the Germans having vastly better logistics, training, artillery, and tactics instead of them being superior on a man to man basis. The best proof of this was when the Germans brought Austro-Hungarian soldiers into their ranks later the war, these soldiers, be they Czech, Ruthene, Serbian, or any of the other ethnicities of the empire, were just as effective as the German troops they were serving with.