The Static Front
Why There Was No Breakthrough in World War I on the Western Front

Michael J. Crane, Sr.

It is fairly common knowledge, at least among students of history, that the Western Front was stalemated almost from the beginning of World War I until the armistice went into effect in November 1918. This stalemate is often attributed to many causes, among them technological problems, tactical problems, and the difficulty encountered due to the huge size of the opposing armies in a relatively restricted area. It is my intention to discuss these and other causes, and in the process, state my case for the one factor that is usually ignored, indeed, the one factor which my research has convinced me outweighs all the others.

The conventional explanation offered by historians for the deadlock is that by 1914 technology and industrialism had overtaken military strategy and tactics, making them obsolete. Supposedly machine guns and rapid-fire artillery had made the traditional tactics worthless; linear tactics and cavalry charges were things of the past by 1914. This explanation is accurate to a degree; as far as it goes, it explains the situation. I contend, however, that this explanation ignores the crucial factor: leadership.

Before a case-by-case analysis can begin, a brief chronology is in order. In August 1914, war broke out between Germany on the one hand and France, Belgium, and Great Britain on the other. (Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia were involved as well, but they are not our concern here.) The Germans relied on the Schlieffen Plan; the French relied on their Plan XVII. After the maneuvering and fighting of late summer and autumn of 1914 had subsided, the front had stabilized and entrenching had begun. The trenches got deeper as time wore on, and the casualty lists got longer, but no significant breakthrough resulted. There were a few occasions when one side got close, but only after exhaustion set in did the war end. Strategy
The Schlieffen Plan relied upon the reserve mobilization system originated by Helmuth von Moltke (the elder). The Prussian reserve system proved its value during the German wars of unification, specifically the wars against Austria and France in 1866 and 1870, respectively. The Prussians were able to achieve mass without sacrificing mobility, thereby fulfilling two requirements that the American Civil War had shown to be essential for victory. The success of this system caused the other powers of Europe to adopt reserve systems identical, or virtually so, to the Prussian system.

The reserve system was little more than the maintenance of trained troops in a state not unlike hibernation. The troops, after a quick course of instruction in soldiering, returned to their everyday occupations, training at regular intervals for a short time each year. The idea was to keep this reserve of men available to augment the regular standing army in the event of a major crisis. The army would "awaken" from its "hibernation" to wield its full strength. It was this reserve system, used by all the continental powers, that caused the mass of men to swarm over the face of Europe so quickly in 1914. Notably, Great Britain had no such reserve system, a fact which would cause the British much grief later. Instead, she depended upon her great navy for security.

Rates of mobilization varied from country to country, varied however. German mobilization was so organized and automatic that it was supposedly unstoppable once it had begun (Germany's forces could be mobilized in a matter of a few days). Regardless of that conjecture, it was the most efficient of all the powers' systems. Russia's system was on the other end of the spectrum. Her size coupled with a lack of railroad capacity to give her the least efficient mobilization system (Russia's forces could only be completely mobilized in a number of months -- in World War I, Russia's army continued to receive freshly mobilized troops as late as December 1914).

It was this disparity between German mobilization capability and the Russian that led Count Alfred von Schlieffen to decide on a "France first" strategy. The Schlieffen Plan called for the vast majority of German troops to be deployed against France in order to deliver a knockout blow, so that Germany's armed might could then be turned to face Russia's. The Russians could be fully mobilized in perhaps six weeks (although as events would demonstrate, this was an overestimate of Russia's capability; most of her forces, however, were available within this time span). The German and French mobilization time was between one and two weeks. Therefore, the Germans had one to two months to make their plan work.

Schlieffen was cognizant of the essential parity between France and her likely allies versus Germany. The Germans only had a slight numerical advantage over the Allied forces on the Western Front; it was through strategy that they hoped to prevail, as they had in 1870. Schlieffen also recognized, assuming as he did that Germany must pursue an aggressive strategy of attack against France, that the number of troops each side would deploy was so great as to make restriction of the fighting to the Franco-German border areas impracticable. Compounding this problem was the frontier fortress system France had constructed; Schlieffen considered these strongholds impregnable (subsequent experience bore him out). He therefore conceived of the "strong right wing." The idea was to form the German forces into two wings: a left wing and a right wing. He weakened the German left wing so much that the German troops would be required to fall back in the face of overwhelming French superiority upon their own frontier fortresses, pulling the attacking French forces in upon them. While this was going on, the German right wing would sweep through Belgium, crush the French left wing, and capture Paris and the French army in one huge bag.

The French Plan XVII coupled with this perfectly, from the German point of view, although neither side was aware of the relationship of the plans to one another. The French plan called for a direct assault on the German frontier, relying exclusively on cran and elan (loosely Americanized as "guts")--the spirit of the attack. The French plan had no realistic strategy in it, merely some strange metaphysical faith in the ability of the human body and spirit to overcome bullets, not unlike the fanaticism of some Indian cults in the American West in the late 1800s (for example, the "Ghost Dance").

Plan XVII, adopted in March 1913, remained essentially unchanged until it was enacted in August 1914. The Schlieffen Plan was changed by Schlieffen's successor, Helmuth von Moltke (the younger), a nephew of the architect of the Prussian reserve system, after Schlieffen died in 1913. The younger Moltke changed the ratio of right-wing forces to left-wing forces from 8:1 to about 3:1, violating Schlieffen's reputed deathbed wish to "keep the right wing strong." This change probably was the single most important reason for the failure of the Germans to win in 1914, although other high-level German decisions also affected the outcome of the 1914 campaign.

During the opening moves of the campaign, the French attacked just as expected. Their assaults into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were decisively repulsed. Given that the French still wore bright red-and-blue uniforms, this should hardly surprise the reader, for even the tradition-bound British army had abandoned its scarlet coats after the Zulu War, and the German army had long since adopted field-gray. This French retention of old uniforms was not due to oversight or neglect. When, in 1912, the proposal was made to adopt dull-colored uniforms as the Bulgarians had done (the Bulgarians had been very successful in the Balkan War), fierce resistance in the highest army and political circles resulted. During the opening engagements, the highly visible French soldiers were knocked down in the open by their fortified German opponents like tenpins. As it turned out, bullets were indeed superior to guts...

Due to its unexpected defensive success, Moltke allowed the German left wing to counter-attack during the Battle of the Frontiers, driving back the French forces, who were disorganized after their doomed attack against the German left wing. This retrograde movement by the French quite accidentally gave them the momentum in the appropriate direction not only to avoid the trap, but to perform the "miracle of the Marne": using the famous taxicab convoy, in addition to more important means of transport, the French and British checked the German advance on the River Marne, not far from Paris. Meanwhile, stubborn and valiant resistance by the British Expeditionary Force, probably man-for-man the finest infantry of the age, was slowing the progress of the German right wing through Belgium. Another factor in the failure of the Schlieffen Plan's execution was that the German commander closest to the Channel coast feared being too distant from his colleague on the left, and moved his forces closer to those of his colleague, shortening the arc of the German line. This shortening movement caused the rightmost German forces to miss Paris, thereby causing the execution of the Plan to fail (as Schlieffen supposedly put it, "Let the last man brush the Channel coast with his sleeve"). This last error was the death knell to German hopes in 1914, even though it was not immediately apparent to the commanders at the time. The Schlieffen Plan might have worked, even with the shortsighted changes, if the wheeling movement had not been distorted, but "what-if" is not our purpose here. Suffice it to say that the excellent Schlieffen Plan, the probabilities for the success of which were so significantly enhanced by the French Plan XVII, was bungled by shortsighted commanders.

Following the opening moves in the west, the Germans and the Allies engaged in what has been somewhat inappropriately dubbed "the march to the sea." This "march" was more a series of small engagements fought as each side attempted to outflank the other than a straight march to the Channel coast. This last-chance maneuvering failed to provide any significant outcome, and both sides began "digging in." It was after this period that a new German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, took over command of the German armed forces in the west from Moltke, who in any event had never wanted the job. It should be noted, before we leave the subject of the mobility of the opening months of World War I, that the Germans had great success at the Battle of Tannenberg in autumn 1914, against a numerically superior Russian force, by using the aforementioned principles of mass and mobility. This is worth mentioning so that the reader can recognize that maneuver and mobility were not impossible in this war, as many might believe.

Falkenhayn is perhaps most noted for his, in my view, bankrupt policy of winning the war by attrition. This policy demonstrates a complete lack of imagination. It was his view that the French could be defeated by a huge attack against a major strong point, and he chose Verdun. This is the first example of what were termed "big-push attacks." The idea was that if enough energy and men and ammunition were concentrated and expended, then the enemy would break from the resulting pressure and the attacking forces would either advance virtually unhindered or the enemy would collapse completely and the war would be over. This incredibly stupid method was tried once by the Germans, and then they reverted to the strategic defensive so that they could fight against Russia, while allowing the Allied forces to "push" against them.

The Allies, apparently, never did learn to appreciate the bankruptcy of the "big-push" strategy. On the Somme, at Verdun, again and again the Allies attacked "over the top." Even the Americans at first engaged in this ludicrous foolishness after their entry later in the war. Eventually the French army mutinied in 1917, refusing to attack any more, but consenting to continue the defense. The French generals had the good sense not to try to force the issue (perhaps for no other reason than that the Americans were coming with fresh troops).

Hundreds of thousands of men died in these senseless attacks, all for a few hundred yards of barren real estate. Only the Germans developed new tactics to mitigate their difficulties, which we shall examine later. Eventually the Americans arrived, and the naval blockade of Germany by the Allies made itself felt before the German U-boat blockade of Britain could accomplish its goal of defeating that country; the Central Powers began to fall like dominoes. The two sides had fought each other to the point of exhaustion and the Germans temporarily lost their nerve as their allies deserted them one by one; internal civil disorder resulted in Germany and General Erich Ludendorff could not bring the situation under control. Armistice resulted.

Technological Factors
The recurring theme of the First World War is the machine gun. No major war had been fought on the European continent since 1815, with the possible exception of the Crimean War (I leave the decision whether the Crimean War was "major" to the reader), which was fought without the "benefit" of twentieth-century advances in weaponry. In the interval, there were no tactical developments to match the developments in weaponry. The successful German wars of unification had not persuaded even the great elder Moltke to adopt more modern tactics and formations in the second half of the 1800s, and one does not usually argue with success (the elder Moltke did, however, institute some modifications of existing tactics in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71). On the other hand, there were striking examples of wars that cried for tactical reform in the European armies, notably the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and the Second Boer War of 1899-1902.

It was thought, at least by the French, that the machine gun would not affect the course of battle very greatly. In a London Times article in March 1908, the French Senate's debate on machine guns was reported. The august senators felt the gun was of limited, if any, value. The British leadership, even in 1915, was debating whether to raise the number of machine guns in a standard battalion from the pre-war complement of two (today, an American platoon of 42 men has as many)! The Germans were alone in appreciating the value of the machine gun, and in organizing machine-gun companies to support standard infantry companies.

In the event, machine guns in fixed defensive positions soon became a dominant factor. But why? First, it was soon discovered in battle that one fortified (or entrenched) machine gun, with a full crew and plenty of ammunition, could destroy an entire attacking infantry battalion of 600-1000 men advancing across the barren stretch of ground between the trenches, known appropriately as No Man's Land, before the attackers could close with the defenders. Since there were always several such defending emplacements in any given stretch of trenchline, it is easy to see how a few machine guns could grind up a division of 10,000 men in a half hour or less. The second and more important factor, however, is that the attacking Allied, and to a lesser extent German, armies continued to use "traditional," that is Napoleonic, tactics and formations. Just like the "enemy" in so many war movies, the attacking soldiers placidly lined up like proverbial sheep for the slaughter, advancing in four or five waves, each in its turn to be cut down like so much wheat before the scythe.

One important argument needs to be made at this point. There were only two offensive actions that came near to causing a strategic breakthrough by attacking forces. The first was the British attack at Cambrai (20 November to 3 December 1917); the second was the German Kaiserschlacht offensive between Ypres and Rheims in the spring of 1918. The first example turns on the first use of massed armor, while the second turns on the use of then-revolutionary infantry tactics. The reason the second example is of importance in my analysis of the machine gun is that the offensive was very nearly successful, as we shall see later. That fact implies that technology was not required to overcome the effects of the machine gun; that is to say, the deadlock could be broken by men as well as machines if those men used the right tactics.

The number of machine guns per division had increased by 1918. In 1914, the average infantry division had twenty-four machine guns, whereas by 1918 that same division had increased its complement of machine guns to between fifty and one hundred, with one hundred to two hundred automatic rifles as well. Obviously, defensive firepower per man had vastly increased in four years, especially when one considers that few, if any, divisions were at full strength after 1914. Given that the Kaiserschlacht offensive was very nearly successful, it would seem that to argue that strategic breakthroughs were prevented by the advent of the machine gun is rather shortsighted. Rather, it seems that the machine gun imposed a new obstacle for the military leaders to overcome.

Another technological factor of the Great War was the advent of rapid-fire (breech-loading) artillery. It was assumed that the combination of artillery and the offensive spirit of the infantry would prove overwhelming to any defending force, even one of equal size. This assumption had its roots in the Napoleonic doctrine of frontal assault backed by powerful direct artillery fire. It was widely held in the century following the Battle of Waterloo that the way to win battles was to press hard in the center with the main infantry force, with artillery providing close support. The French were not the only proponents of this doctrine, just the most zealous. This doctrine overlooked several things, however.

First, Napoleon won his great battles through the use of maneuver when his was the numerically inferior force, notably at Marengo and Austerlitz. He only used his center-thrust strategy later when he possessed the superior force, notably at Borodino and Waterloo (and at Waterloo, his margin of numerical superiority was slim indeed). It was not the center-thrust strategy that gained Napoleon his reputation; it was his ability to lead troops in complicated maneuvers that made him a Great Captain.

Second, weaponry in Napoleon's day was much less effective. Rifles were not in abundant supply; muskets had an effective range of fifty or perhaps one hundred yards. Infantry dealt with enemy infantry with the bayonet, not always by killing the enemy with their bayonets, but sometimes by merely charging or threatening to charge, thereby causing morally or numerically weaker enemy forces to run away. Artillery was of the (relatively slow) muzzle-loading variety and artillerymen used rather unsophisticated fire-control techniques. Furthermore, the effective range of the guns and the killing power of artillery loads were inferior (if that is the right word) to their twentieth-century counterparts. In the days of Waterloo-style battles, the most effective round was the solid-shot cannonball, since it acted like a very lethal bowling ball which, when properly aimed, had the effect of transforming the packed enemy troops into so many bowling pins. By 1914, artillery shells had become much more sophisticated, including a wide variety of exploding shells.

Third, the armies of Napoleon's day did not possess the machine gun or anything like it. It is obvious, reviewing what we have seen, that some tactical and strategic learning was in order, but the only way to learn total war is to practice it, and the great powers, as we have also seen, had managed to avoid just that experience for ninety-nine years.

Another weapon often mentioned when discussing the problems of the attacker on the Western Front is poison gas. It should be noted that poison gas was primarily an offensive weapon, since it was extremely unreliable in its effects; the wind might shift at any time, so it was normally not a weapon to be used to break up enemy attacks. When it was used defensively, it was used more as a passive barrier to protect flanks and the like, rather than as a form of defensive fire. If gas was so potent a weapon of attack, why then did it not produce a tactical breakthrough?

First, one must realize that weapons are developed through scientific activities and are therefore easily developed by more than one nation at a time, since scientific knowledge is usually considered to be the property of the international community and is consequently widely published and otherwise disseminated. Seldom does one nation ever gain a significant advantage through the use of a "secret weapon." Often a weapon may prove to be surprisingly more effective than previously thought, for example the French 75mm howitzer. More often, as in the case of poison gas, the side that introduces the new weapon enjoys a fleeting advantage at best, since the opposing side develops countermeasures, or a similar weapon, or both. In a protracted war, it is possible that new weapons might be used to advantage only once; after the initial use, their surprise value is lost and their ability to give an advantage to the users may be lost.

The use of poison gas is just such an example. The Germans used it first in 1915, to the great surprise of the French colonial troops opposing them, who threw down their weapons and fled. Lack of planning caused the Germans to fail to strategically exploit their tactical success, which is surprising. If the Germans did not intend to break through the Allied lines by using gas, what did they intend? In the event, grossly insufficient reserves were available to exploit the hole in the French lines caused by the gas.

Second, it must be realized that relatively speaking, gas did not produce many casualties (about 15 per cent of the World War I total to be more exact). Gas wounds were only about half as likely to cause a victim to subsequently die as were conventional weapons. Conventional artillery accounted for more than half of the battlefield casualties in the Great War, up by a factor of at least five from the 9 to 10 per cent that cannon produced in the American Civil War.

It seems accurate to say that technological advances in weaponry were an obstacle to the successful prosecution of the war by either side, not the reason why the war was unsuccessfully prosecuted. Weapons existed that did not exist in the Napoleonic Wars, but the conditions were essentially the same for both sides. The weapons in question were in greater abundance (specifically the machine gun) later in the war, when greater tactical success was enjoyed by both sides; therefore technological advances should not be held up as "the reason why there was no breakthrough" on the Western Front. Moreover, weapons of even greater sophistication were available in the Second World War, and in larger numbers; World War II casualty rates were higher; and the Second World War is characterized as a war of movement and maneuver. How then can one conclude that the First World War had no breakthroughs on the Western Front because of powerful weapons? It should be mentioned, for purposes of clarification, that tanks were frequently used in an exploitive role rather than in a breakthrough role in World War II...

Before leaving the subject of weapons and technology, I would like to add some "footnotes," so to speak.

The first involves artillery. Two main types of artillery shells existed at the time of the war: shrapnel and high-explosive, shrapnel being significantly the more expensive to produce. High-explosive rounds were just powder charges inside a steel casing, while shrapnel rounds contained steel shot as well. Shrapnel was considered for a long time to be vastly superior in producing casualties. The Germans therefore decided to forgo economy in order to gain effectiveness, while the other powers opted for economy.

Several years after the war, a testing-ground accident showered several people with supposedly lethal shrapnel; they survived virtually unscathed. Apparently the shrapnel rounds were capable of penetrating wood planks calculated to be equal in resistance to human flesh, but human flesh turned out to be much more resilient than was previously thought. To quote my source, "a lot of very humane artillery rounds had been flying around." This "footnote" is worth considering since it points out that many of our preconceived notions about weapon effectiveness, whether they be born of the proving ground or the military historian, are often grotesquely wrong.

The second "footnote" regards the effectiveness of artillery rounds against trenches. For a long time, and down to the present day, many people have accepted the notion that the artillery barrages that characterized the build-up before a "big push" were incredibly lethal. In other words, many people who have studied the Great War have accepted the lethality of these attacks as fact. That is, however, not the case.

In his book The Face of Battle, the noted military historian John Keegan analyzes in great detail the effects of artillery bombardment of trenches. While some have offered an impressionistic interpretation, Keegan's is more mathematical. He totals the weight of the shells, demonstrates the proportion of that weight that was explosive (shrapnel and casing being virtually ineffective against dirt), and then shows mathematically that the German trenchlines before the Battle of the Somme, perhaps the quintessential British "big push," were subjected to a mere one pound of explosive for each square yard over the week-long preliminary bombardment. This may sound like a great deal of explosive power, but consider that this weight of explosive was delivered over a period of a week, and that the Germans were extremely well dug in (more on this later). Imagine a pound of dynamite or TNT exploding on your roof--it might (might!) blow a hole in your roof, but it would not injure you, and if your roof is made of concrete, as many apartment-building roofs are, then you would almost certainly be unaffected. Keegan's analysis is sufficient proof to explode the myth of artillery power in an offensive-preparation role in World War I. Literary treatments like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front only reinforce such an interpretation. In short, it was the defensive use of artillery against attacking troops that caused the high casualties witnessed in World War I, not the use of that same artillery against fortified and entrenched defending troops.

The third "footnote" regards personal weapons. The Germans are often scornfully held up as "the bad guys." They used poison gas first, they caused the war, and so on and so on. For (especially) American readers I offer the following:

The American soldier in World War I was outfitted with much the same equipment as his European counterpart. But he also sometimes carried the Winchester Model 97 "trench gun" (shotgun). It was capable of firing seven aimed rounds of 00 shot in rapid succession, each round containing nine pellets equivalent to a soldier, this weapon had the capability of firing more projectiles more accurately in a shorter time than any sub-machinegun, including the Uzi, the Thompson, and the Schmeisser (readers will note that these weapons all came after World War I). The Germans pointed out, and quite rightly, that this weapon violated certain internationally established conventions of war. If nothing else, these trench guns projected soft, round lead shot, not jacketed, shaped projectiles, as other small arms did -- the difference being that a shaped, jacketed missile will cause much less damage to the target than will soft, round lead shot. Despite such wartime protests, the Americans continued to use this weapon.

The Americans also often carried the trench knife, a frightening combination of dagger and brass knuckles, which apparently was also prohibited by the above-mentioned conventions of war. Like the trench gun, the trench knife was the subject of similar protests, with the same result. This second "footnote" is included to give (I hope) a more rounded perspective on the war; the implication is, I think, obvious.

Significant Battles
It is appropriate at this point to outline some of the significant battles and lesser engagements fought on the Western Front. Just what separates a major battle from a lesser engagement is a matter of personal definition, so I leave any discrimination to the reader. Some of these actions, such as the Battle of the Somme, are actions in which there never existed the slightest possibility of a strategic breakthrough; some were ripe with opportunity; the remainder lay somewhere in between. In his book Strategy, B. H. Liddell Hart notes that some argue that the entire conflict should be regarded as one continuous battle, but then says that "a method which requires four years to produce a decision is not to be regarded as a model for imitation." I cannot but agree with Liddell Hart, despite his understatement.

Even in the opening moves of the war, tragedy due to poor leadership was possible, the presence of the opportunity for maneuver notwithstanding. At Fromelles (10 November, 1914), the Germans made a last-ditch effort to break through the Allied positions. Among the troops used were the idealistic youths of the 48th Reserve Division. These students were trained by retired officers who were veterans of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Forty-four years later, in Flanders, things worked differently. The students advanced, with banners waving, drums beating, their officers on white horses, and their sergeants carrying half-pikes to make certain that the ranks were perfectly straight. They advanced, singing Deutschland ueber Alles, into the fire of numerous professional British army units, including the famed Ghurkas. The slaughter was appalling; the event has been recorded in history as "The Slaughter of the Innocents."

At the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, the Germans introduced the world to the military effects of chlorine gas. The targeted troops were mostly French colonial troops, as noted earlier, but Canadian and British troops were also in the vicinity. Being entirely unprepared, the French colonials understandably broke and ran, leaving an undefended gap in the line four and a half miles in length. The Canadians did not however, and, subsequently, filled the gap in the line during the night. The Germans only advanced a distance of two miles, forfeiting their opportunity. Some sources indicate the possibility of a major German victory, that is the encirclement of some 50,000 British troops and the rupturing of the Allied front, but Falkenhayn stopped after advancing the aforementioned two miles.

One can only guess at what led to such a decision, but it is disgusting even to consider the possibilities. Whatever the reader may think of the possible consequences of German victory in World War I, certainly that outcome would have been preferable to the outcome we actually got (in other words, a sequence of events that led to Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, and World War II). It seems most likely that in this case, Falkenhayn's behavior was deplorably stupid or that he was a tactical imbecile, given his later "strategy" at Verdun. Other possibilities, for instance that of treasonous behavior, belong in the realm of paranoid fantasy. The one really great opportunity to end the war early with relatively slight loss of men and resources was fumbled.

As mentioned previously, the Germans initiated the Battle of Verdun. The Germans made their one try at a "big-push" attack there in 1916. To illustrate the myopic attitude surrounding the battle, I quote from a recent edition of Compton's Encyclopedia: "After the middle of July the tables were turned. The French were holding the Germans at Verdun to prevent their transfer further north." The implication is that the French were now doing the attacking; how else could they prevent the transfer of troops by the Germans? The encyclopedia continues,"There the British were launching their first great drive (!) on the Somme River ... For the victorious (!) French and their allies it was a turning point in the war."

I realize that this encyclopedia is not considered a "scholarly" work, but nonetheless the above passage is, I think, enlightening. It illustrates the senseless perspective of which even post-war writers are capable; if such narrative myopia is possible, perhaps we must not be too hard on the participants for their tactical myopia. In any event, Falkenhayn could not have been pursuing a major breakthrough as we would define it. It seems that he was more interested in killing enormous numbers of Allied soldiers than in defeating the Allied commanders in battle, regardless of the cost to Germany; he must have intended to break France by attrition. The failure of Falkenhayn's "strategy" is seen by some non-German authors, even today, as an Allied "victory."

Indeed, "bleeding France white" was Falkenhayn's objective. After a time, he had had enough, but Crown Prince Rupprecht, one of the German commanders at Verdun, had not, and insisted that the attack continue. When even he had had enough death and gore, the battle was discontinued.

But battles are not usually ended unilaterally. Falkenhayn had been correct about one thing--the French would fight virtually unto death for Verdun, and for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with military expediency. The French counter-attacked even as the British were attacking on the Somme, and took back most (not all) of the territory they had held before the Germans' initial attacks. After more than six months' fighting, most of a million young men, German and French, lay dead. Only a tiny amount of French soil had changed hands. The storm of explosive had been so great that towns composed of brick buildings in the district had been pounded by artillery unto dust; even today some of the main geographical locations in the battle can only be discerned from the air. The soil is pink...

It is useful to digress a bit at this point. There is a subtle difference, as I see it, between causing an opponent to collapse from great pressure and defeating an opponent through the use of superior tactics and strategy. As mentioned previously, Falkenhayn was interested in killing large numbers of Allied soldiers, thereby engendering Allied collapse. This is not the same thing as using tactics to dislocate an opponent, thereby disrupting his defenses and creating an unstable situation for the defender, which in turn is exploited, and so on. This latter case is the same type of fighting which characterized the Second World War. The attackers rarely attempted to win the war in one stroke; rather they attempted to enlarge on a local success in order to make a significant (strategic) gain, which in turn was exploited, leading to a still larger success which in turn was exploited, and so on. Neither Falkenhayn nor his Allied counterparts ever showed the inclination to use the principles of mass, maneuver, and mobility required to make the second type of warfare work; I therefore submit that those generals were not attempting to achieve a breakthrough as modern strategists would define it.

Verdun was the virtual end of Falkenhayn's career. He was demoted and sent off to Rumania, where, ironically, the German forces enjoyed considerable success; apparently, for all his errors, Falkenhayn had learned something about what would work tactically during the Great War (although it probably didn't hurt that he had a subordinate named Rommel under his command). At a higher level, the Germans had learned that the "big push" was not the way to go. Strangely, the British and French had not. As already noted, the French earlier had counter- attacked and had retaken, yard by bloody yard, the territory initially lost to the Germans at Verdun. Falkenhayn's attempt to cause a moral breakdown of the French did not occur for another year, and while the German casualties were marginally less than the French, it was almost certainly the Germans themselves who suffered the most in the long run from the strategy of attrition.

That same year, while the Verdun lunacy continued, the British prepared and executed their own form of insanity, better known as the First Battle of the Somme. Fresh levies, called the Kitchener Army, were brought over, apparently to avoid the problems posed by cynical veterans or to take advantage of youthful exuberance and naivete, or both. However all that may be, the instructions were simple: at the command, the men would get up out of the trenches, and walk across No Man's Land, with officers twenty yards in the lead. As absurd as that may sound, that is exactly what happened. One group of four lieutenants organized a race in which the winner would be the first to shoot his soccer ball into what "remained" of the opposing German trenchline. 60,000 British casualties resulted on the first day! This insanity went on for four months. Estimates vary, but it is commonly held that the British suffered one million casualties for a gain that could reasonably be expressed in yards. Deaths on both sides combined surpassed 1.1 million, but the British and French got the worst of it (the term "casualties" includes wounded and missing men as well as men killed in action). A detailed study of the Battle of the Somme yields a picture of frustration. Given the state of unpreparedness of the Kitchener Army, the attack should never have been made. Historians are virtually unanimous in roundly criticizing the Russians in 1917 for sending "armies" forward without rifles or boots, but to send troops forward in battalions that were battalions in name only is a slim distinction indeed. (Many of the Kitchener troops were gathered together in sufficient numbers, given one officer, usually a second-rate one at that, and designated a battalion. This contrasts sharply with the "old sweats" who had trained together, literally for years, and had numerous good officers to lead them.) The plan to have the infantry follow the artillery barrage across No Man's Land was probably the only plan that could possibly have worked, but there was sufficient evidence to show that it was not likely to work, as we shall see later. In the final analysis, the commanders knew what they were dealing with, and in any event had the final decision in their hands; there was no great need to send those ill-trained volunteers into the meat-grinder.

General Joseph Joffre, the French supreme commander, was sacked, but General Sir Douglas Haig, his British counterpart, was promoted. Joffre was finished; a peripheral front did not exist for him as it had for Falkenhayn. Both governments, British and French, fell; new prime ministers were selected. The French had not become as enlightened as they appeared; Joffre's successor was a seemingly promising, though small-minded, man named Robert Nivelle, who promised a "secret plan" to end the war. His plan turned out to be, in effect, "business as usual." In fact, Nivelle's plan called for an attack only a very short distance from Verdun. When asked how he would win, or at least turn the tide of, the war in the promised forty-eight hours, he replied, "with violence, brutality, and rapidity." At least Haig demonstrated a modest ability to learn; after the Somme he took his cues more or less from Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was, if not a great opponent of the Western Front and all that it entailed, at least a consummate politician who could tell which way the wind blew.

Nivelle continued with the same basic "strategy" as his predecessors: all-out frontal attack. The British did the same, but their generals seemed less zealous and (relatively) more concerned with not getting their men killed. Large numbers of French soldiers, however, mutinied, just as vast numbers of Russian soldiers did. Unlike the Russian commanders, the French commanders, after initial attempts to suppress the mutineers (including some executions), soft-pedaled the issue. The poilus (French frontline soldiers) eventually went back to their posts, with the tacit understanding that further "offensive" action would not be required of them; they were merely to hold on to what they had, and (presumably) wait for the Americans. French morale was shattered, however, for the rest of the war, and, arguably, for the next twenty-five years. In fairness, it should perhaps be pointed out that the French front-line units had developed tactics, at least in an informal way, that resemble fire-and-movement tactics (tactics in which two groups alternately advance in short rushes and support one another by firing at the enemy). Unfortunately for the French, this half-way development did not yield a similar development in higher-level thinking.

Tanks were first used en masse at Cambrai (20 November to 3 December 1917), where the British intended to reach "the green fields beyond" -- No Man's Land. Over three hundred of the mechanical monsters took part in the attack, but many suffered from mechanical failure. Even so, the German defense line was rather quickly breached, since anti-tank weapons had obviously not yet been developed. At a relatively light cost, the British gained six miles in one day (more than was ever gained in the months-long Battle of the Somme). After this grand achievement, they promptly stopped. No one, or at least no generals, on either side appreciated what had been demonstrated. Like the Germans at Second Ypres, the British now forfeited a tactical coup for lack of sufficient reserves to exploit the temporary advantage; for, just as the Canadians had done in 1915, the Germans quickly sealed the hole and the salient was reduced.

It is worth our while to look more closely at the strategic shortcomings of these battle plans. We have seen how the Germans at Second Ypres opened a huge hole in the British lines, and then promptly did nothing. At Cambrai, a similar thing happened. Even at the Somme, despite the horrible carnage, there were still some local successes that could have been exploited had the proper plans been laid in place. What is common to all these battles is that the planners never had any troops available for exploitation of any local success. The commanders were set upon the notion of bludgeoning the enemy's strong points, not with finding the "chinks" in his "armor." There were three divisions of cavalry at the Somme; they were never earmarked for the battle. Instead, these formations, which could at least raid and maneuver against undefended or weak rear areas, sat around and did nothing, despite the frequent talk on both sides of the line about how to make a breakthrough so that cavalry could be turned loose against the enemy. At Cambrai, there were troops that could have been used but were not. At Second Ypres, no extra troops were available for exploitation. Even after years of study, I still find it difficult to imagine what these respective commanders could have been planning and thinking about. At the very least, it seems safe to say that these commanders did not completely think through their respective situations. Indeed, they seem to have been mentally hamstrung by a "battles last for one day" way of thinking, for battles did indeed only last for one day up until and including Waterloo. But in World War I, the nature of the beast had changed. Despite anything they ever may have said, the commanders continued on in the old way, forming their battalions in line and moving out together, often leaving no reserves, or allotting strategic reserves to the task of making the breakthrough instead of saving those reserves for possible exploitation should a breakthrough result. To use an analogy from football, what good would a football offense be if it used all its running backs to open holes in the opposing line? There would be no one left to carry the ball...

Ludendorff and the Germans had their last great opportunity in 1918. The Kaiserschlacht offensive (really three offensives) began in March of that year. The Germans were planning on using comparatively new tactics developed in Russia, during the capture of Riga, by General Oskar von Hutier and Colonel Georg von Bruchmueller.

These tactics were essentially the reduction of weak points in the opposing line, as distinct from the heretofore standard tactic of reducing enemy strong points. Machine guns were to be used in the attack for the first time in the Great War. (I have seen paintings in military museums depicting the use of the Gatling gun in the attack during the Spanish-American War; this was therefore not a new idea). These attacking guns would suppress the fire of defending machine guns, thereby allowing infantry squads increased opportunity for maneuver. An element of mobility and maneuver, even though on a small scale, would therefore be reintroduced to the static front. Coupled with a short, extremely violent preparatory bombardment (drumfire barrage), along with the selective use of gas, the troops would depend on shock and surprise to carry the day. Artillery barrages had heretofore been hours-long to days-long affairs that served little purpose; if anything, the defenders were alerted. As we have seen, these barrages had little effect, but the drumfire barrage was intended merely to shock or daze the enemy, not to kill him outright.

These shock troops, or Stosstruppen, were specially trained and equipped for speed and assault. They were not intended for reduction of secure enemy positions; that was left to the follow-up troops. The Stosstruppen were intended to penetrate and gain ground (a remarkable change from Falkenhayn's "strategy" and "tactics"). Clearly, in fact, the Germans had made an effort to break the deadlock by forcing the evolution of their tactics. The only failing was the lack of understanding of the logistical requirements to exploit a rapid breakthrough; this is not surprising since the commanders had demonstrated this logistical ignorance at the beginning of the war. Indeed, the whole war is a demonstration of a lack of appreciation of logistics and the movement and placing of reinforcements, of what would today be called "battle management." Thus, at the Somme, the troops that were supposed to break through the German trenches were carrying two days' rations (carrying food into battle is usually considered a foolish thing to do, since it is heavy and exhausts the soldier prematurely; it takes up space that could be used to carry ammunition, and so on), for there was neither the will nor the way to resupply them. One is tempted to wonder what the staff officers expected their men to eat after they had captured the German positions...

The first new-style attack on the Western Front, code-named Operation Michael, began in the latter half of March, 1918, the major effort falling on the link between the British and French units in the line. It was this attack that showed the greatest promise, since the tactics used were new to the British, who were required to make the largest effort to stem the German tide. The French commander, Henri Phillipe Petain, was so distressed by this attack, as were his men on the scene, that he told Haig that if the Germans pressed their attack any harder, he would have to abandon the trench line and fall back on Paris. Had he done so, this would have given the Germans the choice of either destroying the British Expeditionary Force or pursuing the French to Paris; either course would likely have brought about a settlement of the war.

In the event, it seems that Ludendorff again lost his nerve as he had at Tannenberg; or else he did not fully appreciate the ramifications of the strategy required to make the new shock tactics fully successful. At what can only be termed the eleventh hour, Operation Michael was thwarted. British actions, coupled with Ludendorff's hesitancy, saved the Allied situation.

Two more attacks followed, but these were less strong and less determined. While they gained significant ground compared to earlier efforts by either side, Ludendorff's intention seems to have been the disruption rather than the rupture of the Allied line (in fairness, it must be said that merely disrupting the line had worked in Russia only a few months earlier). The Allies held on, however, and, with the arrival of the Americans, the strategic balance shifted irrevocably to the Allied side.

The previous section was devoted to outlining the major actions on the Western Front in order to suggest indirectly what I shall now suggest directly: faulty leadership was the immediate, and most important, cause of the stalemate. While this assertion seems rather sweeping, I remind the reader that I did not say leadership was the only cause, just the most important. In order to make my case, I shall give evidence that is not strictly related to the history of World War I, but rather is related to military principles.

While it is accurate and fair to say that technology was a major factor (some maintain that it was the factor), I submit that leadership can mitigate the problems posed by enemy weaponry. I am not alone; the noted historian and military expert James F. Dunnigan makes the same point in his book How to Make War. To quote that work: "... motivation, leadership, training, and equipment produce victory." Furthermore, Dunnigan states that: "... [leadership] can allow the attacker to uncover the defender's weaknesses"; the implication is that by doing so, a military leader can achieve victory.

It is useful to note that poorly trained and poorly led troops do not press attacks and take heavy casualties as a consequence of their poor preparation. Since training is part of the leadership function, it seems clear that the military hierarchy should take the lion's share of the blame for the disaster of the First World War. Men will start fighting for any number of reasons, but they will continue to do so and succeed only if they have confidence in their leaders, training, equipment, and themselves.

The previous paragraph might seem to imply that all the troops on the Western Front were poorly trained and led. To draw this conclusion would be to oversimplify. The most obvious cases of poor training and leadership were found on the Eastern Front in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies. On the other hand, varying degrees of training were received by the troops who made up the armies on the Western Front. The troops with the best training would undoubtedly have been the "old sweats" of the British pre-war Regular Army. The men of the German Army were a close second, and those of the French Army, on the whole, a fairly distant third. However, after the initial campaigns had taken their toll, the quality of training and the quality of those who did the training declined. The Kitchener Army of 1916, for example, assembled hosts of ill-trained men and sent them to the front with little in the way of preparation or support. The German levies of late 1918 fall into this category, as do the men of the French Army of 1917. The French Army, it will be remembered, refused to attack in 1917, and agreed only to defend its positions. It was only after the French leadership changed that the French Army became willing once again to attack. In short, the generalization offered in the previous paragraph must be applied with consideration of which army and which period of the war is being discussed.

Throughout history, theorists have maintained that the most successful military leaders are those who achieve their objectives without fighting and destruction. While this may seem obvious, it is not always so. The side that shows superior leadership will usually win; this leadership need not be Hannibalic in its quality, but merely demonstrably superior to that of the enemy side.

It seems obvious that, as a Vietnam-era veteran, I strongly favor the leadership explanation, since I was close to an environment similar to the one I described earlier. It is only fair to the reader for me to declare my views, since part of the study of history is the determination of an author's bias. I have advised you of mine, but I am not alone; I shall now suggest that Mr. Dunnigan's assertions about successful theorists and their espoused principles throughout history are in fact accurate.

The earliest military theorist of note is the Chinese thinker Sun Tzu. The exact identity of this pre-Christian figure is not certain; indeed, it is not clear whether "he" was one man or more than one. What is certain is that a body of writing attributed to "him" exists and is the basis of the military theory used by such historical figures as Mao Tse-tung.

Sun Tzu (hereafter I shall refer to him as if he were indeed one man) was a writer of military strategy who also advised the Chinese emperor(s) of his day. Some of his principles follow:

"Victory is the main object of war ... delay ... [means] morale [is] depressed."

"[When leadership morale diminishes] ... advisors (that is, leaders) ... [will do a poor job]."

"Do not put a premium on killing. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. Capturing [the enemy] is better than killing [him]. Attack first the enemy's strategy, second his alliances, third his army, and lastly his cities (or his strong points)."

"[The leader who makes] fewer mistakes will win."

While the last may seem obvious, it is not always so in practice. One last quotation from Sun Tzu is of a slightly different slant:

"[The leader of a] martial host [controls its] morale."
The reader should be able to apply the quotations above to some or even all of the events that were laid out earlier and draw some logical conclusions. The leaders, except for the German ones in 1917 (Riga) and 1918 (Operation Michael) did not adhere to the order of attack specified by Sun Tzu, but rather attacked constantly the defender's strong points. The leadership on both sides suffered loss of personal morale at one time or another (we have seen as much), and in the case of Ludendorff and the Germans, at a critical time; this circumstance affected their performance and the destiny of their commands and of the nations they served. While in 1914 the leaders on both sides talked of being "home before the leaves fall," even after the deadlock had begun, virtually no leaders seemed truly interested in, or capable of, creating a quick resolution to that deadlock. Morale certainly suffered on the "home front" and among the front-line troops as well. The works of Sun Tzu were discovered before this century; that is to say, the soldiers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century should and could have studied them.

Another prominent historical figure who wrote extensively on the art of war was the Soldier King, Frederick the Great of Prussia (some historians deny Frederick the Great the title of Soldier King, awarding it to his father instead). As an enlightened despot, he was interested in furthering his country's interests, and the interests of his army were intertwined with those of Prussia. Frederick was interested in winning his wars more than in fighting them. His wars were characterized by the use of maneuver and mobility in order to attain superior mass at the critical time.

Frederick wrote that "the ... general ... has more influence..." By 1914, nationalism and its emotional appeal had eroded Frederick's admonition to avoid unnecessary war ("A general ... will never give battle if [it is] not important..." and "Never commence hostilities unless you have the most glowing prospects for [success]..."). National and personal vanity, animosity, and hate must certainly be counted among the conditions leading to the Great War, and the lack of such leadership as Frederick considered essential was a cause of the deadlock.

Probably the most famous saying regarding leadership and morale is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: "The moral is to the physical as three is to one." Napoleon knew that morale is cultivated by leaders; it may originally come from the troops themselves, but like glory, it is fleeting. The commander is responsible for the continued moral well-being of his men. Wellington and Blücher, Napoleon's adversaries at Waterloo, are both said to have remarked that Napoleon's presence on the battlefield was worth an additional 40,000 men.

One could find innumerable sayings on the importance of leadership in war, but I think some of the most illuminating opinions are those of General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. He noted that American troop units had excellent morale. Furthermore, he pointed out that "a competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops ... an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops." General Pershing was adamant about maintaining American divisional integrity (the policy of keeping large American fighting units, that is, divisions, together, instead of breaking them up into small fragmentary units for the purpose of reinforcing exhausted British and French units). His goal in this was to preserve the confidence and morale that comes from working closely with men one has trained with and is acquainted with; indeed, Pershing was successful in keeping all American divisions together to form an autonomous American field army. Pershing believed that effective high command was a requirement not met by the European Allies; vigor, stamina, and leadership were required of higher-level commanders, and the British and French commanders did not exhibit those qualities. In pressing his point, Pershing noted that younger men had higher commands in the United States Army; moreover, many Allied, in other words, non-American, commanders were merely figureheads.

Even General Pershing was not the source of a revolutionary answer to the deadlock. In noting the British "victory" at Cambrai, he felt that the front was too narrow, considering the depth of the objectives. In noting the "successful" (!) offensive on the Somme, he contrasted the British actions with those of the French at Verdun, which he considered a failure. All in all, however, Pershing seems to have been one of the better top commanders on either side.

On the tactical level, Pershing noted that "British and French troops are not trained for open warfare," also that the "French thought open warfare visionary," that is, a fantasy. A French General Headquarters memorandum dated 1 May 1918 stated that "Americans dream of operating in open country after having broken through the front. This results in too much attention being devoted to this form of operation." Apparently trench-foot was beginning to seep into the brains of the Allied commanders at higher levels. While the French may have learned through the baptism of fire how to attack at the company level, and the Americans had not yet done so, the Americans demonstrated flexibility in their thinking; they avoided the hidebound thinking that the Allied leaders demonstrated at the high levels of the military hierarchy.

Pershing stressed the use of the machine gun for the attack (as did the German Stosstruppen in 1917-1918 and the Americans in the Spanish-American War) and the use of artillery and infantry in close support of one another despite the difficulty of such efforts. Pershing was apparently aware of the value of combined-arms tactics. He used heavy artillery against sensitive points (road junctions, railheads, communications, and so forth) rather than against trenches. Pershing seems to have learned most of the grand tactical lessons needed for success at the point in history represented by the watershed year of 1918.

B. H. Liddell Hart asserts throughout his book Strategy that the only successful military tactics are those which use an indirect approach; indeed the purpose of his book is to define and illustrate the indirect approach and its successful implementations throughout recorded military history. We have seen some of his opinions already; suffice it to say that Liddell Hart deplored most of the tactics and strategy used in the Great War, specifically and especially the big-push attacks and the direct attacks on fortresses. It was Liddell Hart's experiences as a captain on the Western Front that prompted him in the long run to write the book. He felt that the tactics used by the Stosstruppen came near to an indirect approach.

The aforementioned author James F. Dunnigan is straightforward in his conclusions on leadership, pointing out that leadership can overcome all reasonable obstacles, including those presented to the leaders during World War I.

Recently (September-November, 1985) the local public television station aired a series by Gwynne Dyer, a military historian. While this series was devoted to the issue of war and peace in general, a significant portion dealt with World War I in particular.

Dyer maintains that warfare has essentially remained the same throughout history, and Sir John Hackett, a noted British military figure who was interviewed as part of the presentation, added that the soldier has also been the same from the Stone Age until today. The issue being raised was that of morale. Winning depends on discipline and morale, Dyer said, and the object of military forces is to break down the other side's control (in other words, its discipline and morale).

During one sequence showing the British high command, Dyer noted that "They (the British generals) aren't wicked men; some of them aren't even stupid." Let me put this flippant but somewhat appropriate quotation in context: Dyer was pointing out that the lessons of the American Civil War had been lost upon the European military and political leaders. He indicated that even the trenches were not a plan of the leadership to keep the men alive; rather they evolved from the efforts of the men themselves. Dyer says of the strategy of attrition: "The Allies had more men, so when all the Germans were dead, they would still have some men left, so they would have won." Hyperbole perhaps, but an interesting comment on the somewhat Clausewitzian Allied frame of mind (Karl von Clausewitz, the eminent nineteenth-century military theorist, is perhaps best known for his writings that called for success through the use of "blood and iron." Clausewitz is perhaps also the most misunderstood and misread military theorist. Clausewitz was a proponent of military action in order to achieve diplomatic ends, but rampant nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century caused readers to pervert his assertions into a doctrine of slaughter and struggle unto death. The results of those interpretations were seen at Verdun and the Somme. In spite of experience, many readers interpret his writings in the way they were interpreted in the late nineteenth century).

With one million killed on all fronts in the first two months of the war, the scale of warfare had clearly changed. The changes in weaponry had been revolutionary, in fact corresponding to the Industrial Revolution. But the strategy and tactics of war as practiced in Europe had not even begun to change significantly. It is easy for us, with our 20/20 hindsight, to point the finger of blame at the leadership and shout "villain!," but we must remember that these men were humans with human failings. As a military veteran, I am especially prone to this behavior; the leaders in question in fact should have changed their methods but failed to do so or, worse, did not even try. Perhaps they were mostly just mediocre men thrust into an extraordinary situation, victims of a system that rewarded social position or length of time-in-service rather than ability. Under these circumstances the deadlock in France was, perhaps, inevitable.

It has been nearly three years since the original version of this paper appeared (it is now August, 1988). As with so many other historical views, and so many other papers one writes, one is tempted to revise. So it is that the sins of revisionism shall be visited upon this paper.

I am not tempted to retract any major conclusion of three years ago. Indeed, those three years of intervening study have convinced me that the leadership argument is inherently correct. What I may have done, in typical American fashion, is to overstate the case. I have been accused by some of being "unhistorical," inasmuch as I called some of the leaders in question "stupid," or "small-minded," or the like. For that "unhistoricalness," to coin a word, I apologize, but I do not apologize for still feeling that the idea expressed by these words is accurate. To send men unceasingly in waves to certain death is at best foolish and at worst criminal. By contrast, my harshness in labelling such men as "stupid" or "small-minded" pales to insignificance.

One who has seen combat at first hand is usually at pains to express it and explain it to others. How much more is this true of someone like me who knows combat only at second hand? I have tried to explain the actions of the leaders in a brief, succinct, and accurate way, while at the same time conveying the responses the story of the Western Front evokes in me. Topics that deal with dead soldiers, whose lives are or were frequently wasted, provokes powerful responses in me that seem more irrational than rational. So to those who have criticized this paper for its emotionalism, I apologize.

But the way the Great War was conducted on the Western Front can evoke little but moral outrage. As the moth is attracted to the flame, the military historian is drawn to the topic because of its fascinating allure, but upon "reaching" it, finds himself disgusted with the horror of it all. The human mind is often at pains to imagine some of the things we historians sometimes talk about without thinking. Imagine, just for a moment, what must be required to kill 20,000 young (and some not so young) men in the space of a few hours, and wound some 40,000 more. Then extrapolate that "thing" out over several such days. One is left either with a mind numbed by the enormity of the horror, or with a more complete understanding of the Great War. Sad to say, usually it is the former...

Perhaps in some places I have oversimplified. Further study has certainly yielded additional factual details which tend to destroy generalizations. For instance, even the Battle of the Somme could have yielded a breakthrough (though at what price?) but the conventional wisdom remains that the battle was among the most foolish of the war. The Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front took place at about the same time, and cost the Russians between a half million and a million men (depending upon whom you read), and was (and often still is) hailed as a success. The only essential difference between it and the Somme was that it captured a great deal more territory, but to no avail, for no "breakthrough" resulted... In the final analysis, I still stand by the generalizations I have offered, for if one never generalizes, one will never write any history, though I recognize that additional detail might have illuminated the issue more. In that spirit I have added to the main text a passage here and a paragraph there, but my primary response is to offer the following "appendix."

Gee, I Wish I'd Said...
A number of questions were posed to me when this paper was first presented to a graduate seminar almost three years ago. Surprisingly, many of those questions and the resulting constructive criticisms revolved not around my conclusions as such but around some of my assertions and observations. One of the great errors a historian can commit is to assume that his reader will automatically envision exactly what he describes; I made that assumption too often three years ago. What follows are the answers to some of the questions that were raised at the first presentation, with the thought that the present reader may be tempted to ask the same questions.

The common notion of "trench warfare" and trenches themselves is often a confused one. Readers who have grown up watching television and war movies may be tempted to think that a trench is nothing more than a shallow ditch, not unlike the shallow irrigation canals that lace parts of Fresno County, California. This image is, of course, a false one. The first entrenchments in October 1914 were, to be sure, merely "scrapes" in the ground, to use the contemporary term, only large enough and deep enough for a man to lie in and fire his weapon. By the time the lines had become static, local commanders, as local commanders are wont to do, instructed their men to "improve their positions." If nothing else, it gave the men something to do. However that may be, this "improvement" eventually yielded virtual earthen fortresses, in some places thirty feet deep (such positions were created using mining techniques). When an author speaks of "dugouts" he is not speaking of the little roofed enclosures just outside the foul lines of a baseball diamond, but of elaborate underground rooms with electric lights or candles, rough furniture, and other small comforts.

Generally speaking, the German trenches were the best, partly because they had the advantage of choosing the best (and therefore, usually the highest and, literally, the driest) ground. The French trenches were often very poorly maintained, which corresponded to the treatment of the French soldier by his officers. The British and, later, American trenches were a fairly close second to the German ones in quality. Disease was a problem in the trenches, and especially the afflictions related to wetness (such as trench foot, athlete's foot, any disease carried by mosquitoes in summer, and colds and pneumonia in winter); for drainage was a problem, especially in British parts of the line (the Somme Valley, for instance, was an especially marshy and miserable section of the Western Front). Here again the advantage the Germans had in choosing the high ground indirectly and accidentally yielded a positive result.

Trenches were dug in a zig-zag pattern to prevent the enemy from firing up and down their lengths should he reach a trench after making it across No Man's Land (and the attacking enemy reached the defenders' trench lines much more often than we might have been led to believe). Another purpose behind this arrangement was the creation of interlocking zones of fire, also called crossfires, so that each section of trench could not only defend itself, but also support one or two adjacent sections. The trenches were usually constructed in three or four separate lines, each one a hundred to four hundred yards behind the one in front of it, yielding a fortified zone sometimes as much as a mile deep. The lateral trench lines were connected by "communications trenches" that ran roughly perpendicular to the fighting trenches, so that troops or messengers moving forward or rearward would be less exposed to enemy fire.

Another question frequently asked related to artillery. It is easy to convey with film or photographs how preparatory bombardments functioned, but the use of artillery in the defense is usually not widely understood, if the reader is familiar with such things at all.

First of all, the defenders' artillery batteries would "pre-register" their fire. This means that any given artillery position would know the proper adjustments to make in its aiming mechanisms in order to hit any given portion of the field in front of it. Upon a pre-arranged signal, or through the use of telephones, the batteries would fire at these unseen targets and adjust fire as needed. To be sure, this technique was much refined by the time of the Second World War, but a workable version existed in the First. Given that pre-offensive bombardment was so ineffective, this defensive use of artillery against attacking troops is the only way to explain the high proportion of deaths caused by artillery in World War One.

Second, there was another type of fire mission used by artillery, called "counter-battery fire." This was achieved by triangulation on an enemy's own artillery positions. By observing muzzle flashes or listening for the direction of the opposing guns, a rough idea of where the enemy positions were could be gained. At this point, the data would be compared to other data from different positions along the line and friendly artillery would fire gas or conventional shells at the suspected enemy artillery positions. Sometimes this worked very well. Sometimes it didn't.

My assertion regarding the trench gun and its superiority to sub-machineguns raised a number of questions and challenges. The reason why this weapon is superior to even the much-vaunted Uzi and Schmeisser (the type that every German soldier seems to carry in the movies) is that it fires nine pellets in a small group for a great distance (about fifty yards; in this context, "distance" refers to what military people call "effective range") because of its relatively long barrel. Of course, the sub-machineguns can theoretically fire more missiles, but they are more affected by recoil and can therefore not place a group of nine projectiles in as small a "shot group" as the trench gun can. After only one or two bullets have been fired, the muzzle begins to climb, or "creep" (move erratically in a random direction). Soldiers today are instructed to fire bursts of no more than three bullets to achieve maximum effect (or, in other words, the greatest number of well-aimed shots). The size of a 00 shotgun pellet is about the same as that of a sub-machinegun 9mm bullet, and the trench gun can fire at least seven such rounds in quick succession, yielding 63 pellets, roughly twice the maximum magazine capacity of the Uzi or Schmeisser. As a final testament, the reader should realize that United States soldiers in Viet Nam frequently exchanged (usually unofficially) their M-16 and M-14 rifles, despite their superior range and large magazine capacity, for Winchester shotguns, which differed from the World War I trench gun only in that the Vietnam-era Winchesters could usually load ten cartridges instead of seven.

Another question frequently asked was related to suggested solutions to the deadlock. It is, after all, very easy to cast stones at the actions of men long since dead without offering alternatives. These are some of my ideas on the matter.

First, the concept of the "big-push" daylight attack should have been abandoned after the first attempt. Any rational person could have seen that the method yielded no fruit, and that continued execution of these attacks could only result in the destruction of the battalions carrying out the attacks. The British and French had seen the results of the trench warfare of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, though from a distance, and had seen, on a smaller scale, the deadly effectiveness of the relatively primitive Boer armies in the Second Boer War at the turn of the century. Indeed, many of the important commanders of World War I had been subalterns or middle-level commanders with an opportunity to observe the carnage up close in the Boer War. There can be no excuse for not having attempted to find a solution to the obstacles posed by modern weapons in the hands of determined defenders to the successful prosecution of land offensives in 1914-1918.

Second, the day attack could have been abandoned in favor of night attacks in which the attackers would creep across No Man's Land right up to the enemy's trench line. This method was used to great effect in the Soviet Union in World War II, at least when the Soviets were not attempting to use their attacking infantry in a "shock" role. As an experienced infantry soldier, I can unequivocally state that this method works. Anyone who has read about or was in the Viet Nam war can attest that such a method works. I would much rather crawl for a mile across No Man's Land in the dark, no matter how fatiguing such an exertion is, than rush (or walk, as was tried at the Somme) across it in the light of day. And one should remember that the trenches were often much closer to each other than a mile; at Vimy Ridge the Canadians and Germans were within conversational distance of one another.

To be sure, there were night trench-raids, but major night attacks were not widely used. Many soldiers who were wounded in the daylight attacks were forced to fall into a shellhole in No Man's Land to await nightfall so that they could creep back to their own trenches in the dark; it would seem, therefore, that some officer might eventually surmise the tactical value of darkness. And the point remains that the generals did not attempt to arrive at a solution to the deadlock problem, but rather relied, in the end, on foolish and inexperienced American troops to carry out their only marginally refined daytime attack tactics.

Third, the British, especially after the Battle of Jutland in 1916, held command of the sea. How much more true was this after the entry of the Americans, with their powerful navy, in 1917? In any event, the execution of a seaborne attack was highly feasible. Of course, the problems of Gallipoli come to mind, but Gallipoli hardly stands as a testament to the highest level of Allied military and naval prowess (it is hard to think of any military-naval operation being prepared and supported more poorly than was the Gallipoli campaign; surely the British Admiralty could have done better a second time, especially since a target on the North Sea would be much closer to Britain). Indeed, what might be called a "Gallipoli syndrome" seems to have affected British strategic thought even into the Second World War, in which the highly promising Anzio operation failed to break the deadlock in the Italian campaign, which so much more than anything else resembled the Great War on the Western Front. In any event, such a maneuver was possible in World War I, and highly feasible.

Fourth, one is tempted to ask why the machine gun was not used in the attack. The Germans did so, or at least their Stosstruppen units did; those units were in action on the Eastern Front as early as 1916. Why did the British and French take so long in beginning to use the machine gun on the attack, especially when they had American experience in the Spanish-American War as an example?

Of course, the Germans did solve their problems, or nearly did, by adopting new tactical methods (these methods caused the Russian and Rumanian surrenders, caused the Italians to be neutralized nearly until the end of the war, and very nearly caused, as we have seen, a French collapse). The British and French (perhaps inevitably) adopted a technological solution--the tank. But the British and French did not follow up their advantage with proper strategic reserves, or with proper logistical planning; nor did the Germans. For instance, the much-neglected cavalry could have been used to exploit a breakthrough by the Germans, the British, or the French on the rare occasions when initial tactical success was achieved, but such forces were never in place. On the other hand, one of the chief reasons why the German attacks broke down in 1918 was that the soldiers stopped to loot Allied supply stores, since the Allied rations were so much better and more plentiful than the German ones; the gorged, and in some cases besotted, troops were then unable to continue.

Smoke shells could have been used more, making the trip across No Man's Land less dangerous; for after all, the race in trench warfare was to see if the attacker could cross No Man's Land faster than the defender could emerge from his dugout and man his machine gun positions--smoke instead of high-explosives might have yielded better tactical results.

I suppose the list of possibilities could go on and on. Suffice it to say that there were alternatives that the hidebound Allied (and to a much lesser extent German) generals could have tried instead of using the same methods over and over. There was certainly painful recent experience from which they should have learned (the aforementioned Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars) but did not.

I had originally intended to include in this appendix some anecdotal material, intended to further round out the picture of the Western Front by relating some stories showing that the Germans were not the only ones to commit "atrocious" acts, and to otherwise illuminate the subject of trench warfare, but upon further examination I realized that the extra material was too lengthy. Instead I would like to suggest a few books which are interesting since they convey much of what it was like to have been in these battles. One cannot truly say that one has studied the First World War thoroughly until one has absorbed the story of trench warfare. Some parts of the story are so brutal as to be, in a strange way, awe-inspiring. It has been demonstrated, at least for the British Expeditionary Force, that to leave for the front in 1914 was the equivalent of a guarantee of death or maiming; few men who marched away in 1914 returned without severe physical scars.

In any event, one should read The Face of Battle by John Keegan; it is a comparative study of the battles at Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. Also, Lyn MacDonald's The Somme is worth reading. Literary volumes such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, while not "historical" in the strictest sense, nevertheless convey important material to the reader. The British poet, Siegfried Sassoon, and others, wrote numerous memoirs which give the reader a look at personal stories of officers and private soldiers (it should be remembered that the Great War was the first European war of note to include a highly literate group of men in the rank-and-file; hence the large volume of very readable material). General studies such as Eye-Deep in Hell, by John Ellis, portray the realities of trench warfare so vividly as to be sometimes emotionally exhausting to read. Obviously the list is endless, and one could not possibly read all that has been written about the Great War. But to fully understand European and American intellectual and political history in the twentieth century, one must at least read some of these books.

Created: Saturday, December 13, 1997, 17:53 Last Updated: Saturday, December 13, 1997, 17:53