The Battle of Sarikamish was an engagement between the Russian and Ottoman empires during World War I. It took place from December 22, 1914 to January 17, 1915 as part of the Caucasus Campaign.
The outcome was a Russian victory. The Ottomans employed a strategy which demanded that their troops be highly mobile and to arrive at specified objectives at precise times. This approach was based both on German and Napoleonic tactics. The Ottoman troops, ill-prepared for winter conditions, suffered major casualties in the Allahuekber Mountains.
Afterward, Ottoman leader Enver Pasha publicly blamed his defeat on Armenians and the battle served as a prelude to the Armenian Genocide.
- The Kaiserschlacht offensives had massively overstretched the Germans. Ludendorff had aimed to use reinforcements from the now defunct Eastern Front to smash through the Allied defences and end the war before the Americans could arrive in large enough numbers to turn the tide of the war. Instead what the Kaiserschlacht achieved was giving the Germans control of large swathes of tactically unimportant land in exchange for their last reserves and the deaths of many of their best soldiers who had been grouped into the stormtrooper brigades and suffered disproportionate losses. Furthermore as Operation Michael et al were smashing through the Allied positions, the Germans came across Allied supply dumps and started looting and getting drunk, seeing how well the British and French soldiers were still living compared to conditions on the German side and how even after all the efforts of the Kaiserschlacht the war continued, German morale started to suffer serious degradation. This combined with the almost disastrous conditions of the German Home Front where the British blockade was destroying the Home Front and people were coming close to starvation. Unrest and political upheaval grew with every month and although the German Army would fight until the very end it was suffering from serious morale problems by the end as commented upon by British soldiers when capturing Germans during this period.
- Allied tactical improvement. The operations planned during the Hundred Days were so much more sophisticated than the blundering at the Somme or the Nivelle Offensive. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had been on a ‘learning curve’ since ’14 adapting to the modern state of war and increasing their tactical ability with every battle fought and every lesson learned. Although battles such as the Somme had been a disaster they had taught the British important lessons and even by early ’17 you can see a clear improvement in British tactical planning. By ’18 the Allied armies (especially the British) had absorbed these lessons and developed the beginnings of true combined arms tactics. Infantry tactics had become devolved to the men on the ground and focused around the platoon rather than large formations of men. This allowed the infantry to be much more efficient and reactive compared to the botched large formation basic orders of the Somme for instance. Each infantry platoon was also far more heavily equipped than their equivalent in ’14-’17 with more machine guns and grenades than ever before. Behind the lines the artillery had mastered its art, was able to fire bombardments without being able to see the enemy to maximise surprise (using maths to calculate their position), was now extensively using hurricane bombardments to further maximise the surprise and was heavily using creeping barrages and leaping barrages. It had become so effective at co-operating with the infantry that a barrage could timed to perfectly match the advance of the infantry, covering their attack on the German trenches and giving the Germans no time to react until the advancing infantry were upon them before then lifting forwards to the German rear lines to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their positions under attack. Elsewhere tanks were present in ever increasing numbers supporting the infantry and enabling them to break through trenchworks while providing mobile heavy fire. It’s important to note these were not the speedy panzer divisions of ’39-’45 and still performed a support role to the infantry. Finally aircraft were being used in increasing numbers, doing innovative things such as air-dropping supplies, dropping smoke bombs over the battlefield and chasing and strafing retreating German soldiers preventing them from regrouping once a breach had been made in the German lines. At the same time Whippet Tanks, which were more mobile versions of the main British tank (although still far from what we’d consider mobile) were also involved in widening and exploiting any breaches made. All these factors combined: improved infantry tactics, massively improved artillery tactics and increased and innovative usage of tanks and aircraft combined to give the Allies almost the precursor of modern warfare and something that the Germans had no reply to. They could now easily break into German lines and make advances of 5/6 miles a day in some cases but this would be useless if it wasn’t tied to improved strategic decision making.
- At the same time strategic decision making improved massively. Rather than simply batter the same positions for months at a time even though the chance for breakthrough had ended, as soon as the first few days of an assault were over and the breakthrough slowed down the Allies switched their point of attack. While this was happening all the Allied armies were attacking at the same time, the British from Flanders and Northern France, the French in the centre, the Americans in the south in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This constant stream of hammerblows across the entire front and the constant switching of the focus prevented the Germans from reinforcing their positions and no sooner had one breakthrough been halted, another would open up somewhere else on the front. This stretched the Germans so much that by late October it had broken them into a full on fighting retreat. Behind this huge exertion of resources and manpower was the sheer materiel superiority of the Allies, to enable such a concerted and continuous chain of offensives required a huge amount of resources and by this point of the war the Allies (now with America on full war footing) were massively outproducing the Germans in almost every metric possible.
So the reasons why the Hundred Days was so effective was the declining state of the German Army and it’s failure to win the war with the Kaiserschlacht, the sheer materiel superiority of the Allies and finally their ability to put together the lessons of the past four years into true battle winning tactics that look more like the tactics of ’39-’45 than they do the tactics of ’16 and before. America’s entry into the war wasn’t so much the ‘turning point’ in terms of their military contribution, that was still relatively speaking lesser than the British and French even in November ’18 but more in terms of forcing the Germans to launch the Kaiserschlacht in early 1918 and gamble on victory before the Americans could arrive in large numbers. Unfortunately that gamble failed for them and weakened the German Army, then when the Allied launched the Hundred Days, the culmination of four years of bloody lessons, there was only going to be one result.
Canadian Soldiers take back a wounded from the front during the battle of Passchendaele; ca. November, 1917
Douglas Haig’s chief of staff, Launcelot Kiggell, reportedly broke down and wept when he finally visited the Passchendaele battlefield in the autumn of 1917, saying “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
We often joke about “I’ve seen some shit”, but this is a representation of a visceral and downright frightening reality that someone people had to experience. I can’t imagine being subject to something so extreme that my brain had to shut everything down just to cope. His eyes are so hauntingly tragic.
Nothing in history prepared those men for what they faced.
“The worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War wasn’t that they had had their flesh torn, it was that they had had their souls torn out. I don’t want to look in your eyes someday, and see no spark, no love, no… no life. That would break my heart.” -Eugene Sledge Sr. (hoping to convince his son not to enlist in the Marines)
Four German soldiers in bunk beds who had been woken up for a surprise photograph during World War I; ca. 1917.
I think it’s worth noting that the photo captured the men with their eyes closed because the method of illumination was a flash-lamp, which burned a bit of magnesium in a trough held up by the photographer. That light source burnt long enough for the men to react to it before the shutter was tripped on the camera, thus their eyes are closed.
Today if you were to take this photo with a digital camera and flash, you might capture them with eyes open, since the time between flash and shutter is much smaller and more instantaneous of an image capture.
Massed infantry attacks in the Great War were typically carried out for one of the following reasons:
- To apply pressure on a certain part of the enemy’s line to prevent those troops from being able to rotate out and reinforce another sector (as in the Somme Offensive of 1916, for example; the British push in the summer was intended in part to stem the flow of German reinforcements being sent to the ongoing siege of Verdun).
- To wear down the enemy through sheer, dogged attrition.
- Plenty of attacks were done in hopes of taking certain ground (ridges, bottlenecks, etc.) that would make a breakthrough easier in the future.
(A typical infantry assault on the Western Front from a British perspective.)
First, it had to be decided where the attack was going to take place. Not just anywhere was worth the effort. Would the ground achieved in a theoretical victory be worth holding? Would the topography of the region lead to the creation of indefensible salients? What type of troops do we have on the opposing side? Prussians? Bavarians? Saxons? Have they just rotated in, or have they been there for a while? What have they been doing themselves while they’ve been there? What’s the weather going to be like? What attacks are being planned for nearby sectors? What kind of support can we expect? These are just some of the questions that had to be asked.
Once a sector for the attack had been chosen, the preparations had to begin. Parties of men from the forward line would go out at night to ensure that there were sufficient (though not obvious) gaps at precisely-determined spots in their own line’s barbed wire installations to allow everyone to get through once the attack began. They’d also ever-so-cautiously try to creep up to the enemy wire and cut holes in it, too, for the same purpose. Ammo stores had to be checked and rechecked, equipment thoroughly inspected, all the stuff you’d expect. I won’t bore you with the cleaning protocols in the trench itself.
Now, “surprise” attacks in any sense that we might currently mean when using the term were basically impossible in the Great War, at least on the Western Front. If the enemy didn’t notice the increased bustle in your forward lines – not to mention lots of new troops being brought up to support the attack if it was going to be a large one – he sure as hell couldn’t fail to notice the artillery barrage that would typically precede the attack.
The nature and intention of such barrages varied from case to case, and there were different schools of thought as to how best to employ them even at that. They were necessary as a prelude to an infantry advance because walking into a wall of alert, functioning machine gun nests is not a way to win a war. The barrage would keep the enemy’s heads down while the troops would muster, and would throw the enemy line into a state of disruption and chaos on a practical level. Even a limited barrage of only a few minutes’ duration was useful; the machine guns employed by the Germans at the time could only effectively rotate 30 degrees, so knocking out even a couple of them could create “safe zones” towards which the infantry could proceed to punch through. They’d still have to contend with rifle and small-arms fire, but that was a reality all along the line.
Different types of barrages preceded different types of attacks. The lead-up to the Somme Offensive I mentioned above saw the German lines shelled continuously, day and night, for an entire week. Other attacks might have one lasting only a few minutes. Still others would be accompanied by what was known as a “creeping barrage,” where the shellfire was co-ordinated to fall just in advance of the attacking troops, keeping the Germans suppressed until the last possible moment. It’s worth knowing that artillery accounted for over half of all the deaths in combat throughout the war, and something like three quarters of injuries.
With the artillery roaring away, the first line would prepare to advance. The men would get up onto the firestep in the trench near their respective ladders and await the signal to go over the top. What happened next depended upon both the objectives in play and the stage of the war at which it took place.
Early on, it was more common for soldiers to move forward slowly, trying to maintain an unbroken line of advance. This owes something to the tactics of bygone centuries, certainly, but it was also a practical necessity. The war was still young enough that accomplished veterans did not exist; the entire BEF at the war’s outset was only 100,000 strong, and the need for more, more, more men, as soon as possible, everywhere, meant that the amount of rigorous, professionalizing training they could receive before being sent out was minimal. It was thought (often correctly) that expecting initiative, cunning and intuition from untested privates was a dangerous way to go about it, and the battle doctrine was adapted to the material they had at hand.
The slow line-advance kept everyone in sight of their commanding officer and aware of where they were. It allowed messages to be passed down from man to man if need be. It permitted excellent rifle-fire opportunities – in the war’s early stages, British rifle drill was still so absurdly good that it was even more dangerous than machine gun fire.
It had lots of reasons behind it. It was still awful and amazingly dangerous.
As the war went on, thankfully, everyone involved (who had lived) began to learn from their mistakes. Principles that we now take for granted were developed. With more experienced, better-trained soldiers and a better understanding of what could be accomplished by the weapons involved on both sides, infantry charges began to take on a different character. The single line was abandoned in favour of small, semi-autonomous groups – still technically in a line, I guess, but able to function well out of one as well. Advancing was done with all seemly haste, and with an eye for judicious use of terrain. Most importantly, the advance would be conducted under covering fire: one group under cover would suppress the German line while another advanced still closer. In this leap-frogging fashion, the line went forward.
“Mixed” is the best term I could apply to it, unfortunately. While there was undoubtedly a learning curve (usually thought to be most pronounced from 1916 onward), early large-scale attacks were not well-managed and did not typically succeed. The methods involved were successful when measured against the first two of the three rationales I listed so far above, but in terms of the third – breaking through – they were not.
Breakthroughs were sometimes achieved all the same (the British at Cambrai, for example, or the Germans along a long front during the Ludendorff Offensive of Spring 1918), but following up on them was difficult. The idea was to establish a thoroughfare through which cavalry and more infantry could be dispatched and take the enemy in the rear. It didn’t work out, though the idea itself is sound enough.
Many have asked if it could all have been done differently, and the answer is most certainly “yes.” What that different approach might look like is another matter…
As with most things, it varied greatly from man to man. Certainly it was terrifying for many, as the memoirs and novels of the war amply demonstrate, but others perceived it with ambivalence or even delight.
Here are some standard accounts, if you’d like to read up on it:
- Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (fictionalized memoir; written by a veteran; trauma narrative)
- Ernst Junger – Storm of Steel (fictionalized memoir; veteran; author seems to have positively reveled in the experience)
- Robert Graves – Goodbye to All That (highly fictionalized memoir; veteran; very dim view of it all)
- Frederic Manning – The Middle Parts of Fortune (novel; veteran; ambivalent; amazingly good)
- Henri Barbusse – Under Fire (very fictionalized memoir; veteran; almost a horror story)
- A.O. Pollard – Fire-Eater: Memoirs of a V.C. (memoir; veteran and Victoria Cross winner; greatly enjoyed the war)
- Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front (novel; veteran and fraud; deeply cynical about the experience)
Finally, if you’d like a far more comprehensive and detailed view of infantry tactics of this time, you’d do well to look into Erwin Rommel’s Infantry Attacks and Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18. Rommel’s views on the matter were admittedly idiosyncratic, but it’s an amazing document all the same; Griffith’s volume is far more recent (1994) and offers a detached academic overview rather than a first-hand account.
*The trenches varied from country to country, and during an attack, a trench could devolve into a scant 18″ deep in places, due to artillery tearing them up, and the soldiers having no extra time to repair them. A fully dug trench could be 5 to 8 feet deep, and generally wide enough that at least three men could walk abreast. A soldiers life in the trench was constant work, as officers kept the men at task, in order to keep them occupied. Concerning dugouts, they varied depending on the country digging them, the soldiers digging them, how far back from the line they were, and so on. As the war progressed, dugouts became less and less protected. Germany’s dugouts were considered better because Germany dug them deeper and the men felt better protected from shelling. Britain’s dugouts were more shallow because the British thought that if their holes were too deep the soldiers would not want to come back again. Concerning trench layout, “the front” wasn’t a single trench with artillery behind it, but rather a complex maze of trenches, reserve trenches, and perpendicular trenches meant to aid the flow of traffic back and forth. (Though this seldom was as efficient as possible, with people trying to go both ways.)
There’s a lack of appreciation, I think, for why WWI was so traumatic for soldiers.
There’s an ebb and flow over military history between the offense and the defense having the upper hand. In the last major European war before WWI, the Franco-Prussian War, the offense had the edge; Germany won via its decisive and swift march onto Paris, disabling France before it could really even get in the fight. Decades later, however, by the time WWI began, technology had changed; advances in artillery, machine gun, railway systems, fortifications, etc., and even the adaptation of some low-tech stuff like barbed wire, made the defense much more powerful than the offensive technology that existed at the time.
But the mindset that everyone was operating under was still based on that last major war. This was the rationale behind Germany’s invasion of France through Belgium- it believed it had to move quickly to disable France, or it would lose a two-sided war against France and Russia. Likewise, the cult of the offensive dominated French thinking; there was a strikingly testosterone-driven belief that a fervent charge of bayonets was enough to overcome any machine gun fire. And let’s not even get started on cavalry. This was the first war in history where cavalry was finally and completely rendered obsolete, and the generals did not adapt well, they were still sending cavalry out to be massacred by machine gun fire even by the time the war ended.
The point is, you have this dynamic where the technology of the time says, “Sit and defend,” and the generals say, “Go out and charge!” And the shocking thing is how long it takes the military leadership, especially of the Entente, to adapt; and how frequently they relapse. Really why the war dragged as long as it did; the Germans were better, although by no means perfect, at learning not to bleed themselves dry (culminating ultimately in the intentionally flexible Hindenburg line, while the French were still ordering their men to never yield an inch of ground.) So there’s this cycle of long squalid tedium, guys sitting in mud holes getting eaten alive by bugs and fungi and their own bodies, eaten cold food out of tins, interrupted by the occasional pointless but massive bloodletting as whoever’s in charge this month initiates another stupid offensive that he sells back home as being decisive and sure to break the stalemate, but maybe, at best, gains a few square miles of territory- as often as not lost again six months later.
And meanwhile the artillery. WWI has lots of poison gas, although it’s not very effective in the final tally, and snipers and machine guns, and sappers that explode a line from underneath you; but all together none of them take near the toll that the artillery does. WWI was the war for artillery, dominated by the big guns, with tanks and functioning bombers still in the future. The industrial countries blow through millions of tons of artillery shells, cratering and re-cratering the landscape, first indiscriminately and then in creeping waves as they learn how to use them; the entire peace-time reservoirs of shells are expended in months at the start of the war, and they churn out more, the later battles often using in a matter of days as many shells as even existed in the world in 1912. Being on the frontlines usually meant being surrounded by the constant shock and roar of the big guns, always meant living in fear that you could be snuffed out in an instant by them; and besides the pure psychological terror, meant exposure to literal shockwaves that were constantly fucking with your brain in ways we’re just coming to grips with today as we deal with combat veterans who’ve been exposed to IEDs.
So to recap; if you’re a soldier in WWI, you’re spending your time in a squalid trench- German trenches were constructed better but made up for it with the severe shortages of pretty much everything caused by the British naval blockade, so that almost everything you ate or wore was a poor substitute made from something else; paper shoes and acorn coffee. Most of the time is a constant tedium undergirded by the fear that at any second a massive offensive could be launched, or even just a random burst of artillery fire, that reduces you to powder without your ever hearing or seeing a warning of it. This is the best case scenario. Worst case scenario you’re in an offensive and your general is sending you out to get ground up against the enemy’s defenses, with deserters getting shot or hung, trying to crawl through shell-blasted mud and barbed wire into a nest of machine gunners. Slightly luckier and you’re on the defense, which is great as long as you don’t get gassed or an artillery shell doesn’t land on you, or sappers don’t blow up the entire ridge you’re sitting on, or snipers don’t see your head sticking up, or just caught at the hammer point of an all-out offensive that might peter out a few miles forward but is going to sweep you aside through sheer mass of numbers.
And this just goes on. And on. That’s what drives people mad. All this thunder and blood and mud and nothing changes. Some of the battles themselves drag on for months of near-constant murder. Maybe if you have a good general you get rotated through so you’re not constantly living under the guillotine, but more likely your commander has you or a bunch of your buddies killed for a few worthless square miles you have to give up again when he realizes he can’t defend them effectively.
The “Stabbed in the Back” myth that Hitler would use later to help rise to power held that the German army was never defeated in the field, that it lost to politicians at home. The first part is actually kind of true though. Even on the run at the end, the Germans inflicted about as many casualties as they took. The thing is they were never really victorious in the field, because battles during WWI just weren’t winnable, really. To either side. The technology meant that both sides were just slowly, painfully bleeding each other until someone gave up. To the soldiers this meant there was no hope of victory- but also no hope even of defeat. Just sitting there, waiting to die.
And all war is barbaric, but it’s not hard to see why WWI was so unusually tormenting to the mental well-being of those who fought it.
(A French lieutenant at Verdun who was later killed by a shell, wrote in his diary on 23 May 1916:
“Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”)
American involvement in Russia was part of an Allied Intervention into Russia rather than an actual invasion. President Wilson authorized limited military force in Russia but no formal declaration of war was ever authorized by the American Congress. Wilson ordered 5,000 men to occupy Arkhangelsk and around 8,000 to Vladivostok, a port city on the far eastern reaches of Russia. The American “expeditionary” forces were not part of a concerted American war effort but rather an American commitment made out of the emerging European debates that followed the First World War. Wilson was also known to use limited occupational forces to achieve political goals. One example is his 1914 occupation of the Mexican port city Veracruz to influence the success of a U.S. friendly Mexican government, obviously Veracruz is a different story but it demonstrates that Wilson used Executive power to authorize military occupations that were not necessarily outright invasions or declarations of war.
Importantly the number of around 13,000 thousand American soldiers was considerably less than the commitments of Czechoslovakia’s (50,000), France’s (12,000) and Britain’s (40,000). Moreover the strategic importance of the areas occupied by America were also minor in comparison to other zones of conflict and the role of America was manifestly less significant than the contributions of her Allies. General Graves who commanded the American contingent present in Siberia (American Expeditionary Force Siberia) had the aim of protecting American military equipment and American capital investment that was still in Russia after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Graves’ other objectives included safe guarding the exit of the Czech legion from Russian territory and to assist the reorganization of the new Russian government.
You have to take into account that Russia in 1918 was vastly different from the Communist state that we understand it to have been throughout the twentieth century. In 1918 it was not clear that the Bolsheviks would emerge as victors, the Red Army faced opponents on four fronts to control a comparatively small area compared to the huge country we know Russia is today. The map I’ve linked at the bottom shows the extent of Bolshevik control in 1919, Archangelsk is just at the top, Vladivostok where most of the Americans were stationed is located thousands of kilometers to the east and Americans stationed there engaged in a limited role against Russian Cossacks, a group separate to the Revolutionary Bolsheviks.
Wilson’s motivations for sending American troops were numerous but stemmed from his willingness to see through his own vision for a post war peace process. He was pressured by allies to commit to Russian intervention and he likely did so in a diplomatic measure to ensure he had some leverage in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Undoubtedly Wilson was more concerned with fostering a democratic environment in Europe (and protecting physical American interests in Russia) rather than in participating in a huge mobilization against Russia after the toll of the First World War. The intervention was certainly no secret, Congressmen, Newspapers and Citizens were alert to the experiences of American soldiers stationed in the frozen port cities and campaigned for the men to be returned. Generally Americans opposed intervention and largely felt that their commitment in the First World War had been sufficient enough in aiding allied European nations. Additionally many Americans did not share the international spirit that Wilson pushed in the post-war peace conferences. President Warren Harding who followed Wilson’s administration condemned the intervention as a complete mistake.
Here are a couple of good sources if you want to develop some of the ideas that I’ve written here:
(It wasn’t an invasion, it was an intervention authorized by the President and not Congress and the American people knew about it.)
*Maybe the best quick read to get the bet settled that isn’t a wikipedia article.
*The introduction here will help you get a better idea on some of the context surrounding the intervention.
The French army expected the war to be a highly mobile one and designed its army and its doctrine around this premise. Something crucial to understanding early-Great War French doctrine is the idea of the “cult of the offensive” — that is, always be on the attack. It was almost religious the adherence by high command to this simple concept and it shaped their entire military and the inevitable destruction they would face in the upcoming weeks. Joseph Joffre, the leader of the French military, said in 1913 regulations which I like to pull out all the time: “The French army, returning to its traditions, accepts no law in the conduct of operations other than the offensive.”
Because they were to be on the attack constantly in a maneuver based war the French saw no reason to burden the infantry corps with ponderous heavy artillery. The mid and late war ideas of ‘softening’ enemies up with incredible artillery barrages were seen as unnecessary and tactically irresponsible by most staff planners. A withering barrage of bullets from their singleshot 1886 Lebel 8mm rifles would shock the enemy and then they would fix their bayonets la rosalie and ‘finish off’ the remaining soldiers in a charge.
They also, unlike the Germans, had a very restricted set of artillery calibers as they did not want to complicate supply. As such, they went in with mostly groups of 75mm mobile field artillery and very limited numbers of 105mm and 120mm heavy artillery. This would prove to be disastrous against the Germans who had a significantly larger amount of heavy artillery that outranged and outgunned the French and rendered their artillery, essentially, useless.
Cavalry was also in a unique position in the early stages of the war. Something that is wildly overblown in hollywood is the amount of death in ancient battle. The death came when the army was routed and the cavalry pursued and destroyed the scattered army who was giving their backs. That was the job of the cavalry for thousands of years — the final slam that broke the enemy armies back for good. Cavalry’s essential role in WWI was to scout and assist infantry in the attack but the latter part became…problematic. It doesn’t matter if you route the enemy army. They still have guns and they can still turn around and shoot your cavalry armed with lances and sabres if you try to slam into their rears.
This is a particularly interesting area of history for me because it was essentially the armies marching as fast as they can without any regard for rest or recuperation. It got to the point where the many times the only chance the German infantry had a chance to engage the French infantry was when the French had to stop to rest. It didn’t really matter though, since the Germans were marching for tens of kilometers straight and were too exhausted to fight.
This is a hole that would be filled up by light armor and trucks in World War II but for now was a void and thus when the French were sent reeling back from the Belgian border towards Paris the Germans could not properly capitalize. They could only pursue the French military as fast as the infantry could march which would, ultimately, lead to massive amounts of attrition. So much that many estimates put the strength of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Armies (the ones who were the “hammer” coming through Belgium in the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan) at less than 50% manpower by the time the Battle of the Marne had occurred. The battle which would break the back of the German Army’s on the “right” flank and send them fleeing back near Belgium where both sides would default to what we now know as trench warfare for the majority of the war.
Anyways, back to the actual military fighting. Aviation was still in its infantry and filled a role similar to cavalry — scouting. In fact, to get back on my tangent above, it was actually airplanes which noted the German movement South prior to the Battle of the Marne which gave the French the German army’s flank and ultimately lead to their decisive victory.
The nature of Joffre’s war centered on the offensive and the nature of the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan which called for a rapid strike through Belgium and to Paris was a lightning fast, maneuver based war that had to end in a matter of weeks — with modern weaponry. It’s a disaster waiting to happen and that’s what came to be.
For example. The French in the early days of the war advanced on a German town in Alsace-Lorraine called Mulhouse and occupied it with little resistance and the Germans prepared a counter attack. They would march into battle shoulder to shoulder in ordered lockstep and the battle would rapidly disintegrate into a bloody mess in a dense vineyard and forest. The massive heat and exhaustion took an insurmountable toll as hundreds of men simply collapsed into roadside ditches and those who did not would be cut down by French machine guns.
Part of the reason of the French slaughter of the Germans was the German insistence on usage of reserves. The Germans used their reserves on the frontlines while the French were more reluctant to do so and as such, at the Rhone-Rhine Canal, the French opened fire on disorganized Baden Landwehr (third-line units of older men often equipped with outdated equipment) across open fields. One company of the Landwehr’s alone fired off 35,000 rounds blindly. Sergeant Otto Breinlinger of the 11th RIR said that after Mulhouse his company was reduced from 250 men to 16.
Orders were not heard or flat out ignored until officers threatened to shoot deserters. In the Second Battle of Mulhouse, which had similar results, Major Leist of the 40th IR, 1st Battallion said: “There can be no talk of a connection with the Regiment; not a single regimental order was passed down during the entire battle.”
This type of battle would define the early war battles between the French and Germans before the Battle of the Marne which would send the war into what we now know as trench warfare. Incredible amounts of death to artillery, charging into machine guns, marching lockstep and charging in giant blobs into rifle fire. It seems almost cartoonish but that was really what was the strategy early on. The other great example of early war battles were the engagements between the Belgians and the Germans, where the Germans had to push on a ring of forts in the Liege region to gain control of the narrow passage into the country and keep their war plan on schedule.
Despite the Belgians inept armed forces of half trained militiamen they absolutely slaughtered the Germans. During what is now known as the Siege of Liege the Germans got lost in the dark, officers were separated from their men, soldiers panicked and shot wildly under suspicion of guerrilla fire. Further, the Germans attacked in tight formations — a rich environment for untrained soldiers to unleash mass fire upon and cause devastating damage. 150 rounds every sixty seconds and incredible artillery fire swept out massed German columns before the walls of the fort. From an anonymous Belgian officer: “As line after line of German infantry advanced, we simply mowed them down. … They made no attempt at deploying, but came on, line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder, until, as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped one on top of the other, in an awful barricade of dead and wounded men that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble.”
No war games or military theory provided the Germans or the French with the knowledge of what modern warfare truly was and the lethality it provided. Officers thought to overcome the firepower of thousands of rifles, dozens of machine guns, and artillery pieces fixed on their position with dash and daring maneuvers and were punished with staggering casualty rates.
Collected via Holger H. Herwig’s The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World
- Barbara Tuchman The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I
- Holger H. Herwig The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World
- Holger H. Herwig The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918
- Robert Doughty Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War
The way they searched for dead bodies following the First World War was seriously revolting. A Company of Soldiers would be deployed in Line abreast, armed with 6 foot long metal spikes. They would then observe the ground to their front, anywhere the vegetation looked particularly green and lively, they would stab the spike into the ground as deep as possible, then rip it out and sniff the end. If it smelled of decomposing flesh, they dug.
And sometimes they didn’t even do THAT. I remember reading an officer’s account of experiencing a heavy barrage. He mentions entering a dugout at the beginning of the barrage and noticing the heavily decomposed body of a French soldier, in the old-style uniform (red pantaloons), sticking out of the side of the trench. After a couple of hours, he emerged to find the decomposed body of a German soldier in the same place. The shells had churned up the ground, re-burying the French soldier and bringing up the German.
A self-firing rifle improvised by the Anzacs during their evacuation from Gallipoli, used to deceive the Ottomans into thinking that the Anzacs still occupied their trenches; ca. 1915
Fire was maintained from the trenches after the withdrawal of the last men, by rifles arranged to fire automatically. This was done by a weight being released which pulled the trigger. Two kerosene tins were placed one above the other, the top one full of water and the bottom one with the trigger string attached to it, empty. At the last minute, small holes would be punched in the upper tin; water would trickle into the lower one, and the rifle would fire as soon as the lower tin had become sufficiently heavy. Another device ran a string, holding back the trigger, through a candle, which slowly burnt down, severed the string, and released the trigger.
Such devices provided sporadic firing which helped convince the Turks that the Anzac front line was occupied long after thousands of men had crept down to the beaches and escaped. British generals estimated that half the force would be lost in any attempt to withdraw because the Turks could not fail to notice as the trenches were so close. In the event, the Turks were so deceived that 80,000 men were evacuated with only about half a dozen casualties.
The Wipers Times was a largely satiric British newspaper famously published in the trenches during the First World War on a printing press that had been “liberated” from the ruins of a French town. It was by the infantry and for the infantry, and much of it was marked by a very dark streak of humor indeed.
Nevertheless, there were contributions that were amazingly sad and touching, too. The poem “To My Chum”, written by an infantry private of the Sherwood Foresters who had lost his friend, is impossible to read without at least a twinge of sorrow. I say this charitably — for my own part, at least, I can barely get through it at all without tearing up.
To My Chum
No more we’ll share the same old barn
The same old dug-out, same old yarn,
No more a tin of bully share
Nor split our rum by a star-shell’s glare
So long old lad.
What times we’ve had, both good and bad,
We’ve shared what shelter could be had,
The same crump-hole when the whizz-bangs shrieked,
The same old billet that always leaked,
And now – you’ve “stopped one”.
We’d weathered the storms two winters long
We’d managed to grin when all went wrong,
Because together we fought and fed,
Our hearts were light; but now – you’re dead
And I am mateless.
Well, old lad, here’s peace to you,
And for me, well, there’s my job to do,
For you and the others who are at rest
Assured may be that we’ll do our best
Just one more cross by a strafed roadside,
With its G.R.C., and a name for guide,
But it’s only myself who has lost a friend,
And though I may fight through to the end,
No dug-out or billet will be the same,
All pals can only be pals in name,
But we’ll all carry on till the end of the game
Because you lie there.
I think that a lot of people get into military history because of their childhood. Fond memories of plastic army soldiers, and jingoistic, watered down tales of derring-do. I know I certainly was drawn to it for the glory when I was a little kid. War was running around the woods with a stick going “bang”, and the most contentious issues were arguments about who got who. And many people I don’t believe move beyond that.
Military history, for many, still remains a mostly clean affair, with the good ol’GI-citizen soldier going and liberating Europe from the clutches of Nazism. We simply forget the abject horrors of war. The dying cries of “mother” or simply “water”. The smell of shit that permeates a battlefield. Widows, orphans, and parents burying their spouses, parents, or sons. And that, of course, is only in wars that are fought with close attention to the rules.
I was listening to an interview given by Shelby Foote, the author of several Civil War books, and she said something that struck me as so perfect:
“There is a general belief that war books promote a love of war, and that is true about bad war books, but every serious book about a battle or about a war, if it’s serious, is bound to be anti-war. […] Because the truth is, it’s more bloody than it is glorious, and the suffering is a far bigger part of it than the patriotism and the glory, and that will come across with an honest writer. Cheap literature hurts everybody, but decent, honest literature will always carry this anti-war message, it’s bound to be there. No matter how patriotic a man may sound, underlying it, if he has a good eye, everybody is going to see through the phony patriotism and the ephemeral glory, and to the real suffering of it and especially the absurdity of it.”
And I couldn’t agree more. War is absurd, and I now find great distaste in books that don’t present that side of the conflict alongside. It is a disservice to everyone to separate the good parts of war from the bad.
I don’t believe people are either good or bad, and studying war, really, has shown me that anyone is capable of reaching both extremes. So what I can say about how studying conflict has affected my outlook on human nature is that it has sobered it. Sure, I still enjoy reading an uplifting story about some brave soldier saving his buddies, but you can’t shake the images of the terrible human cost.
Marching Belgian Carabiniers leading their dog-drawn machine gun carts towards the front line during the German invasion of Belgium; ca. 1914
“Marching toward the camera, and shot from a low angle, these Belgian Carabiniers are given a powerful sense of purpose by the photographer. Clean uniforms and neat formation say the soldiers have not come from battle.
These are the early days of WWI and Belgium has been invaded by the Germans in a surprise move. The Germans, 600,000 strong, were confident against the small Belgian Army of around 117,000, who were ill-equipped and poorly trained.
Yet the Belgians fought bravely in and around their fortifications in the Liège area. They held up the German advance for ten days before withdrawing on 16 August, when the Liège system finally fell. This delay would prove crucial to the French forces’ ability to re-organise and oppose the German push through Belgium into France.
King Albert I had ordered his Army to retreat to the ‘National Redoubt’ at Antwerp, consisting of over 40 forts and several lines of defence. Our Carabiniers are part of the force sent forward to cover that retreat by confronting the advancing Germans.
Marching out of the foggy background, the Carabiniers, with their Tyrolean hats and dog-drawn heavy machine-gun, look as if they are striding out of the past into the light of 20th century warfare. Almost like gentlemen in top hats taking their dogs for a walk.
The traditional dress of the Carabiniers, a light-infantry unit, was a tunic and greatcoat of a green so dark that the German nickname for them was the ‘black devils’. Many new recruits, however, were given a greatcoat of the more usual Belgian Army dark blue because of the chaotic supply situation. Despite their old-fashioned uniforms, their machine-guns were effective enough, though both soldier and dog were to pay a high price.
Although the main German forces bypassed Antwerp, four divisions had to be diverted to contain the Belgian forces there, further weakening the thrust into France. Antwerp did not fall until 9 October.”