Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Western Front

A few reasons why the Hundred Days Offensive was so successful:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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The mass infantry charges in World War One.

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Aims

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.

Method

(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.

Effectiveness

“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…

Perspectives

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.


French infantry in a trench; ca.1914.

French infantry in a trench, 1914.

The bright uniforms worn by French infantry in the early months of the war, alongside a reckless doctrine of attack at all times, help explain the staggering losses sustained by the French Army. By the end of 1914 they had lost nearly a million men killed, captured or wounded. Lantern slide from a box of 73 lantern slides, one of two boxes associated with World War One, Western Front, 1914-1916. Published by Newton and Company, 3 Fleet Street, London. One of 29 boxes of lantern slides. Associated with World War One, Western Front (1914-1918).

(Source)


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Men of the 8th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment going up to the line near Frezenberg during the Third Battle of Ypres; ca. 1917

WAR… what is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING.

“See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation…This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers…This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here…All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love…”

-Dick Diver (Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

From Wikipedia:

The Battle of Broodseinde was fought on 4 October 1917 near Ypres in Flanders, at the east end of the Gheluvelt plateau, by the British Second and Fifth armies and the German Fourth Army. The battle was the most successful Allied attack of the Battle of Passchendaele. Using “bite-and-hold” tactics, with objectives limited to what could be held against German counter-attacks, the British devastated the German defence, which prompted a crisis among the German commanders and caused a severe loss of morale in the German Fourth Army. Preparations were made by the Germans for local withdrawals and planning began for a greater withdrawal, which would entail the loss to the Germans of the Belgian coast, one of the strategic aims of the British offensive. After the period of unsettled but drier weather in September, heavy rain began again on 4 October and affected the remainder of the campaign, working more to the advantage of the German defenders, who were being pushed back on to far less damaged ground. The British had to move their artillery forward into the area devastated by shellfire and soaked by the return of heavy rain, restricting the routes on which guns and ammunition could be moved, which presented German artillery with easier targets. In the next British attack on 9 October after several days of rain, the German defence achieved a costly defensive success, holding the approaches to Passchendaele village, which was the most tactically vital ground.


Three German soldiers demonstrate operating a 2cm Becker-Flugzeugkanone, an anti-aircraft gun, Western Front, circa 1918.

Fleugzeugkanone translates literally to airplane cannon. I wish it literally shot airplanes out of it.

“Fleugzeugkanone” translates literally to airplane cannon. (I wish it literally shot airplanes out of it.)

Even though this photo was taken almost a century ago, it somehow strikes me as something post-apocalyptic from the future.


WW1 German Bicycle Infantry on the Western Front, 1914

Those guys had silly mustaches and single speed bikes before the word hipster even existed.

Those guys had silly mustaches and single speed bikes before the word hipster even existed.


Frontline Soldiers in World War One:

The British lost 1.53% of their population in military service during the Great War, the Germans lost 3.23% and the French 3.7%1.

Fatalities in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) were on average 1 in 7 for officers and 1 in 8 for other ranks, and on the Western Front 10% of these fatalities were caused by something other than enemy action (in East Africa over 70% were non-battle fatalities). In the last month of the war alone, over 2,500 british soldiers died from Spanish Flu.

Furthermore, the British suffered over 6 million non-fatal casualties, some 65% of which were classified as non-battle injuries across all theatres, but the British only reported injuries which prevented a soldier from reporting for duty, regardless of how they were caused. Thus if you were going to die then it was likely to be the enemy who were responsible, but injury was more likely to come from a different source. Also many soldiers would suffer multiple wounds so it is very difficult to estimate the chances of a British soldier being wounded during a particular period of time.

The issue is further clouded by the definition of a front line soldier. Before the war it was easy to categorise the infantry, artillery and cavalry as front line (a habit which persists in the Army to this day), but come the middle of the war an artilleryman could find himself posted from the field artillery, a front line unit, to garrison artillery, which sat much further back. Also infantry units were rotated in and out of the front line on a regular basis and so, by sheer caprice, some found themselves in contact with the enemy more often than others. The reach of artillery also brought soldiers in traditionally safer occupations (e.g. drivers or medics) in to the midst of battle.

The census data from 1911 to 1921 shows that 14% of men who would have been of fighting age at some point during the war died during that period. The vast majority of these are for non-war related reasons and for soldiers from the most impoverished sectors of society, life on the Western front was healthier and less dangerous than civilian life at home.

*This gives you some idea why the French did everything they could to avoid war in 1939/40, including their failure to go on the offensive in any meaningful way.