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

Posts tagged “World War i

Dead soldier beneath crucifix WWI; ca. 1917

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Soldiers posing with unexploded German shells exactly 100 years ago; December 16th, 1914

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The raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, which took place on 16 December 1914, was an attack by the Imperial German Navy on the British seaport towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool, West Hartlepool, and Whitby. The attack resulted in 137 fatalities and 592 casualties, many of whom were civilians. The attack resulted in public outrage towards the German navy for an attack against civilians, and against the Royal Navy for its failure to prevent the raid.


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German soldiers walk past fallen British soldiers, following heavy street fighting in the village of Moreuil; ca. 1918.

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“The Desolation of War” – Poelcapelle, Belgium; ca. 1917

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German soldiers moving a 17cm medium minenwerfer into position in France; ca. 1917

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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.


Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary, and the Eastern Front in general are totally disregarded when it comes to the First World War. By most popular accounts, Franz Ferdinand was shot and killed, and that’s all he was ever good for. In my opinion, however, he’s one of the most important figures in pre-War Austrian military history.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His uncle, Franz Josef, had come to power after his uncle abdicated in 1848, among the violent social upheavals which occurred all across Europe, and certainly within Austria-Hungary. Franz Josef had risen to the throne at age 18; by the time Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated, the man was 84 years old. The Archduke was 50 himself. Franz Josef was a hard worker by all accounts, though perhaps a bit uncreative and “stuck in his ways.” Geoffrey Wawro, whose recent work on Austria-Hungary before and during the War is an excellent read, claims that Franz Josef “refused to take his job seriously.” I for one don’t buy it, but there are two sides to every coin in history, especially when dealing with personalities like those of Franzes Josef and Ferdinand. Some called for Franz Josef to abdicate in favor of his nephew, but Franz Josef refused, perhaps due to the infamous dislike he held for his newphew, the Crown Prince.

Both men were intensely involved with the military. This is important, as Austria-Hungary’s military preparedness for the First World War – from weaponry to tactics to leadership – was lacking. This is not to say that neither one tried. Franz Josef came to power in 1848, when Hungarian and Italian separatists threatened to disembowel his new Empire. The army, under the command of Feldmaraschall Radetzky, kept the Empire together. Franz Josef knew he owed his very throne to the Army and sort of took it under his wing. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Franz Josef would wear a military uniform instead of a civilian one.

Annnnyyyyways, Franz Ferdinand is appointed Army Inspector. This is where things get messy. The military high command in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a constant battle of cliques and intrigues. Both FJ, as Emperor and Commander-in-Chief, and FF, as heir-apparent and Army Inspector, had their favorite generals and their own cliques. They also disagreed widely on issues of strategy and politics. Franz Josef, like I’ve said, came to power in 1848, and subsequently lost Austria’s Italian territories, as well as it’s influence on German politics, in two wars, one against the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont and one against Prussia. After two embarassing military defeats, Franz Josef was content to sit on his throne and keep the territories he still had intact – no more, no less. Franz Ferdinand, on the other and, had muuuucccchhhh bigger plans.

Necessary detour into Austro-Hungarian internal politics. Much has been made of A-H’s multi-ethnic makeup, and rightly so. Check out this map of Austria-Hungary’s many different ethnic groups. As the second largest and most powerful behind the German-Austrians, the Hungarians successfully bargained for a two-state empire united by one Emperor. This is super complex political stuff, so if you’d like more explanation, let me know in the comments and I’ll give you as much information as you’d like. Basically, from 1867 on, the Austrian Empire was formally known as Austria-Hungary and the Hungarian Parliament had massive influence on the decision-making of Austria-Hungary. They used this influence to hamper the development of the Empire’s army and keep Bosnia-Herzegovina underdeveloped (more info on that as well, if you’d like). Franz Josef was content to let the Hungarians be; Franz Ferdinand wasn’t so easily put off. He claimed that Austria-Hungary’s main foe wasn’t other Great Powers, but ““internal enemy—Jews, Freemasons, Socialists and Hungarians.” He even sat down with his uncle, the Emperor, and demanded that a plan be drawn up for an eventual invasion of Hungary aimed at putting the Hungarians back in their proper place, that is, firmly under the heel of German Austria. His favorite General was Conrad von Hotzendorf, an interesting man. Some called him an armchair general who “fought with pen and ink.” If he was an armchair general, he was certainly one of the best there ever was, writing prolifically on strategy. As an actual battlefield commander, however, he left much to be desired. Hotzendorf and Franz Ferdiand favored pre-emptive wars against the Serbs and especially the Italians.

Franz Ferdinand, tired of his uncle’s punctiliousness, established his own apparatus for army administration to parallel that of the official High Command. This was headquartered at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. It’s incredibly absurd, but he had appointed his own ministers of war, foreign deputies and internal affairs. It was basically a shadow government which often went afoul of the official bodies of government. As military inspector, however, Franz Ferdinand meant to modernize the imperial army. He replaced all of the corps commanders of the Austrian military, all without the approval of his uncle, the Emperor. By the time he was murdered, politicians in Vienna were complaining that they not only had two Parliaments (Austrian and Hungarian) but two Emperors (FJ and FF).

Franz Ferdinand was hugely important because he was a “heartbeat away” as they say, from being the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. He was set on policies of “putting the Hungarians in their place” and modernizing the army, which he attempted, but was often hampered by Austria’s poor finances and muddled internal politics. Franz Ferdinand and his pet, von Hotzendorf, were huge proponents of using the army as a tool of internal politics as well as external aggrandizement. Franz Ferdinand never got to the throne, as he was murdered, but if he had, the entire history of Europe might have been different. He didn’t do much but he held and propagated ideas which were opposite or different than those the Empire ultimately took under Franz Josef. Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he made his fatal final visit, was to be “Austrianized” and serve as an outpost from which to unite Europe’s southern Slavic population against Germany, Russia, Hungary, etc. This would have been at the expense of the other state eyeing Bosnia,: the new Kingdom of Serbia. Gavrilo Princip shot and killed not only the visiting Habsburg prince, but the leading proponent of an active and aggressive policy against Serbian expansion in the Balkans.

As for the man he was and how well people of his time knew him… By most accounts he wasn’t a very likeable guy. His wife was very religious and this made him somewhat “preachy” – the opposite of the quietly devout Franz Josef. He was brusque and didn’t laugh a lot. But he was energetic and had big plans for the Empire.

He also caused a stir by marrying out of royalty. He begged his uncle, the Emperor, to allow him to marry Sophie Chotek, a Czech aristocrat who was, nevertheless, far below the rank of a Habsburg Emperor-to-be. Franz Josef eventually allowed them to have a Morganatic marriage, in which he acknowledged that she would never be styled “Empress of Austria-Hungary” and that his children by her would never inherit the title of Emperor.

Sources:

Wawro, Geoffrey. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire.

Rothenberg, The Army of Francis Joseph

Deak, Beyond Nationalism, A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps.

Williamson, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War


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The Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector, an experimental flamethrower used twice by the British during WW1. Four were deployed in 1916 at the Somme and one in 1917 near Diksmuide. It took 300 men to take it to the front and assemble them and eight to operate it.

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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.


Dragutin Dimitrijevic (known as Apis) – he killed one king, one heir and is somewhat responsible for beginning of WWI; ca. 1914.

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Dragutin Dimitrijević (Serbian Cyrillic: Драгутин Димитријевић; 17 August 1876 – 24 June 1917), also known as Apis (Апис), was a Serbian colonel. He was a leading member of a military group that organized the overthrow of the Serbian government in 1903. He personally organized and participated in the coup against King Alexander and his wife Queen Draga that resulted in their murders, though he was not present when they were killed. He was also the leader of the Black Hand group responsible for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria in June 1914. The latter triggered the July Crisis which led to the outbreak of World War I.

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