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?”
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.
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
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)
Documentary on the subject (in French). Basically, two French officers where sent to North America to get 400 sled dogs before the 1915 winter to help with troop evacuation in the Vosges. Footage of this can be found here.
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.
Stahlhelm, the stages of the helmet-making process of Stahlhelms for the Imperial German Army; ca.1916.
In both World Wars, the most distinctive feature of the Germany army uniform was the item that has come to symbolize German militarism in even remotest corners of the world – the helmet, the Stahlhelm. Here, on a table set up outside a steel helmet factory in Lubeck, Germany, a display is set up, showing the varying stages of the helmet-making process for Stahlhelms for the Imperial German Army.
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.
I have the daily schedule of one Captain Geoffrey Bowen with the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers on September 3rd, 1917.
I’ll be giving some context in brackets throughout for reading sake:
8.pm. Started [wake up] 9.30 p.m. Arrived. [at trench] 11 p.m. Company arrived. 11 p.m.-3 a.m. Round the line [ie: checking on men, checking positions, maintaining quality control across the line] 3.15 a.m.-4.15 a.m. Sleep 4.15 a.m.-6.am. Stand to. [Night watch, essentially] 6 a.m.-6.30 Reports [from lower level officers] 6.30a.m.-9. Sleep 9 a.m.-9.30 Breakfast: bacon, eggs, tinned sausage 9.30 a.m.-10.10 Round the line 10.10 a.m.-12. Reports, etc. 12.30 p.m. Lunch: Steak, potatoes, beans, sweet omelette 1.45 p.m.-2.15. Daylight patrol. 2.15 p.m-2.30. Sleep. 2.30 p.m.-3.40. Gup [gossip, idle chat] with the C.O. 4 p.m. Tea, bread, jam. 4.30 p.m.-4.35. Sleep. 4.35 p.m.-5.10. Entertain 'Bowes' 5.10 p.m.-5.15. Sleep. 5.15 p.m.-5.25. Trench Mortar Officer reports. 5.25 p.m.-6.15. Sleep 6.15 p.m.-6.35. Entertain Brain and Padre [Chaplains, implied work on mental and religious health] 6.35 p.m.-7.30. Sleep. 7.30 p.m.-8. Round the line 8 p.m.-8.15. Dinner: steak, potatoes, tinned fruit and custard. 8.15 p.m.-9. Round the line 11.30 p.m.-12.30 a.m. Sleep. 12.30-2.30 a.m. Intensive sniping [under fire] 2.30-5 a.m. Sleep.
It’s not nearly as dramatic as you may think. The unfortunate truth for Hollywood is that most of WWI was sitting around improving defenses and doing basically nothing. The conditions were horrific the entire time for most parts but you were not constantly getting out of trenches and charging enemies most of the time. One of the biggest jobs of men on the front is to constantly check, repair and lay down barbed wire outside of their trenches. This was generally done at night for obvious reasons and generally required hundreds of men to cover the workers doing this. At first they had to use mallets and even if they tried to muffle the sound by putting sandbags between the mallet and the stake to hold the barbed wire down, it was still noisy business. This brought the attention of many snipers. Eventually a corkscrew type of device would be universalized which would allow men to ‘screw’ the stake into the ground silently.
However the amount of fighting and what fighting you got depended on your sector. There were generally two types, quiet and loud sectors. Loud sectors were ones where the trenches were extremely close to the Germans — at times less than 25 yards away but usually no further than 100-200 yards away. You are in constant threat of rifle fire but not so much artillery lest each side hits their own men. So your entire existence is painted by avoiding snipers, being under sniper fire, and having bursts of machine gun fired in your general direction in your daily life. The quiet sectors were generally very different. You could easily be 600-800 yards away from the other trench and both sides adopted a ‘live and let live’ philosophy and your greatest threat would be random artillery barrages from miles away. Capt. Dugdale described the experience:
Time passed very peacefully, as the Germans were very quiet. My battalion snipers had the time of their lives; never before had they been given such targets. We literally kept a game book of hits for hte first three days; after that the Germans did not show themselves so much; also they started to retaliate.
Wiring was carried out nearly every night, but not in the style we were accustomed to in the days of the Somme. Our men did not creep through the wire carrying coils of wire, stakes, etc.; instead, a general service wagon was driven into No Man’s Land with the materials on board, which were dumped out when required. At first we expected bursts of machine gun fire every minute, but nothing happened. It must have become a well-established custom, as the enemy did the same thing themselves; we did not interfere.
Nonetheless in the general, the Germans were very keen on disrupting workers parties; particularly with machine guns and offensive patrols. The need for quiet was imperative but not always followed by the more reckless green horns. One account by Henry Gregory describes a particularly loud worker party shouting orders and joking with each other while his company was covering their duties. After about 30 minutes of it the Germans (who were previously pretty quiet) got fed up and unleashed a massive mortar barrage and machine gun attack on the position, killing dozens of men who had no reason to.
Conditions in the trenches were universally awful however. That is one universal thing that can be applied. Many trenches had water up the knees of men and you would have to wade around in this grungy, dirty mud water all day and everything you had would be almost constantly wet. When digging new trenches it was not uncommon to get a sudden and sharp scent of a dead body lying there for weeks or months as you pierced his flesh in the dirt, especially in when repairing trenches taken over from the enemy after large artillery barrages. Everything, once you got up to the front, had to be carried by hand for obvious reasons. Usually in the dark. In knee to waist high water. While being shot at by snipers consistently. You can imagine the frustration and how it could wear on a man.
That’s really what made the war so horrible. You didn’t attack all that much if you were a soldier but your life was still a miserable hellhole. You sat in a crappy trench while being shot on constantly by snipers or being bombarded constantly by artillery depending on where you were — if you were in a perfect spot both at once! You were constantly slightly hungry because of poor rations and if someone slipped and dropped a box of steak in water they were done for and you had just go without. Something that happened enough for men to justify writing about it as a part of their experience. However, for all that, the actual combat was pretty minimal and dare I say cushy, especially for quiet sectors. Your duties if you were a rifleman were essentially forward patrols from time to time and covering worker parties (usually the two duties were combined) which was a dangerous job but not really an all out attack and otherwise maintaining the trench system through constant labor. If you were a machine gunner or a sniper your life was essentially to sit in one spot for hours and harass the enemy and discourage them from performing their own maintenance or making them do it under great duress. And if you were an officer your job was basically to walk around and make sure everyone was doing their job correctly.
Now I’d like to talk briefly about how trench warfare worked. At first it was a crude type of deal, the Generals were literally learning on the fly. The original tactic through 1915 and 1916 was essentially bombard the enemy trench with so much firepower that they couldn’t possibly survive and then mop up the rest with your infantry. This was basically what The Battle of Somme was supposed to be — one of the biggest failures of the war where the British men advancing quickly found that the artillery barrage did nothing to the enemy barbed wire and the Germans just huddled up underground ,waited for the barrage to stop, and then just manned their machine guns again once the assault started. Things like the creeping barrage were developed as well where basically the artillery would ‘creep’ to the German trench as the infantry marched behind it. The idea was that the artillery would hit the trench and within seconds be struck by British and French troops in the immediate aftermath.
Again, the issue was coming with that all out artillery barrages where the men were marching was a horrible strategy. This is most demonstrated at the Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, where the British attempted to break out of the Ypres salient in Belgium by taking surrounding ridges. The British absolutely unloaded artillery on these positions and when the men went into battle the ground was so utterly destroyed the entire battlefield was composed of flooded craters. The men were literally getting stuck in the mud and could barely move and they were cut down endlessly. The battle was only a half success, only capturing a few ridges with egregious casualties no one predicted even at this stage in the war.
In many ways WWI was an artillery war, but it was a war that was won in the development of infantry doctrine. What generals realized by 1918 was that artillery can not win this war. It could not single handedly destroy the enemy like they believed and the principle of combined arms was developed. Combined arms stated that every component of the army must be used together in equal parts to support each other and win the battle and that’s precisely what happened. Artillery was used in short, concentrated bursts and barrages not meant to obliterate the enemy defense but just shock them and generally create temporary weak points. Infantry stopped being a force that charged into trenches trying to overwhelm a position “shattered” by artillery but rather began doing something we are more familiar with — squad based infiltration tactics. Small squads of men would independently infiltrate enemy weak points, neutralize key points and create an open path for friendly mortars and flamethrowers to move in to create a combined mortar, machine gun and flamethrower assault on the more fortified positions with the infiltrated elite troops attacking from all sides inside the trench as well. Combined with aerial reconnaissance, armor to shield advancing infantry, and short but sweet ‘hurricane’ barrages trenches became all but a stepping stone in the March 1918 offensive by the Germans and then for the Allies in the Hundred Days counter-offensive in August which ended the war.
Holmes, Richard, “Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front “
Simpson, Andy “Hot Blood & Cold Steel: Life and Death in the Trenches of the First World War”
Dragutin Dimitrijevic (known as Apis) – he killed one king, one heir and is somewhat responsible for beginning of WWI; ca. 1914.
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.
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).
*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.
Winnipeg the Bear, is seen here with Lt. Harry Colebourn when she was the unofficial mascot of a Canadian cavalry regiment; ca.1914
Winnipeg, or Winnie, (24 August 1914 – 12 May 1934) was the name given to a female black bear that lived at London Zoo from 1915 until her death in 1934.
She was bought as a small cub for $20 (probably from the hunter who had shot her mother) at a stop in White River, Ontario, by Lt. Harry Colebourn of The Fort Garry Horse, a Canadian cavalry regiment, en route to the Western Front during the First World War. The bear was smuggled into Britain as an unofficial regimental mascot. Lt. Colebourn, the regiment’s veterinarian, named her after his home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before leaving for France, Colebourn left Winnie at London Zoo.
Winnipeg’s eventual destination was to have been the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, but at the end of the War, Colebourn decided to allow Winnie to remain at the London Zoo, where she was much loved for her playfulness and gentleness. (From Wikipedia)
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