Another view on the source for the debacles of late 1914

Back in June I linked to an online book about Boer War (1900) tactical experiences. The known tactical problems of the 1900's (described well in that book) coupled with the obvious aspect of quantity for a European Great War (armies numbering millions of men, able to man continuous front lines from sea to sea) led to the conclusion that armies could indeed fail in all major offensive manoeuvres once a continuous front-line was established.

This was already published by civilian warfare analyst/hobbyist Jan Gotlib Bloch well before the outbreak of the First World War, based on his talks with officers and on published material. In fact, he came to his largely correct conclusions without reports from the last Boer War.

The seemingly unavoidable stalemate of continuous front-lines facing each other seemed to be almost unbreakable. Low level manoeuvres (squads and platoons exploiting micro-terrain features such as shell craters, ditches, defilades instead of corps marching around an opposing armies' flank) wre not yet developed.

Or were they?

Well, yes. They existed - and had existed most likely for thousands of years (the first warriors were hunters, after all!).
A relevant example were the light infantry outfits, the skirmishers, of the 18th and early 19th century.

In 1813-1815 the Prussian skirmishers performed pretty well.
A member of Prussian 12th Brigade wrote, "We moved up via Meusdorf and the brickworks against Probstheida. The first thing that hit our skirmishers - of which I was one - was an artillery crossfire. It didn't take long for us to be scattered. We reformed and threw ourselves into a sunken road up against the loopholed garden wall of the village. We waited until the French had fired a full volley at our main body, jumped out of the road and rushed forward to take half the village. The surprised French fell back before us, abandoning a battery of 10 guns in the centre of the village." (Digby-Smith - "1813: Leipzig" p 195)

In 1815 during the battle of Ligny, Bünau's battalion (II/19th Infantry) had spent much of the day fighting either in skirmish order or in small battle groups. The skirmishers often had to crawl through gaps in the fences and hedges or very quickly move from one place to another. If all Prussian infantry was like Bünau's battalion, Ligny would probably never fall into French hands.
(taken from here)

How could this have happened?

There was apparently a really, really weird twist of military history during the mid-19th century.

# The old system of light troops mostly with rifles and line troops with muskets was broken apart with the unified infantry of the all-blackpowder rifles age (1840s to 1880's). The new, standardised infantry had rifles that matched or exceeded the rate of fire of earlier muskets and matched or exceeded the accuracy of earlier pattern rifles.
Regrettably, this advance in equipment quality was not matched by a sufficiently strong advance in doctrine and training towards the former light infantry patterns. Instead, we kept line infantry - just armed them with rifles.

# The large U.S. Civil War saw millions of troops with weapons of average modernity, but they were raised quickly and trained poorly by officers and non-commissioned officers who were themselves mostly trained in military skills only after the war broke out.

# One major European war of the period - the Crimean War - did expose many deficiencies, but told us very little about infantry.

# The other major European wars of the period - Prussia  vs. Austria and German states vs. France - were relatively quick wars without much influence of field fortifications.

So basically the skill set was in part existent and the tools were advanced for tactical success. The lack of proper infantry training and doctrine led to tactical offensive impotence and thus to operational impotence once the field armies were deployed properly.

Some sought a solution fro the problem in more and better weapons of war (poison gas, tanks, mortars, submarines, aircraft, airships, flamethrowers), others sought them in proper infantry training (Germany, Italy and belatedly Austria-Hungary).

The whole initial mess of late 1914-early 1917 was probably in great part avoidable if only the majority had not dominated the new standard infantry. On the other hand, anticipating the problems was already a major achievement that deserves recognition and fame, especially in Bloch's case since he was a civilian. The choice of a suitable solution was apparently out of reach until after many, many bloody lessons.



  1. I have to concur - the unwillingness of all sides to even manage to learn from the last few wars is still fairly amazing (lessons from the ACW & 1864/65 might have been extremely apposite, really). Does make me reflect on what the current systems are missing, and what lessons are going to have to be relearnt, bloodily (and quickly given the tempo of modern war).

  2. Actually only a stagnation in infantry tactics could have shortened the war by bleeding the axis powers white faster. WW I was a war of attrition not because of erroneous doctrine but by the simple fact, that the defender always outrun the attacker in committing his reserves.

    "Some sought a solution fro the problem in more and better weapons of war (poison gas, tanks, mortars, submarines, aircraft, airships, flamethrowers), others sought them in proper infantry training (Germany, Italy and belatedly Austria-Hungary)."

    Ste... ste... stereotype!