Weapons, Tactics, and Strategies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Beginning in 1871, with the unification of Kaiser Wilhelm (William) I’s German Reich through the diplomacy of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the efficiency of the Prussian army, the balance of power in Europe began to change. The swift German defeats of Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870–1871 had created a central European state that alarmed all nine of its neighbors. France, clearly seeking revenge for its defeat and for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, was ready to join other states in a coalition against Germany. Bismarck maintained friendly agreements with Russia and Austria, thus isolating France. By 1882 this agreement had culminated in a Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, as well as a nonaggression understanding with Russia.

World War I was the first truly modern war conducted on a worldwide scale. Building on military advances coming out of the Civil War in the United States, the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars in Europe, and the South African (Boer) War, World War I introduced large-scale armored naval combat, aerial warfare, tank warfare, and other destructive innovations. However, despite all these technological advances, the actual conduct of war remained mired in nineteenth century concepts, and the heaviest land combat of the war was largely static.

Beginning in 1871, with the unification of Kaiser Wilhelm (William) I’s German Reich through the diplomacy of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the efficiency of the Prussian army, the balance of power in Europe began to change. The swift German defeats of Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870–1871 had created a central European state that alarmed all nine of its neighbors. France, clearly seeking revenge for its defeat and for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, was ready to join other states in a coalition against Germany. Bismarck maintained friendly agreements with Russia and Austria, thus isolating France. By 1882 this agreement had culminated in a Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, as well as a nonaggression understanding with Russia.

The Bismarck system was weakened by the 1887 refusal of German banks to extend new loans to Russia, causing the czar to turn to French bankers. After Bismarck’s 1890 dismissal by Kaiser Wilhelm (William) II, the German treaty with Russia lapsed, and a Franco-Russian defensive military alliance followed in 1894. Britain’s search for allies after the South African (Boer) War (1899–1902) led to an alliance with Japan, a 1904 colonial “entente” with France, and a similar understanding with Russia in 1907.

Although Britain was not bound under the agreement to support France and Russia, and Italy had expressed reservations on its obligations to the alliance, the average European citizen saw the powers as rival camps—Triple Alliance versus Triple Entente. In 1914 neither the people nor the leaders of the larger European powers were planning for or seeking war, although they all sought military security and considered their windows of opportunity for military success. After the war broke out, the forces aligned with the Triple Alliance became known as the Axis, or Central, Powers. The forces aligned with the Triple Entente became known as the Allied Powers.

Competing War Aims

Whereas Russia had the manpower and Britain the sea power for a long war, Germany’s chances seemed better in a short conflict. General Alfred von Schlieffen, the German chief of staff from 1891 to 1905, devised a plan for a quick march through central Belgium aimed at enveloping Paris within six weeks, so that some German troops could be entrained back to Berlin to save that city from the slower advance of the Russians. This meant, however, that Germany would have to invade Belgium within a few days of any Russian mobilization.

In the 1914 crisis following the assassination of the Austrian crown prince Francis Ferdinand and his wife by pro-Serb extremists on June 28, 1914, Germany gambled that Russia would stay neutral while Austria defeated the Serbs. When the czar ordered mobilization on July 30, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, and Chief of Staff General Helmuth von Moltke all felt compelled to put the Schlieffen Plan into action, declaring war on Russia and mobilizing on August 1 to attack France through Belgium. In all the belligerent states of 1914, the leaders, press, and public felt sure that they had no choice but to fight, that their enemies had forced them to defend themselves.

Nationalism and moral righteousness fanned by newspaper jingoism excited overwhelming support for a war that was expected to be brief, with winners and losers determined by a few battles. Many young men were ready to volunteer for a bit of excitement before settling down. As Winston S. Churchill put it, “they sought adventure but found death.”

The invasion of Belgium became a serious moral handicap for Germany. Allied propaganda built on this violation of neutrality and treaties with stories of atrocities in occupied Belgium that depicted the Germans as bestial criminals. Further, the German advance on Paris bogged down in stalemated trench warfare, and the German defeat of the Russians at Tannenberg in August, 1914, and at the Masurian Lakes in September, 1914, was not decisive, partly due to Austria’s poor showing on the eastern front.

Although a negotiated peace might have been possible at the end of 1914, public opinion was not prepared for it, and it would not have met the demand for future security against aggression. The German armies were successful enough in 1914 to overrun most of France’s northern industrial zone. As they held off the Russians, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, the former Triple Alliance, in October, 1914, hoping to pay off old scores against Russia, Britain, and France. Japan also joined with Germany in August, occupying Germany’s Far Eastern bases, especially that of Qingdao, in China’s Shandong province.

In 1915 French marshal Joseph-Jacques Césaire Joffre mounted offensives that he termed as “nibbling” against the German troops, now commanded by General Erich von Falkenhayn. On the eastern front, the failure of Russia’s offensive encouraged Bulgaria to join the Central Powers, combining with Austria to drive the Serb army out of Serbia. An August 6, 1915, Anglo-French naval attempt to open the Dardanelles, a narrow strait between Turkey and Europe, as a supply route to Russia failed. These debacles brought about a coalition cabinet in Britain, and Winston S. Churchill was dropped from the Admiralty. The British also committed an expedition to occupy Basra, a southeastern Iraqi port, and to move up the Tigris River toward Baghdad in Turkish Mesopotamia. Italy joined the Axis Powers, with the promise of land in the Trentino, the Tyrol, and the Dalmatian coast as well as extra-European colonies. In a further Eastern diversion, Axis troops occupied Salonika as a check to Bulgaria. Germany fell into a quarrel with the United States over American lives lost in the May 7, 1915, torpedoing of the British liner Lusitania. When U.S. president Woodrow Wilson threatened war, the Germans promised in May of 1916 to restrict their submarine tactics to the nearly prohibitive terms demanded by the United States.

Year of Decision

It was widely expected that 1916 would be a year of decisive battles. The Allied plan for simultaneous convergence on Germany was anticipated when Falkenhayn launched a major assault on French fortifications at Verdun in February. Russia’s June attack on Austria, the Brusilov Offensive, encouraged Romania to join the Allies, while the British Expeditionary Force under Sir Douglas Haig made a major attack on the Germans in the Battle of the Somme (1916). The Germans did not take Verdun, but they rescued the Austrians and overran nearly all of Romania. This success did not quite make up for a potato blight in Germany and a subsequent “turnip winter” for the civilians. In Mesopotamia the British advance army of 10,000 was defeated and surrendered. The May, 1916, naval Battle of Jutland proved a tactical success for Germany but a strategic success for the continuing British blockade. The British losses on the Somme were heavy, and the Easter Rebellion in Ireland rounded out another grim year.

In the United States, 1916 was a year of preparedness rallies and appropriations. After his reelection, President Wilson asked both the Allied and the Axis Powers to state their specific war aims, but each side replied in vague terms. The restriction of territorial annexations gained support among those tired of the war, but there was no agreement on the possession of the Alsace-Lorraine region on the French-German border.

By March of 1917, street demonstrations in the Russian cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow had become uncontrollable. Czar Nicholas II abdicated, and a government of moderates was formed, headed by Prince Georgy Lvov and dominated by Aleksandr Kerensky. Attempts to continue the war were unsuccessful. Peace, bread, and land were the popular demands, and on that program, Vladimir Ilich Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power in November, signed an armistice on December 15, and accepted a treaty at Brest-Litovsk (now in Belarus) on March 3, 1918.

Renewed German Offensive

The German General Staff, headed since 1916 by Paul von Hindenburg, with Erich Ludendorff as his strategic guide, viewed the Russian collapse as Germany’s chance for total victory. The Germans calculated that an all-out submarine campaign would defeat Britain by 1918, that America would never risk sending troops across a submarine-dominated Atlantic, and that German soldiers from the eastern front would give the Reich the manpower it needed to crush France in 1918. Diplomatic alternatives were not explored. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, 1917, was an open challenge to Wilson’s policy. The so-called Zimmermann telegram, an intercepted German message made public proposing an alliance of Germany, Mexico, and Japan in war against the United States, was clearly a hostile act that Americans treated as such. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. The United States chose to fight as an “Associated Power,” against war and autocracy and for peace, humanity, and justice, without seeking territory as the spoils of victory.

After the failure of a French offensive in April, 1917, was followed by a mutinous “sit-down” in several French army divisions, General Henri-Philippe Pétain became French commander in chief, restoring confidence with a strategic choice to “wait for the tanks and the Americans.” The Italians were outgeneraled in the autumn Battle of Caporetto (1917), losing heavily in prisoners as they were driven from the Isonzo River back to the Piave River. These German successes, however great, could not make up for the facts that Britain had been saved by the transatlantic convoy system and that U.S. troops had begun arriving in France in June of 1917.

Ideological Changes

The Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution, which had also begun in 1917, and the American entrance into the war had, by 1918, given the war an increasingly ideological meaning. After the Bolsheviks published the Axis Powers’ secret treaties, The New York Times editorialized that Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky was “not a gentleman,” but, in fact, the treaties’ evidence of haggling over territorial loot insulted the sacrifice of millions of lives.

One of the great technological advances of World War I was the introduction of heavily armored and highly mobile tanks. However, it would not be until World War II that the mobility of tanks was used to advantage on a large scale. (U.S. Army War College)

The promise of self-determination, democracy, and justice espoused in both Wilson’s program for a just settlement of the war, known as the Fourteen Points, and Lenin’s propaganda encouraged separatism in Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, as well as in Ireland and Asia. Ludendorff ignored the political trends and the possibilities of defensive strategy and gambled that he could find military victory in France with a well-planned attack and revised infantry tactics. His offensive broke the front and gained ground, but again the troops outran their reinforcements and supplies. When the Allies, finally united under the command of French marshal Ferdinand Foch, struck back in mid-June with the advantage of tanks and air support, the overextended German lines could no longer halt the Allied attacks.

In September, Ludendorff declared victory out of reach, and in October the German chancellor asked Wilson for armistice terms based on the Fourteen Points. Negotiations proceeded as Bulgaria made terms on September 29, Turkey on October 31, and Austria on November 4. Part of the German navy mutinied on October 29, and an armistice delegation left Berlin for France on November 7. Demonstrations in Berlin led Kaiser William II to abdicate on November 9 and flee to Holland the following day. The German delegates, now representing a new government, signed an Armistice at Compiègne on November 11. President Wilson arrived in Europe on December 13, 1918, hailed as a powerful idealist bringing peace, democracy, justice, and security at the end of the “Great War.”

Military Achievement

Germany’s goal in the major theater of World War I was to defeat France by taking Paris within six weeks and then shifting troops eastward to stop the invading Russians. The drive for Paris failed. The Germans were stymied by problems with supplies and reinforcements that were multiplied with the distance from the German railheads, whereas the French used their own transport network, centered on Paris, for rapid countermoves.

Falkenhayn’s 1916 attrition strategy in the attack of Verdun killed almost as many Germans as Allies and was basically unsound, given the Allied predominance in manpower. Colonel Max Hoffman’s 1917 campaign on the eastern front took advantage of the Russian Revolution to drive the Russians to accept German peace terms and created an opportunity for a negotiated peace that was acceptable to Germany. Ludendorff, in the west, preferred to gamble on submarines and a 1918 capture of Paris before American intervention could be effective. A better German foreign policy might have been the avoidance of a two-front war or the negotiation of an acceptable peace plan in late 1916 or early 1917. Germany’s wartime aims for territory or dominance in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East were militarily impractical.

The French offensive aims never achieved their ostensible goals until the Ludendorff Offensive of 1918 depleted German manpower. Only then could the French achieve the obvious goal of gaining Alsace-Lorraine plus security. France’s Plan 17 in 1914 was geographically unsound and misjudged the location of the German attack, but it drew the German battle eastward and away from Paris. Joffre’s 1915 “nibbling” with bombardments was ineffective, and General Robert-Georges Nivelle’s “surprise breakthrough” in 1917 had been too widely advertised to surprise anyone. Pétain’s defensive strategy gave the French army a chance to recover, a sensible goal after the French army mutinies of 1917. The French general staff was generally less effective than its German counterpart but made fewer costly mistakes.

The Russian goals of taking Berlin, threatening Vienna, and dominating Constantinople at least had the advantage of a numerous, courageous, and usually uncomplaining infantry. Against Austrian and Turkish forces, the Russians had many successes, limited only by inadequate transportation. Against the Germans, however, the Russian army officers seemed to be too preoccupied by the probability of defeat to act on the possibility of success. With a shortage of both experienced noncommissioned ranks and competent officers, the quality of Russian army leadership was so bad that the troops were losing faith in the army leaders, even as the home front was losing faith in the government and the czar.

Britain achieved some limited and peripheral goals: It prevailed narrowly in the Battle of Jutland; it maintained a blockade of the Central Powers; it brought world, and especially U.S., resources to the western front despite German submarines; it helped to finance the Allies; it did most of the fighting in Germany’s African colonies, in the Middle East, and at the Dardanelles and Gallipoli; and it committed a sizable army to the western front. These were significant goals and achievements. Without victory over the submarines, there might well have been no Allied victory in the European theater. On the other hand, Germany’s chief threat to Britain was economic, and on that score, the liquidation of Britain’s overseas investments to finance the war benefited the United States more than it hurt Germany and was certainly an important step in Britain’s later decline as a world power.

Austria did occupy Serbia in 1915, thereby more or less achieving Austria-Hungary’s goal to eliminate Serbia as a factor in Balkan politics. It also held off the Italians until the collapse of 1918, but its campaigns against Russia lacked direction; the 1918 wave of “self-determination” simply dissolved the polyglot Habsburg Empire. The Treaty of Versailles that ended the war in 1919 drew very restricted boundaries for Hungary and forbade the Austrian remnant from making any political or commercial union with Germany.

The Allied Powers had made generous territorial promises to Italy for joining them in 1915, and the Italian army’s military goal from 1915 to 1918 was to take the Austrian capital of Vienna. Adverse geography and an army that was both poorly equipped and poorly trained stalled the Italians on the Isonzo River, until their defeat at Caporetto forced them to develop assault squads that finally won the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918) as Austria-Hungary collapsed. Even though Italy did gain the Trentino, Tyrol, and, later, Fiume, in the Treaty of Versailles, it still felt shortchanged. The Ottoman Empire wished to gain territory, such as the Suez Canal, from the British, and land in the Caucasus from Russia, but was more successful in defensive campaigns, such as Gallipoli. In the Balkans, the Serbian army had been forced out of Serbia into Salonika, a French territory, but in the Treaty of Versailles, the Serbian premier gained leadership over the kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers to invade Serbia but lost border enclaves in the Treaty of Versailles. Romania’s goal had been to gain Transylvania, and despite a complete military defeat, did so at Paris; it had also regained Bessarabia from Russia under the earlier Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Greece had the distinction of being forced into the war by the British and French for modest territorial gains. Belgium had wanted Luxembourg but had no means of armed occupation. Japan’s goal had been to acquire German bases and islands in the Far East, and its army and navy enforced these claims. Japan’s military presence in Shandong and Siberia and its naval construction program aroused U.S. hostility.

The United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, participating in the battles of 1918 as an “Associated Power” on the Allied side. The American political goals were to defeat Germany, “making the world safe for democracy,” and to end war by means of a League of Nations based on self-determination and justice. The U.S. military goal was German surrender.

Land Weapons

In 1914, as oversized armies met in the European theater, increased firepower made battlefields impassable for conventional infantry assaults. The previously ineffective mitrailleuse came into its own: Situated to cover enemy troop concentrations and used in short bursts to avoid overheating and jamming, these machine guns, whether water-cooled Maxims or air-cooled Hotchkiss types, fired 400 to 600 rounds per minute. Also, bolt-action repeating rifles, such as the German Mauser Gewehr 98, the British Lee-Metford, the Austrian Mannlicher Model 1895, the Italian Mannlicher-Carcano, the French Lebel M-1e 1886/93, the Russian Nagant, and later, the American Springfield, achieved a range, accuracy, and rate of fire unprecedented in European warfare. Battles of encounter became a story of heavy losses, entrenchment, barbed wire, and stalemate.

An air-cooled Hotchkiss machine gun. (U.S. Army War College)

Light field artillery was used to attack the trenches, ranging from the 75-millimeter gun (known in French as the soixante-quinze) to the 105-millimeter howitzer. The Germans used 30.5-centimeter Skodas and 42-centimeter Krupps Big Berthas for howitzer shelling of the forts at Liège and Namur. Larger artillery, such as the “Paris gun,” used by the Germans to shell Paris in 1918, had to be moved by rail. Antitrench bombardments, however, so cratered the terrain as to slow down the assault troops, a self-defeating result.

The mining of enemy trenches, as by the British at Messines Ridge in June, 1917, was effective but caused massive terrain dislocation and took a great deal of time for a limited gain. Flamethrowers were tried with good results at close quarters but without achieving major breakthroughs. Poison gas, under the right conditions, could break down a line of defense, but advancing in gas masks was slow work and some gases persisted for days. Repeatedly, attacking armies were hampered in moving men and supplies across ravaged battlefields while retreating armies drew on rapid support from the rail center it was defending. For most of World War I, defense was a stronger position than offense in terms of reinforcement and supply.

Another defensive form, the blockade, dominated the war at sea, but undersea and aerial weapons threatened the traditional line of battle style of naval warfare. Submerged mines kept the British from entering the Dardanelles in 1915 and effectively kept them out of the Baltic Sea. Aerial reconnaissance at sea by dirigibles, blimps, and airplanes became a new factor, and German diesel-electric submarines did much more damage to Allied warships and world commercial shipping than did any of its surface warships. These submarines were also a major factor in the 1917 entry of the United States into the war, which ensured Germany’s defeat.

The Air War

Aerial warfare captured the imagination of the public, but the comparative airpower of the European states in 1914 is difficult to put into quantitative terms, because too many variables are involved. France apparently had from 200 to 250 serviceable airplanes. Germany had a few more, as well as zeppelins. Britain claimed only 35 planes but could be compared at 135. Austria-Hungary had 36, and Belgium 24. Russia purchased 250 foreign planes in 1913 to add to those of its own production but listed only about 100 total pilots. Wartime production greatly increased these numbers.

The first aerial reconnaissance and bombing began in 1914, when machine guns were mounted on airplanes. Dutch aircraft designer Anthony H. G. Fokker equipped his 1915 German planes with interrupter gears for forward firing through the propeller. Germany’s zeppelins were useful only in long-range bombing, and its airplane production was limited by an inadequate supply of engines. During the war, airplanes improved greatly in both general reliability and strength of construction. Pilots were not usually issued parachutes, giving them an incentive to land their planes safely if hit. Survivors could not remember any “dogfights” quite as crowded as those depicted in later Hollywood films.

Armored Vehicles

Armored trains and armored cars were not new, but they could not cross trenches. In 1916, British colonel Ernest Swinton developed a “land warship,” code-named “tank,” with a caterpillar tractor-type continuous tread stretched over a long and rigid track. This tread gave the 30-ton vehicle the ability to cross trenches while carrying 6-pound guns or machine guns in side-mounted gun platforms as it advanced through the German defenses.

In 1918 Britain produced a 14-ton Whippet model tank with a machine gun, and France introduced the 6.5-ton Renault Char-Mitrailleuse with a 360-degree turret. The British used a few tanks on the Somme in 1916 and successfully at Cambrai in 1917. Germany produced a few 30-ton tanks and only prototypes for a lighter machine. Germany’s western offensive in 1918 depended chiefly on the use of captured Allied tanks. Despite their persistent tendencies to ditch or break down, tanks were the Allies’ best new weapon in 1918. Although the tank became a tactical breakthrough weapon in World War I, it was not yet capable of leading a sustained offensive.

Several elements of civilian life came to have military significance. Trucks became necessary links between railheads and battlefields, although horses still pulled field artillery. Telephones and wireless telegraphy became variably useful. Voice radio would have been very useful for conveying reports and orders over large combat areas, but the transmitting and receiving equipment had a limited range.

By 1914 armor at sea had been maximized. Waterline “blisters” were added to battleships for protection against mines and torpedoes, but the addition of any more deck armor to protect against aerial bombs or the plunging fire of long-range shooting would have made ships top-heavy and ready to capsize. German compartmentalization and wider dry docks gave the Germans stronger ships at Jutland.

Armor on land principally concerned tanks. Although World War I tanks had enough armor to stop ordinary rifle or machine-gun bullets, .50-caliber or larger high-velocity bullets would penetrate them. The size of tank needed to cross trenches meant a large vehicle that was only thinly covered. Basically, tanks needed more horsepower, which ideally came from diesel engines.


European uniforms became discreetly drab after the Russo-Japanese War showed the advantage of camouflage. Khaki or gray-green colors prevailed. Shoulder and collar patches identified units and rank. Headgear, such as a forage cap, tin hat, turban, or fez, was distinctive. In 1914 the exceptions in uniform uniformity were the French, whose press and politicians had insisted on the troops’ traditional blue coat and red trousers, and the Scots, whose kilts were covered by khaki aprons for the field.

Military Organization

The belligerents, or warring nations, of World War I originally organized their military forces along the same general lines developed during the French Revolution (1789–1799). The head of the government or the war cabinet determined war policies for the army and navy. The service chiefs developed and executed the military war plans. This latter group was described as General Headquarters (GHQ) in Britain and the United States, as Grand Quartier Géneral (GQG) in France, as Stavka in Russia, and as Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL) in Germany.

The land forces were divided into army groups of field armies composed of corps. The corps was an all-arms group including two infantry divisions, a cavalry brigade or division, an artillery brigade, and several support groups. The division continued to be a basic all-arms unit capable of independent action if ordered and composed of brigades, regiments, battalions, companies, platoons, and squads in diminishing order of size. A typical infantry division included headquarters personnel, two or three brigades of infantry, one or two regiments of field artillery, a squadron or up to a regiment of cavalry, a battalion or regiment of engineers, one or more signal companies (in the United States, this included airplanes as well as telegraph and radio), ambulance companies, field hospitals, a base hospital, ammunition and supply services, and food services. European divisions might number 10,000 to 15,000, and U.S. divisions in Europe 25,000 to 30,000. Cavalry divisions were much less numerous in personnel. Some divisions were specialized, such as investment divisions for sieges or mountain (Alpine) divisions.

This multiplicity of functions meant that while battlefield firepower increased, the number of riflemen decreased in favor of the new special services. In military jargon, there was “less teeth and more tail,” especially in U.S. overseas divisions. Indeed, some servicemen might find that apart from boredom, mud, and the danger of being killed or wounded, they were better fed and cared for than they had been in civilian life.

The development during World War I of infiltration squads and supporting assault battalions meant special selection, training, and organization for these shock troops, or combat teams, as they would later be called. At the time, this separation of an elite infantry force was controversial for being potentially harmful to general army morale. Is is considered in some accounts as a factor in Germany’s 1918 military defeat.

The new weapons of World War I were sometimes seen as a threat to senior army ranks. Young officers ambitious for promotion might be drawn to a new technical field, to which older officers found it difficult to adjust, and claim the need for an independent organization with its own system of funding, control, and promotion. Submarines were safely under navy control, and aircraft carriers could be limited, but a separate Royal Air Force, such as the British established in 1918, was an unwelcome competitor for shrinking postwar military budgets. There was widespread agreement that tanks should be nothing more than ancillary to infantry operations.

The general staff system of army administration, planning, and command, used with great success by Germany in the nineteenth century, was widely copied but with very mixed results in World War I. The German staff was efficient in the military field but calamitous in trying to shape general strategy and foreign policy. The French staff managed its generals fairly well but did not do much for the front-line soldiers. Otherwise, general staffs tended to defer to the commanding general without giving him needed information. Britain’s imperial general staff suffered from the fact that the British had little regard for military desk jobs and opted instead for field commands. Although the United States had capable staff chiefs, it still seemed that General John J. Pershing did too much of his own staff work. On the whole, most countries felt that their own general staff needed improvement and that the German staff should be abolished. The abolition turned out to be only a matter of form.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Nineteenth century military theory, attempting to borrow its principles of war from the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802), concluded that mass citizen armies had outmoded the older professional armies of the eighteenth century and that the offensive campaigns of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte showed how these mass armies should be used to win wars. The doctrine of the offensive became established at military academies. In the Crimean War (1853–1856), the Civil War (1861–1865), the Wars of German Unification (1864, 1866, 1870–1871), and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), victory went to invaders pursuing the offensive, although the cost to the attacking infantry increased. Breech-loading rifles with longer effective ranges made frontal assaults increasingly costly, and railways gave defenders a quick deployment against any strategic flank attack. Although it took little training to fire a rifle from a defensive position, the half-trained recruits of mass armies might not be as willing and able to press home a successful bayonet attack.

In France the doctrine of the offensive became even more imperative as military leaders appreciated that the predictable speed of a German offensive aimed at Paris would need to be matched by a fast-moving Franco-Russian offensive converging on Berlin. According to the French high command, the French infantry would need to have the spirit, discipline, and courage to attack and win by the bayonet against ever-increasing odds. The Germans held a similar philosophy.

The western front battles of 1914 began as open-field encounters of deadly firepower that drove the troops into hasty trenches. The short lesson was “bullets kill men, and earth stops bullets.” The dominant tactic from 1915 to 1917 was bombardment by more and bigger howitzers. This offensive was undeniably more wracking for the target infantry, and fatal for some outposts, but it destroyed the element of surprise and left a scarred no-man’s-land of a battlefield that was too chewed up for an offensive advance. Extensive mining could destroy an entire enemy entrenchment, but again, the zone of destruction was difficult for the attackers to cross. This method was effective, but time-consuming and expensive. Attacks with poisonous gases were frequently surprising and damaging to the defenders but also caused problems for the attackers. Tank attacks were promising but not very effective in 1916 and 1917.

French general Nivelle promised a new kind of offensive when he replaced Marshal Joffre in 1917. On paper his plan did seem to incorporate some of the flexible infiltration ideas advocated by earlier theorists, but when the plan was fully explained to the politicians, and through the press to the public, including the Germans, its failure became inevitable.

“Vertical infiltration” was more successfully developed by the Germans for their breakthrough against the Russians at Riga (1917). The same methods accounted for some of the Austro-German success against Italy at Caporetto. The surprising strength of the Ludendorff Offensive in 1918 again showed the effectiveness of these methods. The Allies followed somewhat similar offensive methods later in 1918, but these tended to be tank-led breakthrough and penetration tactics against German troops who were increasingly willing to surrender.

Vertical infiltration, as developed by the Germans during World War I, was basically an infantry attack involving several new tactics. The spear point was to be a squad of fourteen to eighteen storm troopers, or (in German) Sturmtruppen, attacking on several principles. The first was the use of reconnaissance to find weak spots, infiltrating in surprise night penetrations, deceptive preparations, and short bombardments, moving forward bypassing strong points. After this initial infiltration, platoons, companies, and larger units would also move forward and widen the breakthrough. The infiltration squad would use light machine guns or portable sub-machine guns such as the Madsen, Bergmann, or Parabellum, as well as grenades and grenade launchers, light trench mortars, gas shells, and sometimes flamethrowers. Battalion support followed with machine gun companies, light artillery companies, and heavier, individually placed guns. Ideally aerial bombing and strafing would find targets of opportunity. The principle of momentum held that the assault and support units should always keep moving. The assault team included engineers to ensure that reinforcements, replacements, and supplies could be moved directly from the rear to the front.

Clearly, these were ideal principles. In practice, the logistical problems of moving equipment from the railhead to the forward storm troopers could not keep an advance going indefinitely. Also, many generals rejected the idea of elite storm troopers as bad for general army morale. However, the resemblance of these early troops to World War II German Panzer divisions and to later U.S. assault team formations is clear enough to show the eventual significance of these tactics for future offensives.

Lessons of the War

In Britain and France the lessons that generals learned in 1918 mattered less to the public, press, and political leaders than did the preceding four-year western front stalemate and slaughter. The doctrine of the offensive and the strategy of attrition were discredited among the postwar disillusioned, or “lost,” generation. Without American or Soviet support, the remaining Allies adopted a defensive doctrine, believing that the Maginot line, a line of fortifications along the French-German border, and a British naval blockade would be enough to defeat Germany economically. This strategy was crushed by the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Categories: History