World War I Tactics

I have been reading some about World War I recently. Reading and listening, because my local public library has “A Short History of WWI” by James L. Stokesbury on tape. I like Stokesbury’s books. He has a ‘Short History’ of WW1, 2 and Korean War.

However, I wish he would explain a few more technical military concepts. What is the big deal about a ‘flanking attack’ on something the size of an army, or even a smaller unit of organization? For example, he says on p. 47 “the Germans had no desire to be caught in flank as they were catching the British…”

Later, discussing the battle of the Marne, p. 53 “The troops Gronau’s Germans met… coming out of Paris to take the enemy in flank and rear.” and on p. 52 “He [Moltke] directed Kluck and Buelow to … instead to face west…”

A battleship is much thinner in one dimension than another. While it is moving, the rear guns can’t fire on a target. Thus the importance of “crossing the T”: being perpendicular to the approach path of another ship so that all your guns can bear. So I can see why a battleship has to worry about [inverse?] flanking.
But why an army? I realize an army needs supplies, and that those come from occupied territory. But surely more than just the very advancing tip of an army is composed of combat soldiers… why not have some on the flanks? Of course you take away some from the leading edge, but they you don’t worry about getting flanked.

I also want to know what changed between WW1 and 2 to end the static, trench warfare of the former. I believe the answer is ‘combined tanks and airpower’, but exactly how did this occur? And it seems not to be the total answer, because there were instances were breakthroughs occurred, but it seems the trouble was with supply.

Wouldn’t a blitzkrieging/deeply penetrating army have it’s own supply vulnerabilities?

Recommended reading about these topics appreciated.

You only have a guard on your flank if you dedicated a guard to your flank. The Germans in the Battle of the Marne either did not do so or did not do so enough because they were trying as hard as they could to trap the French.

Again, I’m not sure on exactly how weak their flank was, but consider this: there were gaps on their front line on a Corps-Army level, so if they had been able to shore up their flank their front line would have been even thinner than it was. This might not have matched up to the original German plan but those things happen in war.

Yes. For instance the battle of the bulge not only were the Germans far away from their supply lines, they were also being outflanked when they created the salient.

On flanking, it has multiple benefits to the attacker. Firstly, armies are usually geared to fight ‘from the front’, so to speak. Men can only face in one direction, cannons can only point in one direction and so on. So catching your opponent in the rear or sides can reduce initial casualties.

Secondly, linked to the first, it allows you command of the battlefield. The enemy has to react to you, rather than the other way round. The enemy must move and alter his plans in order to face a flank attack. This has been realised since ancient times. Sun Tzu wrote;
“17. For should the enemy strengthen his van,
he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear,
he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left,
he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right,
he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere,
he will everywhere be weak.”

“61. By persistently hanging on the enemy’s flank, we shall
succeed in the long run in killing the commander-in-chief.”

Wiki has a quite good overview of flanking. I think what you’re referring to is large scale strategic flanking, which places the flanked at a disadvantage for logistical (which is everything in war) and psychological reasons (i.e., surrounded and fighting on two fronts)

Very loosely speaking, think of an army as a line of chorus girls, kicking their feet out to attack their opponents. If they’re in a straight line then most of their firepower faces forward. An enemy chorus line could attack from the side and face only a few kickers at any one time. The girls in the original chorus line could turn to face the enemy but it’ll take time for them to reform into a line and by then they might be defeated.

So why don’t armies have strong flanks? If they are in purely defensive positions without the need to move forward any time soon then they do–think of the chorus line shaped into a large ‘C’ or a complete circle, all facing out. However, this is an awkward arrangement to move forward with any cohesiveness–the girls facing sideways can only move slowly. Since mobility is so important for an army they don’t often dig in to that extent.

Supplies are not the only thing that flow from the rear areas. A flank attack threatens the lines of communication between higher command and the fighting units. In WWI this was a bigger problem due to the primitive to non-existent radios. Also, reinforcement and relief forces are not able to sustain the losses at the front. It is a measure of an army’s morale and discipline to see how it reacts to being flanked. Some armies collapse in terror. Others refuse the flank (bend the front line to face the new enemy) and fight on.

An interesing case is Shermans army in Georgia. He so outnumbered the confederates that he was able to keep all his flanks completely secure and still have a massive force left for head on attacking.

Tha change to the blitz had its start in WWI as infantry Sturm assaults. The German high command figured out that if you managed to punch through the enemy lines, you could leave a small number of your troops to occupy the pockets of enemy holdouts and let the rest of your force charge through the gap into the enemy areas. This had the same effect as a flank charge in that it tore up the enemy organization and morale as you captured rear areas such as higher level HQ, ammo dumps, transport hubs, etc… The difference in WWII was that vehilces made the Blitz possible to a much larger level. Prior to the Sturm assault, the Germans used the “Annihilation Concept” which was to punch through the line and then roll the enemy line up into a surrounded pocket and beat it to death.

My favorite mental image in the thread so far!

Yes. John Keegan wrote that blitzkrieg requires cooperation from your opponent. Once opponents learn to keep their heads, which happened relatively fast historically, the opportunity for true blitzkrieg (penetration and deep exploitation leading to collapse of the defenders) is usually limited to situations where the enemy is constrained to cooperate somehow. An example is the Barbarossa assault on the Soviet Union – Stalin insisted on keeping the troops far forward on the front line to protect territory seized under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, creating a brittle front stretched along the twisting frontier that was easily punched through. Stalin forbade retreat, and had decapitated the army of leadership in his purges. The Germans eventually surrounded huge pockets and captured gigantic hauls of prisoners.

Similarly, later in the war the Americans were (eventually) able to punch through German lines in France, capture a lot of them, and send the remainder into headlong retreat – but the reason was because Hitler ordered an ill-considered attack that exposed the troops too far forward, and then forbade retreat, and the unique Allied air superiority meant that German supply lines were interdicted (shot to hell) and the German army had no reliable supply sources outside Germany, and thus had to fall back rapidly to its railheads. Again, special conditions had made the blitzkrieg possible.

Yet, as Keegan emphasizes, the methods to counter blitzkrieg were understood early on. Although the Poles were hopelessly vulnerable, by the time Guderian was punching through the French weak point at Sedan, some of the French responded correctly – throwing the available armored reserves at the “neck” of the breakthrough and threatening to cut off the advancing forces and capture them. The German infantry briefly retreated and the blitzkrieg hung in the balance.

This failed, but mostly because the French army had only one small mobile armored reserve, having distributed most of its (surprisingly, more numerous and better) tanks along the continuous front to “stiffen” the infantry. That was an outdated and fatally vulnerable strategy. Had the French kept a more significant armored striking force concentrated and committed it to this counterattack, history might be very different. Instead DeGaulle’s unsupported 200 tanks were not enough, and Guderian’s scythe cut France in half.

This is why Keegan (and others) have said blitzkrieg (after the initial surprise against Poland) has generally required the “cooperation” of the enemy to work fully. Commanders still hope to achieve it – and sometimes do; but they recognize that unusual conditions or enemy blunders (or both) are prerequisites.

A number of things contributed to the difference. Tanks and aircraft were certainly one factor. Another was trucks, both to transport mobile infantry and to move vital supplies beyond railheads. Radios made a big difference: artillery spotters could radio in the results of bombardment and better pinpoint enemy targets, plus units that made breakthroughs could quickly inform the rear command and allow better followup of those breakthroughs. Submachine guns, light machineguns and light mortars, which only were available at the very end of WW1 were available throughout WW2 and gave attacking units the firepower to counter enemy defenses.

So all in all it was that fixed defenses became more vulnerable to attack, units on the ground could move faster and with much better coordination, and the power that could be projected into the very point of the “spearhead” was dramatically increased. An interesting comparison is how the defensive tactics used by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s utterly failed against the US forces in the first Gulf War.

Attacking the flank is hardly a WWI invention; it was a military objective for centuries. In the US Civil War, for instance, it usually meant victory for the flanking forces (e.g., Second Manassas, Chancellorsville), though occasionally it could be overcome if the troops fell back and regrouped (Chickamauga). Even before that, Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz was due to a brilliant attack at the enemy’s flank after drawing them out. It also had much to do with the victory at Saratoga and at Bennington (though that came from behind) in the Revolution.

And in WWI, mechanized warfare was in its infancy and tanks, etc. broke down. The basic battle plan was also from the Napoleonic era: massed troops forcing a breakthrough, then using that to pour troops behind the enemy (a tactic that didn’t even work well in the Civil War – see Pickett’s Charge or Fredericksburg). But the trenches were too deeply held (there were always several lines of them) to make that breakthrough, especially with the firepower of machine guns, and even if you managed, the enemy would just withdraw, set up new trenches a few miles further back, and you’d have to start over again.

By WWII, tanks were dependable, and air support could knock out the machine guns.

Millennia. We can see attempts to avoid flanking maneuvers back before the birth of Christ. I suspect it was an issue that came up as soon as formed bodies of men began participating in mass warfare. Striking from the side or rear has an such obvious advantage it probably was among the very earliest of tactical innovations.

Forget men, even chimpanzees know the benefit of encircling one’s enemy:

If someone approaches a person from the rear, that person can’t see the attacker, because humans don’t have eyes in the back of their head. However, a group of warriors can in essence have eyes in the back of its head, because it is composed of men who can be looking to the side (flank) or rear instead of just ahead.

I don’t think the warrior groups you are thinking of had problems of supply that were like those of WW1, so you have must have some other explanation for the effectiveness of flank attacking.

Outnumbering is one thing. If a group of 10 surrounds a party of 100 warriors would you rather be the surrounding or the surrounded?

Visual of the above. (about 1:55 in)

In the 10 verus 100 scenario a flanking attack can give the 10 men a local numerical advantage. Imagine the 100 men in a phalanx 5 men deep and 20 men wide, like so:


The 10 men cannot attack the front without being outnumbered because the widest line they can form is 10 across so the bigger group has more stabbing power than them.

If however they attack the right flank then they can bring 10 men to bear against the 5 men on the flank a 2:1 advantage against men not prepared to fight to the side. The phalanx now loses cohesion as the men try to turn to face the attackers losing the support of the men next to them while the formation tries to reform to the right.

(defenders: 0 / attackers: x)

00000000000000000000 <–xx
00000000000000000000 <–xx
00000000000000000000 <–xx
00000000000000000000 <–xx
00000000000000000000 <–xx

As the formation comes apart the 10 men push harder and then roll up the line as the 100 men break and run. This is the kind of tactic used by the Romans against the Greeks as the legions outmaneuvered the unwieldy phalanxes.

So even in a pre industrial battle where there are no tactical supply problems during a battle, assuming the men are armed and have been fed recently (strategic supply), and each man has everything he needs to fight with him on the battlefield, a flanking attack is still both possible and even desirable.

The issue with a flanking attack, or any other fancy manoeuvre, is that it requires well drilled and confident troops. A flanking attack can also be negated or even defeated if the defenders have the skill to manoeuvre in opposition. When neither side can find an advantage via manoeuvre then the only option is to refuse battle or attack head on and attempt to out-butcher your opponent.

The question about flank attacks has mostly been answered but just to add that in the specific case of the German army in 1914, the basis of Moltke’s plan (the adapted Schlieffen Plan) was for the right hand group of armies to move rapidly to encircle the French – a case of the Germans themselves trying to attack the French left flank. There are lots of arguments about how realistic this concept was given the distances that the troops would have to cover, moving on foot with supplies brought up by horse transport, but for it to have any chance of working the Germans had to keep moving – and keep the strongest possible attacking force at the point.

With supplies having to be brought up long distances from the railheads the Germans were very vulnerable to a flank attack by the French. If the French could get between the Germans and their supply bases the Germans were stuffed. A million strong army without supplies – food, ammunition, etc – will be useless within days. For von Kluck the dilemma was, “Do I keep enough forces at the point to actually achieve my mission of encircling the French or do I use the bulk of my troops to secure my flanks and lines of communication?” Neither option was attractive but in the end he did decide to reinforce his right (western) flank by turning to face the French Sixth Army. The trouble with this was that it opened up a gap between him and von Bulow’s Second Army that the French and British were able to exploit – again threatening the German lines of communication.

You are right that tanks and airpower were only part of the explanation of the difference between the First and Second World Wars. One thing to remember was that the trench warfare of the Western Front was not the pattern seen on all fronts. On Eastern Front, with the same basic weapons and tactics, sweeping advances and retreats happened again and again – much more what you expect from WW2.

The deadlock in the West was caused by the even match of the opposing armies and the very high ratio of force to front. Essentially both sides had enough men to man a continuous front from Switzerland to the North Sea – going back to your first point, there were no flanks to attack. You then combine this with a number of technical factors. These factors changed over the course of the war but were not all completely resolved by the time of the Armistice.

In 1915 and ‘16 the attackers did not have an effective means of reliably breaking through the enemy’s front. The firepower available to defenders from dug in artillery and machine guns could stop attacking infantry before they crossed no-man’s land. The obvious answer was artillery. Artillery to suppress the enemy infantry in their trenches and artillery to destroy the defenders own artillery. This was what the British tried to do at the Somme in 1916 but it did not work. There just was not enough heavy artillery for the tasks it had to do, too high a proportion of the shells were duds, and the techniques for coordinating the artillery and infantry were not yet effective. This was a particular case of the general problem of communications. During WW1 there was no effective means of getting messages back from the leading wave of attackers to the rear – there were no portable radios. This meant that the artillery could not be directed where it was needed and the commanders nominally directing the battle had no idea what was going on. They could neither reinforce successful areas – maybe achieving a breakthough – nor provide support to units in difficulty.

By late 1917 and into 1918, the problem of achieving a break-in to the enemy line had been solved. Artillery was available in sufficient quantities and means had been developed to use it effectively – un-registered, lightning bombardments (so as not to give warning of the impending attack – at the Somme the preliminary bombardment lasted eight days (!) giving the Germans ample time to prepare), use of smoke to hide movement, and effective use of creeping barrages just ahead of the infantry. Infantry tactics had improved in general with troops exploiting weaknesses in the defenders lines to winkle them out rather than going straight at them. Tanks and aircraft formed an additional element to the battle system providing firepower directly at the striking point. What had not changed was the problem of how to exploit the break through once it had been achieved.

Thoughout the First World War these problems were the same. As mentioned, once the battle was underway the attackers were effectively out of touch with their commanders. This did not apply so much to the defenders as they would normally have had time to set up elaborate telephone networks with deeply buried cable through which they could keep in touch. The other problem was the speed at which the attackers and defenders could bring up additional forces to exploit or contain the breach. Here again the advantage was with the defenders. On the Western Front they would be able to move forces up to the battle area by train. Obviously this was not possible for the attackers moving over the actual battlefield. Advancing troops had to move on foot or on horse back, in either case vulnerable to artillery and machine gun fire.

In the latter stages of the war the hope was that tanks could do something about this by moving behind the enemy lines and disrupting their attempt to respond. The trouble with that was that tanks without support are very vulnerable to being cut off and destroyed and WW1 tanks were just not up to the job. They were just too slow (the fastest tank, designed specifically for exploitation, had a maximum speed of 8 mph!) and too unreliable. At the Battle of Amiens in 1918 the British started with 420 fighting tanks on 8 August and were down to only tens available on the 11th – mostly due to breakdowns.

The First World War was won on the Western Front despite these problems. The Allies used the tactic of attacking and holding, preparing and attacking again. Each time destroying more of the Germans capacity to defend, already undermined by the unsuccessful German offensives of the spring and early summer. Combined with the difficulties caused by the naval blockage and the feeling of inevitable defeat – whether in 1918 or in 1919 – as American strength built up in Europe the Germans sued for peace.

By 1939 many of the technical problems had been overcome. Radios were available for communication and the some infantry was motorised to keep up with the tanks but the main reason the Western Front did not follow the same pattern in 1940 as in 1914 (as many observers had expected) was that one side – the Allies – collapsed before a continuous front could form. After the German breakout at Sedan the whole battle was a pursuit, not an encounter battle, never mind the pseudo siege of 1915-18.

As for books, I would recommend any of Gary Sheffield’s books on the First World War and in particular Forgotten Victory: The First World War - Myths and Realities. An excellent introduction to the question of why WW1 was fought as it was.

And this guy would know!

Would you like some gold? Here, have some gold. And grain! No, no, I insist.

Please don’t sack me.

Good analysis, MarcusF. I would add here:

…that another factor was the wrong kind of artillery ammunition had been produced. At the Somme, as you mention, the smaller guns greatly outnumbered the big ones, and all the smaller guns were supplied pretty much exclusively with shrapnel (fragmentation) shells, which were all-but-useless against the 30-foot-deep dugouts the Germans sheltered in during the bombardment.

The British heavy guns (including, iirc, some 15-inchers) firing high explosive shells were actually able to destroy trenches and fill in dugouts, but the number of these guns was vanishingly small compared to the overall assault.

It was recognized at the time that the shrapnel shells wouldn’t be much good, but producing that many shells (1.73 million were fired at the Somme battlefield), not to mention transporting and storing them, had been a gigantic industrial effort on the scale of many months, and it it would not be possible to replace them with high explosive without postponing the attack (maybe until the next year’s campaigning season. The generals settled for hoping that the shrapnel would cut the wire and tried not to think about how small a proportion of shells were HE.

A good online analysis of the Somme artillery preparation is here.

The question has been mostly answered but allow me to drone on a bit more. After WW1 it was understood by some that armies couldn’t fight the next war the same way because they would suffer too many casualties. Some military theorists looked for different strategies, including Brits J. Fuller and Liddel Hart. Another big proponent was German General Heinz Guderian who wrote the book “Achtung - Panzer” outlaying much of the Blitzkrieg. Germany was the first put it into practice in part because the Treaty of Versailles limited the size of Germany’s armies, in effect forcing them to look for new strategies to take advantage of what force they had.

My bolding.

Only trouble was the new strategies/tactics did not lead to lower casualties when major armies met. Check out German casualties during the early months of Barbarossa when they were actually winning - rates as bad as anything on the Western Front in WW1.

True, but the big difference was that the new strategies and tactics weren’t futile; they achieved something, even at a heavy cost.

At the risk of starting a whole new hare. Which was more futile: a) Launching a blitzkrieg attack on the Soviet Union which led to to the complete destruction of your country or b) continually attacking an occupying army until they surrender? You’ve already agreed that in terms of casualties WW2 tactics were no better than WW1 so surely you have to look at outcomes?