Just as a thought exercise, suppose that at the end of 1914, the generals and war planners of the warring powers could somehow by magic gain four years experience instantly, and immediately begin using the tactics and weapons that in real life didn’t happen until 1918. How would the war go then?
More aerial bombing (perhaps even of civilian targets). Less zeppelin nonsense. No cavalry, period.
Cavalry was effective on the eastern front. It just wasn’t as much so on the western front, because of the shorter lines and more trench warfare.
Possibly massed tanks for breakthroughs…I’m not sure if they ever DID learn that lesson, deep down, but there were a few visionaries. I believe the Brits at least tried this too good effect. The problem was they didn’t understand combined arms yet, so the infantry didn’t go in with the tanks, and they were unprepared for the breakthroughs. So…assuming they learned this lesson, it would be pretty a radical departure from trench warfare and the war would be a whole new ball game.
BTW, as to calvary, it wasn’t used much in the west at all because they realized that charging horses would be suicide. IIRC horses were constantly kept in reserve (and the riders used as regular infantry) in the confident hopes of a breakout…where cavalry COULD be used effectively. So…assuming tanks used en masse, the use of combined arms to follow up a breakthrough (artillary, air support and most importantly infantry support), cavalry would still have had its place in 1918 to exploit any breakthroughs.
On the German side I would think a heavier emphasis on submarines over surface fleet. Germany could and should have been making tons of the things and sending them out as packs, a la the second WW (I’m not sure if they learned this by 1918 though)…but to an even greater degree. The German navy was NEVER going to be able to compete with the Brits in a stand up surface fight…but they could make a hell of a lot of U-Boats and strangle the Brits.
I’d like to think that Haig and the rest would take one look at the number of dead at the Somme, for example, and decide that Germany can bloody well do what it wants in Europe, that Britain will stay neutral, thank you very much. Hamilton would see that Gallipoli was the single worst place on the planet for an amphibious assault, and try somewhere else. The Tsar would stay out of war planning, kill Rasputin and every Bolshevik he could find, and tell Serbia they are on their own in this one.
It probably would not change a whole lot. Tanks in 1918 were very slow and relatively ineffective and if you knew they were going to be an issue, they had the weapons to deal with them with relative ease.
The problem is that you still do not have practical field radios. The two sides made plenty of breakthroughs, but coordinating their forces to exploit breakthroughs was not practical without useful means of communication. The man-portable radio is THE key military technological breakthrough of the 20th century - not the tank.
Given what the British in particular(albeit heavily reliant upon Canadians who were considered the best troops around) did in the last three months, when they combined aerial command, with information passed back down the line, along with tanks and the rolling artillery barrage, it was a model that was refined further by the German generals in WWII and became blitzkrieg.
So I’d say that it restarts, and the Germans suffer immense casualties, because there is no walking across the Somme, there are tanks to take care of the barbed wire, the Germans never get into their postions before the British troops are upon them.
The British tactics in those last three months were dealing with a heavily weakened German army but even when that is taken into account the Germans still would not have coped even if in better shape.
In the early months of the war the British used direct fire against the far better method employed by the Germans, that of indirect fire using howitzers.
Its largely because of the differances in artillery that the Germans made gains early on.
t was also the British who started using the concept of limited objectives, hitting smaller parts of the German line to achieve specific gains, and moving up bit by bit, instead of the strategy that everyon had used up until then, which was to try for ‘the big push’ which was a large scale attack across many miles of front.
If you restart the war, that would not happen, both sides would use indirect fire and the Germans certainly would not have gained so much ground.
My take is that you restart the war, and the Germans get pushed back rapidly, they did not use the creeping/rolling barrage in the was the British did and the Britsh learned how to coordinate very differnat units, from tanks to aircraft to artillery etc.
This means that Germany cannot send reserves back to the Eastern front to stop the Russians, who make large gains.
Germany has to reduce the length of both fronts in order to concentrate their forces by retreating. The result is that the Treaty of Littovsk is never proposed, and thus the Germans cannot release those units on that front to hold back the allies.
The British start using convoy tactics far sooner, as a result shipping losses are far less.
Germany loses, but much sooner, in less than two years.
Thats why you had to concentrate them and use them in conjunction with infantry, artillary support and perhaps air support. The Germans didn’t use a lot of direct fire artillary remember (that was a key difference between the Germans and the Brits, who DID use direct fire artillary), so it was a bit more problematic for them to take out tanks easily…especially if they were used en masse with combined arms support. I think that the Brits COULD have had an early breakthrough, and once through the lines they could unleash their calvary to get in the enemies backfield (sort of a medieval blitzkrieg, so to speak :))…something all sides WANTED to do but were unable to do on the western front.
But didn’t the Germans chicken out on the Schlieffen plan in 1914, and didn’t “let the let the last man on the right’s sleeve touch the sea?” IIRC, Schlieffen had a nervous breakdown simply planning this tricky scenario, and in the event the Germans broke Schlieffen’s solid extended line to concentrate their forces on the Marne, all for nothing, since the French rallied and held them there.
As noted above, tanks were technologically unfeasable even in 1918, and since this isn’t “WW1 refought 1942 style,” instead maybe we should consider “what if” the infiltration tactics that were so effective in the Ludendorf Offensive of 1918 were developed immediately after the First Marne and the trenches were new?
In that case, as also noted above, the Canadians (who, you remember, invented the trench raid) would have been instumental: in this case because they were more adaptable than the British to innovation (this had already been demonstrated in the 2nd Boer War - but that’s another thread). The Germans were open to innovation simply by virtue of the fact that, as Robert Graves noted in Goodby to All That, among other sources, they left front-line operational responsibility in the hands of sergeants and young officers. The French would have gone along with this all this as well; following the lead of their colonial troops, whose officers had a strong tradition of leading from the front.
Instead, the war was directed by Haig and Foch from comfortable chateau, and the Kaiser from a militarized spa resort. French infantry would advance in carefully aligned blocks of 10 wide, 10 deep that were perfect for droppping explosive shells into. There was a direct connection between the formers’ comfort and the latter’s doom.
QUOTE=Slithy Tove]In that case, as also noted above, the Canadians (who, you remember, invented the trench raid)
Jesus, no they didn’t. Look, I’m Canadian and I’m proud of the fact that we fought well in WWI, but I think people are starting to get a rather crazy impression of what the Canadian Corps was doing.
Canadians did not invent “Trench raids.” Trench raiding was a British tactic throughout the war. It was considered a normal duty in the British army, and the Canadian Corps was just one corps in that army. Besides, what is there to “invent,” anyway? “Under cover of darkness, we’ll run over there and shoot some guys and maybe try to capture some papers.” That’s a new idea?
The idea that Canadians were somehow better adapted to change than the British, or were structurally superior troops, is a preposterous simplification of what actually happened. Canada was used for some key shock attacks in 1917, most famously Vimy Ridge, and again in Amiens in 1918 in large part because they could provide the only reasonably fresh formations available at those stages of the war. Canadian were trained, armed and organized in the same fashion as British troops. They certainly fought with tremendous distinction but they weren’t super-soldiers. The ANZAC divisions tasked to the Western Front were used in exactly the same manner.
Attempting to use the Canadian Corps more than it was used would simply have negated the primary advantage the Canadians had - they were fresher and better rehearsed - and would mean they’d have been as grinded down as most BEF divisions were.
- The British were not “heavily reliant” on Canadians. That’s simply impossible; Canada at the height of its contribution to the war had four divisions attached to the British army, a small fraction of the total British order of battle; by way of comparison, at the Battle of Cambrai, the British threw 21 divisions into a single attack. During Passchedaele the Canadian Corps represented just a fifth of the force used. By 1917 the British force in France numbered 59 divisions; Canada’s force represented about six percent of the Commonwealth fighting force in France.
Part of the problem with the Schlieffen plan was that the Germans didn’t really have the infrastructure to pull it off. The plan required a vast movement of supplies and men over large areas, and German transportation just wasn’t well enough developed.
I’d be giving the RFC pilots parachutes right from the word “go”- along with synchronised machine guns…
One reason for the high British casualties was that they were very heavily laden with packs, and they were instructed to walk over the the German lines.
This was before the effect of shellfire upon the barbed wire had been assessed, and this was only partially successful.
The French achieved their objectives, by having a quick bombardment, the Australians and Candians ran across no mans land, and as a result achieved most of their objectives, put simply, they got to the German trenches before effective defence had been rallied.
The problem was that these were only a small part of the overall front, and most of the time there was not the means to exploit the gains, or that gains themselves did not get reported back quickly enough.
Its clear that the UK army orders contributed a great deal to the carnage, had those soldiers run instead of walked, and had they had lighter burdens, then there would have been much greater success.
The colonial divisions, having different commanders, took what appeared to be the common sense view, they obviously followed the orders of the generals, but its how they executed them that made the differance.
Quite literally none of this is true. It’s total nonsense. British formations were not slaughtered because they walked where others ran. Honestly, where does this stuff come from?
The British were no less successful than the French or anyonke else in attacking entrenched positions - which is to say they were usually unsuccessful but did have some limited success. Canadian gains at Vimy were gained not by running instead of walking (I can’t believe I have to say that) but through extremely successful use of creeping bombardment tactics.
Again, I must point out that everyone seems to be getting their “information” from the scenes in “Gallipoli.” It was in fact quite common for the first wave of attacks to be largely successful; indeed, as the war wore on the Germans got into the habit of manning the first line of trenches with a skeleton crew. What swallowed up most large scale attacks was not the initial resistance but the inability to exploit initial successes; troops would overwhelm the first lines of defense, but would thereafter be incapable of coordinated activity, since they lacked means of rapid communications and could not coordinate artillery fire or multi-unit movement. The Germans would simply reorganize the defense in subsequent trenches, strongpoints and firing positions - which they planned out well ahead of time, since they were not stupid - and bring down artillery and small arms fire on those positions that had been taken.
Amateurs talk about tactics; professional discuss logistics. The structural problem facing armies on the WEstern front was not some preposterous “run vs. walk” decision but was a logistical problem of moving armies beyond the capability of hand-carried orders. Every single large scale attack from late 1914 to early 1918 on the Western Front went through exactly the same progression; a massive artillery bombardment, a wave of attacks, usually some front line success, and then a petering out of offensive effort between six to twelve hours after the initial assault. Once troops had advanced into the enemy trench lines they were beyond the reach of any meaningfully rapid communications; they could not employ the artillery support they desperately needed, could not communicate opportunities to the rear and could not receive orders (again, in any meaningful time frame.) Talking about “running” and “lighter packs” and “direct artillery” misses the point entirely; an army that cannot be controlled is utterly, totally useless.
RickJay, I completely agree with you that reliable communication with the advance troops would have been a godsend. But it seems a safe bet that the generals knew about and cursed the inability to promptly exploit breakthroughs. What could have been done about it in 1918?
One British problem could not have been solved vis a vis 1918 knowledge: Their use of incorrect artillery shells. Their ‘cannister’ anit-personell round turned out to be useless even if the troops weren’t in their dugouts. (they found that out years later at an artillery range accident) and they never had enough HE munitions to do the job they needed: Smash the trenches & barbed wire.
Overall, without good, reliable tanks, and more importantly without good field communications you would probably end up back in the same situation in short order.
RickJay, are there any good histories where you’re getting your posts from? I’m not asking this to be snarky, you’ve raised some good ideas I’ve never thought about before. I always assumed WW1 was such a bloodbath because troops were getting slaughtered the moment they left their trenches.
I have a lot of good resources on hand, but the first I’d recommend is John Keegan’s rather simply named “The First World War,” which provides a very comprehensive summ,ary of the war (as much as hundreds of pages can be a “Summary.”) Keegan does a very good job of explaining the Eastern Front, too, which gets short mention in Western history classes.
Well, I assumed he was talking about the Somme, where (unless my secondary school history teacher sold me short) the troops were instructed to walk across no man’s land following the bombardment, both because of British beliefs that the heavy shelling would have demolished the German positions and because of Kitchener’s fears that the newly conscripted recruits would be difficult to keep under disciple if allowed to charge (this might well be apocyrphal- it’s worth noting, however, that here the British were encumbered by heavy packs, because they intended to take and reinforce the German positions). Indeed, I believe the only regiment to capture an area of the German line was an Irish one that disobeyed their orders and ran across no-man’s land. However, it looks like you know more about this, so if I’m wrong, please correct me.
Doubtless correct, but mightn’t better centralised command have at least ameliorated the massive armies and poor communications? Or has the “lions led by donkeys” idea been ripped apart by modern historians?
Not sure what you mean by “Better,” but the battles of 1916 on of WWI might well have been the best and more carefully planned attacks in the history of warfare.
The response to the sudden and shocking ineffectiveness of attacks was, of course, more planning, planning in excrutiating detail, to the best of their ability at the time. More shelling, more attackers, more of everything, all carefully plotted out. Given the technological limitations of the time and the reality of the battlefield there was little else they could do but plan.
As to the quality of the generals, I guess it depends on which ones you’re talking about and what your standard of performance is.
Much of the Western view of the generals’ incompetence in WWI (at least insofar as the English-speaking world is concerned) is derived from the two British commanders of the BEF; John French, who was legitimately not good at his job, and Alexander Haig, who was, well, really weird. French was unquestionably incompetent; Haig is a problematic case because he was organizationally very capable, but insisted on offensive operations when it was becoming apparent that no amount of planning, bombardment and attacking was working. Haig was, on a personal level, really a bizarre man, and lacked any sort of interest or compassion in the human cost of the slaughter he was overseeing (a common trait of bad generals, and he shared many of the other common traits as well.) Haig, I think it’s fair to say, certainly knew how to run an army, but seemed unwilling to admit that his strategic goals had a disastrous cost irrespective of his technical and tactical proficiency.
Given the circumstances and the technical limitations available to them the combatants acted relatively logically in dealing with the horror, at least on a military level. It’s worth noting that the Germans, after running the table for much of the early months of the war, went into a rather intelligently planned mode of active defense - a perfectly reasonable strategy, as they were fighting a two front war and concluded, likely correctly, that they (1) could not fight two offensive wars, and (2) would be better off trying to keep the Austro-Hungarians alive in the East by attacking the Russians. The Western Allies, meanwhile, attacked, because they felt they had to drive Germany off French soil and anyway the co-ld equations dictated that attrition favoured them.
The error in the First World War were, of course, largely political, not military, in nature. I’ve read a dozen or more histories on the war, learned in person from masters of history, and I admit I still don’t quite understand what the hell everyone was fighting about. Lots of wars get stumbled into, but the First World War is the alpha and omega of stupid wars, a war where ALL the combatants are the proverbial boiled frogs, never at any one time trying to get into a world war but acting over the course of decades in a way that seemingly made such a war inevitable.
And once the war was joined, it could not be stopped; committed to the war through unimaginable amounts of blood, they had to keep fighting for because they believed that the very survival of the states that were fighting the wars was dependent on winning. They were right, too. Those states that lost were destroyed.