I was recently listening to Dan Carlin’s series on World War I, Blueprint for Armageddon.
World War I is a fascinating subject but one thing that really leaps out at you is just how violent and gruesome the war was. Certainly all wars have their horrors and are distinctly unpleasant things but WWI took things to a level never seen before or since.
The western front in WWI is famous for its trench warfare and (nearly) static lines. Huge expenditures of lives would barely push the line one way or another. Carlin notes in his series that Napoleon would boast that he spends 30,000 lives a month yet the French lose 30,000 in a day or two at the outset of the war. Thing is that is not an outlier but common for this war.
At the outset such carnage is, perhaps, to be expected. There were few examples of what a modern, industrialized war would look like prior to this. As such things like cavalry still figured prominently in most armies and tactics were still Napoleonic. No one knew what it would be like till they fought some battles and saw the unusual carnage modern weapons produced.
I think they could then be forgiven a few more as the various militaries came to grips with the new reality and worked out new tactics and whatnot to deal with this culminating in the massive battles of Verdun and the Somme both of which were unparalleled in their destruction. And all for no gain of note.
Yet even well into 1917 they are still doing the same things with predictable (and horrid) results. For example the French launch the Nivelle Offensive (named for General Nivelle) and, no surprise, the casualties are horrendous for little gain. Indeed in this case the French started seeing units mutiny and the French army came close to unraveling.
It is not just the French either. The British launch the Battle of Passchendaele and it likewise is a meatgrinder of a battle and likewise results in little of note.
Carlin suggests a way to imagine this is to think of the Charge of the Light Brigade and then doing that over and over and over again. Imagine you have seen what happened to the first five (or ten or a hundred) Light Brigades that went out and then you are told to go.
How is it that this kept happening? Why was no general thinking more of the same probably won’t work? If anything the defenses had only improved. Instead of one line it was now a line of defense in depth. The sheer cost of these battles was staggering in both men and material. I cannot imagine these were stupid men so what kept making them think that, “THIS time it will be different!”?