WWI: Why did the general keep throwing their troops into meatgrinders?

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!”?

Doctrine, tradition and, basically, they couldn’t think of an alternative that would work with what they had on hand. They all knew, correctly actually, that if only they could cause a major breakthrough they could then turn the engagement into one of maneuver and break the stalemate. Calvery units were actually kept for a long time in the event of a major breakthrough, so they could be pushed in to exploit it. Many of the generals were brought up on the doctrine of elan or fighting spirit, that determined infantry could get through anything if only they tried hard enough, were lead well enough. None of the Europeans learned a damned thing from the Civil War (I don’t think many even noticed or sent observers) or any of the wars between then and the onset of WWI, and none of them were able to modify their tactics or doctrine to take into account the new weapons (or even the old ones…just quick reloading aimed rifle fire alone was a huge change).

So, they fell back on their own training, traditions, doctrine, and tactics. That said, I think a lot of people could envision, conceptually anyway, how you could break through, they just couldn’t put all the pieces together. Even when tanks were introduced they didn’t have the tactical doctrine to really put it together, so many of the early uses were wastes or had very limited success since they didn’t coordinate to exploit breakthroughs. Also, the early tanks were highly unreliable.

In the end, it boiled down who would collapse first. The French and British were both on the verge of collapse, but the US coming in was enough to buy them the time they needed to ensure it was Germany, AH and Turkey that folded instead.

But why put troops (lots of them) into the grinder? The British, by virtue of their navy, had an effective stranglehold on Germany. It wasn’t a fast death but it was coming for Germany. If the goal was to see who could outlast the other then France and Germany had the advantage.

Shore up the lines then sit and wait them out. No need to squander soldier’s lives on fruitless attacks (Passchendaele was a special kind of bad in a war filled with insane levels of bad).

Well, that’s strategic hindsight. The Brits didn’t know that Germany (or it’s other allies) was struggling economically at such a level…and the empire, and France were equally having issues that meant they couldn’t just wait around (Russia, after all, was getting stomped). Also, they were trying to put pressure on the Germans while the Russians were still in the fight and really thought that they could create a breakthrough if they just tried a bit harder. The French had their own reasons for continuing to push on the offensive, as did the Germans, who actually had some success in offensive operations and were doing better against the Russians (and who’s own big picture strategy was more attrition based anyway, using their superior tactical skills to attrit the Brits and French at a higher level, and also be able to bring their eastern front folks west in one big blow after the Brits and French were exhausted. Almost worked in this case).

For various reasons, no one (including the Americans when they finally joined the fight) wanted to just sit on the defensive completely. It’s just not how anyone thought, and in the end, you can’t win if you are totally defensive in any case. The trouble was no one could really both think outside the box AND put all the pieces together to break the stalemate. Every side had an idea how they wanted to do this, and the German one almost worked (as did the British one using tanks), but they just couldn’t put it all together…so, in the end, it was just a matter of who collapsed first.

The German Chief of Staff in 1916 (Falkenhayn) thought that forcing the French to throw great numbers of troops into the defense of Verdun (and suffer horrendous casualties) would somehow break their will to fight. Except he wound up subjecting his own troops to the same pounding.

One WWI history I’ve read suggests that while the generals were at fault for repeating their mistakes over and over again, their politicians would not have tolerated inaction, so battles had to be fought. Not sure how true that is (Lloyd George is said to have wanted to sack Alexander Haig for launching hopeless offensives, but Haig had enough clout to survive).

Carlin suggests in his series that by 1917 the governments were starting to seriously question the generals and second guess them as to the prosecution of the war but the politicians didn’t quite have the gumption or pull to override their generals when push came to shove. In the case of Germany it seems general Erich Ludendorff not only had control of the military but effective (not official) control over the government too.

As mentioned French soldiers started mutinying in alarming numbers and Russian soldiers were deserting in droves. The French managed to hold it together but they had to stop offensive operations (at least for a while).

This is serious hyperbole. Wars both before and after WWI were quite as horrible and gruesome as WWI. The battles in the Russo-Japanese War were hardly distinguishable from WWI battles. The US Civil War saw extensive use of trench warfare, and the body count from battles lasting a day or two could be frighteningly high. Modern memory tends to see WWII as some great mechanized war but for the most part it quite simply wasn’t. Breakthroughs and rapid advances and retreats were sometimes achieved, but usually only after long, grinding battles involving heavy attrition and very slow advances. See for examples the fighting in the Normandy hedgerows before the Allied breakout, the fighting at Anzio, at any of the defensive lines in Italy or the Shuri line at Okinawa. Gains of 100 yards a day were significant and came at high cost. In each case it took months of this sort of meat grinding battle before a breakthrough was achieved. In 216BCE Hannibal slaughtered some 70,000 Romans in a day at Cannae.

If by spending lives and losing 30,000 a day is taken to mean deaths rather than casualties than this is was hardly common in WWI and a rather extreme outlier. The first day of the Somme was the bloodiest single day in British military history and the deaths were 19,240 out of a total of 57,470 casualties.

They were making a gain though: they were inflicting casualties on the enemy. The war had devolved down to simple attrition; if they kept trading life for life the Central Powers were going to run out of men first. It was hardly a brilliant strategy - attrition isn’t really a strategy so much as its the absence of one - but what else were the generals going to do?

It’s also important to consider that having your armies twaddle their thumbs in the trenches for years on end wasn’t going to achieve much either. The war was going to be lost or won by the men fighting it. Ultimately, it was a tragic stalemate only upended by the limitless reserves of the Americans and the sheer toll it took on the German society to produce what was needed for endless war.

Blueprint For Armageddon is a masterpiece. The finest historic storytelling I’ve ever heard and, by my account, the standard-bearer for anyone wishing to learn about The Great War (alongside the BBC documentary of the same name). Hearing Carlin describe the Battle of Verdun evokes such haunting imagery…you feel the very horror of the soldiers who were there.

Obligatory Blackadderreference, containing far more truth than is comfortable.

It is an unbelievably complex situation and the generals were faced with a situation that was totally new. There was the American Civil War and the Franco Prussian War but neither of those was similar as there had been so many advances in technology.

I’ll restrict my comments to the Western Front as the circumstances with the Russian Empire had a lot more metrics. (And I’ll talk from a UK angle).

By the end of 1914, the war was a stalemate. In 1915 Sir John French tried to dislodge the Germans through bombardment and attacking the trenchs. The greatest problem (as it was during the war) was lack of communication. Pigeons, runners and phone wire that was easily cut.

In short, those in charge had no real idea what was happening at the cutting edge. They also tended to believe over optimistic reports about the damage that the artillery was causing. Shrapnel doesn’t cut barbed wire very easily and high explosive shells were in short supply (shell scandal). German dugouts were built strongly and the effects of shelling were often limited especially as the war dragged on.

So, you had generals believing that the shells, mines etc had blown the enemy to Mars and they sent the infantry in to be cut to pieces by artillery and machine guns.

French was fired, Haig came in and it started again. However it has to be remembered that not every battle was fought because the generals wanted them- the Battle of the Somme had to be fought to take pressure off the French (the country that is.

And supposedly war winning weapons such as gas and tanks were not really that efficient.

It wasn’t until around 1918 that the effective method- now called combined arms but in another war called Blitzkreig- was able to really start pushing the Germans back. Yes the Germans hit back with Operations such as Michael but they were a busted flush by then.

Generals such as Plumer (largely forgotten), Monash and Currie were extremely good. Haig won the war for the UK but was reviled, Pershing was very good for the American Forces (and they had a larger army in France in 1918 than the British) but there were some incredibly useless ones.

Nivelle promised he could win the war within a ridiculous stage and the politicians were keen to end the bloodshed so they let him go. You know the result.

Hunter-Weston sent his troops against the machine guns “to blood the pups”. Similar result. Haking deserved to be tortured but got away with it.

Whilst I have concentrated on the War from an Allied point of view there were many incompetent generals on boths sides. And competent one.

It’s worth pointing out Haig doesn’t seem to have been reviled by his troops at the time, or even in the immediate aftermath of the war. If he was reviled by anyone at the time it was the type of people we would expect to revile him - opponents of the war and his political opponents.

Yes- and Lloyd-George led the charge. Haig did his bit for the soldiers fund and I think it was Pershing who asked how the British could treat a General who won them the war so badly.

Winston Churchill saw the problems with trench warfare right at the start. In Dec 1914, he wrote to the Prime Minister:

He put his energy into creating the tank, even though he was in charge of the Navy not the Army, and even though the views of everyone else in authority were negative about tanks.

I think the stereotype of stupid, unimaginative WWI generals is pretty justified on the whole.

Which generals and why?? And Haig was an ardent supporter of the tank.

The problem with the OP is that it’s wrong on all counts.


  1. On attack you have two options. Try and go around the flank or launch a frontal assault. On the Western Front after 1914, the flanks were anchored by two basically impassable barriers, the North Sea and the Alps.

  2. This leaves frontal assault. The way to carry this out is to mass up at one point and attack there with overwhelming local superiority. So far so good.

  3. Unfortunately the situation in France and Flanders from 1915-1918 was of millions of troops deployed in a geographically cramped zone. The front was about 400 miles long. Millions of men in hundreds of divisions were deployed there at any one time.

3A) This fact more than anything else is why comparisons with different Wars like the ACW or even other fronts is misconceived. Those places had room to manoeuvre and or weak points in the enemies line. The Western front had none.

  1. Making a breakthrough on its own was never a problem and happened with some regularity. When a breakthrough is made the attacker will attempt to exploit by either fanning out or turning and enveloping his enemy’s line. To do this he needs to ensure his own reserves and firesupport+logistics go forward in a timely manner. The defender will attempt to plug a breach by sending his own reserves to either beat the attackers back or stop them and form a new line.

  2. In 1915-Spring 1918, a defender always had an easier time in getting his reserves to deal with a breakthrough then an attacked did in some sending them to exploit it. Remember the sheer size of the armies and reletive paucity of the battle space alluded to earlier? That was in play here and meant that the defender always had copious amounts of reserves in time and space to deal with any breakthrough.

  3. Conversely the poor communications and mobility other posteare mentioned means that an attacker would always suffer in getting sufficient reserves forward to exploit a breakthrough.
    Now that you know the problem, lets consider your hypothesis that the generals were incompetent. Simply put, its horseshit. They tried every new idea. Poison gas. Air attacks. Digging and detonating huge mines underneath enemy lines. Flamesthrowers.
    All failed or had only transitory success. Until tanks.

Tanks won the war by solving the attacking response time problem elucidated above. The British would attack on an narrow front, then use tanks to fan out faster than the Germans could send their own reserves and tanks typically could take care of the more rapidly responding ones anyway.

Tanks were basically invulnerable to small arms fire, could traverse rough terrain quickly and brought their own firesuppourt.

The Western front was a hotbed of innovation. Not let’s “do this again and again”.

And just having them there called in such enemies as cholera and dysentery. Those trenches wars were like a siege that someone had opened up into long lines - illness was as dangerous as bullets.

I’d like to add to the above that yes, they did change things.

For example:

  1. Soldiers quit marching shoulder to shoulder.
  2. They started wearing helmets.
  3. They quit wearing uniforms that made for easy targets.
  4. They would also use “creeping barrages” of artillery which would move just ahead of the infantry.
  5. They learned to use duck and cover tactics to use available cover.
  6. Since machine guns were so effective they created snipers and other special units designed specifically to take them out.

If you want the answer in infinite detail, The Great War channel on YouTube has been covering a century after the fact what went on, week by week. In addition there are an equal number of “specials” where they have a summary of a big battle, biographies of prominent people, innovations, etc.

As others have pointed out, there were changes; they just were ineffective.

Seen in a BBC documentary The last days of World War One. With the Germans and their allies on the verge of collapse, an armistice was finally negotiated and for symbolic reasons, it was decided to let the war end at 11 AM on 11/11. That did not stop the power-mad generals from sending their men into the battle even in the dying hours of the war. That morning alone saw 11000 of them killed, sacrificed by uniformed war criminals who never have been brought to justice.

I think the biggest factors included lack of imagination on the part of the generals, a belief that enlisted men were there to die and had little other purpose or value, and that offensive technology, like tanks and planes, had not caught up with defensive technology like artillery, trench networks and machine guns.

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