Warfare in the Twentieth Century - Theory and Practice Ed: Colin Mclnnes & G.D. Sheffield, pp.51-76Gary Sheffield Blitzkrieg and Attrition: Land Operations in Europe, 1914-45
Blitzkrieg and Attrition:
Land Operations in Europe
Traditionally, the European wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 have been seen as representing two very different styles of war. The First World War was characterized by attrition, whereby circumstances dictated that attempts to defeat the enemy by manoeuvre were replaced by crude frontal assaults designed to physically destroy the opposing force. Technological developments and superior generalship, according to this view, allowed this crude and wasteful strategy to be replaced by one of manoeuvre during the Second World War.
So deeply held is this belief that world wars represent two distinct types of war and eras of generalship that the official biographer of Field-Marshal Montgomery regarded it as a slur upon his subject that the undeniably attritional battle of Alamein should be seen as being ‘in the mould of World War One’. This chapter argues that this interpretation is misguided and that continuity, not change, was the hallmark of warfare at the tactical and operational levels during the period under examination, and further that it was the First World War, not the Second, that was the main period of innovation.
1914 - The end of mobility
The Boer War of 1899-1902 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, and even earlier conflicts such as the US Civil War (1861-5), demonstrated the destructive power of modern weapons and the strength of the defence. Although de Bloch, a civilian theorist, concluded from the evidence of these wars that future war would inevitably end in deadlock, many soldiers of all nations were convinced that the offensive could still succeed. If high morale and the spirit of the offensive could be inculcated, even the conscripts of mass armies (which had been made possible by administrative, technological and social advances in the nineteenth century) could be made to cross the ‘zone of death’ and close with the enemy, although casualties would be heavy.
Dense Napoleonic formations were abandoned in-favour of looser skirmish screens, with the emphasis being placed on firepower rather than shock action. The French doctrine of the offensive a outrance was simply an extreme version of an approach that was common to most European armies. This theory, as propounded by Foch and Grandmaison, was based on a simplistic interpretation of Clausewitz, stressing the primacy of the offensive. As anticipated, this led to heavy losses in the encounter battles of August 1914, but on a strategic level the much criticized Plan XVII did have some virtues. Plan XVII failed to bring victory not because it committed the French army to the offensive, but because of its execution.
The German version of the offensive fared little better in 1914. The Schlieffen plan was the product of Germany’s geo-strategic position. Faced with a war on two fronts, the bulk of the German forces were to defeat France in a six-week campaign before using Germany’s strategic railways to rush troops east to oppose France’s ally, Russia, which was notoriously slow to mobilize. The Schlieffen Plan, which was named after the German Chief of Staff from 1891 to 1906, was a classic example of a Kesselschlacht (literally a ‘cauldron battle’, or battle of encirclement). It was an extension of German tactical theory, which sought to avoid the frontal assault.
Seven armies were deployed in the west. An immensely strong right flank was to wheel through neutral Belgium to avoid the French defences along the common frontier; the right wing would then pass to the west of Paris and encircle the French armies. This plan broke down partly because it was over-ambitious, and partly because the tip of the right flank swung east, and not west, of Paris. This exposed the German flank to a counterstroke, which led to the German defeat on the Marne. There followed a last spasm of the war of movement, but by November lines of trenches stretched across the entire battle front. Far from being a war decided by a swift offensive, the defensive had proved dominant and a continuous front had come into being.
Thus by the end of 1914 a strategy of frontal assault and one of manoeuvre had both proved unsuccessful. Temporarily, the operational art of manoeuvre was put into suspended animation as the generals grappled with the unfamiliar problems of siege warfare. The German attempt to break the impasse by frontal assault at the First Battle of Ypres (October-November 1914) was repulsed with perhaps 100,000 casualties. The French offensive in Champagne in February 1915 cost the French about 240,000 men. This was to be the pattern of warfare on the Western Front. Attacking armies would incur huge losses for gains that could usually be measured in yards, or a few miles at the most. A decisive breakthrough, leading to the resumption of mobile warfare, was not achieved until March 1918.
The Anglo-American view of the First World War is largely coloured by a folk memory of 1 July 1916, the bloodiest single day in British military history. On that day, Rawlinson’s Fourth Army attacked on the Somme and suffered 57,000 casualties, 20,000 of which were fatal, for very little territorial gain. This action has given the impression that most infantry attacks on the Western Front suffered the fate of being similarly cut to pieces by machine gun and artillery fire in front of the enemy wire.
In fact, throughout the war, infantry experienced relatively little difficulty in penetrating enemy positions when supported only by artillery. Even on the atypical ‘First Day on the Somme’, the British 18th and 30th Divisions and neighbouring French formations succeeded in taking all their objectives. The difficulty lay not in ‘breaking-in’ to enemy positions, but in ‘breaking-out’ or exploiting initial success.
The French assault on Vimy Ridge on 9 May 1915 admirably illustrates this problem. After a thorough artillery preparation, Petain’s XXXIII Corps succeeded in advancing 2.5 miles into the German lines in one and a half hours. Had reserves been immediately available to relieve the exhausted assaulting divisions the French could have converted a tactical success into a major victory. But it took six and a half hours for the reserves to arrive, by which time the impetus of the assault had been lost, and the Germans had stabilized the situation.
In place of a decisive breakthrough the French had gained only a shallow salient in the German line from which they could be attacked on three sides. The battle for Vimy Ridge then degenerated into an attritional battle, which consumed 100,000 Frenchmen and 60,000 Germans. This was the fundamental problem: it proved easier for the defender to bring up reserves to plug gaps in the line than it was for the attacker to bring fresh troops forward to take over from the assaulting battalions.
The problem was largely one of communications. The First World War was fought with recognizably modern weapons but without the benefit of modern communications. The ‘walkie-talkie’ radio did not exist, and although by the end of the war primitive wireless sets had become more widespread, in earlier years infantry was reliant on visual signals or field telephones, which were for all practical purposes useless in the initial stages of an assault, when a breach was most likely to be achieved. Visual signals such as flags proved to be ineffective and indeed dangerous to the user. Thus the major means of communication was by ‘runner’, a soldier who had to recross No Man’s Land to give a verbal report or present a written message.
Hours might pass before a demand for reserves was received, and then the information had to be analysed. Once activated, reserves then faced a long and tedious journey across No Man’s Land, probably under fire, before reaching the captured trenches - by which time the opportunity to break through had usually disappeared.
The paradox was that it was possible for troops to travel very quickly by rail to the rear of the battlezone, but then they could only move at a snail’s pace to the front line. There were some occasions when reserves were undoubtedly held too far back, as at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, but the case was more often simply one of poor communications hampering their use. On the occasions when reserves were held forward, as in the attack on Vimy Ridge by French Tenth Army in September 1915, they were prone to suffer heavily from enemy artillery fire.
By contrast, the defender’s telephone wires, buried deep beneath the ground, had a greater chance of survival, and thus their reserves could be summoned up with greater celerity. Naturally, the shorter distances involved and the fact that the reserves did not need to cross No Man’s Land constituted an enormous advantage to the defender.
In their struggle to square the circle soldiers evolved, in the field, effective, modern tactics. Inevitably, many mistakes were made in the early, experimental stages. Battles on the Western Front were dominated by artillery: nearly 60 per cent of British casualties were caused by shell fire, and machine gun and rifle fire accounted for 39 per cent for instance. Therefore, the development of artillery tactics was of great importance.
During 1915, the French and British had come to place their faith in massive bombardments, intended to destroy enemy positions and kill large numbers of enemy troops. Only when the artillery had done its job, would the infantry advance. This doctrine is summed up in the pithy phrase, ‘artillery conquers, infantry occupies’. In 1916 the trends of the previous year were taken to extremes, as the war economies of the belligerents expanded and the supply of shells began to approach the demand. Perhaps the most extreme example of reliance on the sheer smashing power of artillery came at the opening of Somme offensive in July 1916. The British Fourth Army assembled the greatest number of guns they had yet seen, including 455 heavy guns and howitzers, or one heavy gun for every 57 yards of front to be attacked (although this concentration was puny compared to later bombardments).
The artillery plan was simple. While field guns firing shrapnel cut the enemy barbed wire, the heavy pieces would destroy the German positions in a sustained bombardment, burying the enemy infantry in their dugouts. The British infantry were confidently informed that they would merely have to occupy empty trenches.
Such predictions proved wildly over-optimistic, and sufficient German infantry survived the shelling to wreak havoc on the advancing British. With hindsight, it is clear that the Royal Artillery had been set a hopeless task. Much of the available ammunition had been faulty, and of the 1,500,000 shells fired, about 1,000,000 were shrapnel, which were mainly useful for wire-cutting.
As John Keegan has pointed out, the high explosive (HE) that was fired was pitifully inadequate for the task of destroying deep dugouts. Being mostly fused to explode on impact, ‘a proportionately quite trifling concussion’ was transmitted to the German dugouts beneath the surface: each 10 square yards received only one pound of HE. Having failed in their primary task, the Fourth Army’s gunners also failed to give adequate support to the actual assault. The artillery was firing to a rigid timetable in clumsy ‘lifts’. The guns would concentrate on a given objective, and then at a predetermined time would lift to a further objective, perhaps 500 yards away. These had been set in accordance with the expected rate of advance of the infantry. However, in the absence of adequate communications, there was no way of recalling the barrage, even if (as so often happened) the infantry failed to keep pace with it.
Some British commanders, at least, reacted swiftly to the terrible lessons of 1 July 1916. One of the two divisions that enjoyed success on that day, Major-General Sir Ivor Maxse’s 18th, had employed a ‘creeping’ barrage. This was a ‘curtain’ of shrapnel shells, which moved ahead of advancing infantry. This had numerous advantages over the clumsy use of ‘lifts’. Because the blast propelled the shrapnel balls forward, infantry could move within 100 yards of the barrage. It also moved at the actual, rather than the theoretical, pace of the infantryman, 100 yards in 3 to 5 minutes. This was effectively used in the capture of Trones Wood on 14 July, and quickly became standard practice for British gunners.
The alternative to using artillery to destroy enemy positions was to use it to neutralize them. In March 1915, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the British had used a brief, 35-minute bombardment with some success. This method was soon discarded, and it was left to a German gunner, Col. Georg Bruchmuller, to demonstrate the potential of this type of bombardment. Bruchmuller, nicknamed Durchbruchmuller, or ‘Breakthrough Muller’, came to the conclusion that the most efficient use of artillery was in short, intense bombardments, in great depth. In Bruchmuller’s own words, ‘We desired only to break the morale of the enemy, pin him to his position, and then overcome him with an overwhelming assault’. The ‘overwhelming assault’ was to be made by infantry using infiltration tactics (see below) and it was to be supported by the Feurwalze, a form of creeping barrage. These tactics were successfully used on the Eastern Front at Riga, in September 1917, where Bruchmuller commanded the artillery of von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army, and later against the British at Cambrai on! 1 December 1917.
Bruchmuller’s masterpiece was the bombardment of 21 March 1918, the first day of the German Spring Offensive that restored movement to the Western Front. He succeeded in achieving complete surprise, which multiplied the effectiveness of the barrage. Against some opposition from German High Command, German gunners became adept at opening a ‘predicted’ barrage without previously registering the guns on targets (‘shooting by the map’), a method which placed great emphasis on the skill of the gunner.
Bruchmuller’s fireplan for 21 March lasted for only five hours. At 4.40 am about 6000 guns, including 2508 heavy guns, opened up, to the full depth of the British position. The targets chosen included points of particular importance, such as command posts and telephone exchanges, the disruption of which would have a disproportionate impact on the enemy’s cohesion. The widespread use of gas shells forced the British to wear their respirators, which further lowered their efficiency. The guns ranged back and forth, sometimes lifting from one particular target only to come crashing down again later. Five minutes before the infantry assault went in, at 9.40 the barrage was brought to a deafening crescendo. The result was to dishearten and disorient the men of the defending British Fifth Army, who, hampered by thick fog, were overwhelmed by the infantry assault.
By 1918, close co-operation between air and ground had become the prerequisite of successful gunnery. Aircraft had become the ‘eyes’ of the artillery, observing fall of shot and undertaking photographic reconnaissance missions. The struggle for command of the air was stimulated by the need to allow one’s own reconnaissance aircraft to operate unimpeded, while denying the same facility to the enemy. Indeed, effective use of aircraft enabled the French and British to dispense with preliminary bombardments altogether in 1918. Thus the First World War saw a radical transformation in artillery tactics. In the final campaigns, all major armies were using predicted barrages, creeping barrages and neutralizing fire in place of the clumsy and ineffective tactics of earlier years.
Infantry tactics also underwent something of a revolution. In early 1915, one newly raised British unit in training in England was still using the tactics of August 1914, advancing in extended order, taking advantage of cover and then charging ‘in a long, closely formed line’. By late 1915 wartime volunteers were thought incapable of mastering such tactics. Thus, from the time of the Battle of Loos in September 1915, infantry advanced in ‘waves’. A wave consisted of a line of men, each several paces apart, each wave being separated by 100 yards from the one in front or behind. These tactics were modified in the light of the experiences of 1916 in the Verdun and Somme campaigns. The introduction of the linear ‘creeping’ barrage, while giving the infantry greater support in the advance, was not without dangers of its own. Its very success ensured the survival of the linear approach, and thus delayed the development of more effective infantry tactics.
The French proved a little more flexible than the British in the field of infantry tactics, continuing to train their men to advance in short rushes, taking advantage of the terrain. At Verdun, in 1916, General Nivelle established his reputation by using infantry in small groups in several successful counter-attacks, but these were still essentially linear attacks subject to the tyranny of the ‘creeper’.
One French officer argued for a radically different approach. Captain Andre Laffargue drew upon his experiences in Petain’s attack on Vimy Ridge in May 1915 to suggest that infantry should be re-armed and reorganized to enable them to fight their way forward. He wanted mortars to be sent up with the assaulting infantry, and picked men - two groups in each platoon - to be armed with light machine guns. Assault infantry were to ‘infiltrate’ the enemy line, penetrating as deeply as possible, thus creating havoc behind the front. This would cause disruption to the enemy, and prevent him from organizing an effective riposte. To add to the disrupting effect, the preliminary barrage had to reach the depth of the position to be attacked. The assaulting infantry would bypass centres of resistance, which would be tackled by following waves. Laffargue’s ideas were largely ignored by the Allied armies. Their enemy was rather more receptive.
The willingness of the German army to adapt and change made it the most formidable fighting machine on the Western Front. In contrast to the Allies, it had encouraged the cultivation of a high level of initiative among junior commanders, precisely the qualities needed for effective application of ‘infiltration’ tactics.
Although Laffargue’s ideas were not the only influence on German thinking, they did play an important role in the development of the successful infantry tactics of 1917-18. The infantry strength of each division was reduced, but its firepower was considerably augmented to include 50 mortars and 350 heavy machine guns. (The comparable British figures were 36 and 64.) ‘Storm’ battalions were organized around assault teams armed with light machine guns, mortars, flame-throwers and light artillery pieces.
These units had a dual purpose: of providing the cutting edge of infantry attacks (and counter-attacking in defensive positions) and of training other units in their techniques. As they demonstrated at Riga, Caporetto and Cambrai in 1917, and against the British Fifth Army on the Somme in March 1918, the Germans produced an infantry tactic that, although far from infallible, did on occasion succeed in combination with artillery in breaking the deadlock of trench warfare.
Although their relative lack of skill in comparison with the Germans can be exaggerated, the British army of 1917-18 was still at its most effective in static trench fighting and deliberate assaults. Thus the success of the initial, ‘set-piece’ opening of the Battle of Arras in April 1917 was not matched by the subsequent stages in which the fighting became more fluid. This was largely the fault of poor training and leadership. Major-General Sir Cecil Pereira, commander of 2nd Division, complained after the fighting at Miraumont in February 1917 that time after time ‘a company gets to a certain point and is content to stay there. Possibly they dig in, they always fail to push outposts to their front for protection or to gain ground or to patrol to their flanks…’
In 1916 light machine guns in the form of Lewis guns became more widespread, although they tended to be centralized as a company weapon rather than allowing the development of Laffarguian platoon tactics. The introduction of weapons such as mortars and rifle grenades made more flexible tactics feasible, but the British were hampered by a lack of common doctrine. Although in 1918 many British infantry divisions were using what Maxse described as the ‘worm’ (platoon columns and sections, utilizing a modified form of fire and movement to fight their way forward), some were still using the ‘wave’, which had become even more inappropriate with the replacement of linear defence with defence in depth.
When trench warfare had begun in 1914, trenches were sometimes little more than narrow holes in the ground, protected by perhaps a single strand of wire. In the course of 1915, trench systems developed in sophistication. As well as the forward, or ‘fire’ trench, parallel ‘support’ and ‘reserve’ trenches were constructed, connected by lateral communication trenches. Trench systems underwent further refinement in 1917.
As a result of experience on the Somme, German defensive philosophy underwent a profound change. The policy of ‘Halten, was zu halten isf or ‘Hold on to whatever can be held’ had proved extremely costly in men. It involved holding the front line in considerable strength, and promptly counter-attacking any enemy lodgements. It has been calculated that the Germans counter-attacked at least 330 times during the course of the battle. In September 1916 the Hindenburg/Ludendorff team replaced Falkenhayn as the effective German commander-in-chief, and an extremely democratic process of consultation with the men in the field began.
The result was the adoption of a policy of ‘elastic’ defence in depth. In place of linear defences, a thinly held outpost zone of scattered defences, 500-1000 metres deep, would serve to canalize an attacking force, who would first have to pass through the German barrage. Then they would run into the ‘battle zone’, which would be 2 km or more in depth. This consisted of a series of mutually supporting strongpoints capable of all-round defence, which were intended to continue to resist even if surrounded. If an attacker succeeded in fighting through this zone, he would face a further line of machine gun pits in front of the field artillery. The essence of this defence was the counter-attack. Squads dedicated to this role were stationed in the defensive zones, and units of storm troops were positioned in the rear to sweep the enemy back.
In the winter of 1916-17, the Germans constructed the Hindenburg Line on these principles, and flexible defence was also adopted by the French and British, although the Allies tended to station large numbers of troops in the forward zone, with unfortunate results. However, by 1918 the principle that defences should be held in depth was firmly established. It was a lesson that would have to be painfully relearnt, on a much larger scale, in 1939-45.
Other weapons played a less important role in the campaigns of 1914-18. Cavalry was of strictly limited value on the Western Front from 1915-18, although in the periods of open warfare in 1914 and 1918, and in the wider spaces of the Eastern Front, horsemen could still fulfil a useful role as reconnaissance troops.
Gas, which had seemed to be a war-winning weapon when first used at Ypres in April 1915, proved to be little more than a useful auxiliary. Counter-measures, in the form of crude ‘gas-masks’, were quickly developed, and by 1918 relatively sophisticated respirators were in use. The main usefulness of chemical weaponry was in forcing opponents to wear respirators, with a consequent loss of efficiency. However, the use of gas ‘had been effective locally and suggested a potential utility for future conflicts’.
Perhaps the most important auxiliary weapon was the aircraft. In addition to their primary role, reconnaissance, and their use in the fighter mode, aircraft became increasingly important for ground attack.
The revolution in warfare that had occurred by 1918 is illustrated by the Battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August 1918, described by Ludendorff as the ‘Black Day’ of the German army. In this battle, the lessons so painfully learnt during the previous four years were applied with great success. Infantry, armour, artillery, aircraft and, to a lesser extent, horsed cavalry acted in close co-operation. This was made possible by the greatly improved communications that had been developed by 1918: wireless was the cement that bound the diverse elements of the Allied armies into a cohesive whole.
The wireless of 1918 was still fairly primitive. Infantry battalions, aircraft and batteries could not contact each other, and the brigade tended to be the forward station of the wireless set, with the battalion still reliant on the field telephone, but in 1918 wireless ‘came of age by permitting highly organised fire direction centres to function. They anticipated the shape of things to come in the Second World War’.
Generally speaking, the tactical conditions of the Western Front were replicated in theatres such as Gallipoli and Italy. Warfare on the Eastern Front was somewhat more fluid than in the West. The vast size of the theatre of operations ensured that, unlike in France, armies could not be strong everywhere.
Thus, both the Central Powers, in the Polish campaign of 1915, and the Russians, in the Brusilov Offensive one year later, were able to achieve considerable breakthroughs, and the front moved sometimes hundreds of miles. In addition to the considerable differences between warfare on the two major fronts, there were also certain similarities. In the East, the defender falling back on shortening lines of communication found it easier to bring up reserves than the attacker and, as in the West, the war was ended not by one climatic breakthrough followed by a battle of encirclement, but as the result of the cumulative effect of vast casualties on one belligerent’s will and ability to fight on.
It is clear that to view the tactical problems of the First World War purely in terms of technological determinism, as some have done, is overly simplistic. Many other factors apart from that of technology, not least tactical doctrine, must also be taken into account. In theory, had either side made a major tactical breakthrough earlier in the war, the war could have been brought to a speedier conclusion. In practice, in 1918, the Germans came up against the problem familiar from the Eastern Front: how to convert tactical success into strategic success.
Despite breaking the deadlock, all the Germans managed to do was to make the continuous front mobile. The Allies were thrust back and took heavy casualties, but their armies remained unbroken, partly because the Germans lacked an effective instrument of exploitation. Only in the second half of 1918 did modern tactics and technology combine with the exhaustion of a belligerent’s will-to-resist to produce a decision. The lesson of the First World War, which was confirmed by the Second World War, was that, in a total war, evenly matched adversaries must batter each other until one can rise no longer.