World War I: Modern and Total War

17 May

The Over-reliance on Offensive Tactics
The armies of Europe and the US believed that they could succeed strictly by offensive maneuver alone as the result of prior experience and victories with these strategies and tactics. As David G. Herrman advises in The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, “All European forces expected to fight mobile, mostly offensive actions. They took as their models the most successful campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars and the German unification.” Before this dramatic shift in warfare after the turn of the century, armies were quite mobile; having not yet been subjected to the brutal effects of automatic weaponry, armor, and more sophisticated artillery. Herrman notes the fallacy inherent in the offense-only strategies: “Tacticians realized that firepower was deadlier than ever, but they often expected that this would, if anything, make attacks more effective and place a premium on rapid decisive movements.” Still relying on old, ineffective tactics which worked in past wars resulted in needless slaughter of infantry at the hands of automatic weaponry. Defensive tactics, deception, and better use of defilade would have been a more effective strategy. Herrman illuminates the deadly error in reliance upon the past: “The history of recent wars seemed to suggest that the side that seized the offensive would win.” The officers and men who comprised the armies of this period became the “lab subjects” of this new era of weaponry and killing on the battlefields. Skirmish lines and unprotected frontal assaults were now suicide.[1]

The Leadership of Generals
Although Clausewitz was the master of warfare and his On War well-studied and followed, its doctrines should have been incorporated with caution. Herrman suggests that Clausewitz’s theories were highly regarded during this period – after all, Carl von Clausewitz was the experienced master of 19th Century European and Russian warfare. He also experienced Prussian-French fighting first-hand; which, for argument’s sake here, would have provided even more credibility for generals leading infantry in 1904 and beyond in to the Great War.[2]

Victories were won with the “offensive spirit” in the early 1900’s – as the Russo-Japanese War had shown. Military thinking of the period was best exemplified by German author Colmar von der Golltz: “For him, to defend was to let the enemy decide where, when, and how the battle would be fought. It was also to sacrifice the inestimable advantage in morale that an advancing army enjoyed over a retreating one.”[3] The generals were not being mindlessly aggressive in my opinion; they were leading with the only war-fighting doctrine that they knew. Their evidence was the result of past victories won by offense. Could they have altered their strategies at some point? They absolutely could have.

Stalemates on the Battlefields: The Constraints of Trench War
The unfortunate reality of warfare at the turn of the century dictated that armies led to battle by field-grade commanders and general officers had only known the less-than-sophisticated battlefield conditions: equine power; swords; single-shot muskets; skirmish-lines, etc. In spite of this deadly paradigm shift – the general officers were far too aggressive. Herrman cites that following the Russo-Japanese War: “The Japanese infantry had displayed precisely the qualities European officers sought from their own troops, pressing attacks home in spite of terrible casualties and behaving with unshakable discipline and a fervent spirit of patriotic self-sacrifice enjoined by a warrior code.”[4] The generals were trapped by thinking that new weaponry could gain on the offense; without realizing the mass effects of these same weapons in defensive positions. Again, the terrible reality here is that the new weapons of war had outpaced the military doctrine and theory of the time – and its leaders.

That decisive victories could not be attained following attacks on trench positions – the history offers a few suggestions for reasons why: Hew Strachan, in The First World War, offers that 70% of the First World War’s casualties were the result of artillery attack – this same new sophisticated artillery which had out-paced the older, outdated infantry tactics: “Furthermore, the concentration of artillery and its preliminary, and increasingly extended, bombardment forfeited the element of surprise. Most attacks succeeded in breaking into the enemy’s position. The problem was that of reinforcing and exploiting success, and that in turn depended on immediate support from troops to the rear.”[5] [6]

The advent of modern aircraft and air-ground combat doctrine had not yet advanced beyond reconnaissance, very basic or rudimentary air-to-air combat, and largely ineffective bombing in support of the ground war. The aircraft were slow and vulnerable – vulnerable to other aircraft mounted with armament.  This early military aviation was not capable of destroying opposing infantry on the ground, in the trenches. Technology had come to the battlefield – but not entirely in the air.

Strachan in describing trench warfare and its limitations in 1918: “Here was a concept of operations which harnessed the Entente’s superior resources to the constraints of trench war. Attacks would go no deeper into the enemy’s positions than the reach of the artillery supporting them.”[6] It was what B.H. Liddell Hart saw as problematic: “On the Western Front, with its interminable parallel lines of entrenchments, strategy became the handmaiden of tactics, while tactics became a cripple.”[7] The nature of this type of warfare as Liddell Hart suggests could only lead to non-decision. These preceding considerations all underscore the turning point in military history that was the First World War – more deadly and sophisticated weaponry and armaments aligned with old doctrine and theory which resulted in non-decisions on the battlefields.


1 David G. Herrman, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)  22.

2 Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds., Carl Von Clausewitz: On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989)

2 David G. Herrman, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 23.

3 Ibid., 28.

4 Hew Strachan,  The First World War. New York: Viking, 2004 (New York: Viking, 2004) 315.

5 Ibid., 176.

6 Ibid., 316.

7 B.H. Liddell Hart, The Classic Book on Military Strategy (New York: Meridian, 1991) 162.


Herrman, David G. The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Page references are to the 2007 edition.

Howard, Michael and Peter Paret, eds. Carl Von Clausewitz: On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Liddel Hart, B.H. The Classic Book on Military Strategy. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War. New York: Viking, 2004.  Page references are to the 2009 edition.


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