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Author Topic: Threadsplit: WWI leadership - analysis and Tactics vs Strategy discussion.  (Read 1343 times)

Offline MartinR

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    • The games we play
I also generally prefer to fight historical battles, and you can fit surprisingly large battles onto a small table if you go with a high enough scale of game. We've done Mons, Le Cateau, Peronne, Cambrai, 1st and 2nd Gaza, Ctesiphon, Vimy Ridge and the entire Battle of Amiens on 4x4 or smaller. Generally using battalion sized elements. The Battle of the Marne beckons now I have enough French troops.
"Mistakes in the initial deployment cannot be rectified" Helmuth von Moltke

Offline FramFramson

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If Rawlinson had committed his reserves then the outcome of the war would not have been changed. Many commentators hold up Rawlinson's early view of 'bite and hold' as the major lesson that should have been learned. Even Rawlinson, however, recognised that this tactic was not war-winning in general either. As long as the major combatants were prepared to keep going then the war was going to exact a high price on manpower. Although a temporary minor advance in tactics might reduce manpower losses for a brief period, the long-term price was going to be the same no matter what.

There were plenty of attempts at rising about the 'pattern of extremely rapid adaptation'. General Nivelle's ill-fated Chemin des Dames offensive in 1917 was just such an example. Gallipoli was another.
Each incremental tactic change may have been 'brief' but they were constant and multiple. There was no respite, as all sides constantly sought to gain a lasting advantage. Ultimately, manpower reserves, manufacturing capacity, and access to resources won out but none of these strategic elements were 'brief' in execution or time to conclusion.

Respectfully, you over-estimate the mistrust between the British and French. I have read many accounts from various British and French politicians, generals, liaison officers on both sides (not just Spears), senior staff officers (for example, Pierrefeu's accounts of French GQG) and others. There were diverse opinions, disagreements, but rarely severe dysfunctional failures. The oft-reported incidents between Generals French and Lanrezac in August 1914 were not representative of the working relationships across the spectrum of political and military liaisons. Indeed, there was a tremendous sharing of information and lessons-learned, along with detailed strategic debates and planning sessions, such as General Joffre led in late 1915/early 1916. The French-Russian-British plans were undone by the German Verdun offensive, reminding us that the enemy never stood still.

Robert

I mean, I agree with all that. No contradictions between us there! Perhaps I made it sound like I thought the French/English conflicts were perpetual and endemic, but they rose and fell with the personalities involved, just as you say.

Offline FramFramson

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With respect to wargaming, I have focused on reproducing the huge scale of WW1 battles. The most interesting was the First Battle of the Marne, where we set out 50' of tables, with 10,000 figures, and reproduced the battles involving the German First and Second Armies versus the French Vth and VIth Armies as well as the BEF.

I can't comment on whether Grant wanted to run a meat grinder but the reality is that, even with the various additional efforts of Sherman and Sheridan, the war continued to exact a heavy toll on casualties until the end. So it was with WW1 as well. There was extensive cooperation between the British and French forces on the Western Front for example; the more so after Foch was appointed Generalissimo. He worked closely with Haig and Pershing, as well as Pétain, to ensure that the Germans were hit with multiple rolling offensives across the whole line. This high-level strategy finally broke the German resistance but the casualty rate during the last 100 Days was amongst the highest in the war on the British side.

Robert

Again, that's an agreement. If better strategic considerations had allowed something like the Hundred Days to take place in 1916 or even 1917, the overall casualties of the war as a whole would no doubt have been lower even if casualties in a major breakthrough campaign would have been high in any case.

Verdun was a surprise for both sides, as each had been building up for something more decisive and this nullified any advantage the other might have held. However this points more to a failure of intelligence on both sides, as both the Allied Powers and Central Powers seemed to end up simultaneously back-footed.

As I hazily recall this was partially due to this being one of those lopsided periods of air dominance by one side (the Germans, IIRC? I think this was the time of the "Fokker Scourge").

Offline monk2002uk

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If better strategic considerations had allowed something like the Hundred Days to take place in 1916 or even 1917, the overall casualties of the war as a whole would no doubt have been lower even if casualties in a major breakthrough campaign would have been high in any case.
The initial German invasion of France was an example of an all-out and everywhere attempt to destroy the Entente armies in Western Europe. First Ypres was another, though lesser attempt as it only covered a small proportion of the front. The former produced another very high casualty rate, mirroring the last 100 Days, but did not come close to achieving what the latter did. The British, French and Germans were able to feed in huge numbers of reinforcements in the first months of the war. Once the ability to manoeuvre was curtailed then the lack of heavy artillery and, more importantly, munitions prevented anything like the impact of 1918 from occurring in 1914. By 1918, the combination of massive manufacturing capabilities, extensive rail networks and other logistics improvements, American reinforcements, heavily depleted and over-extended German forces plus enormous Entente firepower finally brought the war to an end. These factors were not in place in 1916 or 1917. The combined efforts of Russia (Brusilov's offensive), Verdun, and the Somme did not have the same effects as the last 100 Days because, in part, the German forces were not depleted to anything like the same degree as 1918.

Note the parallel to the length of time it took before the Soviets could mount the same type of rolling offensive actions in the latter stages of the Great Patriotic War.

Robert

Offline FramFramson

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The initial German invasion of France was an example of an all-out and everywhere attempt to destroy the Entente armies in Western Europe. First Ypres was another, though lesser attempt as it only covered a small proportion of the front. The former produced another very high casualty rate, mirroring the last 100 Days, but did not come close to achieving what the latter did. The British, French and Germans were able to feed in huge numbers of reinforcements in the first months of the war. Once the ability to manoeuvre was curtailed then the lack of heavy artillery and, more importantly, munitions prevented anything like the impact of 1918 from occurring in 1914. By 1918, the combination of massive manufacturing capabilities, extensive rail networks and other logistics improvements, American reinforcements, heavily depleted and over-extended German forces plus enormous Entente firepower finally brought the war to an end. These factors were not in place in 1916 or 1917. The combined efforts of Russia (Brusilov's offensive), Verdun, and the Somme did not have the same effects as the last 100 Days because, in part, the German forces were not depleted to anything like the same degree as 1918.

Note the parallel to the length of time it took before the Soviets could mount the same type of rolling offensive actions in the latter stages of the Great Patriotic War.

Robert

Right. We both know this.

What I'm saying is that had the Entente pursued strategic goals in a better fashion after the war had clearly stalled out by early-mid 1915, they would likely have developed those advantages in manpower and material much sooner. The Allied powers had so many unforced errors on the wider strategic front (many of which I've gone over or mentioned already and a few others we haven't, like the Dardanelles) which drained their resources and prevented them from reaching the point where they decisively outnumbered the Germans on the Western Front until much later.

Britain never successfully installed anyone akin to WWII's George Marshall to focus on a wider picture or to elevate the more competent officers (and sideline the innumerable mediocrities), instead muddling through with a series of men who probably should never been promoted above Brigadier, if that. France did have a few who could have potentially filled this role, but they were in conflict sometimes and even when they did work in concert, things were still muddled as no one had clear overall authority until Foch was proclaimed Generalissimo.

Now, if you want to argue that all that was inevitable due to existing cultural preconditions (class structures, Victorian worldviews, etc.)  in the British Empire and Edwardian Europe in general, well, that's something I can entertain, but that doesn't contradict my opinion that WWI deserves its reputation as a futile, wasteful, catastrophe.
« Last Edit: January 01, 2019, 05:51:33 AM by FramFramson »

Offline monk2002uk

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As we have noted throughout this discussion, the war had not stalled in 1915. It was in a constant state of flux, with new measures and counter-measures occurring in a leapfrog pattern. I deliberately chose the Neuve Chapelle example because it was from early 1915, leading to the German adaptations by mid 1915. The Allied commanders had a very good understanding of what was needed at a strategic level. It was clear that a major all-out offensive, as witnessed with the so-called Schlieffen Plan, could not work. Offensive manoeuvre operations in any sort of depth simply could not out-manoeuvre internal lines of communication and transport. Neuve Chapelle illustrated the sort of artillery requirements were needed going forward, as well as the need for much wider attack frontages. The problem was that Great Britain still required significantly more manufacturing capability to just keep up with the existing demand for shells and guns, let alone create the levels of stockpiling needed to fulfil what the commanders knew was needed.

I respectfully disagree with your view about senior commanders 'muddling through'.

War is always 'futile, wasteful, catastrophe'. WW1 was no more nor less problematic in this regard. To view WW1 as somehow different because the senior players 'muddled' can lead to false assumptions. If only we can find the 'right' person then war will not be futile, wasteful, or catastrophic... The reason I have studied the Great War in some detail is to demonstrate that the problems with the Great War were problems associated with the prosecution of total war between utterly determined combatants, at all levels.

Robert

Offline FramFramson

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I don't mean to imply that it wouldn't have been futile or wasteful at all with better leadership, but there are degrees of such things. We can take an overall anti-war stance while still making meaningful analysis of military strategies and leadership, or the overall political aims and outcomes, of specific wars. I too have studied the Great War in some detail and obviously I have come away with a different perspective than you.

It seems we're talking past each other again, where I'm judging and speaking of higher levels of strategic planning and leadership than you are, and even beyond that to the causes and results of the war as a whole. Increases in artillery shell production (and reliability of the product!) were a real supply issue for Britain, but British shell production was hardly the be-all, end-all of the war.

« Last Edit: January 10, 2019, 03:34:03 AM by FramFramson »

Offline FramFramson

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Incidentally, I did finally see the film which sparked this discussion off. Excellently done, as others have said.

While it's working entirely with existing resources and clearly has no intention of turning WWI scholarship on it's head, it polishes these resources up and presents them in a superb manner. No doubt this was exactly what the Imperial War Museum intends, as this should form an excellent teaching aid and starting point for those in future who wish to learn about the Great War.

Offline monk2002uk

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It seems we're talking past each other again, where I'm judging and speaking of higher levels of strategic planning and leadership than you are, and even beyond that to the causes and results of the war as a whole. Increases in artillery shell production (and reliability of the product!) were a real supply issue for Britain, but British shell production was hardly the be-all, end-all of the war.
I used British shell production as one example of a key strategic element of the war. The same issue affected all major participants in the war and was part of a wider strategic consideration around the up-scaling of production for all types of weapons, munitions, transport, etc, etc. It took years to ramp up production across all aspects of war-related materials. My point was that the first phase of ramping up was just to keep pace with the requirements of the time, ie catching up from a standing start to deal with the gaps in production and frontline needs due to the unexpected consumption/utilisation as well as the increased requirements imposed by the leap-frogging of new measures and counter-measures. It took 3-4 years before there was sufficient production capability across all aspects, not just shells, in order to outfit the Americans, maintain a constant rolling programme of attacks, etc, etc that resulted in the end of the war. Generals played a major part in demanding the expanded production but, until the war-time production reached the peaks that it did, there was no quick wins or easy fix to avoid casualties/shorten the war. You see the same pattern in the American Civil War and in World War 2.

Robert

Offline FramFramson

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I used British shell production as one example of a key strategic element of the war. The same issue affected all major participants in the war and was part of a wider strategic consideration around the up-scaling of production for all types of weapons, munitions, transport, etc, etc. It took years to ramp up production across all aspects of war-related materials. My point was that the first phase of ramping up was just to keep pace with the requirements of the time, ie catching up from a standing start to deal with the gaps in production and frontline needs due to the unexpected consumption/utilisation as well as the increased requirements imposed by the leap-frogging of new measures and counter-measures. It took 3-4 years before there was sufficient production capability across all aspects, not just shells, in order to outfit the Americans, maintain a constant rolling programme of attacks, etc, etc that resulted in the end of the war. Generals played a major part in demanding the expanded production but, until the war-time production reached the peaks that it did, there was no quick wins or easy fix to avoid casualties/shorten the war. You see the same pattern in the American Civil War and in World War 2.

Robert

But if we're looking at that as an overall factor, we can see that all participants suffered from the same issues and all ramped up munitions production. True, the Germans began to fall behind in production by 1917, but they still were not all that far off in terms of production and Germany eventually went much further with total industrial nationalization for wartime production than any allied nation. In practical terms, I would take it as a wash.

Indeed, Germany held a massive advantage in munitions production in 1915 (triple the British output, and the divide is even starker if we factor in the quality of output) and still possessed a dominant lead through 1916, yet this did not lead to victory for the Central powers by 1916.

Offline monk2002uk

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But if we're looking at that as an overall factor, we can see that all participants suffered from the same issues and all ramped up munitions production... Indeed, Germany held a massive advantage in munitions production in 1915 (triple the British output, and the divide is even starker if we factor in the quality of output) and still possessed a dominant lead through 1916, yet this did not lead to victory for the Central powers by 1916.
It was precisely because all participants suffered from the same issues and all ramped up production (across munitions, etc) that the war did not end quickly. The strategic blockade (executed mainly by the British) took several years to fully kick-in, steadily hampering German production through increasing scarcity of resources like copper for driving bands on shells and nickel for example. But it was the effect of attrition on manpower and morale, combined with the blockade's effect on German civilians back home in the Fatherland, that proved the final decisive factor in the end. Ziemann's superb analysis, published in his book 'War Experiences in Rural Germany', provides a detailed account of how the determination of the German soldiers was inexorably undermined until it reached the nadir of November 1918. The major combined effects of the strategic blockade and the Materialschlacht, ie the massive impact of industrialisation on the battlefield, wore down the numbers and the morale of the German army. This was never a war about a set of incompetent muddling generals. Britain, France and Germany faced the same problems, pushed for decisive advantage albeit at slightly different rates, found any advantage nullified, and refused to give way. Germany tried to match the strategic blockade but could not. Indeed, the U-boat campaign resulted in the full might of America being brought to bear.

I respectively disagree with the significance you place on the comparison between British and German shell production in 1915. Britain had 3 times fewer forces in the field in any case; it was France that was the dominant player on the Western Front in 1915 as in the rest of the war. My point is that not even the combined production of Britain and France, alongside with the increase in German war production, resulted in anything like the impact of 1916, let alone the last two years of the war. As Ziemann notes, the first significant signs of decline in the German army began in late 1916. The Battles of Verdun and the Somme featured heavily in triggering these changes. These were archetypal attritional battles on a massive scale (up to that point in the war) but, just like the American Civil War and the Great Patriotic War, many more had to happen before one side finally collapsed from exhaustion.

Robert
« Last Edit: January 12, 2019, 04:47:39 PM by monk2002uk »

Offline FramFramson

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It was precisely because all participants suffered from the same issues and all ramped up production (across munitions, etc) that the war did not end quickly. The strategic blockade (executed mainly by the British) took several years to fully kick-in, steadily hampering German production through increasing scarcity of resources like copper for driving bands on shells and nickel for example. But it was the effect of attrition on manpower and morale, combined with the blockade's effect on German civilians back home in the Fatherland, that proved the final decisive factor in the end. Ziemann's superb analysis, published in his book 'War Experiences in Rural Germany', provides a detailed account of how the determination of the German soldiers was inexorably undermined until it reached the nadir of November 1918. The major combined effects of the strategic blockade and the Materialschlacht, ie the massive impact of industrialisation on the battlefield, wore down the numbers and the morale of the German army. This was never a war about a set of incompetent muddling generals. Britain, France and Germany faced the same problems, pushed for decisive advantage albeit at slightly different rates, found any advantage nullified, and refused to give way. Germany tried to match the strategic blockade but could not. Indeed, the U-boat campaign resulted in the full might of America being brought to bear.

I respectively disagree with the significance you place on the comparison between British and German shell production in 1915. Britain had 3 times fewer forces in the field in any case; it was France that was the dominant player on the Western Front in 1915 as in the rest of the war. My point is that not even the combined production of Britain and France, alongside with the increase in German war production, resulted in anything like the impact of 1916, let alone the last two years of the war. As Ziemann notes, the first significant signs of decline in the German army began in late 1916. The Battles of Verdun and the Somme featured heavily in triggering these changes. These were archetypal attritional battles on a massive scale (up to that point in the war) but, just like the American Civil War and the Great Patriotic War, many more had to happen before one side finally collapsed from exhaustion.

Robert

Well, I'm afraid I think we've reached the point where we're just going to go on disagreeing.

Of course the war was going to come to a point where one side was exhausted, but my opinion is still that the Allies, Britain in particular, failed to capitalize on their significant strategic advantages while myopically participating in said attritional battles, some of which had a point, but many of which were of very dubious value. If the only possible method of winning the war was pure attrition - a debatable theory which I feel focuses excessively on the Western Front - the allies continually earned poor value for their attempts.

You mention the Somme, but that's a battle emblematic of the debate over the attritional character of the war as a whole.

The allies suffered more than 30% higher casualty rate than the enemy, who was numerically inferior, and which failed to achieve any significant tactical gains, with few major objectives taken and no way of sustaining reinforcement of attacks where they did break through. The offensive was also mounted in spite of losses at Verdun significantly depleting expected forces, and was pressed on with despite the tank rapidly demonstrating it would not be a decisive factor at that time. The political fallout and losses from this battle hampered subsequent operations in the mid-term and, with Verdun, was a significant causative effect of the later French mutiny in 1917 (indicating the French reaching a breaking point earlier than the Germans). I might also add that the Allies had near-total air-superiority at this time, yet failed to make decisive use of this dominance in artillery observation and intelligence. The only indisputable point in favour of attrition effects of the Somme was the significant depletion of experienced peacetime-trained German officers, but I simply don't think that game was worth the candle in this case.

There were better ways to bleed the Central powers and to give valuable battlefield experience to Kitchener's army, rather than losing so many of them straight away. This dullard - yes, I am going to keep using that word - thinking seems to have also caught on with English historians who seek to retroactively justify the Somme (I by no means mean you by that), as most of the arguments I've read from the ones who try to justify the offensive boils down to there "simply not being any alternative", a claim I find to be so ridiculously absurd that it is downright offensive. Frankly, there also seems to be a chauvinistic streak as I've repeatedly seen English writers complain about or offhandedly mention a lack of translated accounts from other nations, which is a downright embarrassing excuse to hear from supposed professional historians.

I can read French just fine and what French accounts I've read are quite scathing, especially of Joffre's conduct. One of the rare times I fully support a decision made by Haig is when he broke off from the disastrous northern road attacks to instead try and reinforces successes further south, directly disobeying Joffre to do so - in that case the cavalryman's instinct was the correct one.

Of course the French too can be chauvinistic, claiming the French army reached their objectives but could not press on due to British failures leaving them unsupported. But in general I find that French histories are generally much more settled on the treatment of the war as a pointless, wasteful ordeal and this quite obviously colours my feelings. More specifically, French writers generally do not feel that the battle of the Somme was crucial, instead claiming the reduced aims following the losses at Verdun made it pointless (an assessment I agree with) and was of only modest importance to the war overall. They also tend to note quite specifically that the Battle seems to carry an outsize importance to British historians and to the British psyche in general.

At any rate, I do not feel we're going to sway each other on this, which is sapping my interest in carrying on. If anyone else is still following at this point, I'm sure they can take what they like from here or do further research on their own.
« Last Edit: January 12, 2019, 11:39:49 PM by FramFramson »

Offline monk2002uk

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It seems we are in agreement that exhaustion, particularly in manpower and morale, was going to determine the end result. The issue lies with the means.

I have focused mainly on the Western Front to illustrate certain principles that underpin the nature of warfare as a whole. The other major theatre was the Eastern Front. Apart from this front, the history of all other theatres of operations that were opened up to break the seeming deadlock on the Western Front demonstrated why the Western Front was always going to be the decisive front. It should be noted that some of the other fronts were prompted/supported by Germany in an attempt to do the very opposite - take pressure away from the Western Front and push some of the attritional cost onto the likes of the Ottoman Empire. Ultimately, these other theatres had little impact on the Western and Eastern Fronts.

The Somme was chosen deliberately, precisely because it is emblematic of the issues from a British perspective (it hardly ranks in the minds of our French and German neighbours). The significant depletion of peace-time trained German officers (and NCOs) occurred through the combined effects of Verdun and the Somme but it was not the only 'attritional effect'. The impact of the tactical gains was so significant that Germany poured an enormous number of resources and manpower efforts into building and then falling back to the Hindenberg Line. Sheldon charts the details of this impact in his excellent series, particularly the book on the German Army at Cambrai and his recent book on the impact of the Somme on the wider German General Staff.

The tactical gains, limited as they might appear to be on the ground, were only possible because of the very wide frontage (with respect to earlier battles) that was attacked. As early as the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the British realised that the frontage had to be as wide as possible to negate the defensive benefit of flanking fire. At some point, the British had to deliver such an attack - if not on July 1, 1916 then at some later time. The width of the attack drew German defenders north, strengthening the positions about Serre and Beaumont Hamel for example. In turn, this weakened the German defenses in the areas where the British and French attack was successful on the first day.

From a counter-attritional perspective, you can argue that Britain should not have committed so many men to the attack on such a wide frontage. This would have saved British lives on July 1st. In essence, this was the approach that Belgium adopted after the heavy losses of the opening months of the war. They supported the British and French forces through holding operations but were not heavily involved in offensive operations until the last weeks of the war, when the German resistance in Belgium all but collapsed. Fewer British soldiers would have been killed or wounded if the Somme had been a very limited attack (or none at all). Conversely, fewer German soldiers would have been killed or wounded - freeing them up to continue pressuring the French and/or countering the Brusilov offensive in the East (the Somme was part of a much larger strategic effort that combined the Eastern and Western Fronts). At some time point, however, Britain would have been forced to participate in a very large battle. Either politically, through pressure from France, or because the Germans would not hold back (hence Operation Michael and the related Spring offensives when they were able). At which time, the 'saved' lives would have been lost.

All the while, the occupied territories of Belgium and northern France remained under German control. The former was a major strategic problem for the British, due to the naval/submarine bases on the Flanders coast. More importantly, the Entente had to wrest the occupied territories back. This was a war of liberation, not just a stand-off in some part of northern Europe that was not part of Britain - hence British forces could just sit back and let the French suffer a greater proportion of casualties before collapsing exhausted before the Germans.

I never set out on this discussion with the intent to 'sway' your views. I hope that the debate has surfaced some perspectives that other readers may have found interesting and, perhaps, surprising. Happy to debate further or not, as you wish.

Robert

Offline Baron von Wreckedoften

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I hope that the debate has surfaced some perspectives that other readers may have found interesting and, perhaps, surprising.

I think both those who agree with your views (me being one of them) and those who disagree with them, can at least concur that you have done that.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to get people who have been force-fed the "donkeys" myth (and only taught about WW1 at all via a highly selective set of "war poets") to view WW1 as anything but senseless slaughter that could so easily have been avoided by adopting some "alternative strategy".  That nobody in the past 100 years has managed to identify that strategy, much less articulate it, seems to carry no weight in the argument, for some reason.  On a recent trip to London, a friend of mine reported that he had heard a street tour guide in Whitehall telling a group of schoolchildren that Haig "had killed millions".  When "teachers" display that level of ignorance, it is difficult not to despair - it is reading arguments such as yours that prevent me from doing so.  Thank you.
 

Offline Etranger

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Millions of Germans maybe. Unfortunately subtle and reasoned discourse gets lost in the 'righteous indignation' of those who weren't there.
"It's only a flesh wound...."