November 15, 2014

A full century after World War I we still cannot understand how generals sent so many soldiers to be slaughtered. Ten million soldiers died on all sides; millions more were left maimed or shell shocked. Seven million civilians died. 20 million horses died.

The image we have of hapless soldiers being forced to climb out of their sodden trenches and attack across a hellish no-man’s land pock-marked by water-filled shell holes, deep mud, thickets of barbed wire and rotten bodies is quite accurate for the Western Front. Waiting for them were quick-firing guns, heavy artillery, the greatest killer or all – machine guns – and, later, poison or burning gases, and flamethrowers.

How could the generals of that era have been stupid enough to send waves and waves of their soldiers to almost certain death? Trench warfare in the West quickly became siege warfare in which decisive victories became almost impossible.

Only in the East did the brilliant German generals Hindenburg and Max Hoffman achieve a war of movement in which they destroyed two Russian armies attacking East Prussia. Their triumphant battles at Tannenburg and Masurian Lakes were partly based on Hannibal’s battlefield tactics at Cannae in 216 BC.

But on the Western Front, generals on all sides kept sending their men on suicidal bayonet charges across dense wire in the face of interlocking machine gun fire and shrapnel. How could they have been so foolish?

As a former instructor in military history, permit me some thoughts: most of the British, French, Belgian, Russian and many of the Italian generals had learned their profession fighting colonial wars in Africa and Asia against native levies armed only with spears and swords. They were, no surprise, wholly untrained for modern warfare against European soldiers. If the US Army, trained for colonial warfare against lightly armed enemies, ever has to fight China or Russia, it will encounter the same nasty problem.

Next, most of the generals poorly understood the power of massed rifle or artillery fire. There was no excuse for this: the British has always been renowned for their iron discipline and ability to pour massive fire into advancing enemies – a skill that won them the Battle of Waterloo. Fighting Afghans, Berber tribesmen, and Zulu dulled these skills.

And even less excuse for fatally ignoring the vitally important of lessons from the first bloody, modern conflict of the 20th Century – the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. This war, fought on China’s Liaotung Peninsula and Manchuria, was the first modern war, a harbinger for the coming slaughter in the rest of the century.

Ironically, though this big war was covered by very experienced war correspondents and military attachés from many nations, the dire message of the war was ignored by Western military establishments.

The 1904-05 war saw the first intensive use of machine guns, barbed wire, hand grenades, body armor, searchlights, poison gas, and concentrated fire of field and heavy guns against tightly packed enemy infantry. But few took notice. The US Navy failed to remember that the 1904 war was opened by a surprise Japanese attack on the key Russian naval base at Port Arthur. Or that courage and drive – what French called “elan vital” – were not enough to carry heavily defended positions.

What was learned was that forts were important even though guns on their parapets could not survive. That medical services had to be beefed up. And that logistics was a key component of modern warfare

Generals on the Western front ran into the same problem the Japanese did in Manchuria: they never had enough men to envelop an enemy and cut off his retreat. A capable enemy would simply retreat to avoid encirclement. Not until fluid, fast-moving German Panzer tactics of 1940 would this problem be solved.

Forts, which are now considered useless military relics, assumed a prime role, first in the defense of the Belgian cities of Liege and Namur. Then more so at the Armageddon battle at Verdun where a million soldiers died on both sides in a tiny area of hell. Forts Douaumont and Vaux became the epicenter of the savage battle for Verdun. At one point, 2,000 heavy shells were landing each hour atop Vaux.

After WWI, France decided to build a powerful line of forts – the Maginot Line – to help defend parts of its frontiers. By contrast, Germany opted for a war of movement, or blitzkrieg, to avoid ever becoming bogged down in siege warfare. 30

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2014

This post is in: History

2 Responses to “NO GOOD WAR; NO BAD PEACE”

  1. solum temptare possumus says:

    Mr Margolis,
    I cannot stress how important it is for you to tell the ‘True’ history of this period of military conflict.
    Annually at the Armistice in November, please.
    At least it may dissuade our youth, in the future, in power, from ‘beating the drum’ for a path of war and senseless slaughter.
    War technology moves ever forward; efficient killing of humans its mandate.
    addicti sunt, qui praeterita obliviscentes, se ad vivere rursus
    “Those who forget the past, are doomed to relive it”
    I can only call the Colonial Generals imbeciles. Trained in military tactics and history, they should have realized they needed to change tactics, after a fort was decimated, or an army slaughtered while walking across ‘no mans land’ with bayonets at the ready.
    General Heinz Guderian’s book ‘Panzer Leader’ used the concept of combined arms; fast moving armor supported by air power. Hitler read ‘Achtung ─ Panzer’ by Guderian. When he observed an armor training exercise at Kummersdorf, he replied,
    “This is what I want and that is what I shall have”.
    Modern technology using ancient circling and bypass tactics, using combined arms became known as ‘Blitzkrieg’. Guderian, fluent in English and French, read extensively of military theorists, like Britain’s B.H. Liddell Hart. It took many interwar years for Guderian to formulate and codify this new tactic, and get it accepted by the German Army, but he persevered.
    ad iudicium

  2. When I visited Ypres in Belgium in 2000, I was more than ever convinced, that as long as we keep on killing, starving and torturing each other, we have no right to claim to be part of a civilization, Because we like to pride ourselves of our supposedly unique intelligence, that we would have to use, to find a way to settle our differences in a non violent way. The atrocities committed in that war are unbecoming a civilization or even mankind as a whole. And instead of better, we get more barbaric with every passing year, as we abuse the new inventions, that should be used for the common betterment of life for all people. I stood on the place, where our John McCrae was shot. I saw the bunkers with the trenches and it was, as if one could still smell the rotting flesh. If a farmer today kept his livestock in such conditions, he would rightfully be charged and lose his animals. Why the gory pictures of the slaughter in those far away countries never make it to our TV screens is a crime in itself, because the people have the right to see, what is being done in their name. And if we do have a shred of democracy left, all this warmaking would immediately end.

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