Military strategy & conflicts - Part 2
World War I
The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in human history - Military strategy & conflicts introduction. More than 1 million men were killed, wounded or captured in that fiasco. (Ellis and Cox) In the end the battle appeared to have no tactical significance, it cost many lives yet little ground would be gained. Later historians would paint it as a strategic victory for the Allies because ultimately the Germans could not replace the quality troops they lost at Somme. But if the battle can be considered a victory it was a pyrrhic one at best, it would be the first of many battles of attrition where the Allies were willing to sacrifice so many men so long as they could kill or incapacitate a certain number of the enemy.
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Strategy had evolved little since the Napoleonic era. Armies were still expected to rush forward and capture vital enemy territory such as their capital or deal a significant defeat against the enemy army to force their surrender. In 1914 the Kaiser’s armies went out to do just that, conquer Paris and force France to her knees. Allied offensives were designed to break up the Kaiser’s troops and force him to capitulate. Yet it was not on the bloody battlefields of Europe that victory would be achieved. The slow process of attrition ground up the opposing armies. But it was the strangulation of the German empire by an effective British blockade and US intervention that eventually defeated the Kaiser.
Expecting sweeping victories similar to their success in the Franco-Prussian war, the Germans were severely disappointed. This was because of many innovations in military technology and the inability of tactics to catch up. The machinegun and reliable semi-automatic rifles made mass infantry charges suicidal. Defenders could fire again and again from the relative safety of their trenches while attackers had to endure a hail of enemy fire before they could attempt to breach the barbed wire and if they were lucky get into the enemy trenches and engage the troops there. Even if they captured the first trench, further rows of entrenched enemies would still confront them. Despite the futility of massed infantry attacks, the commanders on both sides still relied on their murderous charges to defeat their opposition. Machineguns, artillery and semi-automatic rifles were all too willing to harvest the young lives thrown at them by generals using antiquated tactics.
The static nature of the Western Front made logistics largely irrelevant. With little movement of the frontlines, it was a simple matter to just stockpile supplies behind the lines. On a tactical level logistics played a minimal role. Strategically, both sides relied heavily on materiel shipped to Europe from their colonies. Both Germany and England tried to deny the other supplies from overseas. England succeeded eventually crippling the Germans.
During the Franco-Prussian War, machineguns were in their infancy. Even the massed infantry assaults were met with heavy casualties because breach-loading rifles had become standard and defenders could fire more often and at longer ranges than ever before. In 1914 machine guns were standard in both armies. Breach-loaders had improved rates of fire. Conventional artillery was deadlier than ever. Chemical Weapons were employed en-masse. All these methods increased the efficiency with which men could kill other men. The only thing that was not improved was the ability of men to endure such punishment.
Tannenberg was an early German victory. Despite being outnumbered by the Tzar’s armies the German’s accomplished a stunning victory. They inflicted over 120,000 casualties and destroyed a whole Russian Army in exchange for just 20,000 of their own. The victory is highly celebrated because after it no Russian Army would march on Germany again until the later part of World War II. When World War I began the Allied powers in the West planed to do their best to stop or at least slow down the German offensive to the West. In the mean time, the Russian Army would assemble and crush the Germans from the west. After all, the Russian has 10 whole armies more than the Germans had and the Germans had to fight on two fronts. The Germans were aware of this, in fact their main battle plan was to smash the Western allies quickly so that their forces could be transferred east to stop the Russians. The battle featured Two complete Russian armies, the first and second, they were suffering from supply problems and their commanders hated each other. The Germans had one army, the Eighth. A series of rapid redeployments courtesy of the excellent German railroad network and aggressive moves by the Eight resulted in the 2nd Army being pocketed and destroyed.
The Battles of Neuve Chapelle and Artois was a battle in the First World War. It was a British offensive in the Artois region and broke through at Neuve-Chapelle but they were unable to exploit the advantage. In 1915 The British were arriving in large numbers to reinforce the embattled French army. By March it was decided that a counter-offensive would be launched against the Germans. The battle saw the first use of aerial reconnaissance by the British. Lack of communication and the general confusion resulted in the attacks being uncoordinated and piece-meal. For all their valor the 40,000 British troops succeeded in recapturing a mere 2km of French soil. Some 11,000 British and Commonwealth troops were sacrificed for those two kilometers. They would be among the first of tens of thousands who would fall in fruitless frontal assaults against prepared positions equipped with machineguns and supported by artillery.
Verdun was yet another example of the bloody and often fruitless attacks carried out during that era. It started as a golden opportunity for the Germans, Verdun was once an important fortress for the French but had since been stripped of many of its guns and ammunition supplies. Like the Battle of the Somme which occurred around the same time, the strategy at Verdun was that of attrition. Kill more of the enemy than they can kill of our own. Eventually, if the plan worked, the enemy would run out of fighting men before the Germans did. The plan’s brutal logic was that of a numbers game.
The initial attack was successful thanks to the use of Storm troopers and flame throwers. Storm troopers were specially trained German troops trained to use grenades instead of their rifles for their initial attack. They were specially trained to get into the French trenches and wreck havoc while follow-on forces dash to their aid. The French had never encountered these units before and suffered as a result.
As expected the German assault turned into a meat grinder. Verdun became an end in itself. Thousands of German and French troops were thrown into fruitless attacks against well entrenched opposition. The Germans were forced to weaken their forces to react to the Somme Offensive while more and more French arrived to reinforce the city. In the end French counter-attacks would force the Germans to retreat to their starting lines. The over 700,000 casualties the two sides suffered did little to change the face of the war as both sides were back where they started. 300,000 men died in vain. Ultimately, the battle was representative of the battles to come. Thousands would die in the expectation that they could kill or wound more of the enemy than they lost themselves. New weapons such as the Tank, Airplane and Chemical gas only made the slaughter more efficient. A whole generation of European youths would die. All because some Archduke of a dying empire was shot by a Serb.
Paul von Hindenburg was the victor of the battle of Tannenberg. Yet before the battle he had already retired from active service. He was recalled from retirement to command during the battle as a result of the previous Eighth army commander being recalled. Together with Erich Ludendorff they were the military geniuses behind the victory. The Schlieffen Plan, the German master plan, called for the defeat of France before the Russian could mobilize. Unfortunately the Russians were already gaining ground in East Prussia far earlier than expected.
Hindenburg’s objective during the battle was to delay or if possible destroy the invading Russian armies. To this end, he called reinforcements from the Western front. Some historians argued that since the battle was already won before reinforcements arrived the transfer was counterproductive and may have cost the Germans the war. But with his end in mind, Hindenburg knew that if he was defeated Berlin lay open to the Russians.
His units made excellent use of manoeuvre and economy of force to present an effective front against the Russians. Later they performed an envelopment effectively surrounding and destroying an entire Russian army. The rain transport also allowed them to move swiftly and position themselves before the Russians, traveling on foot, could deploy themselves.
The Leadership and unity of command in the battle were no problems for the Germans. It was however, a pitfall for their Russian opponents. The commanders of the two Russian armies hated each other and had no desire of cooperating. In fact, one army was surrounded before the other could be bothered to try and help it. The lack of coordination and unity between them also allowed an army that outnumbered them to defeat one army then prepare to hold off a second in detail. Had the Russians simply worked together, they would have crush an enemy which they outnumbered by a significant margin.
Ellis & Cox, World War I Databook
Foley, Robert. German Strategy and the Path to Verdun