On audiobook, I’ve been wrapping up re-reading War & Peace, while in print I’ve been reading David Herrmann’s The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, which is about the developments in military technology, army organization, tactics and the arms race in Europe during 1904-1914 and to what extent these led to the outbreak of World War One.
One of the things for which World War One is well known is that, at the opening, generals on both sides were deeply convinced that the essential means of winning a battle was the spirited attack. Making spirited attacks in the face of machine guns and rapid firing artillery could have deeply horrific results, and the resulting learning process has led, in retrospect, to the view of the Great War as being typified by useless slaughter.
|French officer machine gunned down in a counterattack at Verdun – 1916
Bilderdienst Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich
Stepan, Photos that Changed the World, p. 31
The common wisdom is that in 1914 military leaders did not realize how much these new weapons had changed the modern battlefield. In actuality, staff colleges and military theorists had spent a great deal of time thinking about the impact of magazine fed rifles, quick firing artillery and machine guns on infantry tactics, but because there had not been a major European war since the wars of German unification in the 1860-70s, there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what these changes would actually look like.
The American Civil War was nearly unstudied in Europe, partly because it was fought at almost exactly the same time as the very different Franco-Austrian, Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars, and partly because tacticians believed that the conditions in America (which lacked the universal conscription and large trained armies of Europe and had a theater of operations far more vast than Western Europe) would not apply in a European war. Based on the European wars of 40 years before and on the recent Russo-Japanese war, European military leaders were convinced that the key to victory on the modern battlefield was to have a well trained army imbued with sufficient national zeal to carryout a rapid attack even in the face of murderous fire, under which the natural human reaction was to hunker down under cover.
The Japanese suffered terrible casualties in 1904 and 1905, but ultimately their assaults went in to decide the day. Against the almost incomprehensible passivity of the Russian command, the Japanese won repeated victories with an aggressive strategy and a willingness to sacrifice men at decisive points. The victors throughout the second half of the nineteenth century had accomplished all this in spite of a continual increase in the lethality of weapons. The results tended to silence critics of the offensive, and to confirm the axiom that only the attack could bring victory.
Military theory provided a continuous accompaniment to this development. Not only did it enthrone the virtues of the offensive; it tended increasingly to transfer the debate from the realm of the material, technical considerations to that of morale, will, and the interaction between people. The wars of the French Revolution had shown what an influence popular enthusiasm and political ides could have, not only upon recruitment and mobilization of society for war, but also upon fighting effectiveness. Napoleon himself had said that in war the moral is to the material as three is to one, a maxim that his disciples never tired of quoting…. The visionary French officer, Charles Jean-Jacques Joseph Ardant du Picq, took up this theme in the 1860s, writing that a battle was more a contest of will than anything else, and that it was much less important to inflict material losses than to persuade the enemy that he was beaten. To achieve this, du Picq believe in sacrificing everything to the aw-inspiring momentum of an attack. Colmar von der Goltz, the influential German author of many works on strategy after the wars of unification, perpetuated these ideas. 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. All of these ideas conformed well with those of popular nationalist writers in the Mazzinian and later Trietschkean traditions, who placed voluntarism and the power of feelings, especially experienced as a community, above mundane material constraints. The sociological, political and psychological theory of thinkers like Nietzsche, Sorel, Weber, Durkheim and Freud contributed to this preoccupation with will and emotion in a world that seemed to many by the turn of the century to have fallen prey to dehumanizing materialism.
The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, pages 22-23
(If it seems disconnected from the everyday to cite Nietzsche in a discussion of battlefield tactics, here’s an interesting fact I’ve run into: The second most frequently carried book, after the bible, by German soldiers in World War One was Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.)
The day after reading this section, I read the following section in War & Peace, and suddenly all Tolstoy’s criticisms of the “German rationalism” of Russia’s generals back in 1812 fell into place. War & Peace was published in 1869, just as the thinking above was coming into currency. And to Tolstoy, the emphasis placed fifty years before on tactics and movement was absurdly theoretical and failed to realize that battle was primarily a contest of wills. Here is Prince Andre (in the online translation, Andrew) presenting what from the narration elsewhere seems clearly to be Tolstoy’s view of how war works in Book 10, Chapter 25:
Pierre looked at him in surprise.
“And yet they say that war is like a game of chess?” he remarked.
“Yes,” replied Prince Andrew, “but with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please and are not limited for time, and with this difference too, that a knight is always stronger than a pawn, and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company. The relative strength of bodies of troops can never be known to anyone. Believe me,” he went on, “if things depended on arrangements made by the staff, I should be there making arrangements, but instead of that I have the honor to serve here in the regiment with these gentlemen, and I consider that on us tomorrow’s battle will depend and not on those others…. Success never depends, and never will depend, on position, or equipment, or even on numbers, and least of all on position.”
“But on what then?”
“On the feeling that is in me and in him,” he pointed to Timokhin, “and in each soldier.”
Prince Andrew glanced at Timokhin, who looked at his commander in alarm and bewilderment. In contrast to his former reticent taciturnity Prince Andrew now seemed excited. He could apparently not refrain from expressing the thoughts that had suddenly occurred to him.
“A battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it! Why did we lose the battle at Austerlitz? The French losses were almost equal to ours, but very early we said to ourselves that we were losing the battle, and we did lose it. And we said so because we had nothing to fight for there, we wanted to get away from the battlefield as soon as we could. ‘We’ve lost, so let us run,’ and we ran. If we had not said that till the evening, heaven knows what might not have happened. But tomorrow we shan’t say it! You talk about our position, the left flank weak and the right flank too extended,” he went on. “That’s all nonsense, there’s nothing of the kind. But what awaits us tomorrow? A hundred million most diverse chances which will be decided on the instant by the fact that our men or theirs run or do not run, and that this man or that man is killed, but all that is being done at present is only play. The fact is that those men with whom you have ridden round the position not only do not help matters, but hinder.”
As with many a wrong theory, this is of course quite a bit of truth in this, the problem is in seeing it as the whole truth. Most certainly, morale matters in war. And yet, the will of an army, expressed in an aggressive charge, will seldom find itself winning out over machine guns and artillery barrage. Although it is battles such as Verdun and the Somme which provide the popular perception of World War One, the highest rate of casualties in the entire war was during the first four months, as both the French and the German armies attempted to fight mass battles of offensive maneuver in the battles of the Frontiers and Marne, before both dug in and trench warfare began. In those four months, the idea that modern battles could be won through nothing but offensive will died a horrifically bloody death. In those four months, the idea that modern battles could be won through nothing but offensive will died a horrifically bloody death. It was developments in tactics (the creeping barrage, attack and defense in depth, storm tactics) and in technology (tanks, motor transport, air supremacy) which ended up being the key to victory in the Great War.