The definition of insanity is thinking that while the combined military-political establishments of the Great Powers of Europe were too stupid to solve the tactical problems of trench warfare, you are are very smart and could solve them easily.
Oh wait, never mind, I forgot it’s “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Of course, that’s not true either, but I think my definition makes more sense, at least in the context of the First World War. I can’t tell you how often someone quotes that stupid, quippy “definition” in discussions of WWI, acting like they’ve just said something profound. Nonsense. Hindsight is an endemic problem in the study of history, and if not carefully watched for, it can lead to arrogance. There are stupid people in this world, but not as many as one might think. Most historical actions that seem insane or indefensible were usually undertaken for what seemed like perfectly sound reasons at the time.
My favorite example of this came in my sophomore year of college, during a lecture on Blitzkrieg tactics in WWII. A student raised his hand and asked why in God’s name the French had invested so much in the Maginot Line when it was so OBVIOUS that the Germans would just go around it? The only explanation he could think of was terminal stupidity in the French high command. But, as Professor Hopper explained, the French has always understood that Belgium would be the main theater of operations. The purpose of the Maginot Line was to ‘lock down’ the Franco-German frontier to prevent any surprises, freeing the combined Anglo-French forces to advance into Belgium to meet the advancing Germans. What caused the Fall of France was not over-reliance on the Line, but rather the French assuming the Ardennes forest was impassable to armored vehicles, a hypotheses disproved when Guderian and Rommel punched multiple panzer divisions through it into the Allied rear.
This arrogance has become completely institutionalized in studies of WWI, where the main narrative taught in schools is one in which incompetent generals lounging in Châteaus far behind the lines sent millions of innocent young lads to die in the machine-gun fire over and over again, refusing to ever learn from their mistakes. There is…some truth to this. Many of the generals who served in WWI truly were incompetent, or at the very least unqualified for their posts, and I don’t want this post become a Defense of the Somme or Gallipoli. But the idea that the war as a whole is merely High Command practicing the so-called ‘definition of insanity’ is madness. First of all, it’s a very Anglo-centric worldview. Trench warfare of the kind that has come to symbolize the war really only existed on the Western and Italian front. On the Eastern Front, in the Balkans, and in the Middle East and Africa, mobile warfare predominated, with a very different set of challenges and imperatives. But even on the Western Front, the level to which the supposed stupidity of High Command is substituted for any and all analysis has obscured a number of extenuating factors.
Circumstances Both Strategic and Moral
I think it’s safe to say that most of the critics I’m lampooning here today have very different moral and/or ethical systems than your average European general circa 1915. That’s not to say that everyone today is a pacifist, but that I think most people, or at least the people I’ve read or talked to about this, find the idea of fighting a war over ‘nationalism’ or ‘colonial power’ or ‘irredentism’ to be at best faintly silly, and worst immoral. None of these ideas mean much to them, and the idea of sacrificing thousands of young men for them is frankly grotesque. They’re not wrong. But this difference in viewpoint makes objective analysis almost impossible. Let’s look at one example, the otherwise wonderful Great War series on YouTube, which offers a week-by-week retrospective on the war. I am a HUGE fan of this show, but something that drives me bonkers is Indy Neidell’s constant editorializing. After each horrific battle or decision to escalate the war, he attacks the Kings and Presidents and Generals. “How stupid are they?!” he cries. “How could they not know it would lead to nothing but more bloodshed?!”
They knew. They just didn’t care.
Actually, that’s a little harsh. There was widespread horror among Europe’s rulers at the increasing casualties as the war rolled on. But while they were shocked at how many people had died, all of them had known that this would be a bloody war, and all of them accepted that. Whatever their goals were, whether they were ‘an end to encirclement’, ‘the unification of our people’, ‘the restoration of the Balance of Power’, or ‘revanche’, they thought they were worth enough to sacrifice the lives of millions for. And you know? Their generals probably agreed with them. As did many, if not most, of the soldiers being sacrificed. Condemn this if you will. I would tend to agree with you. But it’s ridiculous to call someone ‘stupid’ for operating in accordance with a moral system different from your own.
This ties quite nicely into my next point, which is that while most people seem to assume that WWI generals ordered constant attacks because they were bored and had nothing better to do, there were actually a number of strategic factors that effectively forced their hands. Take France, for example, which launched so many futile and bloody assaults that the French army mutinied in 1917. Tactically, it became clear by winter of 1915 that defensive measures would always be cheaper and more effective. But this was never an option. From the Battle of the Marne onward, the German Army had solidified their control over Northern France and virtually all of Belgium. This meant that the Germans now controlled 64% of French iron production, 24% of its steel mills, and 40% of its coal mines, not to mention 100,000s of French citizens. If the French wanted to liberate this (and they most assuredly did), they had no choice but to launch offenses. It would take a man of incredible moral courage to suggest that France temporarily cede this territory and focus on defending the remainder of the Republic. Of course, Philippe Pétain did make that suggestion, but he was remarkable man. (We’re, uh, not gonna talk about what happened to him later. Yeah).
If the Allies were to accomplish their goals in the West, they had no choice but to attack the Germans. Otherwise, Germany would have simply stripped their Western forces to the bones, taken over management of the occupied French industrial plant and turned their attention to dismembering the Russian Empire. The people who assume that the Anglo-French forces could have somehow sat on the defensive and waited until all the Germans died are refusing to realistically grapple with the situation. Of course, that doesn’t mean they had to attack quite so badly. But as my next section will show, the level of incompetence among both High Commands has been greatly exaggerated.
They Didn’t Do The Same Thing Over And Over Again
To an uninformed observer, a cursory look at the fighting on the Western Front seems to show a uniformity in the nature of combat. Battle after battle consists of waves of troops being hurled against the enemy trenches, to no avail, only for the same thing to happen again the next day. A closer study, however, will show that there was an incredible tactical revolution going on in the trenches of Northern France and Belgium, as both the Entente and the Central Powers scrambled to find a way to break the impasse. Let’s look at some of the attempted assaults on defended positions in the opening months of the war, such as the Battle of the Frontiers. In this battle, the French commander Marshal Joffre simply threw 1.2 million Frenchmen into Alsace-Lorraine with little preparation or planning. Armies were expected to overrun whatever German forces opposed them through determination, firepower, and élan. Instead, they ran into a meat-grinder. The Imperial German army withdrew, luring the French deeper into the mountainous terrain of Vosges before cutting them to pieces with machine-guns and long-range artillery. It was a disaster. But it would not be repeated.
As the war ground on into 1915 and 1916, both sides came to realize that simple ‘wave’ attacks were foredoomed to failure, and turned to extensive artillery preparation to augment this. The size and number of cannons attached to the armies in France grew exponentially, as did the size and scope of the opening bombardments. This reached its height at the Battle of Somme, in which Allied artillery spent five days hammering the Germans with over a million shells. It was believed that this would be enough the utterly annihilate the German positions. They were wrong, and 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day. But! Here’s the thing: It made sense. I understand why Field Marshal Haig & Co. thought that nothing could survive their bombardment because they were saturating every square mile of German trench with literally THOUSANDS of high-explosive shells. It is mind boggling that anyone could survive. But they did, and strategy had to change again.
By the end of 1916, Allied armies were using much more refined artillery tactics–specifically, creeping barrages and box barrages. In a creeping barrage, the artillery bombardment sweeps across no-mans-land at a steady pace, just outpacing the infantry following behind. In a box barrage, artillery fire forms a ‘box’ around a specific enemy position, isolating it from reinforcements. Both of these would preform a pivotal role in Allied Offensives in 1917 and 1918, and both presented a quantitative jump in capability from 1914. And artillery wasn’t the only area in which a strategic and tactical revolution took place. Under the influence of the brilliant Canadian general Sir Arthur Currie, Allied attacks ceased trying to blast massive holes in the German lines in search of the mythical “breakthrough” for which so much blood was shed. Instead, they switched to ‘bite-and-hold’ operations, in which carefully-planned, limited attacks were launched to seize small gains, after which the army would STOP, regroup, resupply, and attack again. This, along with the integration of infantry, artillery, tanks, and aircraft that would become ‘combined-arms operations’ would become the mainstay of Allied tactics in 1918.
The Germans also had their own developments. In the realm of artillery, they would pioneer the ‘Bruchmüller Bombardment’. Instead of the days long rolling barrages favored by the Allies, the Bruchmüller system was a short, shattering attack in which truly massive amounts of shells were slammed into the enemy command-and-control linkages over the course of only a few hours. Remember the Somme bombardment? Before Operation Michael the Germans fired 3.5 million shells in five HOURS. (Side Note: this tactic is named after its inventor, Colonel Georg Bruchmüller. Now, the German word for ‘breakthrough’ is Durchbruch. So his nickname became Durchbruchmüller. Breakthrough Müller! HA! I find this delightful). The Germans also sought to find an alternative to infantry ‘wave attacks’, and did so in the introduction of the Sturmtruppen, or ‘storm troopers’. (First person to make a Stars Wars reference gets shot). These storm troopers were elite soldiers, equipped with submachine guns, flamethrowers, and trench mortars. Instead of making frontal assaults, they would infiltrate enemy lines prior to an attack, destroying artillery positions and HQs, cutting communications, and generally causing havoc. They would be put to great use in the Spring Offensive of 1918, when Germany broke the British lines.
And that’s the thing people forget. For all the talk of ‘futile attacks’, both sides were able to carry out extremely successful offenses in the final year of the war. The Germans with the Spring Offense, which failed only due to the arrival of the Americans and the inability of war-weary Germany to keep their troops supplied. And the Allies with the subsequent Hundred Days Offense that broke the back of the Imperial German Army and ended the war in a French railway car on November 11th, 1918. Neither of these successes would have been possible if the various High Commands had been merely “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Look people, I’m not trying to say that all WWI generals were wonderful fluffy bunny rabbits who cared only about using their prodigious intellect to save orphans. Most of them were terrible people, and some them really were guilty of treasonous incompetence. One of these days I’ll write up a rant about Luigi Cadorna, who was incapable of leading sailors to a whorehouse without getting 100,000 Italians soldiers machine-gunned. But most of them were people (terrible people) desperately trying to do their jobs in a world gone completely mad overnight. Few of them had ever anticipated a war of this scale or scope, and it’s remarkable that as many managed to adapt as did. Criticizing them is fine, but far too many people approach the study of history with an attitude of superiority rather than one of humility. This is not very helpful. When you start from the assumption that hindsight automatically grants you all the answers, your chance of actually discovering useful or interesting anything becomes nil.
So, next time you’re reading a history book and you find yourself thinking “Huh, I wonder why they would do that….” make sure you’re response isn’t “Welp, people in the past sure were stupid, lol”. Instead, stop and think. You might actually learn something.