World War I Tactical adaptation on the Western Front

One of the major anniversaries I am looking forward to as the Grouchy Historian is the 100th Anniversary or World War I.  Like many Americans, my knowledge of the war is not what it should be, although I am trying to overcome this gap with what I hope will be a major new output of history on what is probably the most significant and least understood event of the 20th century.

HOWEVER, I have done some examination of the various armies and how they adapted to the changes in warfare.  This was a particularly fascinating subject as each army tried to restore maneuver to the battlefield and overcome the defensive dominance of the machine gun, barbed wire and entrenching tool.
Between 1914 and 1918, both the British and German armies attempted to overcome the stalemate on the Western Front by implementing tactical and technological innovations. Three authors offer divergent views on the relative merits of each army’s approach and success. Two authors offer an analysis showing their chosen subject, the British Expeditionary Force for Paddy Griffith and the German Army for John Mosier, were the more successful force at developing new weapons and tactics. Timothy Lupfer presents a more dispassionate analysis of the German Army, offering additional insights into the defensive tactics developed by the Germans as well as their improved offensive doctrine. Although each of the authors offers a higher-level view of the operational and strategic picture throughout the war, only Mosier attempts to examine the ultimate cause of Germany’s defeat in spite of their tactical prowess.

Each author examines three primary facets of wartime developments; tactical doctrine and planning, integration of new weapons technology and the evolution of the company and platoon as maneuver units. The relationship between each of these pieces and how well each army integrated them is the basis of each author’s analysis and conclusions.

As the Western Front ground into trench warfare through 1915, both armies attempted to develop new doctrine and tactics to restore the primacy of the offensive and achieve a decisive breakthrough, restoring the mobile warfare of 1914. Although both the British and Germans desired to restore battlefield maneuver, only the Germans actually developed the tactics to accomplish their goal. By the end of 1914 German leaders understood that World War I armies were to large and resilient for a “battle of annihilation” and adjusted their thought accordingly by seeking to break the enemy’s will rather than destroying their army.[i] The British continued to seek the decisive breakthrough that would allow them to loose their cavalry into the German rear and roll-up the enemy trenches. The British therefore resorted to larger offensives to overwhelm the Germans, leading to the Somme offensive of 1916.[ii] But the British never completely mastered the type of quick infiltration tactics as part of a larger offensive scheme developed by the Germans, which almost gave the Germans a decisive war-winning breakthrough in 1918. On the contrary, the linear attacks used in the Somme lead to the wholesale decimation of divisions which even British military historians had to acknowledge.[iii] On the other hand, both Lupfer and Mosier make an excellent case that the Germans took a more realistic view of the problem and determined that smaller units well trained in infiltration tactics, eventually down to the platoon level, could succeed where masses of men and guns had not. Consequently, the Germans emphasized speed, initiative and maneuver to disrupt enemy communications and cohesion and undermine the will and capacity to fight.[iv]

During the course of 1915, the Germans also attempted to develop an overall battlefield doctrine that integrated both offensive and defensive elements. Defensively, the primary innovation made by the German was the concept of an “elastic defense in depth,” which utilized superior engineering and elaborate fortifications to permit commanders to take a more pragmatic approach to Allied attacks. German commanders had the autonomy to only lightly man front-line trenches in case of an attack, falling back if needed to secondary positions to allow German defensive firepower to absorb an Allied attack. Mosier posits that the Germans were much better at choosing a terrain objective for assault by analyzing its military value and geographic advantage. In most scenarios, particularly the Woevre and Les Eparges the Germans would quickly seize their objective in a quick and violent attack and then prepare elaborate fortifications using superior field craft to await the inevitable Allied counterattack.[v] Using their superior geographic position, dug-in German troops would inflict maximum casualties on the attacking forces and leave them vulnerable to immediate local counter attacks to contain or even repulse potential Allied advances.[vi]

The Allies, particularly the French fighting on their own soil, attempted to hold static front-line trenches at all costs, making them vulnerable to the infiltration tactics developed by the Germans and utilized heavily in their 1918 offensive. Mosier expands on this by noting how the Germans assumed a “strategic offensive-tactical defensive” posture that took maximum advantage of the terrain and allowed the Germans to inflict disproportionate casualties on their attackers. Griffith makes no significant mention of a British attempt to refine their defensive doctrine over the course of the war.

All of the authors agree that one of the crucial enabling factors that made these tactical innovations possible was the delegation of more command autonomy from the regimental and battalion level down to companies and eventually platoons or Gruppes, which became the basic maneuver unit by the end of the war. To provide the firepower needed, the Germans also emphasized a combined arms approach, beginning with the integration of machine guns, mortars, flame throwers and grenades to provide direct fire support within the Gruppes as well as emphasizing the need for close cooperation between infantry and artillery during the attack.[vii]

The direct fire support weapons which gave platoons an unprecedented amount of organic fire power initially lead to a specialization of roles within a platoon before the gradual integration of these weapons into the sections or squads within the platoon as a whole. However, rather than riflemen, the Germans intended the light machine gun to be the basis of firepower for their small units and quickly began to disperse automatic weapons down to the Gruppe and section level. [viii] The British took much longer to incorporate machine guns and light machine guns down to the company and platoon level and did not disseminate them as widely as the Germans. Early in the war, the British even treated machine guns almost as a separate arm, like the artillery, initially setting up a Machine Gun Corps.[ix] Moreover, Mosier notes how the Germans not only were better at training and equipping their Gruppes, but over the course of the war, the Germans completely reorganized their infantry divisions to take advantage of their fire superiority and create more divisions by making them smaller but no less lethal. The genesis of the “triad structure” of a division containing three regiments which each contained three battalions seen in many armies through World War II and into the modern era can be seen in World War I.[x]

The most significant difference among each author’s analysis was the overall role of firepower in the course of the war. Mosier believes the firepower advantage of the German Army, particularly in modern artillery and the introduction of infantry direct support weapons down to the Gruppe-level was a decisive factor in the continued tactical success of German forces. According to Mosier, not only were most of the German artillery pieces technically superior to their Allied counterparts, but their use in a combined arms environment was far ahead of what the British and French were able to achieve.

Griffith does point out several tactical developments where the British matched or exceeded the Germans. He states that Britain’s artillery arm made the most progress during the war, developing the creeping barrage as a tactical alternative to the endless barrage of shells and closely integrating the efforts of the infantry advance with their supporting artillery. The concept of the deep attack and counter-battery fire also came into their own and Griffith points to the significant efforts of the British to develop a counter-battery capability as the war progressed.[xi]

Although Mosier and Lupfer tend to agree to the Germans were tactically and operationally more adept then the British and French, none of the authors offer a satisfactory explanation of why the Germans ultimately lost. Although Mosier states that the drain of fighting a multi-front war and the intervention of a coherent American force was a winning factor, he still notes that Allied in-fighting among the French, British and American generals nearly squandered the advantage provided by the new battlefield force in 1918. In his successor volume, Mosier is more blunt in stating that the American defensive stand and counterattack in the Argonne Forest in late 1918 finally ended German battlefield superiority and convinced the German high command the war was lost.[xii]


[i] John Mosier, The Myth of the Great War: How the Germans Won the Battles and the Americans Saved the Allies, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 102

[ii] Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-1918, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 162-165.

[iii] B.H. Liddell Hart, The Real War 1914-1918, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1930), 234.

[iv] Timothy T. Lupfer, The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 1981), 41.

[v] Mosier, 88, 135-136, 240.

[vi] Lupfer, 12.

[vii] Mosier, 38, 174.

[viii] Lupfer, 27.

[ix] Griffith, 95.

[x] Mosier, 183.

[xi] Griffith, 135, 142.

[xii] John Mosier, Cross of Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German War Machine 1918-1945, (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2006), 27.