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Comments by YACCS
Sunday, July 02, 2006

Command in WW I

The man who saved France

Since we've been kicking around the Somme, I have a little time before my barbecue to discuss something relevant.

Some of the posters bring up how the British Army changed leaders from 1914 to 1918 and improved over time.

But I think what isn't discussed was why the leaders of the various armies were so unprepared for fighting WWI

The fact wasn't that the technology was new, but the scale of the technology was far greater than anything seen by any of the combatants. Every European power, except for Austria Hungary, had been engaged in colonial warfare. which led to a very different kind of warfare, asymetric warfare, where surprise and numbers made up most of the opposition Europeans faced.

They had not faced equal opponents or seen the mass scale of weapons deployed against similar enemies. Even against the Boers, the British found they could break their will with enough savage tactics. Which didn't work against the Germans.

So when they finally faced like-armed opponents, they didn't have any idea how that would play out. It wasn't the Herero or the Fuzzy Wuzzies any more. It was Germans, as armed and educated as they were.

Even against the Ottomans, the British suffered a brutal defeat at Kut, in 1916 and Gallipoli in 1915.

Part of the problem was the ossification of peacetime militaries. Promotion and tactical innovation came slowly, if at all. Technical innovation was dumped on the military, but by 1915, the armies on the Western Front had the technical expertise to kill each other, but not the tactical innovation to make use of it. Up until 1918, there was an expectation that cavalry would play a major role in exploitation.

No one made the transferance that if a Maxim could mow down Ashanti, it would do the same to the British crossing an open field.

The leaders in command during WWI had risen through the colonial warfare era and had never commanded large formations in combat. They had been raised to both take risks with opposing the enemy, while expecting light casualities. This arrogance of expectation came to them when fighting much better armed and led enemies and led to disaster.

The generals who led the WWI Armies were elderly for the most part, well into their 50's, with many years abroad. They were immune to innovation. The worst example of this was the 11 battles of the Izono, all of which failed to move the Austrians.

None of the combatants were ready for the massive scale of warfare they were to face, which is why they quickly went to the trenches. Which were to be the holding place before the great exploitation.

But I think the greatest failure in command during WWI was a refusal to actually travel to the front. The Germans were better at this than the British, but both sides refused to admit that their communications were not good enough to allow for command from the rear. Radio and telephone communications didn't allow for the kind of remote management they exercised. The management of Verdun was especially bad, but this kind of hands off management was common among most of the armies for most of the war.

Which is why World War II was fought very differently. When Lloyd Fredenthal decided to fight Kasserine Pass from the rear, he was quickly fired. WWII commanders who had survived WWI, Slim, Montgomery, Rommel, Patton, led from as far front as possible and constantly talked to their men. This was a reaction to what they had seen in WWI.

Why did it exist? Partly because of the military caste system. Staff officers came from the upper classes, and didn't want to mix with the grime of actually fighting battles. They looked down on field officers, they often also had political connections which got them their staff jobs. The responsibility of responding to field commanders slipped away.

Which is why people like Petain. MacArthur and Monash rose quickly in their armies. Even today, people forget that Douglas MacArthur was the assistant division commander of the 42ndd Infantry, because he led from the front.

When you look at a battle like the Somme or Verdun, it isn't something to be seen in isolation. It was the result of military systems which had been outpaced by technology and made obsolescent by parity.

posted by Steve @ 2:06:00 PM

2:06:00 PM

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