In the summer of 1916, in the midst of one of the First World War’s most cataclysmic battles, the German army did a remarkable thing. During the course of the battle of the Somme, it created a new defensive doctrine. What is most remarkable about this is that it did so without the intervention of the German High Command, the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL). The new doctrine was developed and was instituted by the German units fighting tooth and nail against the British and French armies, only after the battle did the OHL give its imprimatur to this new doctrine. In 1916, the German army successfully innovated through the use of Erfahrungsberichte, or ‘lessons reports,’ that were shared extensively and quickly throughout the German army on the Western Front.
The German experience during the battle of the Somme in 1916 demonstrates a different type of military innovation, one I have termed ‘horizontal innovation’ to distinguish it from other type of innovation examined by scholars of the field. Traditionally, scholars of military innovation have recognised two main types — top-down and bottom-up innovation. As their names imply, these two forms describe how innovation occurred. In top-down innovation, new ideas and new knowledge is created at the apex of an organisation and pushed downwards. This often suits hierarchical military institutions, where influential champions of new ideas or new approaches can be found in senior military officers or sometimes civilians in the chain of command. These senior ‘champions’ have the authority to impose this innovation on their organisation. More recent scholarship, though, as pointed to the importance of new knowledge coming from the lowest levels of the armed forces, often in the heat of combat. In this ‘bottom-up innovation,’ small units provide test beds for new ideas, and the best ideas eventually filter to the top from which they are then shared with the rest of the armed forces, usually via a new formal doctrine. What made the German experience different from these two types of innovation is that units shared knowledge between themselves, without involving the German High Command, and in the process created a new defensive doctrine. Rather than showing bottom-up or top-down innovation, this shows how innovation can occur horizontally between units.
The method of this horizontal innovation was the sharing of knowledge about the latest defensive tactics through Erfahrungsberichte. These reports had evolved throughout 1914 and 1915 as a way by which units could share experiences. Initially, these were written on an ad hoc basis; not all units wrote these, and they followed no set format. In 1914 and early 1915, many higher units (army corps and divisions) circulated Erfahrungsberichte internally. Through the course of 1915, these came to the attention of the OHL, which chose what it deemed significant reports to be distributed throughout the army. Indeed, the OHL saw Erfahrungsberichte as being an important means by which new tactics and new approaches could be shared throughout the army. As I discussed in a previous post, the Erfahrungsbericht of the 1st Army’s attack at Vailly in October 1914 was deliberately used as a model for new offensive tactics, and reports produced by the 6th and 3rd Armies informed new defensive tactical guidance issued by the OHL in October 1915.
So far, this is a good example of bottom-up military innovation — The knowledge of frontline units was gathered by the German High Command and this latest knowledge informed a centrally produced doctrine that was then distributed across the army. Indeed, the OHL sought to deliberately control this process. In January 1916, the OHL forbade the sharing of Erfahrungsberichte between units unless these had been previously approved by the OHL.
The OHL’s control over this learning cycle broke down completely in the heat of the battle of the Somme. The battle of the Somme was not like any battle the German army had hitherto experienced. Faced with the enormous material superiority of the combined French and British armies, the German army struggled desperately to defeat the Entente offensive. Whether or not this was deliberately designed as an attritional battle, the battle of the Somme did enormous damage to the German army. At its height, divisions could last no longer than two weeks before needing to be relieved from the frontline. Thus, unlike previous battles on the Western Front, the battle of the Somme drew in units from across the entire Western Front. Over the course of the battle, 96 German divisions were engaged, some three-quarters of the German army of the Western Front, and many of these divisions fought in the battle two or even three times.
Units that had been ‘fought-out’ in the battle of the Somme went to quieter sectors of the Western Front to rest and refit, and with them they took their most recent experiences of the defensive battle. These they shared with their neighbouring units through Erfahrungsberichte. Indeed, with so many divisions rotating in and out of the battle, demand for Erfahrungsberichte became great — Units desired to know the latest techniques before their inevitable deployment. The armies not engaged in the battle of the Somme used the Erfahrungsberichte to provide training for their own units and modified their own defensive systems to take into account the latest advances from the battle of the Somme. So widespread was the sharing of Erfahrungsberichte from the battle that today, countless examples can be found in the existing divisional files of the German archives.
Thus, the OHL lost control of the lessons learning cycle; units demanded and received the latest reports from the front to prepare themselves. This proved to be a blessing for the German army. By removing the High Command from the loop, this learning cycle sped up to accommodate the demands of the units going to the battle. In the process a new defensive doctrine was hammered out by the units doing the actual fighting in the battle of the Somme. This new defensive doctrine often departed significantly from the existing doctrine and from the orders coming from army- and army-group level, but allowed the frontline divisions to withstand the often overwhelming material superiority of the French and British attackers.
A new German High Command under the direction of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff recognised this new doctrine when they issued updated defensive guidance in September 1916. They also made a virtue of the Erfahrungsberichte system that had emerged from the battle of the Somme. In 1917, the OHL required units to produced Erfahrungsberichte whenever engaged in battle. Recognising the benefits of rapidly sharing new knowledge, the OHL required units to share their reports widely. Thereby, the OHL of Hindenburg and Ludendorff also acknowledged that it could not and perhaps should not attempt to control the rapid learning cycle produced by effective sharing of lessons from battle. Horizontal innovation had become institutionalised in the German army.
Image: Cover from the I Bavarian Reserve Corps’ report on the experiences of the battle of the Somme. Landesarchiv Baden-Wuerttemberg, Generallandesarchiv, Karlsruhe, 456 F1/527.
For more on military innovation, see the King’s College London Military Innovation and Learning Research Group.
For more on First World War history, see the King’s College London First World War Research Group.