When Learning Goes Bad

DR JONATHAN BOFF

Jonathan is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. His first book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918 was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. An audio recording of a paper detailing some of his new research on German command on the Western Front can be found here.

On the Western Front in September and October 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, the British army employed a new operational approach known as ‘bite and hold’. Rather than trying to drive deep into the German defences and break through, the BEF sought instead to limit any advance to the range of its artillery cover, driving a thousand yards or a mile into the enemy trenches, digging in quickly and then defeating the inevitable German counter attack. This approach posed a significant challenge to the German defenders. Based on new research into the papers of the army group commander opposite, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, this article explores how they adapted to the new British method. It demonstrates three points relevant to modern commanders:

  • Find solutions which address the real problems you face, not those which you best know how to fix;
  • Don’t assume that a solution exists, much less that you’re the person to find it;
  • Intellectual honesty about the past is crucial to the integrity of ‘lessons learned’ processes. Infection by present-day concerns risks misrepresenting the past and drawing the wrong conclusions.

In late September 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres burst back into life with a series of resource-intensive, limited-objective British attacks. In the battles of the Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood (20 and 26 September, respectively), troops of the British Second Army used ‘bite and hold’ tactics to chew their way through the enemy defences. The Germans, practising an elastic defence in depth, seemingly had no answer. Their forward garrisons were too weak to beat off the first assault. And poor communications and the difficulty of movement across a devastated and lethal battlefield made it impossible to launch counter attacks to regain lost ground in time. For the first time in the Flanders campaign, Rupprecht needed to call in reinforcements. The search for counter-measures began.

According to the German Official History, the defensive expert, Fritz von Loßberg, proposed moving away from defence in depth and increasing the strength of the forward crust to prevent any initial British break-in. This was adopted on 30 September but did nothing to prevent another defeat in the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October). Consequently the Germans reverted to a (slightly reformed) elastic defence on 7 October. Within two weeks, then, they had been able to operate three different styles of defence: an impressive level of flexibility.

This narrative was false in three particulars. First, Loßberg’s was merely one of several senior voices, including some at Supreme Command (OHL), advocating a crust defence. Secondly, whatever the orders, it is far from clear that every front line unit was able to adjust their tactics in time. Some could but many could not. The 119th Infantry Division, for instance, which was at the front for 67 straight days from 11 August to 18 October, pointed out that new orders incorporating the latest lessons learnt were of only limited use with no opportunity to train. Thirdly, there were far simpler and more traditional explanations for the problems the Germans were facing, which spoke far more to the operational level of war than the tactical. The cumulative effect of attrition was beginning to make itself felt, with both the quantity and quality of replacements slipping. Poor leadership was another concern.

Nonetheless, the Official History narrative held considerable attractions for the German military writers who constructed it. First, by attaching responsibility for mistakes to Loßberg, it deflected blame from OHL and the General Staff more widely. Secondly, it simultaneously emphasised how flexible, rational and systematic the German approach usually was. Thirdly, it reinforced the case for elastic defence, which was an important tenet of German military thought between the wars. It is no accident that the Official History was compiled by former officers of the German General Staff, many of them who had served at OHL during the war. When the Treaty of Versailles demanded the abolition of the General Staff, the army transferred its finest doctrinal thinkers, steeped in the manoeuvrist approach of Schlieffen and Moltke the Elder, to the apparently civilian Reichsarchiv. There they were to keep the General Staff flame alive and produce a history designed to help train and teach the army’s officer cadre.

As a matter of fact, the revised elastic defence brought in after Broodseinde was never really tested. Continued British attacks at Ypres in autumn 1917 were handicapped more by weather and logistics than by German resistance. Thereafter there was little opportunity to try elastic defence until the Allied offensives of July-November 1918. It failed. But, since the German army was much weaker by then, and Allied attacks much stronger, comparisons with 1917 are tricky.

The lessons of this episode are threefold. First, the German general staff sought tactical solutions to what was in fact the operational challenge of ‘bite and hold’ and attrition. Culturally they were, like most militaries, ‘can-do’ institutions and natural problem solvers; but they were more comfortable offering tactical tweaks than in confronting operational reality. The tendency of the German army to offset operational weakness with tactical brilliance and to seek military solutions to political problems is a recurring theme in its history from Schlieffen to Stalingrad. Secondly, the experience of Flanders highlights the intellectual arrogance of its commanders. Men such as Erich Ludendorff and his entourage at OHL were convinced not only that a single solution to their difficulties existed but also that they could find it. This blinded them to the possibility that there might be no panacea, and that different situations might require different responses. It also meant that doctrine formulation became increasingly centralised and dogmatic, restricting the initiative of subordinate commanders and rendering the Germans predictable to their enemies. Rupprecht criticised this tendency, pointing out that ‘there is no cure-all. A pattern is harmful. The situation must be dealt with sometimes one way, sometimes another.’ Thirdly, the interwar German army’s prime mechanism for lesson-learning was distorted by official historians pursuing their own agenda. By misrepresenting the process of adaptation in contact during the Third Battle of Ypres they encouraged a fascination with tactical detail which helped distract the Wehrmacht from the strategic and political horrors it was soon to face. Their example reminds us that more history is not necessarily the answer. But better history may be.

Image: The view from a captured German pill-box, showing the burst of a shell of the German barrage searching British reserve trenches as part of the Battle of Polygon Wood within the Battle of Passchendaele. Taken near the Wieltje-Grafenstafel Road (Rat Farm), 27th September 1917, via the Imperial War Museum.

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