During the four year centenary of the First World War, Defence-in-Depth has run a series of posts exploring various aspects of the conflict and the centenary itself. We’ll summarise the posts relating to commemoration and the centenary separately, but for now we’ve written a survey of some of our most popular entries on the conduct and outcome of the First World War. We hope that you enjoy re-reading them.
The centenary of the First World War has, perhaps inevitably, divided opinion amongst academics and commentators. Some have detected a genuine shift in the public understanding since 2014. They sense a shift away from narratives of futility and sacrifice and towards a more realistic appreciation of the War, its purpose, and its legacy. They stress how the War is now understood as a global conflict, how the contribution of the Empire to the British war effort is now far clearer in the popular consciousness, and that more people now understand why the War broke out and then continued to be fought.
Others, it must be said, are more guarded in what they believe the centenary to have achieved. Not without cause, sceptics point to enduring tropes of victimhood and futility as evidence of a failure to displace the ‘Blackadder’ view of the War. Moreover, many (including myself) have lamented some of the public history associated with the centenary for its unwillingness to move beyond generalisations and to arm the public with a sense of the War’s rich complexity. Only by reflecting the fact that there are not clear cut answers to most historical questions can we make history relevant, and whether the experience of 2014-18 has achieved this is open to considerable debate.
The War they Thought & the War they Fought
The challenges of complexity and uncertainty have arguably been one of the key features of many of the posts Defence-in-Depth has run about the conflict since 2014. Today we are constantly told that we live in an increasingly complex, globalised and interdependent world. What, if anything, this means is by no means clear. What we can say with greater certainty is that inhabitants of the world of 1914 were experiencing change no less profound in its effects and scope than that of today. This lead to significant challengesfor armed forces and governments, as they tried to anticipate the likely location, scope, and character of a future conflict. In Britain, the government invested heavily in a naval construction programme, intended to deter Germany from acting aggressively against British interests. However they did not do so as part of a coherent strategy. The British failed to co-ordinate the activities of the Army and the Navy, and blundered into the war with little systematic considerationof how to conduct it.
Yet it would be misleading to judge the British case in isolation. Germany, for instance, entered the conflict which she had helped to precipitate wedded to a plan based upon envelopment and manoeuvre. The hope was that definitive military victory would produce a rapid peace – an aspiration based upon a particular reading of the wars of German unification between 1866-71. This lead to an exaggerated faith in the importance of what today is referred to as the operational level of war. This belief did not survive contact with the experience of 1914: despite their initial impressive operational victories over the French, by late-1914 the German army had become bogged down through a combination of over-extension and Anglo-French tactical proficiency. If, as Clausewitz argued, tactical proficiency is the crucial foundation of strategic success, then the German plan had – against popular belief– rested upon shaky underpinnings.
1915 – A Forgotten Year?
The centenary commemorations of 2015 focused upon the Gallipoli campaign as the major event of year. In many respects shifting the focus away from the Western Front and towards a combined Anglo-French operation which involved a major contribution of imperial troops was a worthwhile departure. In other respects, however, it overlooked important events elsewhere in the War which were to play a crucial role in shaping the conflict in 1916 and beyond, as our feature on 1915 showed.
It is seldom appreciated that Gallipoli was not, in fact, the original major amphibious operation endorsed by the British cabinet during 1914. Rather, naval plans to capture a German or Danish island in the North Sea to improve the observation of the enemy coastline were sanctioned in the autumn of 1915. These proposals, which might have significantly affected the course of the war at sea, were ultimately shelved due to the allure of using a demonstration at the Dardanelles to draw neutral Balkan states into the war. Yet they nevertheless illustrate the lengths British policy makers were willing to go to avoid further costly battles in France and Belgium.
However, focusing solely upon attempts to circumvent the deadlock on the continent is not without its own disadvantages. 1915 witnessed the first use of poison gas and ‘creeping’ artillery barrages on the Western Front, alongside a series of other tactical innovations. Considerable progress was also made in the realm of air-land integration, and the employment of air power more generally – both on land and at sea.
It is also important to consider 1915 as a year of German and Austro-Hungarian success – primarily on the Eastern Front. After her defeat on the Marne and the arrival of Erich von Falkenhayn as Chief of the German General Staff, the Central Powers concentrated their efforts on expelling Russia from Eastern Prussia (which she had invaded in 1914), and on co-ordinating their efforts against the Tsar’s forces in the more open conditions of this theatre. Now largely forgotten by Anglophone historians, victories such as those at Gorlice-Tarnow in May-June 1915 not only inflicted major defeats on the Russian army, but also presaged important tactical developments in the use of artillery and the importance of surprise. That the German army succeeded in holding its positions on the Western Frontdespite detaching large numbers of troops and guns to participate in this offensives also suggested to Falkenhayn that aiming for a breakthrough on the Western Front was misguided, a conclusion which lead directly to his conception of an attritional battle at Verdun early the following year.
Convinced that a breakthrough was not possible under the conditions prevailing on the Western Front, Falkenhaye placed a deliberately designed battle of attrition at the heart of German strategy for 1916. His approach would employ the lessons of 1915 at both the strategic and tactical levels: the German plan set limited objectives and combined infantry assaults with overwhelming artillery support. That Falkenhayn’s conception of the battle did not come to fruition was thus not evidence of a lack of imagination or forethought, and had the Germans succeeded in seizing the crucial high ground east of the Meuse, historians may have reflected on them more favourably.
The failure at Verdun ultimately cost Falkenhayn his post as Chief of the General Staff, however he was far from the only commander to make what have proven to be deeply controversial decisions in 1916. On the British side, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig’s role in the costly Somme offensive of that summer remains the topic of much debate. Critics of Haig maintain that his stolid insistence on aiming for a breakthrough diluted Britain’s already inadequate artillery support across too great a depth of German trenches, and played an important role in the failure of 1 July. Haig has also been censored for his subsequent failure to co-ordinate the various smaller offensive efforts which stretched on into the autumn (although the offensive did necessitate considerable adaptation from the German defenders). Whereas some in Germany criticised Falkenhayen for a lack of ambition in seeking a breakthrough, Haig has thus been pilloried for the opposite. What does seem clear is that only one of the two had a fully developed concept of attrition in 1916, and that Haig’s retrospective attempts to depict the Somme in this light are not credible.
Critics of First World War generalship often depict the First World War as one in which aristocratic, technophobic senior officers resolutely refused to acknowledge the realities of modern warfare, let alone to learn from them. This is one of the areas on which the historiography of the war has departed the furthest from ingrained popular conceptions of the conflict in the past several decades. Recent scholarship on military learning has stressed the need to de-couple the process of learning from generalship, and indeed from battlefield performance more generally.
Contributors to Defence-in-Depth have advanced a number of significant arguments when it comes to military learning in the First World War, many of which have enduring relevance to this day. The first of these is perhaps the danger of drawing single, simplified lessons from a given event, battle, or campaign. For instance, US observers sent to the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsular disagreed over what the American armed forces should learn from the episode. Some argued that it had been a mistaken conception from the start, and that resources ought to have been concentrated at the decisive point on the Western Front. Others viewed the operation as strategically sound, but foredoomed to failure through poor decision making at the strategic level, a lack of surprise, and poor staff work.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the Admiralty in London drew the conclusion that the experience at Gallipoli had actually proven the feasibility of opposed landings. The experience thus contributed to plans to land elements of the British Army on the Belgian coastline in 1917, and led the Admiralty to increase its estimation of the number of men required in the United Kingdom to counter a potential German invasion. As the controversial and enigmatic Admiral Sir John Fisher remarked ‘the Gallipoli landing (and its shores never free from hostile gunfire till its evacuation) has tumbled down the Walls of Jericho of the Blue Water School, of which I was formerly Chief! I’ve been to Damascus like St. Paul, and [am] converted’.
In each of these cases, ‘lessons’ were refracted through pre-existing beliefs and adapted to fit into pre-conceived ideas about the character of warfare and how it should be conducted. The British Admiralty was already fearful of a German invasion, and saw in Gallipoli evidence to support their case. Fisher was more cynical, narrowly appropriating ‘lessons’ for political ends in an attempt to discredit the Admiralty and have himself re-instated as First Sea Lord. As a guest post from Jonathan Boff has illustrated, a blinkered commitment to ‘learning lessons’ can thus be a very dangerous thing, and is certainly no substitute for intellectual honesty and a genuinely open forum for the exchange and challenge of ideas.
Our contributors have stressed that when learning was at its most effective in the First World War, it was often not as the result of formal process. The German practice of what Bob Foley has described as ‘horizontal’ reporting between units occurred against the wishes of the German High Command, yet proved highly effective in disseminating best practice between units. Aimée Fox has developed similar ideas on the British side, stressing the sheer complexity of the way in which the Army learned, and the dangers of trying to over-institutionalise or define what is an inherent ‘messy’ process. What enabled the British to learn effectively across theatres and between units was a combination of pragmatism and initiative, which the Army was broadly able to facilitate through a largely hands off approach at the institutional level. Then, as now, institutional rigidity or the overt intervention of seniors was not necessary to produce an effective learning process. The armed forces of the First World War appeared to have learned most effectively when their institutions removed barriers to exchanging ideas and fostered opportunities for experiment, risk taking, and critical challenge. The relevance of these themes today, evidenced by the British Army’s OP REFLECT staff ride, could not be more clear.
The War at Sea
One area where the centenary has done the least to impact upon popular conceptions of the First World War is the role sea power played in the conflict. Focusing commemorative activity for the War at Sea around the ambiguous and contested outcome of the Battle of Jutland did little to challenge preconceived notions of naval failure and irrelevance. The National Museum of the Royal Navy’s attempt to describe Jutland as ‘the battle which won the war’, made on the grounds that it preserved the British campaign of economic warfare, was neither credible, nor historically accurate.
This is unfortunate, because the controversy and debate about Jutland is arguably the ideal window into understanding what sea power can achieve during a total war. The official historian of the War at Sea, Sir Julian Corbett, an erstwhile contributor to British naval education and strategic thought, considered that Jutland had achieved as much for Britain as the much more vaunted victory at Trafalgar in 1805 had done. By bottling the German Fleet into the south eastern confines of the North Sea and the Baltic, the British were able to access the resources of the remainder of the world, trade relatively freely, and move men and supplies from their Empire to the European theatre. What more perfect way to explore the relationship between battle and strategic success, or the use of armed forces and political outcomes more generally?
Defence-in-Depth ran a feature on Jutland and the War at Sea more generally, which explored many of these themes. The contributors stressed that the relationship between naval operations in the North Sea and the broader campaign of British economic warfare can only be understood with reference to much broader questions of diplomacy and strategy, and argued that we need to incorporate economic considerations much more fully into our appreciation of British war-making as a whole. In terms of the Battle itself, a number of interesting questions were raised about command decisions and seizing the tactical initiative – particularly regarding the use of British destroyers in the Battle. The importance of a vigorous offensive was certainly taken forward by the Navy of the inter-war period, as James Goldrick examined here.
Some of our most popular posts have been those which are of direct use for students in their research. Bob Foley’s series on the official histories of the conflict on land, in the air, and at sea, and his survey of archival material available onlinehave been particularly well-used and now have a number of additional links listed in the comments sections below them. We hope that these posts will continue to be of use in future, and welcome any further suggestions you may have in the comments sections of the relevant posts.
Defence-in-Depth’s coverage of the First World War to date has aimed to illustrate not only the wealth of excellent new scholarship which continues to be produced on the topic, but also the enduring value and relevance the War has for our understanding of conflict in the modern world. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, politicians, and people of the First World War struggled against issues of overwhelming complexity and uncertainty, under huge pressure, and with no sure outcome in sight. Their experiences in doing so contain much from which armed forces, scholars, and the public can continue to benefit from.
Image: Corporal of the Tank Corps standing beside the camouflaged Mark V tank ‘J18’ of the 10th Battalion in a cornfield near Albert, 9 August 1918. The battalion was attached to the III Corps during the Battle of Amiens, via wikimedia commons.