The Battle of the Somme and German ‘Battle Management’


On 1 July 1916, the infantry of British 4th Army and the French 6th Army launched what their strategic leadership hoped would be the beginning stages of a decisive campaign against the German army in northeastern France. Initially, the German strategic leadership welcomed the start of the Anglo-French  offensive on the Somme, believing it would be quickly and bloodily defeated. However, it slowly became apparent that this offensive was on a scale and intensity hitherto unseen on the Western Front. Similar to the German offensive at Verdun earlier in 1916, the battle along the Somme was above all else a Materialschlacht — a battle of material — that demanded the German army develop new methods of command and control. While tactical action was important, providing frontline units with the men, munitions, and material required to maintain their line proved to be one of the battle’s greatest challenges and greatest feats. Between the beginning of the battle on 1 July and its end 141 days later on 19 November, ‘battle management,’ rather than traditional concepts of command or leadership, became the decisive factor in ensuring a German defensive victory on the Somme.

After a seven-day preparatory bombardment, 40 British and French divisions supported by some 2,500 artillery pieces attacked the German 2nd Army along the Somme with the initial objective of seizing the Bazentin Ridge, where the second German defensive position was located. On 1 July, Fritz von Below’s 2nd Army comprised 15 divisions, supported by some 600 light and 246 heavy artillery pieces. With the Entente onslaught, the German High Command rushed reinforcements to the hard-fought 2nd Army. Already by 5 July, elements of 11 additional divisions had been drawn in from around the Western Front to plug gaps in the 2nd Army’s line. Additionally, 27 heavy artillery batteries were drafted in. The 2nd Army quickly formed ‘Gruppe’ around new and existing army corps commands. These were necessary particularly to provide some command and control for the increasing number of artillery units thrown into the battle. These new Gruppe also formed an important constant in the battle; these command teams stayed in the frontline for long periods during the battle while divisions came and went. Indeed, divisions lasted on average two weeks in the frontline before being forced by high casualties to be replaced, while Gruppe might remain for months.

The numbers of units involved in the battle on the German side had grown so large that the German High Command decided to create a new command structure to handle the battle. On 19 July, a new army, the 1st Army, was formed out of the units north of the Somme River under the command of Fritz von Below, with the noted defensive specialist Fritz von Loßberg as its chief of staff. The 2nd Army commanded units south of the river and was led by the highly experienced Max von Gallwitz with Bernard Bronsart von Schellendorf as his chief of staff. One of the key advantages of this new command structure was logistics. In the First World War German army, armies were responsible for providing the logistical framework from the frontline back to the home front; each army on the Western Front had its own line-of-supply network [Etappen] to keep its units supplied.

Two armies on the Somme meant two independent means of keeping the frontline units going, and this was very much needed. In addition to the enormous stores of food required by the 750,000 men of the two armies and their horses, the 1st Army calculated that each fighting division required 100 tonnes of engineering material — wood, cement, barbed wire, etc — per day. Further, each division required 5,500 hand grenades and 10,000 flares of various colours every day. These added up to 150 train wagons per day. The German army also found the battle placed extraordinary demands on clothing, with a division requiring up to 5,000 tunics, 5,000 trousers, and 5,000 pairs of infantry boots per month.

The battle of the Somme was above all else an artillery battle. The British and French attackers used artillery in an attempt to batter down German defences and defenders prior to infantry attacks. The German 1st and 2nd Armies tried to create a wall of artillery fire to protect their own infantry. The numbers of artillery barrels used by the defenders rose dramatically as the battle progressed. At its start, the 2nd Army had about 850 light and heavy artillery pieces; by early September the two armies had between them some 1,700 barrels. As a consequence, the numbers of rounds fired skyrocketed. In the month of July, the German defenders fired some 3,566,500 rounds. By October, this had risen to almost 6,377,000 rounds. Obviously, there were peaks and troughs throughout the battle. On 1 July, the artillery of the XIV Reserve Corps fired some 120,000 rounds, with one battery alone firing some 4,600 rounds. The single highest expenditure of munitions came on 26 September, when the two armies fired more than 200,000 rounds of the main calibers (7.7, 10.5, and 15 cm). As a result of the battle, the German army on the Western Front increased expectations for the average daily expenditure for each artillery piece. For example, 7.7 cm field guns were expected to have a daily rate of 375 rounds per gun up from 250 before the battle.

The voracious appetite of the artillery needed to be fed, and this came in the form of munitions trains. The German army had set loads for these trains, with one train delivering 26,880 7.7 cm rounds, 12,000 10.5 cm rounds, or 6,000 15 cm rounds. Indeed, usage of munitions trains became the standard way of measuring artillery expenditure in battle during the war. The scale of the munitions usage can be seen by the fact that in July and August, the German army went through 587 field artillery munitions trains and 372 heavy artillery trains, a far higher rate than at any point in the war to date. The unloading of these munitions trains and the distribution of the munitions to the frontline commands were handled through the Etappen of the two armies. Moreover, the armies each maintained special artillery depots, which served to replace worn out and destroyed artillery pieces, but also to repair damaged weapons, and these numbers were considerable. Between 26 June and the end of August, the German defenders lost 1,068 field guns and 371 heavy artillery pieces to enemy action or to wear and tear.

At the same time the 1st Army was created, a new Army Group Gallwitz was formed under the command of the 2nd Army commander, Max von Gallwitz, and was given overall command of the battle. One of the key functions of this level of command was to manage the large numbers of units flowing in and out of the battle. As we have seen, divisions lasted for an average of two weeks before needed to be replaced. Over the course of the battle, 96 German infantry divisions fought on the Somme, the equivalent of three-quarters of the German army on the Western Front, and many of these fought more than once. With divisions and corps focused on fighting the battle and armies on supplying this combat, the army group could pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of individual combat divisions. The battle drew in so many divisions that the German High Command recognised that an army group formed of two armies was insufficient to manage divisional rotation effectively. Accordingly, at the end of August a new army group, Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht, was created comprised of four armies. This created a much larger pool of divisions upon which the army group could draw to supply the battle with manpower. ‘Fought-out’ divisions could be withdrawn before they reached the point of collapse, sent to quite sectors of the army group front to rest and refit, and fresh divisions inserted as their replacements. (Often, divisional artillery was kept in place and served as reinforcement for the incoming artillery, which increased the significance of the Gruppe staff in coordinating the artillery battle.)

All of this meant that for the higher leadership of the German defenders, the corps, army, and army group commanders, the battle of the Somme demanded new means of ‘leading.’ As a Materialschlacht, the battle put careful and efficient management of resources to the fore. The creation of more-or-less permanent corps commands, splitting the battle between two armies, and last the creation of a standing army group all served this purpose. Each of these levels of command helped provide resources to the front line. The permanent corps (Gruppe) provided staff and support for the artillery battles. Each of the armies came with their own lines-of-communication service (Etappentruppe). Finally the army group managed the flow of divisions between armies and into and out of the battle. Increasingly, the tactical battle, where traditional ideas of leadership and command were more significant, was the preserve of the divisions and below, while the higher commands, whether based in a chateau or not, managed the battle. If any of these levels of command failed in their tasks of supplying different elements of the battle, than no amount of tactical brilliance on the part of the frontline commanders and their troops could have rescued the situation. The battle of the Somme brought home forcefully to the German army that ‘management’ was as important to victory in battle as ‘leadership.’

For more on how the German army fought the battle of the Somme and the lessons it drew from this battle, see my Journal of Military History article on the subject.

Image: A German munitions factory in early 1916. Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-047-37 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Strategy, Operations and Perception: The Coastal Bombardments of 1916


At shortly after 4am on the morning of April 25th 1916 the residents of Lowestoft were awakened by the thunder of naval gunfire. Heavy caliber shells began to crash into the town in a whirlwind bombardment which lasted around ten minutes. Half an hour later, for the second time in the War, the seaside town of Yarmouth suffered a similar fate. Casualties were reasonably light, but in many ways this was immaterial. Neither town was a credible military target, and killing British civilians was a means rather than an end. What the German’s hoped to achieve by their action was more subtle, more intangible, and ultimately far more dangerous to British interests.

The German navy had begun to raid British coastal towns as a means of enticing the Grand Fleet south from its lair at Scapa Flow shortly after the outbreak of war. But the Battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank had convinced the Kaiser that preserving a fleet in being was more important than trying to take the initiative in the North Sea. As a result, the High Seas Fleet had sat at its moorings in Wilhelmshaven for much of the first two years of the War. This resulted in a good deal of frustration amongst German sailors, who looked enviously to their U-Boat colleagues who were more involved in the war effort.

Yet this policy of inactivity was not without its impact. By the autumn of 1915 a sense of frustration with the War was growing in Britain and the relative inaction of the Royal Navy became a source of widespread comment. As one writer complained, ‘there is a growing tendency on the part of those in authority to ‘wait and see’. That is not warfare.’ Such frustrations spread to the heart of government, where a desire for a more vigorous prosecution of the War at sea began to grow. Similar sentiments were evident in senior naval circles. The recently retired Admiral Lord Fisher sought to play upon the government’s dissatisfaction by reminding his friends that ‘no amount of Cabinet or War Council instructions are of the slightest use if those who have to carry them out are totally wanting in ‘push’ and ‘initiative’! There must be ginger at the top if you want ginger at the bottom!’

The result was a gradual increase in the pressure on the British C-in-C, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, to take greater risks with the force under his command. During the spring of 1916, lengthy discussions occurred between Jellicoe and his superiors about potential means of enticing the German fleet out to battle. The C-in-C encouraged caution in the face of pressure from above. ‘Provided there is a chance of destroying some of the enemy’s heavy ships, it is right and proper to run risks’, he wrote, ‘but unless the chances are reasonably great, I do not think that such risks should be run’.

Jellicoe’s caution was the product of the huge responsibilities command of the Grand Fleet conferred upon him. His force was the guarantor of Britain’s trade with the rest of the world and the security of her east coast. It was also fundamental to the enforcement of Britain’s campaign of economic warfare and to her links with the Expeditionary Force fighting in France and Belgium. Such considerations were easily blurred as the country strained under the burden of eighteen months of unprecedented total war, however. In this context, the German raids on Lowestoft and Yarmouth threatened to exert an influence over the use of the Grand Fleet out of all proportion to their military significance and thereby expose a vital strategic asset to attrition for mines and submarines in the North Sea.

Jellicoe was much affected by the civilian deaths caused by the raids, but despite the best efforts of the Admiralty’s signals intelligence department – Room 40 – the Grand Fleet was unable to cut off the fast retreating German squadron: ‘I can never be south in time’, he lamented. Despite having risked sailing with no destroyer cover due to inclement weather, the British Fleet was simply too remote from the vulnerable stretches of the east coast.

The obvious solution to this dilemma was to move the Fleet further south, probably to Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. This would not eliminate the difficulties of responding to raids further south, but would certainly shorten the distance Jellicoe’s force had to steam. The move was not without its attendant difficulties, as Rosyth was less spacious than Scapa Flow and afforded little opportunity for exercising the Fleet, but Jellicoe appeared to be reconciling himself to it by May. On the eve of Jutland the British C-in-C was thus faced with the conflicting demands of preserving his Fleet – and thereby British command of the seas – and a political demand for a more proactive approach to fighting in the North Sea.

The raids of April 1916 and the reaction they provoked highlight the tense relationship between operational and strategic success and the role of perception in linking the two. Bombarding coastal towns was of virtually no military significance, yet by adding to the growing sense of public and official frustration with British naval strategy, it threatened to shape the employment of the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe recognised this danger and – despite the unpalatable reality that his force could not prevent future raids – urged his superiors to prioritise the broader strategic picture. In his analysis battle should only be offered under circumstances sufficiently favourable to justify the risk. Since the Admiralty continued to rely upon Jellicoe to defend the country, her vital trade routes and the supply line to France, his judgment appears sound a century later.

Image: Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, via wikimedia commons.





The Battle of Verdun and German Offensive Tactics in 1916

This is the third of three posts covering German planning for Operation Gericht, their offensive at Verdun. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of this battle, which would last, including French counter-offensives, until the end of 1916. Although it is not as well remembered in Britain today, the ‘hell of Verdun’ left an enduring mark on not only on the millions of Frenchmen and Germans who fought there, but also on their societies. Indeed, for France and Germany today, the battle of Verdun is as synonymous with the First World War, as the battle of the Somme is for Britain. This series explores the German strategic, operational, and tactical planning for the battle.


Prior to the Verdun offensive in February 1916, the German army had not launched a major offensive on the Western Front since November 1914. It could, however, draw upon a range of experiences to develop new offensive tactics that would be employed over the course of the battle. These new tactics were crucial to the plans of both the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, and the unit carrying out the offensive at Verdun, the 5th Army under the command of the German Crown Prince Wilhelm with Constantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf as his chief of staff. If Falkenhayn’s goal for the offensive was the ‘exsanguination’ of the French army and people, the 5th Army’s objectives in early 1916 were more down to earth. Their attack order of 5 January 1916 set the eastern heights as their objective:

He who possesses the hills of the eastern bank and has captured the fortifications on these heights is also in possession of the fortress….Indeed, even if the forts on the western bank are not occupied at first, the fortress will have lost its value for France when the eastern bank has been taken by us.

Drawing on the experience of the war to date, the 5th Army believed seizing the French positions on the eastern bank in one quick manoeuvre was well within their ability. Since the rise of trench warfare, the German army had conducted a number of successful ‘attacks with limited objectives,’ not least the 1st Army attacks at Vailly and Soissons in late 1914 and early 1915. The experience of defending against French attacks in 1915 had also shown that a determined attacker could capture an enemy’s first and second defensive line under the right circumstances. The key to all of these actions was the effect of artillery, particularly heavy artillery. Thus, the use of heavy artillery would feature prominently in the 5th Army’s plans for its offensive at Verdun.

Of course, the Germans were not alone in recognising the importance of artillery; Entente forces had employed artillery in ever increasing numbers and volume throughout 1915 and their planned offensives of 1916 relied heavily on even more artillery. There was a fundamental difference, however, in how the Entente and the Germans employed artillery at this stage in the war. For several reasons, the Germans put more emphasis on the physiological effect of artillery and less on its destructive effect, than did the French or British armies at this stage in the war. In part, this was a consequence of the types of artillery each army had available in the war to date. The German army went to war in 1914 with very considerable numbers of modern heavy artillery, importantly, modern heavy howitzers and mortars. These heavy howitzers were capable of firing very heavy shells at high angles, which made them effective against entrenched enemies and against fortifications. Indeed, drawing on lessons from the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars, the pre-war German army had developed and deployed more high-angle of fire weapons than any other European army, including super-heavy howitzers capable of fire shells weighing 820 kilograms.

In 1914, the Germans used this heavy artillery to good effect to capture first Belgian and then French fortresses and fortifications. However, contrary to pre-war expectations, it was not the destruction wrought by heavy artillery that brought about the surrender of enemy fortifications, but rather its psychological impact. The fortresses of Liege, Namur, Antwerp, and Maubeuge all fell to much smaller forces, which generally attacked after short, concentrated bombardments by German heavy artillery. (Indeed, in the case of Liege, the infantry attacked before heavy artillery preparation.) With a couple spectacular exceptions, their defensive works had remained largely intact, but the morale of their garrisons collapsed under the weight of German heavy artillery fire, leading to their surrender.

The experience of field fortifications on the Western Front reinforced the growing belief amongst German artillerists that it was not the duration of artillery preparation and not the destruction caused by a bombardment that was important, but rather the intensity and weight of fire during a preparatory bombardment. This was expressed clearly as early as December 1914 by Ludwig Lauter, the General of Heavy Artillery in the German High Command, who wrote: ‘Days’ long careful fire causes high casualties among the enemy, but it is not enough to break his combat power before the moment of attack. A short one- or two-hour heavy bombardment, with its moral and physical effect, fulfils this goal much better.’

Thus, the 5th Army planned a short, but incredibly intensive, period of artillery preparation before the infantry attacked. They concentrated more than 1,400 guns and mortars for their offensive. In addition to the 550 field guns of the attacking divisions, which included light howitzers, the 5th Army deployed 654 heavy artillery pieces over 100mm, including 30 over 210mm. The 5th Army planned an eight-hour preparatory bombardment across a 14-kilometer long front, which would fire some 1.5 million rounds. (By way of contrast, the British 4th Army and French 6th Army planned for four days of artillery preparation across a 38-kilometer front for the Somme in June.) As one famous German attacker, Cordt von Brandis, later put it ‘the infantry expected to parade march into Verdun’ on the back of the intense German heavy artillery bombardment.

The 5th Army command was a bit more realistic. They still expected a tough fight, despite the anticipated psychological effects of the heavy artillery, and they admonished their attacking units to maintain momentum until the eastern heights were taken. They also had a more realistic view than Falkenhayn of the threat to the offensive posed by French artillery operating from the western bank of the Meuse. As the 5th Army’s units drove towards the heights on the eastern bank, their flanks would be exposed to French artillery on the western bank. Falkenhayn expect that German artillery could suppress this threat, but the 5th Army wasn’t sure and pushed for an offensive on both banks from the start.

In the end, Falkenhayn’s desire to limit the offensive won out, and the operation was confined initially to the eastern bank of the Meuse. Once these commanding heights, Falkenhayn expected the 5th Army to make use of its artillery to defeat any French counter-attack and to inflict unacceptably high casualties on the French army. Indeed, if the French did counter-attack at Verdun, the success of Falkenhayn’s entire strategy rested on the 5th Army’s ability to take and hold the dominating heights. Without accomplishing this goal, the battle risked degenerating into one of mutual attrition, something the German army itself could ill-afford.

Image: The 15cm Heavy Field Howitzers like those in this image were the backbone of the German artillery battle at Verdun. At the battle’s height, almost 500 of these were deployed, and they fired nearly 4 million rounds over the course of the battle. Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S36048.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Battle of Verdun and German Operational Art in 1916

This is the second of three posts covering German planning for Operation Gericht, their offensive at Verdun. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of this battle, which would last, including French counter-offensives, until the end of 1916. Although it is not as well remembered in Britain today, the ‘hell of Verdun’ left an enduring mark on not only on the millions of Frenchmen and Germans who fought there, but also on their societies. Indeed, for France and Germany today, the battle of Verdun is as synonymous with the First World War, as the battle of the Somme is for Britain. This series explores the German strategic, operational, and tactical planning for the battle.


At first glance, Verdun does not seem an obvious place for the German army to launch an offensive in 1916. Indeed, when rumours of a German offensive at Verdun first reached French ears, they were dismissed as a crude attempt at deception. Forming the northern shoulder of France’s string of fortresses against Germany, Verdun was one of France’s most modern and therefore most powerful fortresses. Having long been a fortress, Verdun was constructed along modern lines in 1874 as part of Raymond Adolphe Séré de Rivières’ system of fortifications, with two lines of forts surrounding the inner Medieval citadel and city. Between 1900 and 1914, it was again modernised, with heavily armoured artillery and observation posts added to the forts, as well as additional armour. Moreover, infantry positions between the distributed forts were built up using reinforced concrete. Despite having most of its heavy artillery removed over the course of 1915, in early 1916, Verdun was a formidable defensive position.

The French position at Verdun did, however, appear to Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of the General Staff, to have some significant weaknesses in 1916. First, the 5th Army’s advances in 1914 had left Verdun at the centre of a broad salient in the German line (much like Ypres in the north). Of course, this meant that the French position was flanked on two side by the Germans. The fortress was supplied by only one major railway, which was vulnerable to interdiction by German long-range artillery fire. Second, the fortress itself was bisected by the Meuse River. This made coordinating its defence more challenging. Finally, the heights on the eastern bank of the Meuse, the side on which German 5th Army stood, were significantly higher than those of the western bank. If these could be seized, the Germans would be in a good position from which to observe and call in artillery fire on the remaining French positions.

These geographical issues were significant for Falkenhayn. As we have seen, Falkenhayn’s plan for 1916 was for the French to be ‘exsanguinated.’ The experience of 1915, when powerful French attacks had been beaten off at high cost to the attackers and low cost to the defenders, convinced Falkenhayn that the best way in 1916 to ‘bleed white’ the French was to force them to attack strong German defensive positions. If the 5th Army could seize the eastern heights of the Meuse at Verdun, Falkenhayn believed they would be in such a formidable defensive position; any French counter-attacks would be repulsed easily and at great cost to the French. Indeed, in Falkenhayn’s plan for 1916, the ‘capture’ of the fortress of Verdun was irrelevant; what was important was to seize the commanding heights around the fortress, though this would entail the capture of some of Verdun’s distributed forts.

It is also important to note that Falkenhayn was sanguine about where the French counter-attacked in response to the German offensive at Verdun. Obviously, the position at Verdun, if it could be taken, offered considerable operational advantages, but Falkenhayn was not sure the French would launch their counter-offensive at Verdun. In a conference of the various chiefs of staff of the German armies on the Western Front on 11 February 1916, Falkenhayn outlined what he believed to be the most likely scenarios in response to the 5th Army’s offensive:

1) They [the French high command] believe Verdun to be so well defended that they leave it alone. Very good for us, therefore unlikely.
2) They send all available forces to the fortress…
3) French counter-offensive on another point [of the front]. Possibly same points as before, Artois, Champagne, Woevre, Upper Alsace. To be greeted with joy. [Falkenhayn] believes it sure that all such attacks would collapse with severe French casualties.
4) They attempt to hold Verdun with all available forces, while the English attempt an attack. Questionable whether it would succeed, especially as the English army is at the moment going through a great upheaval with the insertion of the Kitchener units, which are being mixed with the old units down to the battalion level.

Having recognised the challenges, if not the futility, of attempting a large-scale breakthrough on the Western Front, Falkenhayn sought a different operational approach in early 1916. The experiences of the war to date had demonstrated that limited attacks could be successful, despite the clear strength of the defensive. A limited attack by the German 5th Army could take the dominating terrain around the fortress of Verdun and put the Germans in a good position from which to inflict heavy casualties against any counter-attacking enemy. Even if the French, and perhaps their British allies, counter-attacked elsewhere on the Western Front, Falkenhayn was certain these attacks could be beaten off, as they had been in 1915, with low German casualties and high French and British. This would achieve his strategic aim of ‘bleeding white’ the French army. Successfully seizing and defending the eastern heights of the Meuse would be down to the tactics employed by the German 5th Army.

Image: An aerial view of Fort Douaumont, one of Verdun’s newest and most formidable distributed forts, in early 1916 before the battle began. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Battle of Verdun and German Strategy in 1916

This is the first of three posts covering German planning for Operation Gericht, their offensive at Verdun. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of this battle, which would last, including French counter-offensives, until the end of 1916. Although it is not as well remembered in Britain today, the ‘hell of Verdun’ left an enduring mark on not only on the millions of Frenchmen and Germans who fought there, but also on their societies. Indeed, for France and Germany today, the battle of Verdun is as synonymous with the First World War as the battle of the Somme is for Britain. This series explores the German strategic, operational, and tactical planning for the battle.


On 21 February 1916, the German 5th Army launch what was to become the longest battle of the war at the French fortress of Verdun. Between February and December 1916, the German 5th Army and the French 2nd Army were locked in a struggle, often over the loss or gain of a few meters of terrain. During the course of the battle, some three-quarters of the French divisions and one third of German divisions cycled through the ‘hell of Verdun,’ as it was known by the participants on both sides. The battle was also the first real battle of material waged by the German army: The 5th Army had at its disposal hitherto unheard of numbers of artillery pieces, mortars, and even flamethrowers, as well as the munitions needed for a drawn-out battle. By the end of the year, close to 400,000 Frenchmen and 340,000 Germans had been made casualties in what was the war’s first deliberate battle of attrition.

Although historians have long debated the German goals for the battle, recently available archival evidence shows that from its inception, the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, conceived of this battle as a means of ‘bleeding white’ the French army. While this goal may seem to play into a currently dominate myth of senseless slaughter and unimaginative generalship in the First World War, in fact, Falkenhayn’s strategic goals from the battle were subtle, and his approach represents perhaps one of the most sophisticated strategies of the entire war.

First, Falkenhayn’s strategy at Verdun was built on certain assumptions about the French nation and its people. In common with many of his contemporaries, including those in the Intelligence Section of the German High Command, Falkenhayn saw the French republican political system as being fundamentally weak. For an aristocratic Prussian officer, any political system that was built upon and reflective of the will of the people could not possibly stand up to considerable pressure. Moreover, German intelligence had long seen French manpower as being a strategic weakness. Unlike Imperial Germany after unification in 1871, the size of the population of Third Republic France stagnated. While the German population increased by some 25 million between 1871 and 1914, the French population only grew by several million. As a consequence, in the years before 1914, France struggled to match the size of the German army. In order to have an army roughly the size of the German army, France needed to conscript nearly 85 percent of its eligible manpower; Germany conscripted less than 50 percent of eligible young men.

The large-scale national debate over the extension of conscription from two to three years in France in 1913 demonstrated to German soldiers that the French army was an instrument beholden to republican politics. German observers sneered at what they saw as the comforts that were required to be lavished on French conscripts in order for the Assembly Nationale to pass the bill. The debates reinforced the German idea that the French army was a brittle instrument, lacking manpower reserves and lacking the stamina for a costly war.

By 1915, the French army had suffered incredibly high casualties in the mobile campaign of 1914 and in several failed large-scale offensives of 1915, most notably in September and October. Near the end of 1915, German intelligence calculated that the French army was nearly 500,000 smaller than it had been in August 1914 and was reaching the limits of its manpower. In late summer 1915, German intelligence had written a damning indictment of the French army, which drew upon these assumptions:

France’s victims in this war are so many that the government can bear the responsibility for them neither before the people of France nor someday before history. Soon [the French government] will be faced with the question of whether, despite all outside help, the ending of resistance is a more fitting path for the future of the nation than the continuation of this hopeless war.

Falkenhayn’s goal in 1916 was to pressure the French government into this decision for a separate peace. The means to do this would be to put even greater pressure on what had long been seen by German observers as its biggest strategic vulnerability and weakness — the future of France, its manpower. Thus, the ‘exsanguination’ or attrition of the French army was a fundamental goal of Falkenhayn’s strategy for 1916. Despite later efforts to distance themselves from knowledge of Falkenhayn’s goals, both the 5th Army’s commander, Crown Prince Wilhelm, and his chief of staff, Constantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, each wrote of Falkenhayn using the term ‘Verblutung,’ or ‘exsanguination,’ in planning for the offensive, as did Kaiser Wilhelm II’s adjutant Hans von Plessen. Falkenhayn hoped that high casualties amongst France’s citizen army would spur French elected officials to bring the war to an end for fear of the political and social consequences of not doing so. The challenge, of course, was how to bring about massive attrition of the French army without destroying the German army in the process.  After all, the failed French offensives of 1915 had demonstrated how costly attacking could be on the Western Front. Far from dissuading Falkenhayn, however, these failed offensives, along with other experiences of the war to date, offered Falkenhayn new operational and tactical ideas that he hoped would proved decisive for Germany in 1916.

Image: The results of ‘attrition.’ The French cemetery at the Ossuary of Douaumont, Verdun. Photo by Paul Arps. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The First World War in 2016


If 1915 was the ‘forgotten year‘ of the First World War, the same cannot be said of 1916. The year 1916 has been well remembered for a range of reasons, most of which will be reflected in a myriad of centenary commemorations planned for 2016. If strategists still believed the war could be over quickly in 1915, the same cannot be said for 1916. The year 1916 was a year marked by hitherto unseen and unforeseen battles of material, and this had importance consequences. In many respects, 1916 can be seen as the year in which the First World War became ‘total’ war, as all belligerents were forced to introduce political and cultural changes to feed the insatiable demands of the battlefields. The year also saw important changes within both coalitions, with Great Britain growing in significance in the formulation of Entente strategy, particularly on the Western Front, and Germany taking even more control over operations on the Eastern Front.

These changes can be seen early in 1916. In February, the German army launched its first major offensive on the Western Front since November 1914. The German offensive against the French army at Verdun, explored by Dr Robert Foley in his book, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, began the longest battle of the entire First World War. Before the battle drew to a close around Christmas, three-quarters of the French army and a large portion of the German army cycled through the ‘hell of Verdun,’ fighting over the capture or loss of meters of ground. Indeed, for most Germans and Frenchmen today, this battle continues to be a symbol of the futility of the First World War. While events in 2016 may not have the same impact as the famous ‘reconciliation‘ of France and then West Germany in 1984 epitomized by President Francois Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s holding hands, Verdun in 2016 will witness considerable activity and commemoration.

If the year 1916 is most remembered by the French and the Germans today for the battle of Verdun, for Britain and its former colonies, the year is remembered for the battle of the Somme. This battle saw the first major British participation in the war on the Continent, and with the French army battered and deeply engaged at Verdun, the battle is often seen as primarily a British battle. The social and cultural impact of the high British casualties of the offensive’s first day have not only been largely overestimated, they also overshadowed the important developments in tactics and techniques that were apparent to the German defenders throughout the rest of the battle. While recent research has contextualized British participation in the battle, as well as the broader impact of the battle, for many today this is still seen as the iconic British battle of the war. Given this, it is understandable if the Somme 2016 commemorations are some of the most prominent events of the centenary.

The year 2016 will witness the main centennial commemorations of the war at sea in Britain. The decision to concentrate upon the maritime aspects of the conflict in the year of the anniversary of the battle of Jutland was an understandable one, yet as discussed in this recent post, it poses a series of significant challenges for the organisers. Events concentrated around the Jutland centenary itself risk becoming conflated with the more numerous and extensive activities associated with the battle of the Somme, which will begin shortly thereafter. Moreover, whilst memorials to the Battle of Jutland itself will doubtless be a moving and fitting tribute to those who gave their lives in the fighting of May 31st-June 1st, the prominence they will enjoy compared to the wider war at Sea remains problematic. The partisan and highly technical debates about the Battle render Jutland inaccessible to the majority of the public, who understandably struggle to relate to something so far removed from their own experience. At a broader level, whether it is appropriate or representative to focus attention on the War at Sea around a Battle is also open to question. Battle was the exception, not the norm in the maritime sphere, and the importance of seaborne communications – the security of which was the ultimate objective of British strategy – should arguably receive more attention than the means used to secure them. The role of maritime power could thus be discussed in a range of other contexts; the economic war against the Central Powers, the movement of Allied and Imperial forces by Sea or the vital role the British merchant fleet played in supplying and financing the war effort, for instance. The failure of recent scholarship on the war as a whole and Britain’s contribution in particular to pay due heed to the maritime elements of the conflict has been striking and unfortunate. The centenary may serve to entrench these trends.

Recognition of maritime aspects of the conflict will hopefully be provided by a recently announced lecture series and by the National Maritime Museum’s ‘The First World War at Sea’ conference. The proceedings of a recent event on Britain’s War at Sea promises to integrate maritime affairs more effectively into their diplomatic, political, economic and international context. A fresh approach to Jutland itself, not attempted since Andrew Gordon’s Rules of the Game in 1996, could also shed new light onto old controversies about the fighting itself. Perhaps the most appropriate means of presenting a more holistic treatment would be for the Somme commemorations to acknowledge the fact that the battle would not have been possible were it not for Britain’s maritime strength. Presenting the War as a whole in this way would offer a more satisfactory impression for the public and historians alike. A shift away from battles and categories of analysis like ‘the war at sea’ would be a welcome legacy of the centenary.

The King’s College London First World War Research Group members will be very busy marking the centenary of these events. Some of the highlights for 2016 include:

In February, Dr Helen McCartney will present a keynote address ‘The First World War in 2014-15: New Commemoration Projects, New Public Narratives?’ at the First World War: Commemoration and Memory symposium at the Imperial War Museum North.

In April, the Bundeswehr’s Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr (ZMSBw, Potsdam) and the French armed forces’ Service Historique de la Défense (SHD, Vincennes) will be hosting ‘Great Battles 1916‘ in Trier, Germany, which will explore the battles of material of 1916. Dr Robert Foley will be presenting a keynote address at this conference.

Members will also be support the British Army’s Somme 2016 programme, which will include a number of conferences and battlefield tours involving serving British, French, German, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and Belgian officers.

The First World War Research Group lunchtime seminars in 2016 will continue to be recorded and made available via the Defence Studies Department’s YouTube channel and SoundCloud account. Additionally, the Group will soon be launching its ‘First World War in Brief’ website, which will provide podcasts and short articles on the war. See the Group’s webpage for the latest developments and events.

Finally, stay tuned to Defence-in-Depth for series on the major events of 1916, including the battles of Verdun, Jutland, and the Somme.

Image: Canadian troops practicing for the Somme offensive in 1916. Photo taken by Canadian official photographer Ivor Castle via Wikimedia Commons.

Horizontal Military Innovation and Lessons Reports


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.