14 May 2005
The imagination of the First World War general

I was watching an otherwise excellent BBC Timewatch documentary today about the establishment of trench warfare in 1914.  It made the point that all sorts of otherwise unrelated inventions from the machine gun to barbed wire to canning contributed to making trench warfare possible.  Unfortunately, the BBC in their wisdom marred the whole programme by one line at the end.  It was something like: “…a war characterised by mass slaughter and a lack of imagination from senior commanders.”

Lack of imagination? What an extraordinarily ignorant remark.  Senior British (and I assume French) commanders made enormous efforts to find technical and tactical solutions to the problem of trench warfare.  In Britain, an entire department spent the war commissioning and evaluating inventions proposed by the public (most of which were completely useless).  They tested body armour, body shields, helmets, periscopes, sniperscopes, rifle batteries, mortars, Bangalore torpedoes, wire cutters,  automatic weapons and much more.  Weapons such as the Stokes mortar, the Lewis gun, the tank, gas and smoke shells were all introduced.  In artillery, sound ranging, flash-buzz (not quite sure what it is but it was apparently very useful) were adopted.  It has been said that the 105 (or was it 109?) fuse (again I am not quite sure what it did) was a war winner all by itself.

Tactically, the British army experimented with creeping barrages, Chinese barrages, machine-gun barrages, night attacks, predicted firing, mines, camouflage and air re-supply.  As the war progressed the British army became extraordinarily good at keeping build-ups of men and material from the enemy.  There was a huge expansion of the air force along with the introduction of both tactical and strategic bombing.

Much of this willingness to experiment can be traced to that supposed butcher Douglas Haig.  There is some extraordinary tale of him ordering 1000 tanks sight unseen.  He also engaged in a lengthy correspondence in the search for effective body armour for his troops.  But perhaps Haig’s greatest strength was his willingness to allow his commanders to command.  In some cases eg Hubert Gough his trust was misplaced.  But in others eg Plumer and Monash it was rewarded in spades.  After Monash’s highly successful attack on Le Hamel in July 1918, Haig ordered his battle plan to be widely circulated.  All this effort was in the end rewarded.  By the end of 1918 the British Army had restored a level of mobility to the battlefield that (as Paddy Griffith points out) would be regarded as perfectly acceptable by its Second World War heirs.

It is not an unnatural human desire to search for someone to blame for disasters on the scale of the First World War.  But the truth is that there is no one to blame.  It was just bad luck that the war was fought at a time when defensive technologies were so much more superior to offensive ones.  It would take another couple of decades before the internal combustion engine and the wireless had developed to a stage where they would render trench warfare obsolete.  In their absence senior commanders pursued just about every avenue available to them and it is about time their efforts were recognised.

[Incidentally, should you wish to read further you might want to take a look at the following: Battle Tactics of the Western Front, Paddy Griffith; Dominating the Enemy, Anthony Saunders; Douglas Haig: the Educated Soldier, John Terraine; Forgotten Victory, Garry Sheffield.]

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