Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Q: So why was the WWI battlefield so calamitous?

On the World War One battlefield there was no room for pluck, for courage, for bravery – none of those values espoused in patriotic commemorations of the war.

There was room for mateship, sure, but with a life expectancy in most units for most of the war of only several weeks at best, this was not an unencumbered blessing.

World War One was the first fully industrial war, bringing with it “a new conception of men as mere units.”[1] Hints of the destructive power of industrialised warfare were clear enough in the carnage of the American Civil War fifty years before. They were clear enough in colonial wars, in which large swathes of native troops could be killed by small numbers with industrial arms. They were written in blood in the first year of war, in which one million men died to achieve none of the war aims of any power, and it became clear to all that whatever anybody might have thought before plunging the world into war, this was going to be a long, long, and very bloody stalemate.

But no-one in authority had wanted to learn the lesson. Not even now that the age of the machine gun had arrived.

Maxim MG08 (Maschinengewehr 08) - Machine Gun. Pic by MilitaryFactory.Com

“WITHOUT HIRAM MAXIM, MUCH of subsequent world history might have been very different. As Hillaire Belloc put it:

“Thank God that we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”[2]

That was all very well in colonial wars, when the enemy had not, but the strategists among the Great Powers gave no thought to how war would change when all did have the instrument of death. Because good European and Australasian boys died just as well from the muzzle of a machine gun as natives did.

There were those who saw what was coming. One J.F.C. Fuller, for example, known two decades later as a leading theorist of armoured warfare, wrote a paper for the British Staff College

whose main contention was that tactics are based on weapon-power and not on the experience of military history, and that since in 1914 the quick-firing field gun and the machine gun were the two most recent weapons, our tactics should be based on them.[3]

He received a stern dressing down for his temerity.

Russian industrialist Ivan Bloch, for example (also known as Jean de Bloch) wrote hopefully that “‘There will be no war in the future, ‘for it has become impossible, now that it is clear that war means suicide’.”[4] Unfortunately, his warnings, while prescient, were not heard.

Using a wealth of research and a multitude of statistics, he argued that advances in technology, such as more accurate and rapidly firing guns or better explosives, were making it almost impossible for armies to attack well-defended positions. The combination of earth, shovels, and barbed wire allowed defenders to throw up strong defences from which they could lay out a devastating field of fire in the face of their attackers. ‘There will be nothing’, Bloch told [his publisher] Stead, ‘along the whole line of the horizon to show from whence the death-dealing missiles have sped.’ It would, he estimated, require the attacker to have an advantage of at least eight to one to get across the firing zone. Battles would bring massive casualties, ‘on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue’…. Indeed, in the wars of the future it was unlikely that there ever could be a clear victory. And while the battlefield was a killing ground , privation at home would lead to disorder and ultimately revolution. War, said Bloch, would be ‘a catastrophe which would destroy all existing political institutions’. Bloch did his best to reach decision-makers and the larger public…[5]

Unfortunately he was as unsuccessful as British journalist Norman Angell, who argued that in the modern age of trade  and industrial production, that the idea of achieving wealth by conquest was, as his best-selling book was titled,“The Great Illusion.”

“If the Statesmen of Europe could lay on one side the irrelevant considerations which cloud their minds,” he said, “they would see that the direct cost of acquisition by force must in these circumstances necessarily exceed in value the property acquired.”[6]

Angell threw down a challenge to the widely held view – the great illusion – that war paid. Perhaps conquest had made sense in the past when individual countries subsisted more on what they produced and needed each other less so that a victor could cart off the spoils of war and, for a time at least, enjoy them. Even then it weakened the nation, not least by killing off its best. France was still paying the price for its great triumphs under Louis XIV and Napoleon: ‘As the result of a century of militarism, France is compelled every few years to reduce the standard of physical fitness in order to keep up her military strength so that now even three-feet dwarfs are impressed.’  In the modern age war was futile because the winning power would gain nothing by it. In the economically interdependent world of the twentieth century , even powerful nations needed trading partners and a stable and prosperous world in which to find markets, resources, and places for investment. To plunder defeated enemies and reduce them to penury would only hurt the winners. If, on the other hand, the victor decided to encourage the defeated to prosper and grow, what would have been the point of a war in the first place? Say, Angell offered by way of example, that Germany were to take over Europe. Would Germany then set out to ransack its conquests? 
   ‘But that would be suicidal. Where would her big industrial population find their markets? If she set out
     to develop and enrich the component parts, these would become merely efficient competitors, and
    she need not have undertaken the costliest war of history to arrive at that result. This is the paradox,
     the futility of conquest – the great illusion which the history of our own Empire so well illustrates.’

Angell’s book sold well. But it was not read by anyone making decisions on war.

The lessons of strategy in an industrial age were not learned by professional politicians and diplomats and their monarchs. And the lessons of tactics in the machine age were not learned by professional soldiers.

The former made the war possible. The latter delivered to the world a new kind of war on a wholly different battlefield: deadly stalemate midst the horrors of trench warfare.

Why were the lessons not learned?

When faced with the machine gun and the attendant necessity to rethink all the old orthodoxies about the primacy of the final infantry charge, such soldiers either did not understand the significance of the new weapon at all, or tried to ignore it, dimly aware that it spelled the end of their own conception of war.  It would be almost impossible to over-emphasise the myopic outlook amongst the military leaders of the nineteenth [and early[twentieth] century.
    For them, all the progress of the preceding years merely meant that the standard military weapons, the cannon and the musket, became slightly more efficient.  Ranges were longer, rates of fire quicker, muzzle velocities higher, but basically, for them, nothing had changed. The bayonet push and the cavalry charge were still the determining factors on the battlefield. Even in 1926, Field-Marshall Haig could assert that ‘aeroplanes and tanks … are only accessories to the man and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse … as you have ever done in the past.’[8]

Field-Marshall Douglas Haig was the man who, as senior British commander from 1915 to the end of the war, sent  one-million British soldiers to their deaths – and whose “epic but costly offensives at the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917) have become nearly synonymous with the carnage and futility of First World War battles."[9]

The machine gun, it should have been clear (especially by 1926) was a dire threat to all previous assumptions about the nature of war.  Yet the officer corps of all countries “clung on to their old beliefs in the centrality of man and the decisiveness of personal courage and individual endeavour” – those martial values still extolled at every cenotaph about the war that destroyed them utterly.[10]

In part, the myopia was a reaction to the age itself. “Machines had brought with them industrialisation and the destruction of the social order.” The generals could do little about that, but  they could ensure –or so they surmised—they would not “undermine the old certainties of the battlefield—the glorious charge and the opportunity for individual heroism.”

The machine gun threated to do this. Its phenomenal power could render such charges quite futile. It negated all the old human virtues – pluck, fortitude, patriotism, honour—and made them as nothing in the face of a deadly stream of bullets, a quite unassailable mechanical barrier.  For the old-style gentleman officers such an impersonal yet utterly decisive baulk was unacceptable. So they tried to ignore it.[11]

To paraphrase Ayn Rand, you are free to evade reality; but the troops you command are not free to evade the consequences of reality.

Instead of advancing into glory as charged, their troops advanced instead into that quite unassailable meat grinder called the machine gun.

THE MACHINE GUN WAS was not fired like a hosepipe in the way seen in Hollywood movies. It was even worse than that. The machine guns themselves were set up in protective cover, and set up in partnership to form a series of interlocking cones firing along an advancing line of troops.

The result was a wall of lead into which young human bodies were forced to charge.

As long as ammunition was supplied and barrels kept cool, one well-arranged machine-gun battery could repel (and by repel we mean kill) an army of thousands.

And so they did. Nearly every day for nearly four-and-a-half years.

Francis Derwent Wood | David (Machine Gun Corps Memorial), 1925. Hyde Park Corner, London.
Pic by
Jorge Enrique from Pinterest

THE “NEW CONCEPTION OF man as mere units before the might of the machine guns” had its counterpart in the new age of collectivism the war did so much to usher in – an age in which individuals were as mere units before the might of the state. “Perhaps, concludes author John Ellis,[12]

this new conception of man as mere units before the might of the machine gun was never better expressed than upon [sculptor] Derwent Woods memorial to the Machine Gun Corps [above]. It is a statue of ‘The Boy David’ and still stands at Hyde Park Corner. Its inscription reads:

        Saul hath slain his thousands
        But David his tens of thousands.

This post is part of NOT PC’s #CountdownToAnzacDay. Other posts in the series:

[1] From John Ellis’s The Social History of the Machine Gun, p. 145
[2] Ibid, p. 18
[3] From Bond’s Staff College, p. 291. Ironically, Fuller was unable to attract any British interest in his theories of armoured warfare either; they were instead picked up and used by German generals in the Blitzkriegs of World War Two.
[4] From Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War, (Kindle Locations 5077-5078)
[5] Ibid
[6] From Norman Angell’s, The Great Illusion, Kindle version, loc. 4285, 1149.
[7] Quoted in Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War, (Kindle Locations 5108-5121)
[8] From John Ellis’s The Social History of the Machine Gun, p. 17.  Haig’s quote comes in his 1926 review of Basil Liddell-Hart’s book The Tanks, found in the 1959 edition at page 234
[9]  From the Canadian War Museum’s website "Canada and the First World War: Sir Douglas Haig"
[10] From John Ellis’s The Social History of the Machine Gun, p. 17
[11] Ibid, p.17
[12] Ibid, p.145

ERRATA: Casualty figure amended from two-million to one-million.


  1. There was room for mateship, sure, but with a life expectancy in most units for most of the war of only several weeks at best.

    With ~68m serving, and ~10m dead, this strikes me as highly unlikely.

  2. @Graeme,: It's said that a soldier’s average life expectancy while in the trenches was six weeks -- those facing particular risk being junior officers and stretcher bearers.

    At the Somme it was said to be eleven days.

    While not an official one, as far as I can tell (I'm not sure that such things are official calculated) the 6-week figure has been so well-used that it appears for example as the title of a book on 'The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War.'. Happy to be corrected, though.


  3. Each year I keep the poppy of the previous Anzac day.
    I have seven now. My old man in his war, he had a lucky war, all he did was shoot were crocodiles at the end of the invasion of the Guadal canal, in the Solomons.
    I feel privileged to have been born to a generation of New Zealanders not to face those machine guns, and early death.

  4. Most of the point is correct. Would add though by the second half of 1918 the Allies enjoyed stunning success on the Western Front against the same opposition as encountered during 1914 to 1917.

    Very slowly and at terrible cost the Allied armies learned to combine infantry, tanks and artillery tactics to defeat enemy trench positions which included dozens of machine gun nests, and as important to exploit breakthroughs.

  5. Many errors in this article:

    - Less than 1,000,000 British & Empire (887,711 is the usual stated figure) where did you get 2 million from?

    - Artillery was the biggest killer- not the machine gun.

    - 97% of exports from NZ were to Britain at that time- No Britain (or an isolated Britain) no New Zealand.

    - Many/ Most New Zealanders viewed themselves as British i.e. my Wife's Great Uncle was killed in Polygon Wood (by artillery fire)- on his Army File, Nationality was recorded as British, Place of Birth was Whangarie!!

    -Haig was a big supporter of the Tank- that quote of Calvary was taken out of context during a speech to the Household Calvary- BTW Horses were still the main form of Transport in WW2.

  6. @Anonymous:

    - Yes, apologies, had the wrong figure in my head.
    Britain & British Empire: 8,904,467 mobilised; 908,371 killed; 2,090,212 wounded; 191,652 prisoners & missing; 3,190,235 total casualties 35.8% casualities as percent of forces [Source: War Office, 'Statistics of the Military Effort,' Terraine, 'Smoke & the Fire,' Ferguson, 'The Pity of War.'

    - My point is not an acounting measure, i.e., not primarily about what weapon killed the most, but what made the most tactical difference -- or in other words, what had most changed the battlefield, and was least recognised by the battlefield commanders.

    It was a revolutionary change. It was said that a single man with a machine gun could hold an entire division at bay. That changed the whole battlefield...

    "In the middle ages, mounted warfare was made obsolete - for a time - by the pike. Horses refused to charge into a wall of spears. Machine guns had the same effect on 19th century line warfare - men routinely refused to charge into a wall of bullets. ... Machine guns were responsible for just 20% of all WW1 casualties, as the vast majority were caused by artillery. However, over 90% of "Over the Top" casualties were caused by machine gun fire. As the guns were terribly accurate and gruesomely effective, many soldiers chose to rout rather than face these monsters.
    Although many of the technologies that caused World War Ones massive carnage existed before the war began (Artillery and gas), they weren't effective when armies were on the move. The machine gun halted armies, forcing them into long, drawn out wars of attrition that killed millions. Because of the machine gun, warfare after WW1 would focus on small unit tactics and using cover to evade enemy fire." [Source: 'The Importance of the Machine Gun In WW1,' by Sean McArdloe & Kajal Kataria] [Emphasis mine.]

    - Your third and fourth comments seem to appear on the wrong post, so I have reposted them and answered there.

    - My source had Haig's quote as a review of Liddel-Hart's book, which appeared in later editions (as I say in the notes above). It appears it was a "review" in the sense of a speech to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons just after the book's release, at which Haig was given an honorary diploma. Let us see some of the wider context, as reported by 'The Times,' which I think supports my use the excerpt above, i.e., he was not talking about horses as transport, but as the means by which "advantage" could be taken of a breakthrough on the modern battlefield (ask the Polish Lancers how that went for them in 1939):
    HAIG: Some enthusiasts to-day talked about the probability of horses becoming extinct and prophesied that the aeroplane, the tank and the motor-car would supersede the horse in future wars. But history had always shown that great inventions somehow or other cured themselves; they always produced antidotes, and he believed that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future were likely to be as great as ever.
    How could infantry, piled up with all their equipment, take advantage of a decisive moment created by fire from machine-guns at a range of 5,000 to 6,000 yards? It was by utilizing light mounted troops and mounted artillery that advantage could be taken of these modern weapons.
    He was all for using aeroplanes and tanks, but they were only accessories to the man and the horse, and he felt sure that as time went on they would find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as they had ever done in the past. Let them not be despondent and think that the day of the horse was over."

    Fortunately, at least, the day of Haig was over.

    - So, if "many errors" is the one you've pointed out, then I plead guilty. But I thank you for the correction, and see why you chose to comment anonymously.

  7. Every measure has a countermeasure and the sensible see what these are earlier than the stupid do. The English problem was, and remained so well into WW2, the morons in the senior officer class. In all the battles in WW1 there were sensible officers in the front line whose troops suffered far less casualties than other less well lead units because they thought outside the square. An example is the effect of speed - loading troops down with full packs when carrying out an assault vastly increases time exposed to fire because they staggered under the weight but rules were rules for most. The English seem to love a glorious defeat.

    Hindsight is wonderful but ignorance endures.


  8. @Simon: Yes, your point is well-made, although some historians (Niall Ferguson for example) attribute the breakthroughs in the summer of 1918 less to a new-found ability in combined arms, and more to errors in German strategy.

    But it was clear from early on that the air-plane had changed reconnaissance, and from Cambrai on that the tank had changed the battlefield. It took some time to learn that.

    It has to be said however that the machine gun still made the cost of offensives much higher than that of defence. The German 'Operation Michael' for example, off which the Allied 'Hundred Days' summer offensive of 1918 rebounded, saw German soldiers take ground while dying at a far greater rate than they ever had during the previous four years. The same occurred in the 'Hundred Days' for allied troops.

    1918, the year of the offence, proved to have a higher casualty rate for all combatants than any other precisely *because' all combatants were on the offensive -- and the machine gun had made the cost of this kind of offensive very high.

    That victories were won it's true, but as has been said more than once, "another victory like this and all would be lost."

    That both the German and Allied offensives were pressed home however despite the high casualties might be because, like the last days of the US Civil War in which General Grant threw division after division into the meat grinder in pursuit of final victory, after four years of fighting generals and public had become so inured to the butcher's bill that the cost of offence no longer bothered them so much.

    A sense of basic humanity being just another casualty of the war that ended peace.


Comments are moderated to encourage honest conversation, and remove persistent trolls.