What made the Western Front the “decisive” one? (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 22)

We spent Tuesday (a lecture about which I forgot to blog) talking about the expansion of the war, particularly the decisions made by neutrals like Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and (later) the United States to join the war. Today, though, by zeroing in on other neutrals like Romania and Bulgaria, we might have stumbled across an interesting explanation for why the Western Front was the decisive one of the war—not because it was fated to be so, but because of some key strategic problems posed by the two-front nature of Germany’s war. Here’s how.

Suppose, first, that Germany has two goals (among many, of course): fighting an attritional materialschlacht in the West, where decision—though delayed—is possible against the Western Allies, while ensuring that Eastern neutrals like Bulgaria and Romania don’t jump over into the allied camp. Second, suppose further that Germany expects that many neutrals’ decisions will be driven by which side is believed likely to win on the Eastern Front (Hastings has a discussion of this in Chapter 16), beliefs that Germany is in a position to shape as the Dual Monarchy’s armies stagger from disaster to disaster in Galicia and Serbia. To pursue its goals, Germany has an allocation decision to make: how many of a limited number of troops should it send to each front?

Faced with this problem, Germany weakened its forces in the west, ensuring that breakthroughs, if possible, couldn’t be turned into broader successes, sending troops to shore up Austro-Hungarian forces fighting the Russians. Germany is often criticized for this diversion of attention from the “decisive” Western Front, but I’m not sure that’s the right way to think about this. Consider, for example, what would happen if Germany threw its whole effort into the West; a possible Hapsburg collapse, a cascade of neutrals bandwagoning with the Allies, and disaster in the East—which, of course, would make the East the decisive front. On the other hand, if Germany focuses too much on the East, the Western Front can’t sustain attrition, and the Western Allies might win. Faced with the prospect of full-on defeat on one front or the other, Germany accepted an attritional stalemate on both. Stopping a loss in the East, it prevented (in the short term) critical neutrals from taking undesirable actions, but doing so required stalemating the West at the same time. However, had it taken the frequently-given ex post advice of concentrating in the West, the Eastern Front might well have been decisive. In short, the Western Front was decisive in equilibrium, but it wasn’t fated to be so.

Interesting right? Germany and the Allies all bet on attrition in the West, horrific as it was, because (a) the Allies had no better options, and (b) nor did the Central powers, who chose to make the stalemated West the critical front rather than an Eastern Front that might have turned out worse under another strategy. This also means that, in a way, Bulgaria and Romania, at least early on, played a role in which front would be decisive in the Great War before either fired a shot. Is it any wonder that no one really likes fighting two-front wars?

Comparing the Eastern and Western Fronts (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 20)

After a break to take the second exam last Thursday (a break in which I forgot to do a “let’s look back” filler piece), we spend some time today on the Eastern Front, which—if I’m being honest—I’ve short-shrifted a bit in the course thus far. That’s too bad, because I think we can use the Eastern Front to learn a lot about the reasons behind the consuming indecisiveness of the war’s early years…on both fronts.

Last week, we showed why military technology and the strategic environment produced an attritional equilibrium on the Western Front, where each side sought to return to mobile warfare but was unable to do so without opening up its own lines to the breach that the opponent’s (similar) strategy denied it. The end result, of course, was a long period in which a military decision was impossible. Two factors often put up to explain the lack of decision on the battlefield are (a) the compactness of the Western Front, where ratios of soldiers per mile were always higher than the East, and (b) a lack of “imagination” amongst each side’s commanders—that is, the lack of an appropriate strategy. However, in class today we show that neither of these is a terribly strong explanation for the lack of decision, because the Eastern Front was, while much longer and less densely-manned and home to a wider variety of tactical combinations, almost equally indecisive.

The Eastern Front was never as deeply entrenched or as static as the Western, meaning that the fighting was certainly more mobile; commanders had the room in which to maneuver their troops, and whether or not we call it incompetence, we saw a variety of attempts to break the stalemate that the belligerents on the Western front didn’t have available. Nonetheless, with cities changing hands back and forth in both East Prussia and Galicia, as well as Russian Poland, the reality of modern firepower and the limits of logistics in newly-captured territories ensured that, as in the West, no local successes could be converted into a genuine, sustained breakthrough—that is, into a more general success.

Thus, even though it wasn’t as static as the Western Front, the war in the East was still one of reserves, indecision, and grignotage—of attrition, albeit with a different face. Only when reserves and populations were used up, pulled out of the line by collapse or by exhaustion (or, you know, the Bolshevik Revolution), did the character of the war in the East change. Years later, with the wearing-down of German reserves in the face of Allied weight of numbers, similar factors would presage the end of the war in the West…the length of the front or “imaginations” of the generals notwithstanding.*

* For one of the best accounts of the similarities on Eastern and Western Fronts, check  out William Philpott’s War of Attrition. It’s excellent.

The horror (and stability) of attrition (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 19)

Eye-catching title of the course aside, today we finally covered a stretch of time that truly is one hundred years ago today: the First Battle of Ypres. Here, we saw some of the first strong hints about what entrenched, attritional warfare would look like once the Western Front stabilized. First Ypres was (for this part of the war) a long, drawn-out struggle that would leave many dead and very little territory in different hands, highlighting what would become for many the war’s central tragedy, a major puzzle, and a bone of violent contention in post-war politics in the former belligerents: why engage in such an ostensibly “futile” strategy like attrition, which promised only death, destruction, and disillusionment—certainly not a conventional notion of victory—on a large scale?

Some answers, especially those offered right after the fact involving “unimaginative” generals insensitive to casualties, are probably too easy (that they came from politicians seeking to distance themselves from an unpopular strategy should tell us something here). We argued today that it’s worth approaching the puzzle of attrition in a different light—by thinking about the options available to strategists given terrain, the seer size of the front, and the state of technology and doctrine. Doing so gives us a better sense of why attrition was adopted by both sides, why it was stable, and what it took to induce a change in strategies and a return to maneuver in the last months of the war.

Our argument went something like this. Modern firepower favored the defense when attackers used then-contemporary tactics (that is, no or poor uses of combined-arms), and local successes were virtually impossible to turn into wider breakthroughs, because (a) capturing even a small section of the opponent’s trench depleted so much manpower that the attacker was then vulnerable to counterattack, thanks to (b) the rapid movement of reserves behind the front by rail. With breakthroughs nearly impossible, winning became a matter of wearing the enemy down, of grignotage—that is, exhausting the other side’s reserves of manpower by maintaining persistent pressure on the front, or, as General Sir Douglas Haig would say, simply “killing Germans.” To be sure, attrition was ghastly, costly, and damaging to both individuals and the societies supporting them in the field; but disapproving of it doesn’t get us off the hook for explaining it.

In fact, we build a simple theoretical structure today to show that a tragic, costly equilibrium of attritional warfare can set in as the best option in a pack of alternatives that, unfortunately, might all be worse. To be in equilibrium, two strategies must be adopted by players that have no incentive to deviate from them, given what the other side is doing, and attrition looks just like that in many cases. If the side A is maintaining pressure on the front—a front that doesn’t allow maneuver and where the defense prevents major breakthroughs—then side B’s alternatives are to fight back and maintain the pressure or to slack off; the latter, of course, makes breakthroughs actually possible by eliminating the advantage of the defense. However, if side A isn’t maintaining pressure, side B can’t afford not to take advantage of it—meaning that both sides, under the technological and, to a lesser extent, doctrinal strictures of 1914, had a dominant strategy of maintaining pressure on the opponents in the other trenches, wearing their reserves down until such time as the defense would no longer be dominant. Therefore, attrition was an equilibrium, one that made sense for both belligerents, not one we’re obligated to be comfortable with in a normative sense—but one that we can explain: no side had an incentive to deviate from a strategy of attrition until the offense could regain some kind of advantage, until attacking and gaining territory could result in anything other than horrendous losses in the face of determined counterattack.

If we can explain what makes attrition an equilibrium, we can also explain its stability (the continual but generally vain searches for alternatives, such as opening additional fronts) and what would ultimately break it: the ability to achieve and sustain a breakthrough, which came as the result of the exhaustion of the German Army’s reserves and effective combined-arms tactics developed and honed over the course of the war. The first factor, of course, came about as the result of attrition, of wearing out German reserves faster than they could be replaced (possible due to Allied advantages in demography and aggregate wealth). We can also ask whether attrition was “futile,” and seeing it in a strategic light, the question is not so easily answered as common stories have it. Relative to laying down on the Western front, as well as to efforts that would not wear down the opposing side’s reserves (say, the Gallipoi offensive), it’s hard to say that attrition was the worst possible option. Was it futile in the strategic sense? Probably not; it might just have been merely the least-horrific alternative in a world of even more intolerable ones.

An exercise in armchair generalship (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 18)

Last Thursday, I have the class the following assignment:

As we discussed in class, this week’s assignment is to put yourself into Moltke’s shoes and come up with an alternative strategy—whether in the initial invasion of France or in managing the offensive once Joffre ordered the Allied retreat—and *then* analyze whether your alternative might’ve made much difference in the outcome of the invasion of France.

and the results were, I must say, a blast to analyze, which we did in class today. The point of the exercise was to hone skills at thinking strategically—weighing options and alternatives against the other side’s likely responses, evaluating relative costs, risks, and benefits, etc.—all in the service of preparing us for thinking about the onset of attrition when we discuss the First Battle of Ypres next week.

Recognizing (a) the imperative of defeating France quickly before committing to a long war against Russia and (b) the near impossibility in the war’s early years of turning local successes into anything more than temporary gains, it became apparent that, whatever the shortcomings of Moltke’s revision of the Schlieffen Plan and its implementation, Germany really didn’t have much more than a lot of bad options. Fighting an opponent who’s wily and able to fight back, of course, has a lot to do with that, which made the exercise in analyzing these alternatives challenging and, again, quite a lot of fun.

For your viewing pleasure, here are the alternatives the class proposed:

  1. For Moltke, be decisive. Period. And stop the waffling.
  2. Invade France directly, leaving Belgium out of the picture (and perhaps the British out of the early part of the war).
  3. Move the headquarters, initially at Koblenz and only later in Luxembourg, closer to the front.
  4. Don’t retreat in the face of the impending Allied counterattack on the Marne. Just roll the dice again and keep moving forward.
  5. Don’t bother diverting troops from the right wing to besiege Antwerp.
  6. After the Allied retreat, hold on the right, then make main focus the middle of the French lines and try to punch through.
  7. Honor Schlieffen’s original plan, swinging wider and going through the Netherlands, too.
  8. Rather than retreat, order First Army farther west to smash French Sixth before it can form.
  9. Send High Seas Fleet down the coast towards the Low Countries, diverting the Royal Navy and making the Brits more hesitant to commit the BEF.
  10. Go for Paris through the BEF, while First Army holds French Sixth.
  11. Draw the French into Alsace-Lorraine with a strategic retreat to fortified cities, then send the right wing into France once Joffre overextends.

I won’t go into the costs, risks, and benefits of each alternative. Suffice it to say that discussion was lively, and I feel like the strategic way of thinking and explaining politics is starting to sink in. This, of course, means that we get to spend more and more time on productive thought experiments like this as the course goes on—that is, as the Western Front stabilizes and I run out of “new” things to talk about…

The curious(ly limited) naval war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 17)

The pre-war naval race and general British mastery of the seas notwithstanding, one of the more puzzling aspects of the First World War is the absence of large-scale naval campaigns. Neither the British nor the Germans committed to a full-scale naval war for mastery of the North Sea—which could’ve been pretty valuable for both of them—and Germany chose not to use its U-boats to their greatest (i.e., unrestricted) potential in 1914. While their armies clashed on a nearly apocalyptic scale on the Continent, their navies were largely sidelined. But why? We spent time in class today on this very puzzle, and, as luck would have it, I got to work out some ideas from a model that I’ll be workshopping tomorrow with the IR group here at Texas.

The answer, I think, lies in recognizing that fighting is not only costly upfront but also in terms of military capabilities or assets that, once lost, aren’t easily replaced; in other words, for both the British and German navies, using it also meant losing it. Stevenson captures this logic well:

The weaker side had little motive to risk annihilation, nor the stronger to risk nullifying its lead (p. 199)

Had the Germans and British gone all out in fighting for control of the North Sea, the costs in terms of forces-in-being might’ve been substantial. The Germans, of course, might’ve lost so much of their weaker force that, even in a short-term victory, they’d be unable to deter future moves towards their coast. Likewise, the British were stretched across the globe, protecting shipping and controlling the worldwide network of coaling stations that allowed them to exert pressure on neutrals—committing forces to replace any lost in a major naval war or to beef up coastal defense at home might’ve compromised this position. So, given dubious gains—the promise of blockade without a naval war, the difficultly of an amphibious assault on northern Germany, the British ability to rebuild lost ships in the medium term—it looks like both sides found plenty of reasons to keep their naval forces intact and keep this one small aspect of the war from approaching totality.

We drew the following game to capture the situation,

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 1.58.25 PM

which actually shows that the no-fighting equilibrium isn’t unique. Even if each side wanted to husband its naval capabilities, it would’ve fought had it believed that the other would’ve. That seems trivial, but it also explains some interesting features of the war, such as the occasional battle—Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank in 1914—but the lack of sustained campaigns and each side’s willingness to refuse to press the attack on a grad scale, even if the other side was on the run. Which equilibrium prevails—fighting or no-fighting—depends on each side’s beliefs about the other’s strategy, and these can be fragile things in the fog of war…which I guess in the North Sea is both figurative and literal. When beliefs about the other side’s likely strategy were stable, we saw a pretty persistent no-fighting equilibrium, but all it would take for a switch to the occasional battle was a change in beliefs about likely strategies, not a change in the actual strategic situation.

Of course, this leaves aside the question of why Germany kept the U-boats restrained during 1914, but we’ll get to that soon enough…

Strains in the great Allied retreat (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 15)

After following the German army through Belgium and into northern France last Tuesday, today we picked up the story of the great Allied retreat, which Joffre ordered once he realized just how far north the German right wing was swinging. While this maneuver would ultimately set up the pivotal Allied stand at the Battle of the Marne, it wasn’t all sunshine and light for the British and French as they repositioned their forces. General Sir John French, in particular, the commander of the BEF, was—maddeningly, to his French allies—hostile to the idea of keeping his relatively small force in the line, even as he occupied territory to the southeast of Paris, and therefore critical to defending the city and supporting the right flank of the newly formed French Sixth Army northeast of Paris (of which Germany was fatefully unaware).

It’s easy to blame French’s hesitance to engage the BEF on the man himself, but that’s probably too easy; allies face problems like this all the time, where they’d prefer to shift the burden of military effort onto their partners, who also share a common goal in the outcome (in this case, preventing the fall of France). The result, of course, is a potential failure to provide that collective good; partners slack off, under-providing the requisite effort, resulting in a tragedy that could be avoided—if only partners contributed to the common cause. This, of course, is an example of the classic collective action problem, which exists when the benefits of cooperation are diffuse and the costs of cooperation concentrated, leading sometimes to tragic failures to produce a public good; if my partner contributes, I’d rather save the effort, and if my partner won’t contribute, I won’t waste the effort either, leading to collective failures to produce the social optimum. (And, if we’re being honest, lots of disingenuous finger-pointing.)

We’re familiar with this in the context of defense spending in large alliances, failures to balance against rising threats to the balance of power, consumers losing out to producers over free trade, and even the establishment of effective regimes for emissions standards. However, the case of allies facing cooperative difficulties—even at the hour of greatest peril, when Germany was within shouting distance of ending France as a great power and jeopardizing British access to the Continent—brings home just how much collective action problems depend on common interests to be a problem in the first place. In fact, it’s the very commonality of interests that makes free-riding tempting; too often, folks slip into attributing cooperative difficulties to different interests, but that’s not an issue of collective action, which results from everyone (a) wanting the same collective good and (b) wanting to save the costs of providing it.

Of course, Sir John didn’t get his way, allowing us also to talk about how collective action problems often get solved. In this case, it was a particular form of selective incentive—some reward for cooperation that accrues on top of the collective good—which was twofold for the British: (a) gaining experience for the BEF, whose members would help train the New Army that Kitchener was raising back home, and (b), perhaps more important, the promise of a spot at the table when the peace would be hammered out after the war. Such orders came, tellingly, not from Sir John—whose goal was the preservation of the BEF by shifting some of the burden onto France—but from the government, whose priorities were of somewhat broader scope…and who knew that even a small force on the Continent would keep doors down the road.

Ultimately, we made a critical point about collective action problems: they’re not caused by divergent goals, but they’re very often solved by them.

behind the lines I: the laws of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 14)

While we’ve spent some time talking about international law as it applies to the rights of neutral states, today we tackle a different aspect of the laws of war: limitations on violence during wartime. Where the Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality and the Hague Convention spelling out the rights of neutrals more broadly are designed to govern the relationships between belligerents and non-belligerents, we’re concerned today with laws that apply to the states doing the fighting—that is, laws that apply to the actual belligerents.

We’ve spent some time talking about and establishing patterns of variation across theaters, belligerents, and (potential) victims in the treatment of civilians—particularly the Eastern Front and Belgium thus far—but to explain why some belligerents honor the laws of war while others don’t, and even to explain why the same belligerents honor the law in some cases and not others, we need two things: a theory of war-fighting and a theory of the laws of war. (Without either, of course, we’d be more than a little lost in explaining the puzzle.) In that sense, today is about developing a theory largely devoid of the rich historical detail we’ve been immersed in for the last few lectures, in large part because (as you could probably sense from the lecture on bargaining and war) we’re graduating to more sophisticated theoretical constructs as the class goes on.

Using Morrow’s theory of the law of war as our starting point, we build intuition over how ratification serves as a public signal that coordinates expectations over (a) what constitutes and violation and (b) what the likely response is to violations. In the case of civilian and POW treatment, where we’ll focus today, laws are enforced by threats of reciprocity: abuse my soldiers/civilians, and I’ll do the same to yours. Tracking the credibility of threats of reciprocity over time and space—that is, whether on the offensive or defensive, on foreign or home soil, or fighting one belligerent as opposed to another—we can generate some expectations over when and where the battlefield will be more or less restrained…expectations that we can then evaluate against the historical record as we encounter it moving forward.

Giving away too much at this point isn’t pedagogically brilliant (this will go live right before class starts), but I will say this: all the major belligerents had, by the war, ratified the relevant treaties limiting violence in war. However, we do see interesting variation in (a) which belligerents can and can’t threaten reciprocity, (b) which belligerents are viewed as likely to be restrained ex ante, (c) the political institutions of the belligerents, and (d) the outcome variable: the scale of civilian atrocities (worst in the East, not as bad in the West). All of this information should, in a few weeks’ time, lead us to answers to some pressing questions. Why was the Eastern Front so much worse on civilians than the Western Front (especially puzzling with Germany involved on both fronts)? Why did German treatment of civilians improve markedly as the army moved from Belgium into France? And…what kept violations from spiraling as far and as extensively as they ultimately would on the same ground in the Second World War?

Should be fun. (The learning, of course. Not the stories of atrocities.)