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.

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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…