Volley Fire

The Horror of the Great War

Article by Steve N. Jackson (v. 3)

The Great War caught all of the participating armies off guard, particularly with regards to the effectiveness of heavy artillery and machine guns on exposed infantry. The main vision we now have of this war is wave after wave of Allied and German soldiers charging machine guns and getting killed in huge millions, victims of a military structure that simply could not comprehend the power of the tools they carried. In fact, it was more complicated than this.

The period from 1870 to 1914 was an unusual period in military history when new tools of warfare were being adopted at an amazing pace. The age of the smooth-bore musket, which had lasted from 1600 to 1850 faded in just two decades that encompassed the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian war. Between 1855 when most nations adopted rifled muskets, and 1875 when steel artillery, the steam locomotive, wired communication, magazine rifles,and medical treatment based on germ theory came into being, the classical rules of warfare were shattered. The new rules of warfare though were impossible for most to learn because military education systems were not prepared to respond to the changes. The practitioners of warfare at this time were an elite officer class whose academic training was often scholastic rather than dynamic(1). They learned from the Greek masters how to fight wars, but did very little training in research and planning. At the same time they were faced with employing mass armies whose members had very little military education prior to taking up arms. This combination lead to a series of slaughters as modern armies faced each other on an unrestrained battlefield often using tactics that could have been learned from Alexander the Great.

In 1870 the world's greatest army whose mode and fashion was widely copied around the world (2) was defeated by what most people figured was an upstart, second-rate power. For most military thinkers, this defeat was incomprehensible, but as was common in that era it was observed by numerous military officers from other countries. U.S. general Phillip Sheridan was present during the most important battles and observed first hand how the Germans won the war, although in his writings he often seems more interested in telling the readers how well he dined. Despite this, we can start to see how the Germans won, and start to understand how warfare had changed.

...the French infantry had withdrawn within its intrenched lines, but a strong body of their cavalry, already formed in a depression to the right of the Floing road, now rode at the Germans in gallant style, going clear through the dispersed skirmishers to the main line of battle. Here the slaughter of the French was awful, for in addition to the deadly volleys from the solid battalions of their enemies, the skirmishers, who had rallied in knots at advantageous places, were now delivering a severe and effective fire. The gallant horsemen therefore had to retire precipitately, but reforming in the depression, they again undertook the hopeless task of breaking the German infantry, making in all four successive charges. Their ardor and pluck were of no avail, however, for the Germans, growing stronger every minute by the accession of troops from Floing, met the fourth attack in such large force that even before coming in contact with their adversaries, the French broke and retreated to the protection of the entrenchment's...

- Phillip Sheridan, 1888

Not only did the French succumb to attempts to make cavalry charges into the rifles of the enemy, they also lost at the hands of the superior German Krupp cannon.

The German artillery opened the battle, and while the air was filled with shot and shell from hundreds of guns along their entire line the German centre and left, in rather open order, moved out to the attack, and as they went forward, the reserves, in close column, took up positions within supporting distances, yet far enough back to be out of range.

- Phillip Sheridan, 1888

The problem the French faced was that their innovative army was not well lead. Their technological advantage in the Chassepot and Mitrailleuse was squandered by commanders who seemed shocked to be fighting a modern war. In addition, the Germans possessed a breach loading steel cannon courtesy of the Krupp firm that completely outclassed anything the French could bring into battle -and the French education system had no means rapidly grapple with this obstacle. Finally, the Germans had embraced Louis-Alexandre Berthier's idea of a General staff, and made sure that each commander was assigned a group of officers whose jobs were to see to the details of the war, leaving the combat commanders to innovate strategy and tactics. The Germans, as can be seen in 1870, fully understood that firepower was the key to the new technologies, and had learned from the massive blood shed that had occurred just a few years earlier in the American Civil War. They also had an education system that could detect and neutralize French advantages both by long term planning and by rapid innovation at the front.

If France's defeat was a shock to the modern world, it was a catastrophe to the French self-image. They had lost two traditionally French areas (Alsace and Lorraine) and were levied a huge fine. Worse, their nation was occupied by Germany until they paid their repatriation debt. The result was a generation of French thinkers who would never forgive the German nation until Alsace and Lorraine were repatriated, and who looked for ways to make the next war come out differently. A key part of this was the movement from an Army dedicated to set-piece field engagements common in the Napoleonic era, to one that relied on regimental firepower to win engagements of maneuver while tied into larger military structures. The doctrine of firepower was born for the French in the defeats of 1870.

The doctrine of firepower says that it is not how many people you can put into the field, but the destructive force each of those people can wield and how accurately they can wield it. The Prussians had Krupp breach loading cannon (3) which could outrange and out-hit French muzzle loading La Hitte system bronze cannons, while the Germans had the training and the staff to get those guns with their huge ammunition demands into battle when French guns were often immobile for lack of orders and supplies.

For the French the firepower system meant that they needed to not only participate in the growing European arms race, but win that race with innovative new weapons that actually reached the hands of soldiers. The result was a series of increasingly deadly weapon systems that were brought into the hands of the soldiers in the field rapidly, culminating in the adoption of smokeless powder in 1888. The goal of all of these systems was to progressively increase the ability of the individual soldier to control the battlefield around them. As these weapons systems were being produced, it was assumed that the military leadership would be working out how to use them, just as the Germans had done and other were doing around the world. The French though hit a snag, and that was the second theory to come out of the great war. It became a competitor to the theory of firepower and would cause endless suffering.

The idea of l'offensive à outrance - the offense at any cost, at first seems to make common sense, both from identifying the problems with leadership the French suffered in the Franco-Prussian war, and by its connection to the German theorist whose works were increasing important with the German victories of 1870, Carl von Clausewitz. L'offensive à outrance explains that the only way to control a battlefield and your destiny is to hold the initiative and attack the enemy. Defensive strategy in l'offensive à outrance was of secondary importance. Used as part of a larger strategic model that placed firepower in its proper place, this would have been simply a system that advocated holding the initiative in any battlefield experience, a doctrine employed by nearly every successful general of the past 2,000 years.

Instead of being employed together though, l'offensive à outrance gained a cult status in a military force where the mission of protecting France and recovering the lost territories was becoming mired in factionalism (4). For many French officers, l'offensive à outrance represented a school answer to a school question, and it slowly became the only answer to the only question, especially after it was firmly set in place by its association with a pseudo-scientific fad - élan vital.


The Need for a New Tactical System

In 1879 the British fought one of its regular colonial wars, this time against the Zulu of southern Africa. The British, armed with Martini-Henry rifles, rifled breech loading cannon, and even gatling guns, engaged a military organization who fought battles with short spears and leather shields. The contest should have been a route, but it turned out to be anything but.

The war began with an unsanctioned invasion of Zululand by General Frederic Thesiger which showed that the new weapons in the hands of soldiers needed new tactics and a better way of supplying them. The British, confident of their victory against an "untrained enemy" made little attempt to scout, no attempt to fortify positions, and worst of all, did not develop a system to ensure ammunition was available in large enough amounts to the soldiers with the rifles.

The Zulu Impi facing the British were traditional light infantry trained to occasionally fight in heavy, mass formations. In Africa, against enemy who did not possess firearms, and combined with a set piece "buffalo horn strategy", it was an effective combat style that won many battles for the Zulu. The British, lacking an effective military education system, went into battle ignorant of the buffalo horn or the capabilities of Impi warriors.

The British and the Zulus met on the battlefield at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, resulting in the death of more than 1,300 modern armed British soldiers, for less than 1,000 spear-armed Zulu. The battle was a disaster for British prestige, but it also demonstrated that the new rifles needed to be properly employed to be effective. When they were, such as at the Battle of Ulundi, the soldier armed with what was essentially a bayonet without a rifle were slaughter. At Ulundi 5,000 British faced 15,000 Zulu inflicting devastating losses on their enemy while loosing only 100 men themselves. The lesson of Ulundi was clear: a soldier, no matter how well motivated, could not charge massed rifles and live (5).

The problem with the lesson of Ulundi was that it happened to an African force, and was thus dismissed by a military education system incapable of correcting institutional mistakes or making long-term changes. The next demonstration of the frightfulness of modern weapons would occur to a small military force in a brush fire war and also get ignored. On 2 July, 1898, 19,000 American and Cuban soldiers engaged a small force of 800 Spanish infantry garrisoned on some hills outside of Havana. Despite outnumbering their enemy more than 20 to 1, the support of gatling guns, and the presence of 12 American cannon, the attacking force lost nearly 10% of its numbers as casualties during the attack. Heralded as a great victory by the Americans, it was also an example of the power of a dug-in defensive position that should have warned the European powers of what could happen in the next big war.

The true lesson of the new era of firepower came during the week of December 10th to the 17th, 1899. The event was the Boer war, and British sent out one of their best commanders, General Redvers Buller, to command one of the largest overseas forces embarked to a colonial possession since the Napoleanic era. At the time the British army was divided between two groups, the Africans, lead by General Garnet Wolseley, who had shepherded Buller's career, and the Indians, lead by General Frederick Roberts. Buller's appointment was a victory for the Wolseley ring and seemed to presage a short war against a backwards people.

The fighting in South African had started with massed Boer rifleman forming into their traditional units, called Commandos, and laying siege to several British owned enclaves which had been garrisoned by nervous commanders before Buller was able to arrive on the scene. As a result, Buller was forced to go onto the offensive to relieve the sieges. Buller's force was Britain's best - modern repeating rifles, breach loading cannons, well trained volunteers who had a great deal of espirit de corps due to their strong regimental system that encourages long service bonds to form. The one thing the British lacked was an understanding of how to use these new weapons in a war.

Much has been written about the Boers and their legendary fighting skills, but in reality they were a pickup force with little training. Poor marksmanship, difficult discipline, and a tendency to go home whenever they felt like it made the Boer Commandos more like a hunting camp than a military unit. Still, they were each armed with a Mauser rifle similar to the ones that inflicted so many casualties on the Americans just the year before. They also did not believe in formations. Most of the Boer commanders were perfectly happy to dig a ditch and shoot from cover. If things got too hot, they would simply run back to their ponies and ride away, to appear again ready to fight in a few hours or days.

The British first encountered the Boers at the Modder River on the 28th of November. The Boers, much to the British 1st Division commander, Lieutenant General Methuen's chagrin, had simply dug ditches and hid on the back side of the river Modder, which the British had to cross to reach Kimberly. In a taste of things to come the British were able to force the river, but at a loss of 475 casualties. The Boers, safe in their trenches, suffered fewer than 100 killed and wounded.

On the 10th the British were again defeated at the Battle of Stormburg. This time Major General William Forbes Gatacre and the 3rd Division lost nearly 800 casualties, include 700 captured, in an ill-advised night march that ended up inside the killing zone of Field Kommandant Olivier's Orange Free State Commando. The British soldiers attempted to make a bayonet charge on Olivier's position, but broke under fire and soon retreated. The loss of 800 trained soldiers bought very little, only 30 Boer casualties.

The next day Lieutenant General Methuen was again trying to break through the Boer line, this time at Magersfontein. The Boers had, as was their standard tactic, built field fortifications that included camouflage, false positions, and in some cases, overhead cover. Facing a long plain with no real cover for the British, they prepared for a British frontal assault. The British obliged with a close order assault, and were cut down in droves while never reaching the Boer trenches. Despite outnumbering the Boers nearly 2-1 in men, and 5-1 in cannon, the British lost nearly 1,000 casualties, or almost 7% of the attacking force, a huge casualty rate for a single battle. The loss also shot British morale, with many regiments becoming rebellious against Methuen for his poor leadership.

The final loss of Black week was Colenso on 15 December 1899. Buller, the overall commander, took personal command of the attempt to relieve Ladysmith, but without his normal staff (he had been given officers who he felt did not have the ability to hold their position - an assessment that turned out correct) lacked essential command tools to control the battle. Most of the officers he had been assigned were from the Indian ring, and their positions were likely the result of political considerations. Buller was also new to the fight with the modern weapons. He did not benefit from the previous defeats of the British forces and the British officer corps largely lacked the military education system to take advantage of tactical discoveries. The Battle of Colenso proved to be the ruin of Buller's career and his aspirations to take over from Wollesy when he retired as the head of the army, even though many people recognized he had been dealt a loosing hand. The British mistakes in personnel would cost them in the Battle. The first of those mistakes came from Major General Fitzroy Hart, who marched his brigade of soldiers to the front close order, and then missed the crossing point of the river they had been assigned to ford. As battalion commanders discovered their error and tried to move under fire to the right place, General Hart arrived and sent them right back to the unfordable point of the river with orders to make it work. Another brigade under Hillyard, had decided to instead move forward widely spaced taking advantage of cover. They reached their objectives, but with Hart's brigade being blown to pieces and other errors made by inexperienced officers, they were called back and a general retreat was declared. By the time the first day of Colenso was past British moral was in tatters and Buller's units had suffered serious casualties.

Despite the loss, Buller had learned a key lesson that he began to apply to his tactical thinking, and Colenso had schooled Buller on what not to do. Masses of soldiers were simply unable to move forward under fire of magazine rifles in the open. His men began to adopt a new tactic, movement from points of cover, with part of the unit firing while the rest was in motion. He also saw that artillery, reconnaissance,and clear plans for supplying units in contact with the enemy were keys to success. Fighting still required the loss of a lot of people to take well defended points of enemy resistance, but unlike the previous battles the casualties were less one-sided, and the casualties actually achieved objectives on the battlefield. Still, the number of casualties were unheard of in a colonial war: 2,300 during the two week fight at Tugela heights alone, or more than 10% of Buller's forces.

At the same time Roberts, of the Roberts ring, had taken over the main forces in South Africa and proceeded, with Methuen under his command, to fight the battle in a more traditional way. Hailed by the press as a tactical genius whose military ability would win the war that Buller could not, Roberts proceeded to use mass as a replacement for proper tactics. At Padderburg he had nearly 100,000 soldier facing 7,500 Boers - and still lost 1,500 casualties capturing his dug in adversary. Roberts success and the falling star of Buller taught the British many lessons that would prove hard to unlearn. While Buller, limited to 20,000 men under his command had to use them sparingly (or else fail to meet his tactical objectives), Roberts found that he could throw masses of soldiers at any problem and it would solved.

The French, oddly enough, learned more from the Boer war than the British. They began to look for a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firepower of the infantry, started to purchase more of their 75mm cannon to increase the organic hitting power of French units, and started to explore defensive fortifications to hold the Germans back while the French mobilized for a rapid campaign.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of firepower hit a snag and was superseded just when it was showing its promise. The battlefield doctrine the French did go to war with was a modification of l'offensive à outrance known as élan vital The theory of élan vital was brought into prominence by General Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre who advanced to the head of the French army in 1911. As interpreted by Joffre, élan vital was the theory that to achieve victory the main goal of a general was to generate the will to offensive action in the normally passive lower officer and enlisted ranks. The primary weapon of the offensive was the bayonet, and a soldier's job was to advance until they could use this weapon on the enemy soldiers. Starting in 1911 many French efforts at increasing firepower and developing tactics to use these weapons were slowed down or stopped, with the training programs changed to increase a unit's willingness to charge and take ground.

Modern students of the Great War often scoff at these ideas, but strategists of the era just before this war had centuries of practical experience to support their ideas, even if it was becoming increasingly clear to people who could read the signs that they were wrong. The traditional role of infantry was to use missile weapons to pin and disorganize an enemy, then wade in for the kill. The process of training infantry to stick an enemy with a knife on a pole was intensely psychological. Untrained soldiers often retain too much good will and human kindness to do it - it takes an incredible psychological effort to make a soldier able to use a bayonet and still leave them capable of obeying commands. The theory élan vital, first taken from a pseudo-scientific way to explain life force by French philosopher Henri Bergson, was complete nonsense, but it did provide a rational for the training that Generals such as Joffre developed to turn a law abiding French conscript into an occasional killer.

It was not that there was no chance for an officer to learn about their potential foes or to innovate new tactics. The idea of peace time intelligence security was only practiced by civilians, not usually by the officer class, at least in the west. Officers were routinely exchanged between the world's military. Although rare (France would not create a comprehensive intelligence assessment of the German military machine until 1916) these officers could come, bring their note pads, and write down nearly anything they wanted. Major East of the British military did just this when he wrote The Armed Strength of France, an account that was standard reading in military academies around the world. While the Lebel ammunition was produced in strict secrecy, the secret was released merely weeks after the weapons were issued as officers from other military forces were allowed to shoot it and expect it. On the German side the Krupp factories were an example of massive secrecy, chasing away visitors on any but purchasing expeditions. This secrecy was defeated by Krupp itself. Krupp guns of the latest models were routinely demonstrated to any who cared to see them fired, and had a possibility of buying them. During these demonstrations lists of types and capabilities of German weapons were often distributed as sales tools.

The idea that Joffre did not understand firepower is mistaken though. He had argued for, and did not receive funding to purchase, a new 105mm howitzer design. He also recognized the practice of using the new 75mm guns in close order with infantry was suicidal for their crews in an era of magazine fed rifles and machine guns. The artillery had taken to fighting the guns forward because their low trajectory made them more suitable for direct fire then arching fire, which demanded the gunners have detailed information on their targets that could not be acquired when they were firing from ranged outside of rifle shot. Joffre, mindful of the safety of his gunners, set rules against it, but he was not mindful of the safety of the infantry who themselves faced magazine rifles in close order advances.

So the tactic of élan vital went into war as the main tactic advocated by the most powerful military leader the French had. This colored pre-war planning. It was not that Joffre did not want bigger cannons, but he would not give up other things to get them. He was, at least until the war started, a slave to the legislature, but it is telling that once the war started and he took on nearly dictatorial powers, he and his protégés could have stopped the reliance on close order advances, volley fire, and vigorous offense charges. Instead they took excellent weapon systems (such as the Chauchat) and tried to recast them in terms of élan vital.

In battlefields of other centuries this tactic might have worked, but in the battlefield of 1914 it was deadly, especially since advancing soldiers were forbidden from going to ground. A unit of infantry advancing over open ground using close order march would walk at around 2 meters per second for most of their attack, with most units breaking into a charge of 6 meters per second in the last 100 meters. An infantry battalion advancing in the open would spend nearly 3-1/2 minutes in clear view of their enemy during a short charge. During that time a single defensive machine gun could kill a company of soldiers. A well prepared company defense could slaughter the battalion and loose not even a single soldier themselves. At the start of the war French generals either supported élan vital as the main theory of the war, or they were rapidly replaced for failing to do so. For a general, élan vital was often best shown merely by killing your own soldiers fast enough that you could not be blamed for making no progress toward an objective. The French were not alone in this, as will be seen the British were not only addicted to the mass assault, but would remain so until the end of the war.

Contrary to popular belief, soldiers and junior officers in the French army quickly recognized these issues and tried to find a solution that did not include mass slaughter. Junior French officers such as Andre Laffargue quickly worked out their own strategies for dealing with the entrenched machine gun, and their ideas filtered up, at least to some extent, to higher level leaders. One general in particular, the commander of the 6th Infantry Division, Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain, was one of the first allied generals to consider how to fight the advantage that firepower gave defending forces. In particular, one of Pétain's mentors, and adherent to the doctrine of firepower, was Hippolyte Langlois.

Langlois in his lectures noted that a disgraced British General, Redvers Buller, had found part of the solution to the problem of magazine fed repeaters and trench based defenses during the Boer war. The main goal of the attacker, Langlois noted, was to apply superior firepower at the the target by isolating them during a supported attack where artillery, infantry, and engineers worked closely together. In essence the infantry would flank an enemy position on two sides while pinning it with firepower until it could be destroyed and the position occupied. The infantry would then dig in and take on the next enemy position. Buller's soldiers did just this when faced with Boer firepower (after several stinging and embarrassing defeats), and were able to minimize casualties and taken even heavily defended enemy positions. Langlois felt that Buller was essentially correct in his tactical thinking, and that his later disgrace and dismissal by Roberts and the "Indian Ring" was political rather than through any real failing on Buller's part.

Pétain, when faced with the realities of modern war, was able to see that Langlois was correct about the adoption of Buller's tactics. The French Army as a whole, mired in the theory of élan vital, was at a severe disadvantage on the battlefield of 1914. It had not developed the potential of its junior officers and non-commissioned officers or gotten them the essential weapons they needed to use new tactics effectively. Worse, their main ally the British were lead by the very people who had been involved with cashiering Buller a decade before. One of his greatest critics in fact was now the commander of the British forces in Europe General John French, while French's former subordinate, Douglas Haig, was in charge of the British I Corps. The entire British strategy was based upon the thinking of people who had rejected the one general who had fought against modern weapons.

For Pétain the first problem that he faced was that with the coming of the élan vital essential equipment and training was not in the hands of the soldiers that could have been present if Joffre had not been given the high command in 1911. The problems the French faced was:

1) The Mle 1886 was hard to load under fire and was so long the troops called it the "fishing pole." The troops needed a shorter rifle with some quicker way to load it.

2) Soldiers were trained to advance in close order, making them targets for long range machine gun and artillery fire.

3) Soldiers were mostly organized to fight in battalion strength, but the most effective units were much smaller, sometimes only 9-15 men. Leadership had to be developed at the lowest level in the face of a general staff which resisted giving lower echelon officers authority to innovate attacks.

4) Positions that were taken had to be immediately fortified against artillery and counter attack. Many hard fought French victories were lost because the commander of the attack had tried to advance until they had depleted their men.

5) The French officer corps cared too little about casualties, actually measuring an officer's effectiveness by how many soldiers they could get killed. Pétain brought a new sensibility to his officers insisting that futile attacks be stopped once they appeared to be fruitless, and that officers pay close attention to casualties and work to minimize them.

6) Assault combat was very wearing on soldiers, and had to be matched with proper nutrition, enough sleep, and time away from the line. Skilled assault troops were no good to anyone if they broke down and refused to fight.

7) Explosive firepower had to be increased in the French army. The throw-weight of explosives of a French corps was only a fraction of their German opposites.

At the same time that Pétain was struggling with how fight on a modern battlefield the Germans were themselves working on strategies of combined arms. The earliest of these experiments can be seen with the massed used of artillery, combined with flamethrowers and grenades by General Bruno von Mudra. These limited mass firepower tactics lead to experimental units being formed with the intent purpose of attacking fixed strong points. Units such as Rohr's Assault battalion became specialists at assaulting trench lines showing how it could be done with limited causalities.

Pétain's primary difficulty was that he was relatively lower rank, and was not well liked in the French Army, and that the French army was at its worst when communicating innovation in the environment of censorship imposed by Joffre and by the British high command. His only saving grace was he won victories in places no one else was able to do better than stave off headlong defeat. His efforts though started to pay off though and he was able to start making changes to weapon procurements and some training changes for the Army. These included:

1) The adoption of heavier artillery to match German weapons. As has been seen Joffre had wanted this artillery, but not at the expense of his other goals and it had not been pushed for vigorously.

2) Changing some training efforts in some units to stress firepower and maneuver instead of élan vital. This was hampered by the limits of the pre-war officer corps. The pay for this corps until a soldier reached colonel was notoriously bad, and until an officer reached regimental command their entire training was in set-piece field maneuvers. Pétain needed relatively young, inexperienced officers new to the military to rapidly develop thinking skills in a military culture which had ignored these attributes before the war.

3) Getting a reliable automatic weapon, the Fusil mitrailleur Mle 1915 Chauchat Sutter Ribeyrolles Gladiator (CSRG) into mass production, eventually giving every squad one or two of the automatic weapons. The nearest weapon to it, the Lewis gun, was nearly five kilograms heavier and while an excellent weapon, was not the answer to the fire and maneuver tactics the French were developing, although it did become popular for the alternate walking fire concept. The Chauchat, being lighting and easier to handle, allowed the gunner to go to ground in cover easier to lay down suppressing fire.

4) Getting a new rifle adopted, the Berthier Mle 1907-15, to allow front-line units to discard the remaining Gras rifles that had been adopted in the emergency from the Territorial units.

5) Finding sources for semi-automatic weapons to enable issues of these devices to unit marksman. The French army had elected to wind down semi-automatic rifle development between 1911 and 1913 to concentrate on other issues, and several designs were almost, but not wholly ready for the battlefield and mass production.

6) Developing and supplying both hand grenades and rifle grenades to infantry units.

In an odd case of promoting the right guy without understanding why, the French army continuously promoted Pétain, first to head of XXXIII Corps after First Marne, and then to head of the 2nd Army after Artois. At this point his reputation allowed his firepower doctrine to start affecting the weapons procured for the French Army.

Pétain's work would eventually lead him to a power sharing arrangement with Ferdinand Foch (a more politically reliable but tactically and strategically inferior general whose pre-war writing had advocated élan vital). Foch, ruling from the capital, would give only the vaguest of orders (and was, anyway, more directed to keeping the British from withdrawing from the lines) while Pétain would train, equip, and fight the army on the Western Front. This arrangement proved satisfactory during the war - British casualties using the older system of massed charges remained nearly three times higher than the French under Pétain. Only British colonials such as the Australians and the Canadians who outright ignored British high command on tactics would be as effective. The system was further proven when American troops trained by French trainers in the use of firepower and maneuver proved to be a shock to the Germans.

The French system was in place during WW2 and remains in place today as a classic way to deal with the problem of dug in machine guns. In the French system a unit divides into several fire teams. Each team is expected to have an automatic weapon, a grenade launching capability, a sniping capability, and engineering training in case of mines or wire were encountered. The teams will then move from cover to cover, using their potable machine guns to keep the enemies head down. When the team can make it to grenade launcher range, these weapons are used to finally destroy the nest.

This tactic is distinct from the idea of walking fire, adopted by some French generals and later copied by the British (whose heavier Lewis was better suited to it) and made successful in the hands of the Australians. In that system the infantry attempt a continuous advance with the entire unit laying down fire on possible enemy positions. Instead of a bounding maneuver system it was one where the commander could see and direct his entire force. Contrary to popular belief this system was effective when facing less trained enemy, or when used by very well trained soldiers who could communicate well on the battlefield in conjunction with an officer with a great deal of situational awareness, so it favored units that could not go to ground because the soldiers were not well enough motivated to get back up, or units whose skill assured that heavy firepower would continue even to the end of the assault. In the case of the Australians and the Americans, walking fire was a deadly method of taking an enemy trench. It was, however, expensive in terms of casualties which the bounding system was not.

After the war the bounding system was adopted by most militaries, especially by the British who had suffered so much during the war and could now look back critically on their performance. Once the war was over and forgotten in political circles, the military could critically analyze the tactics it used. For the British and French the same thoughts were put forward. The future conflict would be fought by infantry who would be armed with a central squad automatic weapon, which would lay down a base of fire, and be staffed by at least two maneuver teams with a combination of rifles light automatic weapons and, in the case of the French, rifle grenades. Behind these teams light mortars and medium machine guns would fire on targets as they revealed themselves to take on assaulting infantry. The Germans who had also payed attention to the results of the war emphasized the use of an even more powerful belt-fed machine gun serving all roles, advancing fire, base of fire, and fire from the rear.


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Waldron, W. (1917) Elements of trench warfare: bayonet training. Isaac Goldmann Company.

Williams, C. (2005). Petain: How the Hero of France Became a Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History. Palgrave Macmillan.



(1) Dynamic education models require the learner to develop skills in inquiry which trains them to be active thinkers. This model is difficult to teach, and hard for students to master. It is often replaced by a "scholastic" education model which assumes that knowledge pre-exists and can be learned by studying the past. The modern German higher education system in the 1880s to the turns of the century was extremely dynamic, so much so that scholars often call their methods of learning the "German model." Most military education in the rest of the world was scholastic, dedicated to reading the works of past masters. In times of limited technological change the scholastic method has advantages for unified education, but the industrial revolution had rendered it obsolete. Modern military higher education recognizes the need for both scholastic and dynamic elements and avoids the pitfalls of rote learning by requiring military officers to write original works of learning.

(2) French military dress affected civilian fashion around the world, while images of French units were popular in magazines and even sold as parlor conversation pieces. The grip the French military had on world imagination can be seen by the adoption of the Zouave military style by American volunteer regiments during the Civil War despite the clothing's poor design for American campaigning. The similarity between French military wear and those used by much of the less developed world was demonstrated during the Franco-Prussian war when U.S. general Phillip Sheridan was nearly executed because of his uniform's resemblance to that of a French officer's uniform.

(3) The French army was not alone in clinging to old ideals, the German army went to war not only with an inferior rifle, the Dreyse needle gun, and it almost went without the Krupp steel breech loading cannon that proved one of the keys to their success. Alfred Krupp, the director of the Essen steel works Krupp, which was best known for making railway tyres, had tried for years to get his cannon into the arsenals of the Prussian army. Each time he would offer them these cannon, they would refuse them. Ironically, he almost sold these cannon to the French in 1855 when he could not sell them in his own country. Only when Wilhelm I became first regent, and then King of Prussia was he able to see the cannon design to the military, who preferred their breech loading bronze cannon.

(4) It can be shown that there was little reason for Germans to spy on the French military. Foreign officers were constantly being exchanged between all of the militaries of Europe and many in the Americas and Asia. Despite this a French major, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason in an affair that would tie the French army into knots for a decade. Despite there being wide evidence of his innocence, anti-semitism and a culture of coverups prevaded the army high command at the time. This inability to admit fault would cause endless troubles for the French army, and almost cause it to loose the Great War.

(5) The British were armed with Martini-Henry rifles during the Anglo-Zulu war, whose design was by 1879 inferior to the Mauser, Gras, and Springfields carried by other militaries. Despite this, the weapon could shoot 20 times a minute, hit things accurately at more than 200 meters, and was fairly reliable. The lesson though was clear for those who were willing to see it. If 15,000 spear carrying Zulus could not break a British line 1/3 their number (even with single shot rifles), then it was an equally hopeless task for a bayonet armed European.