German, French and British strategies

Doughboy…‘originated in the fact that [US] infantrymen, on practise marches, were served rations of flour, and that they made crude biscuits of this flour when they halted.’

H. L. Mencken 1

The Western Front along which French, British and Belgian armies confronted the German army extended for about 725 km (450 miles), running from Nieuport sands on the Belgian coast across northern France in a south-easterly direction to the forested crests of the Vosges mountains near the Swiss border (Fig. 1). The Front itself was a broad band of devastated and poisoned ground, evil-smelling and littered with battle débris. By early 1917 the millions of antagonists were decidedly war-weary. A promising ‘breakthrough’ of enemy lines was occasionally achieved, usually at great human cost, but the resulting salient usually proved impossible to either exploit in depth or even retain.2

Fig. 1 – The Western Front (April, 1917)

The German military establishment, dominated by talented General Erich von Ludendorff (1865-1937), was still confident of ultimate victory. However, the German Army needed to recover strength after its horrific ordeal in the Verdun sector (February 21-December 18, 1916). It had conquered sizable and economically valuable portions of France and Belgium. Usually it occupied high ground of its own choosing. Ludendorff accordingly left the onus of attack to the Allies and adopted an effective policy of ‘defence in depth’. Long ago, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-91), for thirty years Chief of General Staff of the Prussian Army, had recognized the firepower of modern weaponry. In 1865 he advocated that ‘Our strategy must be offensive, our tactics defensive’.3

When hostilities began in 1914, the French high command had already swept aside notions of defensive strategy and had adopted the doctrine of ‘L’attaque à outrance!’ (attack to the utmost), considering it to be particularly suited to the Gallic temperament.4,5 The devastating power of heavy artillery and machine guns was ignored. Persistent implementation of a vainglorious doctrine of attack would cost the French army horrendous casualties: by the Spring of 1917, the death toll exceeded 800,000 men. Symbolically the attack principle was represented by the rifle bayonet, known to les poilus, the ‘hairy ones’, as Rosalie. The French Model 1886 baïonnette was thin and 52 cm (20.5 inches) long. In engineering terms, its fouredged cruciform crosssection combined flexural strength with lightness.6 In the British Army a 17-inch ‘sword’ bayonet complemented the SMLE rifle. The following rather chilling extract is taken from one of the numerous British training manuals: ‘It is essential to teach men how to use the bayonet. Unless a man has confidence in his own power to use the bayonet he is unlikely to wish to come to close quarters.’7

In the fiercely cold winter of 1916-17, General Robert Nivelle replaced Joffre as the French Commander-in-Chief. Despite the terrible French losses in the cauldron of Verdun in the previous year, Nivelle advocated that the French Army, in ‘an act of brute force’, should break the German lines along the Chemin des Dames. This bare ridge, 180 metres high and 25 km long, runs parallel to the river Aisne (Fig. 1). Security was lax and the enemy was fully aware of the French assault plan weeks before the jump off date. The Germans proceeded to deepen their defences and to increase their forces from nine to forty divisions. The battle lasted from April 16 – 30 and cost the French Army 118,000 casualties.

Within a few weeks, fifty-four divisions, half the French Army, mutinied.8 With the whole Allied war effort in jeopardy, a protesting Nivelle was dismissed and replaced by General Henri Philipe Pétain. The ‘saviour’ of Verdun insisted that offensives should have limited objectives and that support by medium/heavy artillery should be enhanced and better orchestrated. Thousands of courts martial were held: forty-three men were executed. Longer leave and proper rest facilities were introduced. The ‘military strikes’ faded away as Pétain’s reforms took effect. However, the gulf between the world of the French high command and the world of les poilus remained, a relation bitingly portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957). This remarkable film, starring Kirk Douglas and made in Bavaria, was banned in France for eighteen years and briefly in American military bases.

By 1917, British High Command was now reconciled to the arithmetic of ‘attrition’ with the British army of nearly two million men commonly losing thousands of men killed and wounded per day, a process known as ‘wastage’. Economically and financially, Britain’s affairs were in a dire state. A series of battles over four months of 1916, known collectively as the Battle of the Somme, had cost its volunteer armies 150,000 dead, 300,000 maimed and wounded.9 As a consequence, the British Government became increasingly reluctant to provide its Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, with large numbers of replacements.

Haig (1861-1928), the archetypal cavalry general10, is one of the most controversial military figures of the twentieth century and the verdicts of the numerous historians who have studied his generalship run the gamut from admiration to outright condemnation. Haig is more likely to be remembered and damned for the disastrous battles of 1916 and 1917 than praised for the series of British victories in late 1918.11

In the Spring of 1917 the Allies were encouraged when four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force stormed and took Vimy Ridge (April 9-12). With the French mutinies urgently requiring that German attention be diverted to the north, Haig initiated the Battle of Messines in Belgium on June 7. Nineteen devastating mines were exploded in rapid succession beneath the German front line. Most of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge was then quickly taken by British, Australian and New Zealand troops.

On June 26, 1917 the first 14,000 members (1st. Division, Regular Army) of the American Expeditionary Force disembarked at the French port of St. Nazaire.

  1. H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States (London: Jonathan Cape, 1922) 368-71. There are several alternative explanations of the term. []
  2. Hew Strachan, The First World War: a New Illustrated History (London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., 2003) ISBN 0 7432 3959 8 []
  3. T. N. Dupuy, USA, ret. A Genius for War: the German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945 (Prentice-Hall Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1977) 91, ISBN 0 13 351114 6. A thought-provoking tour de force. []
  4. Barbara Tuchman, August 1914 (London: Constable & Co. Ltd., 1962) Chap. 3. []
  5. Anthony Clayton, Paths of Glory: the French Army 1914-18 (London: Cassell, 2003) ISBN 0 304 36652 8. []
  6. Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: the Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991). The socket bayonet, promoted by the French fortifications expert Vauban in 1687, was gradually adopted by the armies of Louis XIV, replacing the pike. []
  7. Stephen Bull, An Officer’s Manual of the Western Front: 1914-1918 (Anova Books/Conway, 2008) p.53. ISBN 1844860728. []
  8. Richard M. Watt, Dare Call it Treason (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963) ISBN 0 7607 2240 4 []
  9. Lyn Macdonald, Somme (London: Macmillan, 1983) ISBN 0 333 36648 4 []
  10. A life-size bronze statue of Haig, mounted on his charger ‘Miss Ypres’, stands in the large market place of Montreuil, General Headquarters of the British Army (1916-19). Montreuil is close to the Channel coast (Fig. 1) []
  11. Brian Bond & Nigel Cave (eds.), Haig: A Reappraisal 80 Years On (Barnsley, UK: Leo Cooper, 2009). ISBN 1 84415 887 X. []