Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Why Did They Attack Shoulder-to-Shoulder in 1914?

Depiction of a French Attack at Charleville, 1914

Canadian Historian Rob Engen commented on this in our September 2009 issue of Over the Top:

A.  The Generals Didn't Quite Comprehend the Lethal Firepower of the New Weaponry

From the midpoint of the 19th century on, technological developments increased the lethality of the battlefield many times over, even if armies were slow to appreciate the transitions. Machine guns and rapid-fire artillery in particular created "fire-swept zones" on the field that made a frontal attack extremely dangerous.

Cadavers of Attacking German Soldiers, Battle of the Marne, 1914

B.  The Generals Had Their Doubts About Their Conscripted Soldiers

There was also legitimate concern [by the general staffs] about whether dispersion and the necessary delegation of small-group tactics could prove at all effective. Skirmishing was, correctly, seen as a form of warfare that required well-trained and disciplined soldiers and junior officers who possessed a great deal of imagination and personal initiative. The French tactical problem was that after 1870 an average of 70 percent of their army was made up of first-year conscripts. The industrial age's creation of mass conscript armies made it difficult to envisage such green troops ever being sufficiently trained to conduct effective small- group actions, with the resultant fear that, come actual battle, they would be torn apart when they conducted such actions badly.

As historian Hew Strachan put it, "Nobody in France ever really doubted the necessity of open order, but many did question the quality of the French soldier's training. The solidity of close order had helped to compensate for the conscript's lack of skill." So as the immediate lessons of 1870 faded, the proponents of mass and the frontal attack, such as Colonel Ardant du Picq, began to move French tactical doctrine back in  their direction. The notorious French infantry regulations of 1884 and 1895 enshrined this, commanding that attacking units should advance coude à coude ("elbow to elbow") not breaking formation to take advantage of cover, but assaulting en masse to achieve the maximum shock effect, and ride the wave of high morale, with rifle and bayonet. This was enshrined as a way to sustain the offensive (which was exaggerated to be all important in war), stoke the fires of morale and moral superiority of the French soldiers, and make good on the conscripts' otherwise questionable

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