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

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Dying to Learn: Wartime Lessons from the Western Front

By Michael A. Hunzeker
Cornell University Press, 2021
Michael Kihntopf, Reviewer

Somewhere on the Western Front

Dr. Michael A. Hunzeker, assistant professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, has added a new aspect to the study of war with this book. Since time immemorial, the study of war has primarily contented itself with how to conduct war once governments have declared their intentions. Of note on the subject of conducting campaigns and winning the war are Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Karl von Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege, Antoine Henri Jomoni’s Precis de l’Art de Guerre, to mention only a few of the most outstanding. However, Hunzeker looks at a new aspect: once engaged, how does the commander adapt to the conduct of war once shooting has begun? To do this the author appraises the German, French, and British Armies on the Western Front during the Great War using his theory of Assessment, Command, and Training, or ACT.

ACT “seeks to explain why some wartime militaries are better than others at learning how to correctly update how they fight” (page 17). Although there are many topics the author could have selected to show how the reader can judge his hypotheses, he chose to concentrate of three topics: assault tactics, in-depth (elastic) defense, and combined arms. The German army gets to bat first. The author states that the Kaiser’s men were much better and quicker at evaluating their procedures and adapting, primarily because they had established evaluation methods and practiced capturing and analyzing battle information long before the Great War began. Additionally, the German Army communicated up and down the chain of command quite freely, despite the stereotype of unquestioned obedience.

The British are delved into next and their effort had mediocre results. Hunzeker very ably points out that the Imperial soldiers were never trained to respond to a conventional war since their small regiments were dispersed throughout the empire dealing with indigenous peoples who had limited means at their disposal. That role decentralized training and evaluation to a great extent simply because the enemy was diverse. Not even the Boer Wars managed to shake the paradigm. The result was that training and reaction to a situation took on many aspects because of a decentralization of training. Once a solution was found to a problem, that answer didn’t find its way into a regulated training program across the army. The author  shows that there were efforts to change, but these efforts did not receive support until shortly before 1916. After that year, change was rapid and steady, resulting in coming to a par with Germany by the end of the war but too late to be evaluated.

The French approach, which showed the least improvement, comes last. Even though many of the concepts, assault units, and elastic defense used by the Germans as early as 1915 originated in the French army, the republic’s soldiers never institutionalized changes, primarily because of political and personal intrigues of generals and politicians and a distrust by those echelons of the Poilu. Universal service training in prewar years was kept to a minimum because of time restrictions, leaving the proletariat soldier woefully ignorant of military methods. The high rate of casualties of the professional officers and soldiers in the opening months left few cadres that could better train conscripts. Of interest is that new weapons systems such as the aircraft and tanks were able to establish an inspirational and uniform mode of operation and training unfettered by politics or egos.

Although Hunzeker uses the Great War to illustrate his hypotheses, he very ably shows in the final chapter how the theory can be applied to more modern warfare by looking at the American army’s performance in Vietnam and Iraq. As a participant in the Vietnam War, I found his views quite sound—especially about the interference of politics.

Dying to Learn is a deep study in the dynamics and stagnations of the military demeanor during the Great War. It is not light reading and requires reflection in some areas as well as a broad knowledge of personalities and Edwardian and Victorian concepts of war. A few illustrations such as one for elastic defense for the novices would have been beneficial. Although the end notes are quite adequate, a bibliography was sorely missed. I do think this book belongs next to the works mentioned in my first paragraph. Additionally, all military leaders should sharpen their in-depth knowledge of warfare by reading Hunzeker’s book.

Michael Kihntopf

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