marietherese

10 February 1915 – Illusion Of Progress

The Western Front is a fluid thing, a river of death and destruction that never quite settles within its banks, yet there are limits to its spastic shifting. Between September 1914 and September 1918, the section of front between the city of Reims and the Swiss border never moves more than twelve miles towards either side at any point. This static, siege-like form of warfare has endured since October, and both sides have been trying to innovate their way out of the deadlock ever since.

Whereas the Imperial German Army wasted tens of thousands of lives attacking in broad columns on miles-wide fronts at Ypres and the Yser in October, today a brigade of the 5th Army tries an assault on the French defensive works at Fontaine Marie-Thérèse (see above) in the Argonne Forest by moving through no man’s land in columns of just four men abreast along a five hundred-yard front. The attack, which follows the usual preliminary artillery bombardment, still fails at a high cost in lives.

Where the enemy front lines lie close together at Bagatelle, a grenade and mortar duel consumes the entire day. Meanwhile, digging continues underground as both armies try to undermine the other’s trenches with explosive-filled mines. When night falls, flares and constant machine gun fire punctuate the darkness. Hundreds die in this sector every day, and today is one of the bloodiest so far.

Tomorrow, there is relative quiet here as both sides recuperate. Then they will repeat yesterday’s horrors with new permutations, new tactics, and newly-arrived reinforcements. None of it makes a difference in the shape of the Western Front that is large enough to matter, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers.

An infantry "charge" uphill in the Argonne, October 1915. Note the newly-issued Adrian helmets

An infantry “charge” uphill in the Argonne, October 1915. Note the newly-issued Adrian helmets

One of the most amazing aspects of the Great War is how deluded its press reports seem in retrospect. During 1915, trenches are constantly being taken, lost, and retaken, with these results reported as ‘progress’ to the world press, who have no correspondents at the scene to contradict those official characterizations. Were French or British or German newspapers to send observers, they would probably not publish skeptical reporting even without government press censorship, for the public is in no mood to read it; nationalistic hatred and wartime jingoism have only increased since August.

Consider this passage printed by The Argus, an Australian paper, on the 12th of February:

The British on Thursday captured another brickfield at Violanes, near La Bassee. The Germans lost 1,000 in killed and wounded, while the British loss was barely 100.

From Paris it is stated that the recent British success at Violanes, between La Bassee and Festubert, was important. The Germans were strongly entrenched, but were surprised, and also unnerved, by the deadly fire of two British field-pieces. They speedily surrendered when the British made a charge.

On Saturday night and Sunday the British, after fierce fighting, captured two trenches at Festubert, taking 500 prisoners. Many of these were young, and had just reached the front.

This “important success,” reported with remarkably-round casualty estimates, is just like countless other press reports on combats along the Western Front in 1915. As if by mathematical magic, men die or surrender themselves in even lots of hundreds or thousands. Some six decades later during the Vietnam War, an overabundance of daily body counts ending in zero or five will undermine public confidence in the United States military. A similar disillusionment is happening in 1915, albeit much more slowly.

German troops lined up on a snowy reverse-slop to receive rations

German troops lined up to receive rations on a snowy reverse-slope. The Western Front marked the limit of German supply range

French military theorist Ardant du Picq once wrote that “He, general or mere captain, who employs every one in the storming of a position can be sure of seeing it retaken by an organized counterattack of four men and a corporal.” Although he died 44 years before the Great War, he might just as easily have been talking about the Western Front. No one is attempting a general advance; both sides are only trying to win limited gains on any given day. While it is perfectly understandable that each side’s generals would set their sights on smaller, apparently more-reasonable objectives, this trend is actually extending the conflict — and bogging it down in a series of wasteful actions and counter-actions.

A German trench in the Argonne

A German trench in the Argonne. Narrow defiles like this one generally favor a few defenders against large attacking forces

  • Gregory Robert Zieren

    While reading German newspapers from the fall and winter 1916 I ran across a comparable trend. They were still reporting on the action around Verdun and quoting German army sources about astonishing, surprise victories over the French in one or another sector of the battlefield, or enemy-held lines yielding to determined German assaults. If not outright lies, the events showed only the grossest distortions of what was really happening. In fact, Falkenhayn was gone, the attrition strategy at Verdun had long since failed and the line would soon become quiet again until the final Meuse-Argonne offensive in September 1918. But the public clamored for information and optimistic accounts of victories. Then it occurred to me that if newspaper accounts in Germany remained distorted and intentionally deluded the public, no wonder the “Stab-in-the-Back” theory gained credibility. The Germans kept winning and winning and winning until finally they lost.

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

      I love the way you keep anticipating me :)

      • Gregory Robert Zieren

        I would have said that reading your blog provoked me to think about the meaning of those otherwise puzzling newspaper accounts. And I regard that as a very good thing. You help me keep the synapses flying.

    • dbtheonly

      There’s also a quote about how British papers now celebrate the capture of a village with the same enthusiasm formerly used for enemy cities.

      But agree entirely & would suggest that perhaps the greatest failing of the All-Highest’s war machine was its PR department.

      • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

        Indeed! Someone on the academic side of the communications biz could write an essential PhD thesis on the Wlihelmine government as an example of how to get everything wrong.

  • dbtheonly

    Matt,

    “While it is perfectly understandable that each side’s generals would set
    their sights on smaller, apparently more-reasonable objectives, this
    trend is actually extending the conflict — and bogging it down in a
    series of wasteful actions and counter-actions.”

    As opposed to what? I’m not sure what you’re suggesting as a solution?

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

      I suggest no solutions, merely offer observations.

      We’re used to thinking of trench warfare in terms of hidebound, rear-echelon commanders who were mentally divorced from the death toll incurred by their plans hatched in ivory towers, but in fact we can already see that generals were ironically trying to economize life — with some perverse effects. It’s a situation similar to the shell crisis: we might not intuit that a shortage of ammunition could actually increase the death toll, but it does.

      Recall our earlier discussion on the limits of air power in 1914, and how the technology simply wasn’t ready to restore mobility to the battlefield? I submit that something similar is at work here, and that the timing of the conflict in relation to the technological advances of the moment has much to do with its characteristic immobility. If the Great War had started in 1904, or 1924, it might not have bogged down in trenches, and it might not have lasted 4+ years. MIGHT.

      • dbtheonly

        Matt,

        You’ll need to forgive me, I’ve read way too many books stating that the Generals of WWI were obvious idiots for finding nothing better in the way of offensive tactics. I react poorly when I (mis)read anything that might be so construed. Because I really can’t see any alternatives besides training and artillery preparation such as Byng at Vimy and Plummer at Messenies. On the western front attacks will be made at the speed of foot and defenders will arrive by rail. There simply is no way to advance faster than reserves can arrive. Artillery can not move forward nearly fast enough to maintain the momentum of any attack.The Generals were not blood-thirsty butchers, there simply was no technologically available alternative.

        I agree with your suggestions that a 1904 or 1924 war would have been much different; though we can question how much of the advances in air and mechanical technology was war driven. How would aircraft have advanced absent a war? By 1934 we have Guderian, DeGaulle, and others writing of the use of armor in warfare, forerunners to the Panzer Division & the Blitzkrieg.

        But to the point, smaller offensives, designed to take ground within the range of the artillery, and then consolidate, move the artillery forward and repeat, offer repeatable, if unspectacular, success. As opposed to the Somme, Nivelle’s 1917 Offensive, Battles of the Isonzo 1-10, Verdun, and Ypres.

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