18 February 1915 – Attack To Excess

Barbed wire has already appeared on the battlefields of Europe, but during 1915 it will proliferate as deep belts and obstacles like the one above. It is the most visible of the technologies which give trench warfare its gruesome character. Men cannot charge through barbed wire, but must rather pick or cut their way through to advance, while a single machine gun can turn a simple wire obstacle into a charnel ground.


General Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison

A century later, the Great War is still remembered in the popular mind as a series of grisly ‘human wave’ attacks launched by uncaring, disconnected generals. Although this picture is largely false, the stereotype is not without some foundation, for the generals of the day do emphasize the infantry offensive as the only means of winning battles. In France, the most important of these doctrinaires is General Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison.

Entirely dismissing the defensive as a decisive form of warfare, in his rewriting of French Service Regulations (Réglement) of 1913 Grandmaison wrote that “The French Army, returning to its traditions, henceforth admits no law but the offensive.” A student of Ferdinand Foch, Grandmaison was Director of the Troisième Bureau (Bureau of Military Operations) before the war and served as Chief of Operations for the General Staff when it began.

Calling his doctrine attaque à outrance (literally, ‘attack to excess’), Grandmaison is not an unusual figure in the age of mass conscription and mass production. In fact, he has been anticipated by Nobel prizewinning philosopher Henri Bergson, who has everyone believing in the mystic power of élan vital (‘life force’) to overcome superior German numbers on the battlefield. Faith in the offensive is widespread; from the beginning of the war, French supreme commander Joseph Joffre has consistently fired anyone deemed too defensive or cautious in their commands.

Faith in the offensive is the closest thing the French Army has to an official religion, but it does not save General Grandmaison. Promoted to General last October and put in command of the 53rd Infantry Division, he is hit and killed by shrapnel today during operations in Champagne Province. Thus our latter-day narrative of generals sending men to their deaths from the plush safety of their headquarters also turns out to be untrue: for senior officers, this is the most dangerous war ever fought.

A fresh trench in Champagne province

A fresh trench in Champagne, early 1915. Note the chalky soil and the line of posts for hanging barbed wire

The ‘cult of the offensive’ is hardly limited to France, as all combatants emphasize offensive doctrine in 1915. Headlong French offensives led to the disastrous early battles of the war, incurring more than 210,000 casualties in the first two weeks of fighting without slowing the German advance, but the German offensives at Ypres and the Yser in October and November were contrarily an enormous drain on the Kaiser’s manpower edge, while Russian gains in the east have already cost a million casualties. Even Austria and the Ottoman Empire offer instructive examples.

And it’s not as if trench warfare hasn’t changed any minds, for everyone is launching limited attacks these days to achieve limited gains; no one is ordering a general advance. The First Battle of Champagne has been underway since the beginning of the year, expending about two French lives for every German while making small progress. Afflicted by material shortages, these efforts are proving insufficient for victory, even a limited one. Both sides are simply getting too good at defense and counter-attack, while the ‘offensive spirit’ cannot force its way through the storm of shrapnel, machine guns, high explosives, and barbed wire.

French troops marching in Champagne

French troops marching in Champagne. Roads were mostly unimproved and turned into rivers when it rained

Between December and March, 25,000 French lives will be lost in the Champagne sector. The Hand of Massiges, a promontory located at the eastern end of the Champagne sector where it adjoins the Argonne, was the scene of fierce fighting that killed 2,200 officers and men during two days, the 3rd and 4th of February. These operations are revealing other weaknesses in French training doctrine.

Having gone to war without large supplies of grenades, most of the troops receiving them now — and using them in the constant close-quarters trench fighting — are untrained in their use, so there are too many accidents. France has invested too much in lighter field guns and not enough in heavy artillery and mortars. French roads are among the best in Europe, but they are still terrible, turning into muddy quagmires at the first drop of rain. Infantrymen are still expected to shoulder packs weighing sixty pounds or more while they march, then carry out attacks with poorly-coordinated artillery support from insufficient guns.

Even when doctrinarians die, the doctrines themselves die much harder.

Crater 191

German graves in Crater 191, a sap exploded under French lines in Champagne on February 4th