The Great War: Myths about Myths

August 11, 2014

Why was World War I such a blood bath? So asked Adam Hochschild in a recent New York Times op-ed, directly confronting one of the most enduring and haunting questions of modern history.

His answers centered on four illusions, but in giving these he instead perpetuates some of the worst myths of the Great War.

Here they are, followed in turn by my reasons for naming them “myths.” Remember, a myth is not a lie, but rather a narrative based on some truth.

1. “The Allies were not quite so arrogant [as the Germans], but were confident of triumph in months, not years.”

Nope. In 1914 the powers of the Entente planned, as the Germans did, for short decisive campaigns. The scene in the movie Enemy at the Gates better conforms to 1914, not Stalingrad, when it comes to the Russians running out of rifles and ammo.

As for arrogance, the Germans had no corner on that market, although they did on the useless-brutality market. Oddly, their brutal behavior toward non-combatants lessened as the war went on. The British were hoping for a quick win with economic warfare (see Planning Armageddon by Nick Lambert for an account of this strategy). As for the Germans, they did plan for a quick victory against France, but not against Russia. The Kaiser’s bravado in declaring that his soldaten would be home before the leaves had fallen only applied to the war against France. In fact it is well established that they believed that a quick victory against France was necessary in order for them to ultimately prevail in a long war with Russia. They had studied Napoleon’s experience in Russia and come to that conclusion. The German General Staff had few such illusions, but such illusions as they had—notably of a quick victory in France—were important to the stalemate that ensued on the Western Front.

However, all of this assumes that the question was “Why did World War I become a bloody stalemate on the Western Front?” That’s not the question posed, but this is part of the problem: that for most people in Western Europe and North America, World War I was the Western Front. That is itself a very misleading illusion because it removes some of the war’s very essential broader strategic context that helps explain Allied decisions in the West as part of a much larger problem.

2. “A second illusion of those who marched proudly into battle in 1914 was that they would be shooting at the enemy, but that he would not be shooting back, or at least not effectively.”

I had to re-read this, it seemed so odd. Of course they expected people to shoot at them, and they expected the enemy would kill many of them, too. But they expected that élan would overcome bullets, thus—“men against fire.” Hochschild needs to re-read Michael Howard’s famous essay of that title written some fifty years ago. Also, a quick primer on what they expected on the battlefield can be found in a work by Jon House entitled TowardCombined Arms Warfare.

Finally, Ferdinand Foch and others had read Ardant du Picq’s seminal Battle Studies and ascribed to du Picq’s recognition that the battle had become more lethal, but that individual soldier morale and training could overcome it. Foch and his ilk got the morale piece, but did not do so well on the training piece. The requirement for very highly trained soldiers expert in combined arms was completely at odds with quickly generating a mass conscript army. That training was only accomplished over three years of bloody combat, but by 1918 the French had that soldier and the combined arms tactics to support him. Along with his American and British comrades, he broke the back of German resistance in the West.

3. “In 1914 Europe had not had a major war in more than 40 years and, except for the Russians, almost all officers who had actually seen combat had done so in lopsided colonial wars in Africa and Asia.”

Oh my word, again. As Howard describes in “Men against Fire” and Antulio Echevarria takes on in After Clausewitz, the Europeans got their doctrine from three wars in particular, all of them more recent than 40 years:

–The Russo-Turkish War (1877-78: see Nick Murray’s Rocky Road to the Great War).

–The Boer War (1899-1902): sure, it had a “colonial” aspect, but it was a conventional war with the “natives” using Mauser rifles, Krupp artillery and barbed wire.

–The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which many of us now call World War Zero. This war only involved Russia directly, but was very closely studied by the other great powers.

The Europeans tested and developed their doctrine from these wars. These experiences taught them that war had become more lethal. What else did they learn? The side with the greater moral power and will prevails, as the Japanese did at Port Arthur, Mukden, and Harbin. This was a misleading lesson, sure, but it was not unreasonable, especially given the Japanese playing with the evidence and downplaying how closely the war came to a stalemate in Manchuria. The Japanese thanked the gods for the naval victory at Tsushima that saved their bacon in Manchuria.

Okay, one more:

4. “Yet another illusion on both sides in 1914 was that a key force would be the cavalry.”

This, too, is nonsense. It is not quite the “lions led by donkeys” nonsense that claims that the generals were all stupid and the soldiers all noble, but it leads to that hoary old trope. Anyway, all the major powers actually looked to infantry as their primary weapon of decision. They were somewhat wrong on that, too.

In fact, the force of decision and killing turned out to be artillery, as it had mostly been since Napoleon’s battle of Wagram in 1809. On the forgotten Eastern Front, infantry in combination with artillery was critical—combined arms became the key. Cavalry as a pursuit or exploitation force was something of a dead letter and everyone knew it, including Haig and Kitchener. It did play a role as mounted infantry on the Eastern Front, and would again in World War II in the Soviet Union and in China, but the idea of the cavalry acting as a mounted force for decision was pretty much rejected by the doctrine of the major powers before 1914.

As for Omdurman, the British were disabused of notions that lance armed cavalry in the old style could be the force for decision during the Boer War. They did learn that cavalry was pretty good in small units in un-developed terrain for counterinsurgency operations (COIN)—but this was of little use on the Western Front in 1914.

So what is the answer? Why was the Great War a bloody stalemate? Some of the answer is above, but here at the Army Command and General Staff College, in the military history department, most of us ascribe to some variant of the following “school” solution.

First, a fundamental truth from Mr. Clausewitz: “Defense is the stronger form of war.” Because of this, and the increase in lethality of weaponry due to technological advances, the defense gained an asymmetrical advantage over the offense during the period 1914-1917, especially in geographically constrained theaters (e.g. Western Front, Gallipoli, Northern Italy). All sides strained to solve this very difficult problem, asking, “how do we restore maneuver to the battlefield in the face of the power of a defense, in the face of artillery, entrenchments, and machine guns?” The Russians solved it first in 1916 during the Brusilov Offensive, almost by accident.

Caveat: in the East the asymmetry of the defense does not explain as much. There was a lot of offense and maneuver. As Norman Stone demonstrates in Eastern Front 1914-1917 and Michael Barrett in Prelude to Blitzkrieg, the Germans fought many highly successful operational and even strategic engagements on the offense, with lots of maneuver in place like Russia and Romania. But Russia is so big that it has always seemed to give the guy on the offense an added disadvantage because he has so much ground to cover—and of course the Russians did pretty well on the southern part of the front against the weak sister of the Central Powers, Austria-Hungary. So stalemate in the East came from defense plus coalition warfare problems plus geography.

As usual, then, the answer is complicated. It is further complicated when a rather large corpus of scholarship is ignored or slighted by historians and others. We should try to answer this difficult question, though. To answer it incompletely or with myths risks not understanding how it happened in the first place.


Dr. John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Chair for Historical Research at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He retired from the U.S. Navy 2004 at the rank of commander after 23 years of service as a naval flight officer. He authored Agents of Innovation (2008) and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, as well as numerous articles and editorials and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011. His latest book is A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century.


Photo credit: State Library of South Australia