The 100th anniversary of World War I is upon us, and for the next four years, there will be a flood of remembrances, celebrations, and lamentations. There will be books, web sites, and TV shows. Yours truly (self-aggrandizement warning!) is currently appearing on the History Channel in one of those shows. What I hadn’t thought about until just now was that there will also be a fair proportion of that remembrance that is, to put it impolitely, bollocks.
This came to me while reading Adam Hochschild’s op-ed in the Times on why World War I was so bloody. His essential thesis is that the war was so terrible because the generals fighting ignored warnings from previous wars that would have given them a sense of what was about to happen. Good imperialists all, they “cherry-picked” their historical examples from colonial wars, and ignored conflicts that didn’t tell such comforting tales:
Where were these illusions born? They came from the way generals cherry-picked previous wars to learn from. A close look at the siege of Petersburg, Va., in the American Civil War, for instance, would have provided a lesson in trench warfare — and a sense of what it meant to be under fire from an early ancestor of the machine gun, the Gatling gun. A similar foretaste of both trench warfare and the power of the machine gun could be had by studying the siege of Port Arthur (now Dalian, China) in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.
Further, they were locked into their old-fashioned methods and resistant to new ones. Thus, Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, held onto cavalry until the bitter end:
Although Haig obviously learned some lessons about industrialized warfare from the carnage in France and Belgium, he was, like so many generals, loath to let go of his colonial-era illusions. To the very end, he kept three British cavalry divisions ready, and even eight years after the war was still lobbying to maintain the cavalry, writing that “aeroplanes and tanks” were “only accessories to the man and the horse.”
Both of these points are wrong, and so badly that they actively impede our understanding of the First World War.
(I’m deliberately limiting myself to these main points, because there are so many small things that are incorrect that…well, we’d be here all day. For example, Hochschild argues that if the WWI generals had paid attention to Petersburg, their soldiers would have started the war with steel helmets and camouflage uniforms, ignoring the fact that the soldiers at Petersburg didn’t have steel helmets and did (often) have brightly colored uniforms. See? All day).
On the first one, there are two parts to the wrongness. First, the two examples that Hochschild invokes (Petersburg and Fort Arthur) were both sieges. Sieges (if they were fought to conclusion) were almost always stagnant and bloody, marked by stalemates, heavy casualties, and frontal assaults. This had been true for a long time, even as the rest of warfare remained much more open and flowing. Deciding, in the first part of the 20th century, that most warfare was going to be siege warfare and that the next major Great Power war was going to see siege lines that stretched nearly 350 miles across northern France and into Belgium would have been right but it would also have been a much more radical leap than Hochschild makes out. It was not a catastrophic failure on the part of the generals not to see this but rather the completely reasonable conclusion that Petersburg and Fort Arthur were a different kind of war.
This is especially true because there were counterexamples that taught completely different lessons. The Wars of Prussian Unification were Great Power wars fought in the 1860s and 1870s. Prussia, Austria, France, and Denmark (not all at the same time) fought a series of wars that used modern weaponry and, despite that, were marked by rapid offensives, quick victories and defeats, and speedy resolutions. All three of them lasted less than a year, and ended with stunning Prussian triumphs.* There were heavy casualties, but they came in service of resolution.** Those historical examples suggested that modern warfare would be quick and decisive, and it was those wars that the generals of WWI looked to for lessons. They turned out to be wrong, but it was not “cherry-picking.”
Hochschild nowhere mentions the Prussian Wars. This is roughly akin to leaving out Vietnam in a study of how the American military prepared for the Second Iraq War. This is roughly akin to leaving out World War I in a study of how the German military prepared for World War II. It invalidates everything you’ve written on that point.
On Haig’s obsession with cavalry, the situation is a bit more complicated, and shows Haig to be much more reasonable than Hochschild makes out. Haig, throughout the war, had two related challenges when attacking the Germans. He had to figure out how to break in to the German lines and then break out of the German defensive system and (he hoped) either encircle the Germans or cut the railway lines that supplied them. To do the first required firepower en masse, mostly from artillery. By 1917, the British Army was starting to learn how to use that firepower correctly and break into German defenses***, but Haig didn’t really have anything that could then break out of the cracked German lines and, using mobility, exploit the opening. The range of the artillery limited how far it could push the infantry forward, and the artillery could only move forward very slowly indeed.
The only force that Haig had that could move forward quickly and range widely was…you guessed it…cavalry. Haig understood that there were severe difficulties in trying to use the cavalry this way, which is why he had supported the development of an armored vehicle that could manage such exploitation as well, but the new “tanks” were (to the end of the war) slow, unreliable, and not really fit for that purpose. So Haig kept cavalry around, thinking that if the war got to a break-out phase, where mobility became critical again, the cavalry would be useful. And, in fact, it was: take a look at the 1918 battles in which the British 2nd Cavalry Division participated. Cavalry was not the war-ending weapon that Haig hoped it might be, but it was still a useful arm in 1918, if deployed correctly.
This is not a general in his dotage hanging onto his beloved horses while all around him the machine guns chatter. This is a general trying to figure out how to handle two related but different tactical and operational challenges. The British Army couldn’t really manage either effectively in 1916. In 1918, it (as also the French) could manage both. The person who drove that change in the British Army (not by himself, certainly) was Douglas Haig.
Hochschild shows no understanding of this, and no real understanding of the military side of the First World War. His version is the Blackadder version of the war, entertaining but inaccurate.**** To answer the question of the op-ed’s subtitle, the reason that World War I was such a blood bath was because the people and economies of the Great Powers threw themselves at each other for four years, and used every bit of their resources to wage war. The mass, total war that resulted saw — just like the highly mobile war of World War II’s Eastern Front from 1941-45 — horrendous casualties. It may be comforting to imagine that it was all the fault of purblind generals, locked in their imperial imaginings. It may be comforting, but it is badly wrong.
* The only reason the Franco-Prussian War lasted close to a year was because Paris held out long after the French army had been defeated. But, again, siege.
** Another one of those small things: one of the reasons the French were so obsessed with the spirit of the offensive is because the Prussians during the 1870-71 war repeatedly used frontal assaults against prepared French positions to win battles.
*** It’s a bit more complicated than that, because the Germans reacted to British and French innovations, so it was a running battle, so to speak.
**** I know, I’m sorry. I like Blackadder, but it’s just not history.