By Emerson Brooking
On August 7, 1914, the French advanced into German-controlled Alscace, beating back the German divisions with a vicious display of massed firepower and artillery. This was the opening day of the Battle of the Frontiers, a month-long struggle of maneuver in which French, British, and German armies played tug-of-war across a 440-mile front. This was World War I before the trenches, where the visions of nineteenth-century military planners collided with the realities of twentieth-century industrial warfare. The battle saw 670,000 dead or wounded in a month—the highest density of losses in the entire war. This month would shatter a century of military doctrine.
In these first weeks of fighting, the war’s generals fell back on the doctrine they had drafted to accompany the invention of new and increasingly destructive weapons. This was the “cult of the offensive,” the expectation that rifled small arms and fast-firing artillery would concentrate firepower with such force and fury that even the most stalwart defense would be rendered obsolete. It was a terrible miscalculation.
These early battles—the French offensives into Alscace and Lorraine, the German push into the Ardennes and sweep through Belgium—were marked by gallant cavalry charges and close-rank infantry advances across open ground. Attackers suffered crippling losses in the process. One British letter writer recounted the consequences of a failed 1914 cavalry assault:
[A]n excited shout was raised that our cavalry were coming up! Sure enough away behind us, moving quickly in extended order down the slope of Orange Hill, was line upon line of mounted men covering the whole of the hillside as far as we could see…
It may have been a fine sight, but it was a wicked waste of men and horses, for the enemy immediately opened on them a hurricane of every kind of missile. If the cavalry advanced through us at the canter or trot, they came back at a gallop, including dismounted men and riderless horses….
Even if the attackers could win ground, they were hard pressed to hold it. Western Europeans had planned for decades the best use of fixed rail depots in future warfare—they had not begun to integrate mechanized vehicles. This meant that all warring powers relied on horses to carry their equipment, an average of six to eight required to move a single artillery piece. Accordingly, offenses almost immediately outstripped their supply lines.
Meanwhile, a retreating defender could expect quick reinforcement and rearmament. Even hastily erected fortifications could prove unassailable if supported by machine gun nests and prepositioned artillery. As Stephen Biddle observes in Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, since the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, an infantry batalion’s effective firing strength had increased 100-fold. This full force could be levied from behind cover against an advancing enemy. In every qualitative and quantitative measure, therefore, the defender held the advantage.
Why did German, French, and British military planners fail so profoundly to predict the character of this new industrial warfare? Although the popular press has often resorted to the truism that the soldiers of 1914 were “lions led by donkeys,” this is an insufficient explanation. The militaries of Western Europe were vast, professionalized bureaucracies, among the most sophisticated institutions at this point in human history.
Instead, a better explanation for this tragic misstep is three-fold: path dependency, lack of imagination, and operational planning that was never matched by institutional or technological capacity.
The “cult of the offensive” that gripped the pre-1914 militaries of Europe was not simply a doctrinal concept; it was also a political and cultural idea that permeated many aspects of national life. Accordingly, military institutions were much less likely to entertain evidence that might contradict this notion. The prophecy swiftly became self-fulfilling. As Adam Hochschild writes in the New York Times:
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.
But the men who led Europe into [WWI] found it more comforting to look elsewhere — at battles where victory was swift and the enemy had little firepower. 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.
Joining the danger of path dependency was a more understandable lack of imagination. The last significant conflict in Europe—the Prussian Wars of Unification of 1864-71—had been marked by decisive, fairly rapid military offensives. The last European-wide conflagration had ended a century earlier in 1814 with the defeat of Napoleonic France. Despite an unreal series of technological and industrial revolutions—mass manufacturing and replaceable parts, electricity and chemistry, the combustion engine and railroads, the telegraph and radio, rifles and machine guns and even the power of flight—military thinking still revolved much around the lessons of “the last big one.”
This was a clear mistake. As Stephen Biddle recounts, the French Grand Armee had numbered 600,000 men in 1812 and was the second largest in Europe; by 1914, it numbered 1.6 million yet had fallen to third largest. In 1812, a muzzle-loading brass cannon could fire one 12-pound ball a distance of 1,000 yards every 30 seconds. By 1914, steel artillery pieces could fire more than twice as many 18-pound shells ten times that distance in less than 20 seconds. French iron and steel output had increased by a factor of 15; the proportion of crew-served weapons in the French military had increased by a factor of 10.
Accordingly, even for the well-educated general staffs who inaugurated the disastrous military adventures of 1914, the true potential scale of industrial warfare dwarfed the imagination. Never in history could individual armies have been counted in the millions; never had a wartime front extended over a continent. The immense logistical capabilities of Western Europe, which had already carved out world-spanning empires, had never been turned against each other. Now, all at once, they were.
Finally and perhaps most tragically, even forward-thinking military planners fell into the trap of basing their doctrine on tactics and technology that did not yet functionally exist. The offensive was predominant, but only if infantry advances could be closely coordinated with friendly artillery barrages. This was the idea in 1914—but it could not be the reality. Battlefield communication was too unreliable; infantry advances too uncoordinated; artillery too inaccurate. There was too long of a delay between the barrage and the charge. Infantry units were too big and their formations too rigid. Individual soldiers, coming under crippling fire, would understandably dive for cover. Their offensives would falter and collapse.
Ironically, as the “quick” war sunk into a three-year stalemate and European planners searched desperately for the next game-changing innovation, the offensive would regain its potency and many of these 1914 ideas eventually made practicable. The coordinated deployment of tanks, fast-timed artillery barrages, small-unit infantry tactics, durable radio communications, and improved mechanized support would shift the tide again. This marked the emergence of the modern system and the foundation of German blitzkrieg, used to such great effect in World War II. Yet in August 1914, this system still remained years—and millions of lives—in the making.
The month-long Battle of the Frontiers would eventually shift into the Battle of the Marne and finally the “Race to the Sea.” By November 1914, the battle lines were largely drawn. The Western Front settled into a static network of trenches. While all combatants would be decimated by the next three years of fighting, very little territory would change hands. The sweeping advances and retreats of 1914 were only replicated again in mid-1918, as the German front began to collapse. By that time, the militaries of 1918 would have seemed unrecognizable to their 1914 counterparts.
Ultimately, the age of industrial warfare that began in earnest on August 7, 1914 swept aside all expectations of the militaries that had so earnestly planned for it. The combatant nations of World War I, inured by peace and unfamiliar with the implications of their own technologies, saw the conflict quickly spin beyond their control. This is the lesson of 1914. It remains just as true today.
Emerson Brooking is a research associate for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.