How Battles Are Fought To-day
New Conditions Of Offensive Warfare
By General Malleterre
Of the French Army
Governor of the Invalides and Military Critic of the Paris "Temps"
[Harper's Monthly Magazine, October 1917]
On their very first morning in Paris, General Pershing and the members of his staff came to the Invalides. When they were looking at the sarcophagus of Napoleon I noticed that there were tears in the eyes of the Americans. This was not altogether Anglo-Saxon, perhaps, but we who saw their emotion felt our hearts leap with joy. The corner-stone of the Franco-American alliance must be sympathetic understanding. The Americans are very practical people, and we French know that they will bring to our aid. A wealth of common sense and executive ability and applied science. But they bring us more than that. The affection they are not ashamed or reluctant to show means more to us than material aid. Here was the token of it. Instead of hurrying out to General Headquarters, the Americans came first to the Invalides to pay their respects to the memory of Napoleon.
I like to interpret American admiration for Napoleon in the practical way also. General Pershing and his staff are soldiers by profession, and Napoleon, means to them the great soldier rather than the Emperor of the French. They appreciate and understand Napoleon because they have the offensive mentality.
Europeans, transplanted in new worlds, possess universally and to an unlimited degree the offensive mentality. The way the Canadians and Australians have fought shows that. We need the offensive mentality very sorely. The Germans do not possess the offensive mentality more than ourselves and our allies; but unity of command, as well as superior preparation, enabled them to keep the offensive in their hands during the first critical stages of the war. The map of Europe to-day shows what an advantage this has been to them. During the past year the superiority both in effectives and material has passed from the Germans to us. But we have not yet been able to profit in any large measure from this fact. Why? Because we have not yet fully grasped the significance of the remarkable revolution this war has wrought in the methods and necessities of carrying on an offensive.
I am very glad to be asked by Harper's Magazine to write for the American public a non-technical article upon the new problems of the offensive. For here we have the only hope of an affirmative answer to our great question—how are we going to carry the war to a successful conclusion?
During the first fifteen years of the twentieth century Europe was alive to the probability of a general war. In almost every country military service was obligatory and universal, and the number of young men under arms increased yearly. More men were following the profession of arms as a career than at any time in the history of the world. The problems of military strategy and tactics and of military preparation commanded the best brains of the nations now at war. On sea as well as on land, these problems were being examined from every possible angle, and the evolution of industry and transportation was kept constantly in mind. Military and naval experts seized upon new inventions, and studied them from the standpoint of their possible effect upon the conditions of carrying on war. As far as we could see, nothing was neglected. We had the benefit, too, of being able to study in actual practice the modifications necessitated by new inventions and the remarkable development of industry and methods of transportation and communication. There were the Spanish-American War, the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Turko-Italian War, and the two Balkan wars. It would take a lifetime to read what has been written about war in the period from 1898 to 1914.
And yet in all the mass of published material—I might even go further, and say in the archives of the war departments of Europe and America—what was there to indicate that critics and General Staffs were prophets? Did any belligerent nation have the knowledge and vision to prepare for the kind of war we are waging to-day? One can say categorically—no! Otherwise there would have been victors and vanquished long before now.
We who took part in the Battle of the Marne felt instinctively that France was saved in the second week of September, 1914. But—we can confess it frankly now—our instinct would not have proved right had Germany been much better prepared, to wage offensive warfare under the new conditions than we were. Fortunately for us, Germany's vision was as limited as ours. Although she had been preparing her coup for a whole generation, Germany failed to crush us. Her preparation was stupendous—but she had not prepared in the right way. Nor had we or any other belligerent. The Germans could not break through the intrenched positions from Arras to the sea, that barred their way to Calais. Nor, by the same token, could we follow up our victory of the Marne, and drive the Germans out of their intrenched positions on the Aisne. The Battle of the Marne was the end of an epoch in military history, and the Battle of the Yser was the beginning of a new epoch . Germany's failure to win the war was not demonstrated by the Marne alone. The handwriting on the wall was visible only after Germany's lack of success in the Battle of the Yser, the first offensive of the new epoch. Since then the war on the western front has been practically a stalemate.
From November, 1914, to June, 1917, we have passed through a drastic revolution in methods of offensive warfare. Our offensives and the enemy offensives have up to now had the same result—a few kilometers gained, a few prisoners taken, at the price of appalling losses. Flanders, Champagne, Soissons, Verdun, the Somme, Hindenburg's "genial" retreat, and even the joint Anglo-French offensive of April, 1917, on which we placed so many hopes and for which we made what we thought was adequate preparation—not one of these movements brought either side within sight of a decisive victory.
The experience has been bitter, and it has been very costly—far too costly, alas! It would be foolish to try to make out that we have not paid for our experience as dearly as the Germans. Why should we belittle the sacrifice, why should we refuse to appreciate the glorious effort of those who fell in the various offensives that we have undertaken?
The American army, taking a place beside us on the western front, will have the benefit of our dearly purchased experience. How many men, how much useless effort, will be spared them! We, after three years, are just beginning to realize what not to do. When the British sent over their large army they were able to profit by what we had learned in the first year. Now the Americans will profit by what the British and ourselves have learned in the Somme and second Champagne offensives.
I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that the British General Staff and our own General Staff, and the officers in the field, have built up entirely new methods of offensive warfare. We have had to find our way slowly, and what progress we have made in the knowledge of how to cope most effectively with the conditions that confront us has not been made without periods of discouragement and perplexity. Our enemies have had to travel the same road. They have learned much from us and we have learned much from them. I think there have been in this war a greater willingness and a greater opportunity to profit by the successes and failures of opponents than in any war in history.
The opposing forces have dug themselves into intrenched positions all along the battle front, and they are expending all their ingenuity as well as all their energy in defending their lines. In considering the offensive, there is no longer question of beating the enemy in the open field or of surrounding his armies or laying siege to his strong places. He has to be driven from one trench after another, always back, back, until he has lost so heavily in men and cannon that he will have to sue for peace. Since the Germans hold a portion of northern France and almost all of Belgium, to the liberation of which our honor is pledged, the task of taking and keeping the offensive is imposed upon us. In spite of all our disappointments and disillusionments, we have a well-founded belief in the possibility of accomplishing this task and of bringing Germany to her knees by our military measures, for we now possess the advantages that were hers at the beginning of the war—larger armies and superior armaments. Since the United States has joined the Entente coalition, our financial backing, our resources, our reserves of men, are unlimited. On the other hand, Germany cut off from the material and moral support of the outside world, is gradually being brought to exhaustion.
But confidence in our ability to accomplish the task will not win the war. We must realize the magnitude of the task, and assemble and put into action the means for carrying it to a successful end. What is more (and here I speak particularly for France, which has suffered most), we cannot afford to throw our men any longer like straw into the furnace—nor can we afford to squander resources just because we have the ability to call them into play. For we have to think of the future and not destroy ourselves in destroying our enemies.
THE RÔLE OF THE INFANTRY
I speak first of the infantry because, in spite of the revolution that has been wrought by modern science, the chief rôle in everything that is done in this world is played by men working together. The forces that we have created by our brains are not a substitute for our own efforts, individually and collectively. They enable us only to do more than we would otherwise have done. They are not substitutes; they are accessories. They would be substitutes in warfare only if one side alone employed them. Employed by both sides, they neutralize each other, and we fall back upon man power as the final and decisive element.
Those who are not actually engaged in the new warfare think that it consists in long periods of stagnation, with an occasional local action here and there, and a rare offensive movement on a large scale. The daily bulletins issued by the armies lend color to this impression. It is, however, wholly wrong. Trench warfare is a continuous battle that will not end until the armistice is signed. On the front there is always firing, there is always fighting. The artillery has no rest night or day; the infantry, never ceasing its vigil, exposed all the time to shell fire and sniping, plies the shovel and the pick, with arms at hand to repel or attack. This has taught us to make the unit battalions instead of divisions or regiments, and to exert every effort to avoid daily losses from needless and thoughtless exposure, and to get the day's work accomplished by division of labor that will keep the men in condition for the test that may come at any moment.
It is by battalion that sectors are occupied, by battalion that offensive movements are carried on, by battalion that small operations are organized. The officer who commands a battalion does not have to think about tactical and strategic problems, but he is the chief reliance of the General Staff in the execution of an offensive movement. If we want to understand how an offensive is prepared and carried out—in a word, how war is being fought in the autumn of 1917, the rôle of the infantry must be treated from the standpoint of the battalion. A sector is that portion of the front lines occupied by a battalion. The battalions are the units. When a battalion moves up to relieve another battalion the problem of the organization of the sector confronts the commanding officer of the battalion. From the moment the order is given to move forward to occupy a sector until the battalion is brought back for rest, the responsibilities and duties of the commanding officer are as great and as onerous as those of his superiors. He is like the foreman in industrial life—constantly at it, responsible for what the men under him are doing, responsible to them as well as to the men higher up. He has to think of everything, carry a dozen different things at one time in his head, and be ready for any emergency. He must keep his men in good moral and physical condition by a just division of labor and by looking after their food and their safety. Psychologist, pathologist, carpenter, builder, engineer, cook, physician, scout, judge, father—get all these professions together, none of which are learned at St.-Cyr, and you have a good chef de. bataillon.
The organization of a sector consists of: (a) accessory defenses (élements de tranchée) which are made to arrest and retard the enemy advancing under fire of the defense; (b) first line of surveillance, occupied by very few men, from which all ground in front can be well seen; (c) line of resistance, occupied very strongly, which must be defended, in principle, whatever happens; (d) lines of support, which contain here and there strongly organized centers that can be defended while lines in the rear are being organized. These successive lines are connected by communication trenches (boyaux). The boyaux serve primarily for protecting the soldiers going forward or coming from the front lines, the transmission of ammunition and food, the evacuation of wounded, and the passage of officers on their rounds. But at the moment of an attack, if the enemy has broken through one or more lines, the boyaux can be used also as defensive trenches, and are extremely useful in subjecting the enemy to a flanking fire. All the lines of trenches, as well as the centers of resistance on the line of support and the boyaux, are now protected by a prodigality of barbed-wire entanglements. The parallel trenches, as far as is possible, are dug in zigzag form, following the old principle of fortification, not only in order to subject the attackers to cross fire, but also to enable the defenders to hold a portion of the trench more readily, if the enemy breaks through at any point. Just before a general offensive movement steps are dug in the wall of the trench nearest the enemy, to facilitate the climbing out of the attacking forces, and the boyaux are widened so that reinforcements and munitions can pass rapidly.
The accessory defenses depend entirely upon the nature of the ground that lies in front of the first line of surveillance, and this consideration dictates also how strongly it is advisable to occupy élements de tranchée. The first line of surveillance cannot always be a continuous line. Sometimes it means only a little post here and there. Watchers (guetteurs) must be on the qui vive in the first line night and day. With adequate artillery preparation, it is always possible for the enemy to occupy the élements de tranchée and the première ligne. When one reads in the bulletins of the capture of these two advanced lines, the same or a following bulletin generally states that a counter attack has driven out the invaders. An offensive movement can be considered as serious only when the line of resistance, where the defenders are well dug in, has been carried. This line, too, can be smothered by heavy artillery. As we fight to-day, a big offensive is launched only after the line of resistance is supposed to be wholly destroyed, and the line of support subjected to a demoralizing shelling, which continues during the offensive. The line of support, occupied by entire companies, to whom reinforcements can be sent without delay, is where the attacking forces, if the artillery preparation has been sufficient, begin to suffer their first serious losses. The centers of resistance, villages and concrete forts, where existing buildings cannot be utilized, pour a deadly machine-gun fire upon the attackers.
Under these conditions one might think that the infantry, constantly exposed to annihilation, has to play a passive rôle—at least in the first three lines. What can be done against a crushing artillery fire?. Nothing can be done in the sector or sectors upon which the enemy concentrates his fire. But we must remember that there never will be enough cannon and enough ammunition to batter down the first and second positions, and keep shelling during the attack the lines of support, for more than a few kilometers at a time. Even within the few kilometers chosen for a concentration of fire, we have learned that millions of shells do not create everywhere equally great ravages and equally favorable openings for the attackers. Consequently, while some sectors are doomed to destruction, others remain to take the enemy on the flank as he pours through the holes his artillery has made. This is true of offensives on a large scale as well as of local operations. Hence it is of a prime importance for each sector to keep in contact with the neighboring sectors, to be ready at any moment to go to the aid of a threatened sector, or to help surround enemy forces that have, advanced too far. The battalion commanders are in touch with their neighbors on both sides and with the higher command in the rear. If this contact be never lost, it is always possible for the commanders of groups of units, on up to General Headquarters, to know what is happening, and to direct operations in the ensemble.
At this point one may ask why I have started in to describe an offensive movement by talking about defensive organization. This is easily understood if one realizes that offensive warfare means now—unfortunately!—no more than the moving of a few sectors forward a few kilometers. The success of this limited biting into the enemy lines depends upon the rapid organization of the ground taken. The battalion commanders can tolerate no moment of repose, no matter how exhausted their soldiers may be. Hesitation, bungling, slowness, are fatal. For very soon new enemy batteries will enter into action, and violent counter-attacks to gain the lost ground must be expected. So every offensive implies a defensive. If the officers and men who attack are not able to organize without delay the ground they have won, not only will they be subjected to a heavy bombardment before they have dug themselves in, but they will be forced to defend themselves in positions inferior to ones they have left. With artillery conditions such as they are, the infantry is able to conquer ground with slight losses; but, by the same token, holding the ground won necessitates sacrifices.
For taking the offensive, then, the first training for officers and men is in organizing defensively a sector, and in learning how to keep in touch with the sectors on both sides and with the higher command in the rear. The use of pick and shovel is as important as that of rifle and bayonet and grenade. Learning how to avoid needless exposure, how to go back and forth in the boyaux at night, and how to bring up supplies, must be followed by instruction in the study of the enemy ground in front. Space forbids me even to mention the numerous signs of enemy activity that a good watcher can detect. Surprises are now practically impossible, and some of the best help given to the artillery in warding off enemy attacks and in preparing the ground for offensives has come from information of simple soldiers, telephoned back by chefs de bataillon who kept "on the job" with their men twenty-four hours in the day.
Then follows the preparation of the soldiers, morally and technically, for an offensive movement. At the beginning of the war, raw soldiers who had never faced shell fire were thrown into action without the slightest preparation. We had to do it, although it was unfair to the men, for there was no other way to save France. Since the war has become a guerre de tranchée, it is possible to consider the psychology of the soldier. No matter how courageous and resourceful a man may be, he needs a progressive training to face death and to know how to think and act under fire. In the excitement of the actual forward movement, when men are fighting side by side, all may go well enough. But individual effort is required of the soldier after mass effort has won the ground. There comes the moment when men are separated in little groups, or find themselves alone. That is the critical moment in which the fruit of victory has to be reaped. Soldiers must be trained in such a way that they will be able to take full advantage of that moment.
This training is gained by the progressive use of the soldiers of the battalion in minor operations immediately in front of their sector. Under the pretext of carrying messages, they are sent in couples from one point to another in front lines. They learn how to use the boyaux, how to pass from shelter to shelter in exposed places, how to find their way in the dark, and become familiar with the system of organization of advanced defenses. Then, if there is a "no man's land" between their sector and the enemy trenches, they can be sent out into the open to build élements de tranchée and listening-posts, to put up and repair barbed wire, and—singly now—to act as sentinels to protect others who are working thus in front of the sector. Next they go out in small groups for patrol and reconnoitering duty. This, familiarizes them with the kind of country through which they must pass when the offensive is ordered, and they become expert in seizing upon everything that affords shelter and protection. The final step in training for the offensive is participation in raids (coups de main). Raids are not made upon the initiative of the chef de bataillion. They are ordered from headquarters, but the carrying out of the operation is left to the commanders of the sectors. Raids always have in view the general objects of making the enemy nervous, putting him off the scent, and causing him uselessly to expend his ammunition. Often there is a particular object of spoiling some plan the enemy is suspected of being about to carry out, reconnoitering to see if he has a plan on foot, or capturing and destroying a minenwerfer, a machine-gun position, an annoying élements de tranchée, or an advantageous observation post. Raids are welcomed by the chef de bataillon. They keep up the fighting spirit of his men, and, above all, they give him the opportunity to choose for the work men who need the final training for the Offensive—acquaintance with hand-to-hand fighting with bayonet or knife or revolver, handling and facing grenades, machine-guns, liquid fires, and gases, passing into and across barbed wire, enemy trenches, and other obstacles, looking out and warding off sudden flanking fire attacks, and undergoing artillery bombardment in the open.
Preparation for the offensive never ends. It is not our American friends alone, coming fresh to the battle-fields of Europe, who have to go through this training. New men are being constantly brought to the front in the French and British armies. From the depots in the rear recruits are being received, and conditions change so rapidly in a few months that men who have been evacuated sick or wounded when they return to their old regiments have to go through a new period of' training. They have forgotten much, and there are new tricks to learn. They need also to get hardened once more to pick and shovel, and to pass again progressively through the ordeal of being shelled.
The four stages of the offensive are: (1) when the artillery bombardment is deemed sufficient, the troops for the assault are brought up into the sectors opposite their objective; (2) the artillery concentrates its fire upon the first enemy line—-at a moment that has been fixed the infantry advances from its trenches in successive lines and marches forward; (3) at that same moment the artillery fire moves forward equally—it is an advancing wall of steel, followed immediately by the infantry who enter into the enemy lines right behind shells; (4) when the objectives have been attained, or when farther advance becomes impossible, the organization against the enemy's counter-fire and counter-attack begins immediately. For the first and fourth Stages the experience gained in the sectors ought to enable the battalions to do what is required of them without a hitch.
The second and third stages, which constitute the execution of the attack, will pass off smoothly if three conditions have been fulfilled: the men must be told what they are expected to accomplish and become familiar with the ground over which they will pass; the artillery must be able to live up to its program, both as regards the preliminary bombardment of objectives and the progressive advancement of the curtain of fire on schedule time after the attack has started; and the infantry must keep right along behind the artillery fire.
Before the attack the ground between the sector and the objective is carefully studied by means of maps and by personal observation, not only by the officers, but also by the men of the battalions. The artillery fire, directed by aeroplanes, may have been concentrated upon the front to be stormed for several days. The aeroplanes and the advance posts note, as closely as they possibly can, the effect of' the artillery fire. The changes wrought by the bombardment are wirelessed and telephoned back to Divisional Headquarters, where cartographers change every few hours the maps of the enemy lines according to the indications thus given them. At the moment of the attack the troops of assault have seen maps and photographs only a few hours old. Added to this information from headquarters, they have their own knowledge, from long study and constant observation, of just what obstacles are to be met on their particular route toward the objective. So thoroughly do the men know the ground to be traversed, each trench and center of resistance, each machine-gun emplacement, that they can go ahead in the dark with confidence. They have been informed also, as far as is humanly possible, just where the artillery may not have destroyed barbed wire and where machine-gun centers are supposed to remain intact. The officers of the sector have in their hands a time-table, which is rigidly adhered to, stating exactly when the artillery will advance its fire. So they know, how fast to go to follow directly upon the heels of the shells. This is of prime importance, for if the march is not regulated in such a way as to follow from seventy-five to a hundred yards behind the artillery fire, the enemy will have time to come out of his dugouts, rig up mitrailleuses, and defend his line of support and centers of resistance. Trenches must be entered and centers of resistance surrounded immediately after the artillery fire has passed on—or there is no hope of success.
The formation for the assault is a series of waves (vagues) which leave the trenches successively from fifty to one hundred and fifty yards apart. Where there is reason to believe that the artillery cannot have completely demolished the first two enemy lines of trenches, it is frequently deemed advisable to send expert riflemen, either separately a few feet apart, or in groups, as the first line of assault. These have a better chance, at less risk, than solid lines, to silence what resistance may be encountered in the first trenches. But as the artillery can now be counted upon to do its work thoroughly, the waves of assault are generally formed from the start of men who march elbow to elbow. In each line there is a mixture of specialists—lassoers, bomb-throwers, machine-gun and trench-cannon crews.
We have spoken of the artillery preparation, under the present conditions, as assuring the possibility of the advance of the infantry without great loss and a' very recent offensive; which won the Wyschaete-Messines salient, has demonstrated the possibility of complete success in this. However, it must be always borne in mind that everything cannot be expected to go well everywhere, and that not only machine-gun nests, but also concealed batteries may in places escape destruction and enter into action before the objective of the assault is reached. There is always danger, unless it is a salient that is being stormed, of flanking fire and attacks. We have not yet come to the point of overwhelming superiority in artillery and aeroplanes where we can assure our troops of assault protection until the moment of counter-fire and counter-attack. Hence the necessity still remains, during the second and third stages of the offensive, of keeping the lines moving, no matter what unexpected resistance may develop, and of assuring adequate reinforcements.
THE RÔLE OF THE ARTILLERY
The artillery prepares for the offensive by: (1) tearing up the enemy's barbed wire; (2) destroying his advanced and first-line trenches; (3) putting out of action his batteries; (4) destroying his machine-gun emplacements. The use of 75-mm. shells has proved effective for (1). Although it is impossible to uproot all the barbed wire, sufficiently large passages can be cut through and the enemy can be prevented from repairing them. In the most recent offensives complete success has been obtained in (2) and (3). (4) presents the greatest difficulties. For weeks before the offensive is decided upon, the portion of the enemy lines to be stormed is under special and constant surveillance of aeroplanes, captive balloons, and watchers of the sectors. As soon as machine-gun emplacements are discovered or suspected they are indicated on the maps. In the days immediately before the heavy bombardment begins raids are multiplied to induce the enemy to use his machine-guns. Often the most cleverly concealed posts are disclosed in this way. The artillery must wait until a few hours before the attack to concentrate upon machine-guns; if too long a time is allowed to elapse between their destruction and the attack the enemy can replace them and create new positions. It is by machine-guns that the heaviest losses are inflicted during the progress of the offensive.
The enemy, of course, soon realizes what is in store for him, for the preparation unfortunately takes so long a time that no offensive can be a surprise. Hence, another duty is imposed upon the artillery which requires a continuous effort and an expenditure of ammunition and the result of which is not as mathematically certain as that of the preparation of the ground to be stormed. By a liberal shelling of his rear that cannot afford to stop a single minute, the enemy must be prevented from bringing up reserves and replacing destroyed batteries.
As we have seen above, when the offensive starts, infantry and artillery act in unison according to a schedule prepared beforehand. The curtain-fire precedes the attackers right up to their objectives. By this means alone can the defenders of the lines of trenches that are too deeply dug to be destroyed be prevented from mounting the parapets and directing a fire upon the attackers. If the artillery does what is expected of it, the fighting begins only when the attackers have entered the enemy trenches, and centers of resistance can be .surrounded by troops designated beforehand for that purpose, while the others pass on to farther objectives.
Now comes the moment for the artillery to move forward to new positions in order that it may be able to co-operate with the infantry in repelling counter-attacks by a new curtain-fire, and to concentrate upon the enemy batteries as soon as they open fire upon those who are organizing the ground won.
The artillery must also have in mind the probability of enemy flank attacks and flank bombardments against the advancing troops. This means that the artillery of the divisions on both sides of the attacking sectors must be prepared to enter into action at any minute in accordance with an emergency plan. We have learned in this war to respect the ingenuity of our enemies. We have adopted the formula, "With your knowledge of what you are about to do, think hard of every possible measure that could be taken by the enemy to hinder its execution, and be sure that the Germans will do that, thing."
We are hearing much about precision of aim, and it is not uncommon to find intelligent men who believe that the perfection of modern artillery, in instrument as well as in method, has made possible the hitting of the objective every time. Unfortunately, it does not work out that way. Our mathematical calculation makes possible exactitude, but we have to reckon with the shells and the cannon. No two projectiles are alike in shape and weight; the centers of gravity are never the same; the weight of powder and its constituency change with time, humidity, temperature, and according to materials, no matter how exact the formula. There are differences in the coat of paint, and scratches occur in handling shells. It is impossible to point twice successively the cannon in an identical manner. The cannon-bore changes with heat, and gas remains in the bore. Scratches are also possible in the bore. Even when the cannon is not affected by rapid firing, sudden changes of atmosphere will affect it, and wind, rising in a moment, alters the trajectory of the shell. Soldiers believe that no shell falls twice in the same place. Only the law of chance is against them in this, belief!
I have mentioned the imprecision of artillery, which cannot be overcome, in order to emphasize the necessity of having an unlimited number of cannon as well as ah unlimited number of shells. We can be sure of success in paralyzing the enemy only if we can keep up a smothering fire by giving double, triple —even quadruple—for good measure. The infantry demands that enemy reaction be made impossible. Since it is a matter of shells against human lives, the infantry has a right to demand that.
THE RÔLE OF AEROPLANES
There are four operations in military aviation—exploration, observation, bombardment, combat. Just as the aeroplane to-day is totally different from that of three years ago, so we have come to envisage the rôle of the aeroplane in ways of which we had no conception when the war started. It is because of the trench warfare, and the new methods of offensive that are imposed upon us, that we have come to rely more and more upon aviation as an indispensible factor in military operations. We have seen how both the infantry and artillery depend in their co-operation for the offensive upon maps which indicate the state of the ground, the obstacles to be met and overcome (especially machine-guns), and which are corrected up to the very eve of the offensive. These maps would be impossible were it not for the daily scouting work of aeroplanes. New photographs are taken, new observations are made, every hour of the day. Only by this means can the artillery be sure of its objectives and of its success, and can the infantry be sure that it is not going forward into the unknown.
During the bombardment that precedes the offensive, observation aeroplanes, whose mobility makes them distinctly superior to captive balloons, indicate the objectives and regulate the fire by wireless telegraphy. They keep up this work during the offensive, wirelessing to headquarters as well as to the batteries. The success of the artillery and the knowledge headquarters has of how things are going are enhanced a thousandfold by aeroplane observation.
Division of labor arises in the development of every form of activity. Therefore we now have aeroplanes whose sole duty is fighting. Their part in the offensive is fully as important as the part of the exploration and observation aeroplanes. For neither exploration nor observation can be carried on unless those that are doing it are protected from hostile aeroplanes. Scouting aeroplanes have to fly pretty close to the ground. They are exposed, of course, to the fire of anti-aircraft guns. But firing from the ground is not very effective, for it necessitates determining the distance, angle, speed, of the machine, these three factors constantly changing. The great danger to exploration and observation comes from enemy aeroplanes suddenly swooping down from above. Unless fighting aeroplanes are constantly on duty over the enemy lines, exploring and observing are impossible on a large scale. Fighting aeroplanes have another task to perform in preparing for the offensive. They must prevent enemy aeroplanes from flying over their own lines. If they do not do this the enemy will get wind of the preparations, which have to begin weeks beforehand, as they did before Hindenburg's retreat. Since the preparation for the offensive necessitates bringing up and storing huge quantities of ammunition, the fighting aeroplanes must prevent the enemy from dropping bombs upon munition depots and railway lines. The danger of an attempt of this kind is always greatest during the few days immediately preceding an offensive. If successful, it could easily paralyze an offensive movement.
The escadrilles for bombardment are coming to play a more and more indispensable part in preparing for the offensive. During the week before the attack starts, they are sent as often as possible to drop bombs upon the enemy's munition depots-and railway lines that feed the sectors whose capture is planned. During the last two days, when the artillery is hammering the enemy lines, if aeroplanes can drop bombs upon the enemy's encampments, it is possible to demoralize the reserves at the moment when they need their nerve the most.
The army is blind indeed that does not have the mastery of the air, and we can never hope for a really successful offensive until the mastery is ours. The rôles of all the other branches of army service are as essential to the success of an offensive as those of the infantry, the artillery, and the aeroplanes.An army is a machine, and, like a machine, it is useless unless every part is working. Since this is the case, is not every part dependent upon every other part? And who can speak of one part being more important or more essential than another part? An offensive can be successful, then, only by the cooperation with equal spirit, determination, energy, and ability of all the branches of the army. Unfortunately, there is space only to mention the work of sappers, who by tunneling are often able, as at Messines, to destroy strong enemy trenches more effectively than the artillery could do; of telegraphers and telephonists, who assure the communications, without which nothing could be accomplished; of balloonists, who make observations when aeroplanes cannot go up; of automobilists and railway men and teamsters, who feed infantry and artillery; of engineers and surveyors and cartographers, who decide upon and make possible and show the way from the rear to the front, and from the front into the enemy's lines; of the territorials, who keep the roads in order—it was they who saved Verdun; of the medical corps; of the General Staff; of the quartermaster's department; of miners and factory-workers in the rear; of those who sail the seas and make the seas safe in order that materials for carrying on the offensive may reach France; of the nations behind the armies—it is the House-that-Jack-Built.
I may have satisfied ill the curiosity of the American reader to know just how an offensive is made, because what I have written is incomplete—things picked out here and there. But is it not enough to stimulate in my readers, whose influence I know is very great, to see to it that the United States accomplishes what she has in mind—to serve most effectively the common cause? And has it not occurred to the reader that most of the instruments with which we fight have been either invented or perfected by American ingenuity? How much the science of war owes to America for the steamship, the gunboat, the submarine, the torpedo, the telegraph, the telephone, the microphone, barbed wire, the revolver, magazine-rifle, the machine-gun, and the aeroplane!
You will not be called upon, in the new form of offensive, to sacrifice American lives as we have sacrificed French lives. But you alone can make possible a complete victory with little further sacrifice of life. You alone can hasten the end. When the Germans realize that we have the material to make defense of their present or any other lines impossible, they will have to give in.How can we force that realization upon them? By cannon and shells without limit, and the means to transport them to our battle-front; and by aeroplanes without limit. We welcome the American flag on our front, but the success of our offensive is more dependent upon American factories and shipyards.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald