British Tactics in the War

By H. Sidebotham

[The Atlantic Monthly, January 1917]

Strategy is the art of choosing the battlefield; tactics, the science of winning the battle. Strategy is half politics; for the right field of battle is that on which victory will give the highest proportion of political results to the expenditure of effort and of life, and the choice of the battlefield cannot be right unless there is a clear perception of the political ends of the war. And, therefore, because there is so much politics in strategy (using the term politics in its widest sense), the best strategists have commonly been, not men who were nothing but soldiers, but men of imagination with a taste for soldiering. Caesar, Alexander, and Marlborough were all men of this type.

Tactics, on the other hand, is half business. If two armies are fighting in exactly the same way and by exactly the same rules, the conflict is likely to be bloody and the results indecisive. The successful tactics, therefore, are usually . those which break with old rules; and the same qualities which make a man a good engineer and a skillful inventor, or even a successful man of business, would probably make him a good tactician. In strategy and tactics alike, convention and dogma are the enemies of success.

The vulgar idea of war is that the victory is won by superior valor or other moral virtue. This, however, has very rarely been the case; almost all Western nations, at any rate, are equally brave, though the valor of some excels in obstinacy and endurance and of others in daring and élan. By far the commoner causes of victory and defeat are political or technical. Sometimes (to take the domain of tactics) it. is a new weapon that wins victory on the battlefield, or at any rate contributes to the ease with which it is won; sometimes, as in the Roman and in Frederick's armies, it is superior discipline, greater physical fitness, and practice in manoeuvre that win the victory. More often it is some new formation of line. Those tactics commonly succeed best of all which are both new and adapted to the genius of the people using them. Thus the Boers in the South African War developed a highly original system of mounted infantry tactics by simply using their horses in war-time as they did going about their ordinary business on their wide sheep-farms; and similarly in the American wars the woodsmen made ideal skirmishers.

Political conditions, too, will influence tactics. For example, the French Convention, after the Revolution, found itself assailed by half Europe, without armies, without generals. The men could be obtained only by conscription, and there was no time to train the raw levies. But the French armies, because they were conscript, had one great advantage over the other European armies—their superior intelligence; and so it was that they came to adopt the characteristic formations of the armies of Revolutionary France—columns instead of the deployed line because these required less discipline and drill; and in front of the columns, and screening them from artillery fire, lines of skirmishers in open, order, which was the formation best adapted to the superior intelligence of the French.

The French officers had learned skirmishing tactics in the American War of Independence, so that the nascent American Republic may be said to have helped to preserve Revolutionary France. It was in the United States, too, that British troops learned the lessons which won them their victories in the Peninsular War, and helped them to overthrow Napoleon. The British military disasters in the American War of Independence naturally set our officers thinking, and they were ascribed to the lack of light infantry and to the three-deep formation. Sir John Moore, of Corunna fame, when he was in command at Shorncliffe camp, was the first to introduce the deployed line of two-deep instead of three-deep; and though at first the formation was resisted at the Horse Guards, it was adopted by Wellington in the Peninsular War. A general order issued by Wellington just before the troops landed in Portugal begins with the words, 'The order of battle is to be two-deep.' And so Wellington gave England what was justly described as the deadliest fire formation in Europe. 'The principal cause of our reverses in Spain,' says Marbot, in his memoirs of Napoleon, 'was the immense superiority in the accuracy of the British infantry's fire, a superiority which came from frequent exercise at the butts and also from its formation, in two ranks.'

he cause of Napoleon's failure to break the British squares at Waterloo was also tactical. The heads of the attacking columns were all shot away and the rear thrown into confusion before they could come to close quarters. The victories of the British infantry over the French in the Napoleonic wars were victories of the two-deep line formation over the columnar formation which the French had been compelled to adopt owing to the political conditions immediately after the overthrow of the monarchy; and experience in America helped both the French to beat the Austrians and Prussians and the English to beat the French.

At the beginning of this war there was some hope that the British might repeat over the Germans their tactical successes over the French more than a hundred years before. The enemy had had very little experience of actual fighting under modern conditions (for everything had changed since the Franco-Prussian War), and the British had had a great deal: in the South African War especially they had had experiences which at many points presented a close parallel to those of the American War of Independence, which, as has been seen, taught them so much. In South Africa the thinning of the line had been carried to an extent previously unheard of. In the battle of Diamond Hill, for example, the Boers held a front of something like twenty miles for three days against attack by greatly superior numbers, with probably not more than five thousand men. In the same proportion the British army at Mons, numbering fifty thousand effectives, would have held easily the ninety miles between Mons and the sea at Dunkirk. The actual front at Mons was something like twelve miles, and if their flanks had been secure, the British army might have held the German attack there, as it did later at Ypres.

The calculation of the British War Office, therefore, of the breadth of line that might be held defensively under .modern conditions in Europe by a given number of rifles, was not very far out. Mons was lost, not by the breaking of our line, but by the defeat of the French on our right and by the outflanking of our left. The fire tactics of the British infantry, at any rate on the defensive, were shown by this battle to be far superior to those of any other army in Europe: Two facts, however, had not been sufficiently taken into account. The first was the amount of punishment that modern conscript armies will stand in the attack. The vulgar idea, that the long-service soldier, by reason of his training, will endure more punishment than short-service troops, does not seem to be justified. In the percentage of casualties that they will stand there is very little difference between long-service and short-service men, and it is a great deal higher than any one had thought possible before the war. What long service does for soldiers is, not make them ready to lose their lives, but fit them better for saving them.

The conscript system, therefore, means, not only higher casualties (that is a matter of course, seeing that more men are employed), but higher casualties even in proportion to numbers. Thus, casualties which would have shocked the British army in South Africa, were perfectly normal in the German army from the outset of this war. Again, conscription gave Europe more men than it needed for a single battlefield. On the South African standard, or any reasonable modification of it, the armed millions of Europe would have sufficed to defend battle-fronts ten times the length of those actually held in this war, even at their greatest extension. With such enormous numbers of men to be employed, it ought to have been obvious from the first that the real battle-front would, on the West, be from the sea to Switzerland. Apparently it was not obvious to any of the combatants involved. The Germans invaded Belgium in order (among other reasons) to get a wider extent of front, sufficient to deploy their millions upon; but they made the suicidal mistake of not extending their line to the sea, which would have given them Ypres and the Narrows of the Channel in the first month. The British, too, left a gap of ninety miles between their left at Mons and the sea; and the French, exaggerating the possibility of Belgian resistance, for they must have known that Germany meant to go through Belgium, had a mere fraction of their army on the North. None of them was able to shake off at the beginning of the war the tradition of the old-fashioned battle-'field.'

The British theory of the length of line that the modern army could hold, though sounder than that of any of the armies in Europe, had one fallacy. It held true of the rifle in the peculiar conditions of South Africa, but it needed modification in the conditions of Europe, where the battle-front was the whole width of the frontier. But even in Europe it might have held true of the machine-gun. The real lesson of the South African War, applied to European conditions, pointed to the substitution of the machine-gun for the rifle. Had there been any one farsighted enough before the war to apply this lesson and to evolve a new tactical system of training the army in the light of South African experience, only with the machine-gun substituted for the rifle, it is conceivable that the British army, small as it was, could have held, not only the twelve-mile front of Mons, but a ninety-mile front from Mons to the sea. And had the French applied the same lesson, they need have had no misgivings on the score of insufficiency of men, at any rate for the purposes of defense. Half a million men properly intrenched could have held the whole French frontier defensively, and enormous reserves could have been accumulated in the rear, to deal promptly with a break-through at any one point. The problem of attack would then have been insoluble at the beginning of this war, as most people in England said it would be, after the South African War. It was not the Allies but the Germans, in the trench war of defense that began in the winter of 1914-15, who were the first to apply the lessons of the South African War, with the modifications made necessary by European conditions. And even they did it nervously and half-heartedly.

There is plenty of evidence in German military writing of how greatly they were worried before the war by the problem, of attack. They proposed to solve it by counting partly on, the conscript's recklessness of life, partly on the effect of artillery fire. They had at the beginning of the war the same or a greater superiority over the British in number of artillery pieces that the British have over the Germans now.

The French were more fortunate than the British in the possession of the 75-centimetre piece, which is virtually a machine-field-gun in its principle; but even they were greatly inferior to the Germans in the number of their artillery pieces.

The surprise of the early part of the war was the employment by the Germans of howitzers of enormous range, firing a high-explosive shell which usually buried itself in the ground before bursting. Against troops in the open the ordinary shrapnel shell bursting in the air is clearly more deadly; and so long as we were on the defensive there was good reason for the preference for shrapnel which some have attributed to Lord Kitchener. The howitzer, with its long range and its high-angle fire, was evidently designed as a trench-smasher. The Germans knew the enormous defensive power of trench-lines with sufficient machine-guns, and the immense development of their artillery tactics in the form that it took was possible only because they had studied, and acquired a most wholesome respect for the power of defense in modern war. And yet, in spite of the long and careful study they had given to the tactics of the offensive, they failed to make them good as soon as the Allies, too, on their side, had adopted the system of permanent trench-fortifications. In other words, they found the problem of the offensive insoluble.

Part II

Nothing is more striking in the history of the war than the success of field fortifications as compared with the failure of fortification by fixed works. The war opened with the rapid fall of fortresses in Belgium which had been thought impregnable. Liège, Antwerp, and Namur fell with almost ridiculous ease; and as though to show that it was the theory that was at fault, and not the men, Maubeuge, the great French fort, gave very little more trouble. In invading through Belgium the Germans were on the classic ground of Vauban, the great French engineer; and it seems strange that the French should have neglected the possibilities of defense, on ground which he had shown could be made impregnable.

But the success of the Germans in capturing the forts was only one other example of the way in which they had profited by English theory and experience. There had been two schools of fortification in the military thought of the last fifty years: a Continental school headed by the Belgian General Brialmont, and the English school, represented by Sir George Clarke, now Lord Sydenham. General Brialmont held that forts were to shelter the guns, Lord Sydenham that forts were best used to shelter the men. Lord Sydenham seems to have derived his ideas from the siege of Plevna in the Russo-Turkish War. The forts of Plevna were small and inconspicuous, and the chief defenses of the town were the rifle-lines. He argued that the first necessity of artillery defense was mobility. If guns were put in a fort, especially if their position was advertised by a steel cupola, they served merely to draw the enemy's fire and their disablement was only a matter of time, perhaps of a very short time. The British principles of fortification were elaborate intrenchments—if necessary, miniature forts—for the infantry, and concealment for the guns, with arrangements for moving them about unobserved, from one point to another.

These are the principles which have been vindicated in this war. At the beginning of the war, the defenses of Verdun were on the usual continental model, and Verdun would have shared the fate of Namur and Maubeuge, had not General Sarrail, taught by the experience of the first month of the war, completely remodeled them on English principles.

It is odd after this vindication, that some passages in the later history of the war should have shown such a lack of understanding by the British government of principles that their experts had been the first to lay down. It came out in the report of the Dardanelles Commission that the speedy downfall of the Belgian forts was one of the chief reasons that induced the government to hope that it might carry the Dardanelles by purely naval attack. The naval guns were to do to the Dardanelles forts what the German 42-centimetre howitzers did to the Belgian forts. So indeed they did, as long as the ships had power to manoeuvre freely in the open sea. Had there been troops to land, or if the fleet could have pressed its advance rapidly up the Straits without giving the Turks time to bring up their field guns and make intrenchments, the Dardanelles would been forced. As it was, although the fixed forts might be destroyed, the mobile Turkish artillery defeated the fleet's attempts to get command of the Straits. Both the downfall of the Belgian forts and the failure of the fleet to force the Dardanelles were victories of English principles of fortification.

Part III

In their air tactics the Germans made a grave mistake in exaggerating the military usefulness of the Zeppelin. When one balances its military achievement against the terrible embitterment which its blind attacks on noncombatants brought into the war, the net balance is very heavily against the enemy. Not until the war had been in progress for some time did the Germans discover that the best use for the Zeppelin was in reconnaissance at sea, and even there it was too much of a fine-weather craft to be constantly trustworthy.

One would have expected the Allies, who had developed the aeroplane as a reply to the airship, to have worked out its tactics much more carefully and completely than the Germans. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. Their idea of the principal uses of the aeroplane was as a raider and for reconnaissance. They did not grasp so clearly as the Germans its importance as an adjunct to the artillery. Before this war one of the advantages of trench defenses was the extreme smallness of the mark presented to hostile artillery fire. The Germans were the first to see how valuable the aeroplane might be in locating enemy trenches and in signaling the range to their artillery. At the beginning of the war, before the Allies learned to imitate them, these tactics were very valuable, and doubled the effectiveness of the artillery attack. It was another proof of the extraordinary preoccupation of the German military mind before the war with solving the problem of attack. The prolonged study which they had made of this problem made them much less conservative than the Allies in their minor tactics. For example, the Allies continued to waste effort in the maintenance of their cavalry, a long time after it was obvious that cavalry was the least efficient arm for the military duties that it had hitherto discharged. It is doubtful whether the armée blanche will ever again be of much use, even in the pursuit of a disorganized and beaten enemy; the roughest of intrenchments, held by a handful of determined men, will break the best cavalry charge. The aeroplane is of ten times the value in completing the rout of a broken enemy. For mounted infantry tactics there is more to be said, but even these are best carried out, not by men on horses, but by men on motor-bicycles and in motor-cars.

The tactics of trench-warfare were exceedingly elaborate, but presented very few new or original principles. The old ideas of barbed-wire entanglements and the like were enormously improved, and the Germans, who had thought out the practice of trench-warfare much more carefully than we had, made much more thoroughgoing arrangements for the comfort of their troops than the Allies did. They are wonderful diggers, and their trench-systems were more like underground cities than field works. Reckless as the Germans could be in the expenditure of life in attack—their tactics in the first battle of Ypres for example, were crazily incompetent in the waste of life—they were very much more careful with their men in the trenches than we were, and their loss of life must have been much less than ours in the day-to-day incidents of trench-war. They attached much more importance to concealment than the Allies did, or at any rate they succeeded better in training their men to avoid exposure. And in the choice of their positions for trenches they always preferred the higher ground, both for sanitary and for military reasons.

The English fondness for the bayonet was oftener a snare than a real advantage, for in bayonet-fighting the losses are likely to be more nearly equal than in fire-tactics. The revival of hand-bombs and grenades was foreseen by both sides from the incidents of the siege of Port Arthur by the Japanese; but their use, though unavoidable in close hand-to-hand fighting, was still an anachronism, and when the tactics of attack are really solved, they will disappear; for the end of tactics is to inflict the maximum of loss on the enemy with a minimum to yourself. This is not possible in hand-to-hand fighting, and therefore the first aim of the new tactics will be to avoid it.

When one reflects on the elaborate study that the Germans had given to the tactics of attack and defense, the wonder is, not that the Allies have made so little progress, but that they have made so much. The British, in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, were the first to show what could be done by artillery fire concentrated on a narrow section, and the Germans were not slow to imitate. They learned at Neuve Chapelle the lesson which they applied later to win the battle of Gorlice over the Russians. But the Allies, in 1915 were not in a position to establish more than a very local ascendancy of artillery fire; nor had the new British army, yet received the tactical training that was necessary if it was to succeed where the Germans had failed. The British attacks at this period were dangerous, but were apt to be short-winded. The common German criticism of them was that they soon became gemischt; and the British were particularly unskillful as yet in the consolidation of a position after it had been won.

All the more remarkable therefore was the achievement of the Allies in the Somme offensive. The German positions were far stronger than any that they had ever carried before, and the Allies were not able to do more than develop tactical ideas that were perfectly well known to both sides. And yet the British and French troops undoubtedly made a better job of their offensive than the Germans had been able to do since the trench-war began.

What was the explanation? And can we draw from it any assurance of probable decisive victory in the future? In the battle of the Somme, Sir Douglas Haig effected a penetration of the German lines on a front that was originally less than a mile wide. Had he driven the attack forward, the wedge would have narrowed to a point so fine that it would have broken off. This was always happening to the German attacks at Verdun. At Verdun the German plan was to drive in a number of wedges from various points on the circumference in the hope as it were of splitting the core of the defense by pressure from a number of points at once. The British plan on the Somme—it seems to have been adapted from the tactics of General Foch in the Arras region—was, having effected a lodgment, not to drive forward, but to work zig-zag, so widening the front of penetration. The progress as measured by miles was small, but it undoubtedly destroyed the theory of the impregnability of any fortified position; and if the attack could have been started three months earlier and if the weather in the late summer and autumn had been more favorable, the Germans might well have been driven back to the Meuse before the Christmas of 1916.

The success was due to the great preponderance of the Allied artillery, to the superiority of its air-service, to a refinement and subtlety in tactics, but also—perhaps most of all—to the fact that the animal spirits of the British army were so much higher—possunt quia posse videntur. It seems an unscientific explanation of the victory, but Napoleon used to say that the moral was to the material in war as three to one, and the proportion still holds. The Germans were suffering from the discouragement of a war prolonged beyond all their expectations. Their military principle of attaining their maximum energy at the outset of war had led to an anti-climax. They had the sense that they were going down-hill. They were fighting, not to increase their gains, but to hold them, and the army was beginning to suffer inevitable reaction from its first confidence. The retreat of the German army between Arras and La Fère, which began this spring, was the deferred dividend on the battle of the Somme. And to take the full measure of that victory we must not merely reckon the six or seven miles of progress actually made in the latter half of last year, but must also add the ground covered this spring by the so-called voluntary retreat to the Hindenburg line.


This year has been signalized by a new development of German tactics —- new at any rate to the western front, where the lines had been rigid since the scurrying passion of the opening movements rushed like molten metal into a mould and there solidified. The battle of the Somme had shaken Hindenburg's faith in the impregnability of any lines, and he was particularly nervous of the Allies' growing ascendancy in material. He is a man of few and simple ideas. He had gained his reputation in the war of movement on the East Prussian frontier by the employment of tactics like Hannibal's at Cannee. He declined his centre and drew the Russians on to the narrow causeways between the Masurian Lakes, and then attacked them from the flanks. When, after the entry of Roumania, he succeeded to the chief command, he employed the same tactics on a larger scale. The Austrian centre in Transylvania was instructed to fall back while two fixed points, one at the western the other at the eastern end of the Roumanian frontiers, were firmly held. The principle was that of an elastic band between two fixed points.

Precisely the same plan was adopted by Hindenburg in France. Knowing that he could not hold his weakened positions on the Somme against attack, he withdrew his whole centre between Arras and the Aisne, and devastated the country, hoping thereby to create an artificial desolation like that of the Masurian Lakes and to hamper our attack. he proposed, when we had sufficiently involved ourselves in this bad country, to throw forward his flanks—certainly his right flank—and to this end he accumulated very large reserves. These tactics might have been successful if. General Haig had not thrown himself on the German fortified positions in front of Arras and carried the Vimy Ridge on that memorable Easter Monday.

But one of Hindenburg's flanking movements was carried out, and it is now the chief danger in the whole war. This was the submarine campaign, to which Hindenburg attached so much importance that he was prepared to risk the hostility of America for the sake of it. Hindenburg, it will be remembered, is in full control of the German operations on sea as well as on land, and the submarine campaign, rightly considered, is a raid on the communications by which supplies from England and the United States reach the army that is attacking him in France. It is a compliment to the dangerous character of the Allied offensives in France.

How Hindenburg proposes to work out his new tactical variation on the rigid trench-system is not yet clear. The progress of the British is satisfactory; already it nearly equals in depth the amount of ground won in the whole six months fighting on the Somme. But there is a marked falling off in the rate of the advance since the opening day of the attack. The rigid system of defense has this great drawback, that the exact positions are known to a yard. The Hindenburg line is an elastic area of defense rather than a rigid barrier. It has opportunities of surprise and concealment not possible in positions where the two sides have been facing each other without much movement for a couple of years. And at the moment of writing it looks as though the system might be likely to give us much trouble. But after the success on the Somme there can be no question of our ability to force any position, however strong, provided always that adequate supplies of munitions can be kept up.

There has been much discussion in the United States about the desirability of America's taking part in the Western campaign by sending an expedition. But as one reads the situation in England, men are not at this moment the first necessity of the Allies, nor will they, be until next spring. The first necessity is to repel the attack that the submarine campaign is making on their communications. That cannot be done by an army. It is not even solely the business of the American navy cooperating with the British. The most important immediate contribution that the United States can make to the success of the Allied offensive, is in her workshops, in the studies and laboratories of her inventors, and, above all, in the vigor and independence of thought that distinguishes America's industrial system. Tactics, as was said in the beginning of this paper, are half business, and the cleaner the break they make with tradition, the more effective they are likely to be.

It is fairly safe to predict that for tactical reasons alone, not to speak of reasons of another order, this will be the last war in which the armies will be composed of the whole manhood of the nation. Universal military service is out of date, and although some officers whose career depends on its maintenance will struggle hard to retain it, the higher officers, whose business is to direct the strategy and tactics of a campaign, should be interested in its abolition or modification. War with armies of millions is becoming an impossibility, and if the institution is to have any chance of surviving, the size of armies will need to be reduced.

There is a passage in Von der Goltz's Das Volk in Waffen in which he looks forward prophetically to the time when some small highly trained professional army, that has evolved some new system of tactics, will sweep away the armed millions of Europe. A little more forethought, some bold and original thinking, and it might have happened even in this war. Even at its most progressive, the military art is more conservative than any other. It is an interesting exercise, and one that will be much indulged in the next generation, to cast one's mind forward to a war in which science and mechanical equipment are adapted, as they should be in war as in other human activities, to economize human toil and human life. The army of the future will have an immense equipment in artillery; the infantry will be few in number but heavily armed, each man with a machine- gun, capable of holding a width of front that otherwise would need a company armed with rifles. Trench-warfare, at any rate on the scale that has been witnessed in France, will disappear, for the aeroplane will overleap the trenches, and substitute a war of movement for a war of fixed positions.

The aeroplane will be used, not only as at present for reconnaissance work, signaling ranges to the artillery, for raids on communications, and for bombing a retreating army, but also for the transport, on a large scale, of infantry. One can easily imagine aeroplanes sufficiently large to carry fifty or even a hundred infantrymen. A hundred such planes could transport an army of ten thousand with incredible rapidity to any point behind the hostile line desired by the general in command. Such movements will make trench-lines obsolete. The whole art of war will have to be rewritten from its elements. The development of the uses of the aeroplane will change the strategical and tactical direction of the war, from a game comparatively elementary, like draughts, into an elaborate and complicated game like chess, with greater variety of moves and endless possibilities of fresh combinations. Such a game will be too difficult to be fought with millions. With proper use of mechanical invention a company of men will be able to do the work of a division in this war. We shall go back to the days of small professional armies of long training and high technical equipment; the great general of the future will be he who is able to divine best all the possibilities of this new war-movement, and military power will no longer depend on numbers but on the genius of the direction and the technical accomplishment of a comparatively few human instruments.

Perhaps it was hardly to be expected that such a revolution should be effected in this war. A Napoleon of tactics might have done it; an Anglo-American general staff, with French assessors, working seriously and as honestly on the technical problems of war as the German General Staff has done, but with an originality and inventiveness that are denied to the German mind, might have realized the importance of the aeroplane, overthrown German militarism with its impossible system of universal service, and won this war with ease and with a minimum of suffering to the human race. The necessary changes in tactics would have been very little more than that effected by the Germans in substituting the submarine for the huge battleship as the effective weapon of naval power.

It may be too late now to make these changes. But the first power to make them in the future will undoubtedly be the leading military power. A curse of the military mind is its fondness for imitation and its conventionality. Wars are won, not by similarity of tactics, but by some boldly developed difference in tactics.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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The Headlong Fury