By Frank H. Simonds
[The New Republic; May 1, 1915]
In the opening weeks of the present war the chief difference between its battles and those of the past was in size. Waterloo had been fought on a front of four miles, Gettysburg on one of less than ten, even the Franco-Prussian War saw no impressive expansion of the battle fronts. But the Battle of the Marne was a struggle—or a series of struggles—extending from the environs of Paris to the Argonne, considerably more than a hundred miles.
From the contest on a tremendously broad front the battle almost imperceptibly dropped to the level of a trenching contest. Again there was at the outset plain resemblance to our Civil War precedent, to the famous lines of Torres Vedras, behind which Wellington stood in the Peninsular war. Lee before Richmond fought in trenches for many months.
The development of the battle line in France from the Oise, to the Somme, to the Lys, to the Yser, may be compared with that of the parallel trenches of Lee and Grant from Petersburg to Five Forks; the main difference being that while Lee, having insufficient forces and unable to get reinforcements, was obliged to stretch his line so thin that Grant finally broke it and compelled the evacuation of Richmond, both the Germans and the Allies were able to bring up sufficient men to defend each new extension of the line.
The climax in this trench operation came at the Battles of the Yser and of Ypres. Here the Germans were patently repeating Grant's Five Forks tactics. With overwhelming forces they attacked the thin Belgian and British forces on the Allied left, as Grant had similarly attacked Pickett on Lee's right. But the thin line held, the Germans were unable to pass the flank of the Allies.
The character of the struggle in the west again changed with the end of the two battles of Flanders. With one wing resting on Switzerland, the other on the North 'Sea, both German and Allied lines were now safe from all flanking operations, and the battle fronts had reached their maximum extension. Henceforth it was impossible to have recourse to any of the familiar methods of manoeuvering an army out of a position. There was left nothing but the costly and hazardous frontal attack against entrenched opponents.
From November to February, partly because of weather conditions, partly because the Allies were still lacking in numbers and heavy artillery, while the Germans were diverting their reserves to the east, there was little activity on the western front. But in February for the first time there begins to develop the new style of battle, which has now become familiar to all who read the war despatches.
The first example of this new style battle was in the Champagne. Here, on a front of about a dozen miles, the French concentrated some six army corps, about 250,000 men, and an enormous mass of heavy artillery. Against the Germans, holding a low ridge, rising above the monotonous Plain of Champagne less than two hundred feet, they directed terrific artillery fire. Under cover of it they advanced slowly, beating off counter attacks until they had occupied the whole ridge, but their advance in a month did not average a mile on their active front.
The second example was far more illuminating. Having made a similar Artillery concentration at Neuve Chapelle, the British suddenly opened a furious bombardment upon the Germans before them in the village of Neuve Chapelle, destroyed the village, wrecked the German trenches, and then occupied them before the Germans could recover from their confusion. The mission of the artillery in such an operation is first to reduce the enemy's trenches, then to build up a wall of fire between the enemy's reserves and their trenches, which have been shelled, under cover of which the infantry can advance and organize the captured trenches.
At Neuve Chapelle this method was followed, but unfortunately for the British the zone of fire between the German trenches and the German reserve was badly calculated and their own advance checked by the fire of British artillery. Once the British had taken the German trenches they followed the tactics of the French in Champagne—organized them and prepared for a counter attack, This came with great promptness, and for several days the fighting was desperate, but in the end the British hung on to their gain. In both the fighting in Champagne and about Neuve Chapelle there were patent results of great strategic advantage, if the Allies could actually break through the German lines—that is, both the front and the reserve trenches. But in this in both cases they failed utterly.
Such advantages were to be expected only in case of overwhelming triumph, of success beyond any reasonable expectation. In addition there was another end sought. In these struggles, in the French campaign about St. Mihiel, the British at Hill 60 in Flanders, which followed the Allies were plainly adopting the familiar Grant policy, attrition, which General Joffre has rechristened "nibbling." For Grant and for the western Allies the problem was the same. The time had now arrived when the numerical advantage of the Allies in the west was decisive and bound to grow. With 750,000 British troops in France, with the Belgian army reorganized, with French military establishment at the maximum of its possible strength and efficiency, the Germans were outnumbered in the west, not temporarily but permanently, since the Russian campaign in the Carpathians was making new demands all the time upon them.
Thus, if the Allies could keep up sustained pressure from Switzerland to the sea, and furthermore, in local actions—which in reality were battles on larger scale than nineteenth century history records— make the German loss equal to or greater than their own, they must in time wear the Germans down to the point where their lines, like Lee's about Richmond, would be so thin that the Kaiser's generals would have to choose between retreat to a shorter line and disaster due to the breaking of the lines.
As the Allies now possessed a superiority of heavy artillery and, what was even more vital, of ammunition, their commanders reckoned that this policy of attrition could safely be pursued. Thus at Neuve Chapelle the loss of the British up to the time the German trenches were actually occupied was greater than that of the Germans. But the German counter attacks made in the open and in massed formation, under artillery were, If British "eyewitness" reports are to be believed, much larger, and the total German loss 20,000 to 12,000. In addition, the French operation compelled the Germans to send to Champagne reserves stationed about Neuve Chapelle, and this permitted the British to make their attack. The French offensive in the St. Mihiel region was followed by a successful British advance at Hill 60 in Flanders, suggesting another deflection of German reserves, which weakened the line in front of the British, with similarly costly consequences.
Without accepting the reports of the Allies as to their achievements too completely, it is possible to accept what they attempted as indicative of their strategy. To force the fighting, to kill as many Germans as possible, at least a number equal to their own losses, to play the Grant game on a stupendous scale, this was what General Joffre and Sir John French had now undertaken.
One more advantage the Allies had and a great one. Such battles as were now fought demand enormous supplies of ammunition. The battle of Neuve Chapelle cost the British more ammunition than the whole Boer War. Here the Allies were able to draw upon the neutral world, upon the United States mainly, to supplement their own stocks. Russia, too, could draw on Japan and the United States by the Trans-Siberian. But Germany, shut in by the blockade, compelled to manufacture her own ammunition to meet Russian as well as French, British, Belgian and neutral production, lacking in copper, obliged to supplement Austrian as well as German supplies, seemed bound in the end to face a shortage of ammunition, conceivably before there was any lack of men.
Looking over the whole contest in the west from February to the approach of May, it will be observed that the Allies followed a consistent plan. Champagne, Neuve Chapelle, Les Eparges, Hill 60, were all battles of the new style; each was marked by immediate local success followed by tremendous counter attacks, in which German losses must have been great, even if no greater than those of their more numerous enemies. The German advance about Ypres, going forward as these lines are written, is an example of the new style battle in its details. But it may be reckoned, on present information, as a great counter offensive, the most ambitious for many months, necessitated by the successful British "nibble" at Hill 60.
Such, briefly, is the new style battle, as it is now being fought in France and Belgium. By adopting it the Allies seem to have resigned any plan for any "spring drive." Rather they have settled down to the method by which Grant destroyed Confederate military strength, to the strategy of Wellington in the Peninsular. Unless these plans are abandoned it seems inevitable that the summer will be the bloodiest in modern history, while the actual change in the battle lines in the west may be inconsiderable, if German resources in men and ammunition can last until autumn.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald