Supplemental Episode 6: Military Theory
So in the last supplemental episode, we discussed the basic organization of various army units seen in the Armies of the First World War, as well as the corresponding ranks that would generally command those units. If you haven’t listened to that episode, I’d recommend you listen to that one first, as I think this episode will make a bit more sense having listened to the other one first. Or don’t, whatever boats your float.
So this episode is similarly going to cover some basic military concepts that will be relevant throughout the rest of the series (or, at least, those episodes that focus specifically on the campaigns and battles of the war). However, while the previous episode covered military ranks and structures specific to the Armies of the First World War, in this episode we are going to talk about some more fundamental concepts, terms, and theories that have dictated warfare for most if not all of human history. If you are someone who is pretty familiar with military history, than I imagine this episode will feel a bit 101 level for you, and if you are someone with actual, personal, military experience, I hope you won’t find any serious objections with how I, someone who has read countless books on military history but has never served a day in the armed forces, present and discuss these topics. With that business out of the way, let’s get started.
So where to even begin…I think the best way that I can discuss these related but myriad topics, which are almost all conceptual rather than literal, with any kind of coherent structure, is to use as a guiding rubric the work of…no. Not Sun Tzu. That would be way too easy (although all of you should go read The Art of War, it’s brilliant and super interesting from a historical point of view). No, the author whose work will guide this discussion will be a one Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Ayrault Dodge. Dodge was a veteran of the U.S. Civil War who went on to become an author and lecturer on military history and theory. He isn’t particularly famous these days, but I highly recommend that you read his stuff. Not only did he have a remarkable ability to convey a large number of complicated and nuanced ideas in a very clear way, but he is also just a really fun and engaging writer. He also included in all of his books plenty of really useful maps and diagrams that make his points all the clearer, and for the record I have created a whole new page on the website (seminalcatastrophepodcast.com) dedicated to similar maps and diagrams. And while I’m talking about Lieutenant Colonel Dodge (which is the rank just above…that’s right! Major! Well done, gold star for anyone who got that right), but while I’m talking about him I might as well take the time to give a shoutout to patron of the show, as well as my good personal friend, Oren, who first introduced me to his work.
In a lecture he gave and soon thereafter published in one of his books on the battlefield tactics of Alexander the Great, Dodge wrote, quote, “The art of war owes its origin and growth to the deeds of a few great captains. Not to their brilliant victories; not to the noble courage evoked by their ambition; not to their distortion of mechanics and the sciences into new engines of slaughter; not to their far-reaching conquests; but to their intellectual conceptions. For war is as highly intellectual as astronomy.”
What Dodge means by this, and what he then goes on to demonstrate in this lecture as well as the rest of this work, is that warfare and victory on the battlefield are not, and have never been, solely matters of brute force, nor courage, nor technological superiority. Sure, all of those things are integral to warfare, and even the most brilliant battle plans of the most accomplished general in history would come to naught if they didn’t have at their disposal large numbers of soldiers, willing to risk their lives and take the lives of others, with those soldiers having at their disposal weapons and other machines of at least comparable power to their enemies. But to defeat one’s enemy on the battlefield, you must understand certain fundamental principles of warfare in general, the psychology of your opponent, the terrain upon which you will fight, and the physical abilities of your soldiers, and then you must use your own creativity and insight to implement these understandings in a practical way. So with that in mind, let’s learn about some of these basic concepts that a successful general must understand if they wish to be successful on the battlefield.
Probably the most basic distinction in all of military theory, one that is critical to understand and yet very easy to confuse, is the difference between strategy and tactics. Whole books and months long college seminars have been devoted to unpacking the difference between these two ideas, but very very generally, strategy has to do with big picture, 100,000-foot issues, over a long course of time, while tactics deals with much more minute details over a much shorter period of time.
Think of it like this: let’s say a general has been tasked with or has decided on their own to lead their army in an invasion of the territory of an enemy country. First, our hypothetical general has to decide where exactly they want their invasion to begin, and where the end destination of the army should be. They then learn about and come to understand the geography, topography, and resources of the invasion route. They must understand the state of the infrastructure of the region, make arrangements for food and supplies for the troops all along the march, estimate how long they expect the invasion to take, where enemy forces might be based and in what strength, etc., etc., etc. All of this would fall under the purview of strategy.
Now let’s follow our general a few weeks into their invasion. At a certain point, they learn that an enemy army strong enough to challenge their own army is nearby. First, our general has to decide whether they want to fight it out now, whether they want to try to maneuver their army around the enemy army, or whether or not to simply fall back or even retreat out of enemy territory entirely. These kinds of questions, well, it’s debatable whether or not you would want to call them strategic or tactical in nature. But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that our general decides to fight it out.
First, they must decide whether they want to launch a full-scale attack upon the enemy, set up a defensive position and let the enemy come to them, or perhaps to just send a few small units towards the enemy position to get a sense of the enemy’s strength and intentions. If our general is smart, they will use whatever means they have available, be they scouts or spies or local informants, to find out as much information about the enemy army as possible. They then need to decide how to deploy all their various units, both in what kind of formation and where exactly on the map. Wherever possible, our general should try to use the terrain to his advantage, be that in using hills or rivers as a natural defense, or forests or tall grass as concealment. Which units should attack? Which should hold their ground? Which part of the enemy position is the weakest? Which is the strongest? Should our general place some units behind the front lines in a reserve to be used as backup in case anything should go wrong? And if so, how many? And where exactly? These kinds of questions, the kind that must be answered on the battlefield in the heat of the moment, these questions are all tactical in nature.
So to sum up, strategic questions and decisions have to do with the overall campaign, making plans for months or even years in advance in order to best ensure victory before battle is ever even joined. Tactical questions and decisions, meanwhile, are all made on the battlefield itself, but the context for all of those immediate, tactical considerations, are almost always determined by long term strategic decisions made a long time before hand. If you want to think about it this way, the boardgame Risk is a game of strategy. Chess, meanwhile, is a game of tactics.
Now an important thing to keep in mind is that while skills and experience at the strategic and tactical levels are often very closely related to one another, they are by no means the same thing, and many if not most famous military commanders throughout history have often been stronger in one of these areas than the other. I’m not sure how much these real-world comparisons will help, but for my own personal opinion, I would say if we want to look at one of the greatest strategic generals of all time, Genghis Khan, he of the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, would definitely be up there. In virtually every war he fought, Genghis Khan showed a masterful ability to maneuver his armies around the countryside to pounce on enemy cities, fortresses, and armies, in such a way that they were completely helpless to halt the Mongol advance. As examples of great tactical generals, I would put forward both Alexander the Great and Hannibal (the Carthaginian General who marched a massive army with 70 elephants over the Alps in the middle of winter to invade the Roman Republic). When Alexander or Hannibal led their armies to face off against an enemy in the field, they were virtually unbeatable (in fact Alexander was literally unbeatable, he never lost a single battle in his whole career). They did this by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of their own army and the enemies, the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy general, and then deploying their troops on the battlefield in such a way that they could destroy entire armies much larger than their own. Of course all three of these examples – Genghis Khan, Alexander, and Hannibal – were highly competent at both the strategic and tactical level, but I think they clearly had strengths and weaknesses in one or the other area.
Now before we move on, I should probably also discuss the term “logistics.” Again, this is a complicated topic, but in general “logistics” has to do with how one is able to supply the army with everything it needs not only to fight, but simply survive. Probably the most important things to supply an army with are food and water, but boots, clothing, wagons, weapons, ammunition, all assortments of tools, blankets, really everything you can think of that a soldier on campaign might need. Of course, not only do you have to acquire these things, but you have to actually get them to the soldiers, and this is why roads, railroads, canals, etc. are so vital to the field of logistics.
In terms of 1914, when states were sending literally millions of soldiers off to war with just a few weeks’ notice, the requirements to assemble and get to the front the massive amount of supplies these armies needed was immense in scale. And one of the reasons the German Army was so successful in the early stages of the war was that they probably had the best logistical systems of any of the belligerents when the war began. If you’ll recall from awhile back, when I was discussing the German process of mobilization at the end of July and beginning of August, 1914, the German General Staff had so minutely planned and prepared for this kind of stuff, that they had actually calculated how many train axles would pass over a given bridge over a given period of time.
So logistics is also a key aspect to war, and in many ways it is even more important than strategy or tactics. No matter how brilliant of a general you are and no matter how brave and capable your soldiers are, you won’t get very far in a war if you run out of food or water before you even get to the battle. This fundamental fact, going back to the dawn of human civilization all the way up to today, has led to a famous saying that I have seen rendered a dozen different ways and attributed to more than a dozen different people, but which nonetheless perfectly encapsulates this point: Amateurs study tactics, but professionals study logistics.
Anyway, with all of that in the back of our minds, let’s move on to some more dynamics in military history. As I’m sure you’re all aware of, at least in general, as human societies became larger, more complex, and with more formalized social and political hierarchies, the armed forces of these societies began to follow a similar pattern. Rather than sending mobs of warriors to attack the enemy in a mass charge, organized units of soldiers would now deploy in complex and coordinated formations.
Now often times as these societies became more settled and agricultural, a larger and larger proportion of the population had to dedicate themselves fully to producing the food that the rest of the society required to function. Indeed, most ancient and medieval societies had something like 80% of their population living entirely as peasants and farmers, without the ability to really perform any other economic function besides making some simple artisanal crafts for local consumption. Trying to force even a small number of these peasants into the army for even a limited amount of time could be disastrous for these societies, as even a small break in the rhythm of agricultural could lead to food shortages and even famine. So it became necessary for many of these societies to create standing armies of professional soldiers (a la the legionaries of the Roman Empire), hereditary warrior aristocracies (a la the Knights of Medieval Europe or the Samurai of Japan), or a combination of the two.
By contrast, in societies that were less settled, more nomadic, and with less formalized social hierarchies, a larger proportion of the population were able to serve at least part of the time as warriors, leaving their herds and small plots of land behind to take up the spear and the sword to fight their enemies. Often times, these societies could supplement a large part of their food requirements by raiding from neighboring settled/agricultural societies, meaning more of their people could serve as warriors full time. So, how were those more settled/agricultural societies able to compete against not only rival agricultural societies, but also neighboring nomadic societies who could field a much larger proportion of their population into the army?
There’s a quote from the great German military historian Hans Delbrück that explains why more organized societies could often field more effective armies than less organized ones. Now, fair warning, in this passage Delbrück does use some rather, ahem, antiquated language. Specifically, his use of the words “barbarian” and “barbarism,” words which modern historians try to avoid as much as possible unless quoting or trying to explain terminology from an earlier era, which is exactly what I’m doing here. Anyway, when talking about Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, aka modern France, in the 50s b.c.e., Delbrück wrote:
“This primary point is that the superiority of the Roman art of warfare was based on the army organization as a whole, a system that permitted very large masses of men to be concentrated at a given point, to move in orderly fashion, to be fed, and to be kept together. The Gauls could do none of these things. It was not so much the courage of the Romans, which was in no way greater than their own, but the Roman mass power that subdued them – and again, not that their own mass, of itself, would not have been much greater, but their mass was an inert one, incapable of movement. It was the Roman civilization which conquered barbarism, for imparting the capability of movement to a large mass is a work of art that only a higher civilization can achieve. Barbarism cannot do it. The Roman Army was not simply a mass, but an organized mass, and it could be a mass not only because it was organized and formed a complex and living entity. Not only soldiers and weapons went into its makeup, cavalry and infantry, and not only legates, tribunes, centurions, legions, cohorts…discipline from below, leadership from above…the laying out of camps – but also of the…quartermasters with their pool of wagons…doctors with field hospitals…and finally the head of the whole organization, the commanding general, in whom inherent fundamental strength must be blended with the flexibility and the refinement of a mind developed in the atmosphere of the highest culture so that he might intellectually embrace everything and provide direction for the whole from a single point and through a single will.”
By 1914, of course, these highly organized armed forces with incredibly intricate and well-defined hierarchies had become a staple of armed conflict for literally millennia. And one of the terms you may have heard me use to describe the highly organized armies of the First World War that may have caused some confusion, is the term “line.” Now, we’re all familiar, I think, with the term “the front lines,” in a military context. Regardless of the technical definition of this term, “the front lines” has been abstracted in the collective consciousness as meaning in the very heart of the battle, where the most shooting, the most shelling, the most killing is occurring. To be behind “the front lines” is to not necessarily be removed from danger, but to be slightly away from the action. It also implies that the person behind “the front lines” has either moved away from the most intense part of the battle, or that their job is not necessarily to directly fight with the enemy. Again, these are not technical definitions, but I think we all get the gist of what this term means. But why do we use the term “line” to describe the area of a battlefield where soldiers in opposing armies are struggling directly against one another? Why is the front most part of an army in battle referred to with this term “line”?
Well, during the ancient, medieval, and early modern eras, these large, organized blocks of soldiers, deployed to face in the same direction and keep in close proximity to one another, are often referred to as forming “lines,” for the simple reason that from a bird’s eye view the army does resemble one long, mostly unbroken, mostly straight line. By the time of the First World War, of course, soldiers were no longer standing shoulder to shoulder in rigid, straight formations. But the terminology stuck, for two basic reasons.
One is simply that describing one’s army as forming a “line” was just so ubiquitous, and had been for literally thousands of years, that it just continued to be used in shorthand due to simple force of habit. Think of how many expressions we have in English that either have little bearing on actual day to day life, or that we don’t even remember their origins or what they originally meant. “Tooting your own horn?” That comes from how Medieval kings would often have trumpeters to announce their entrance into the throne room, and it would be ridiculous for a king to announce his own entrance by blowing on a trumpet. “Bite the bullet?” Well that comes from how, in the days before anesthetics, if someone (usually a soldier) had to have a limb amputated, the surgeon would often have their patient bite down on a firm but malleable lead bullet to prevent them from biting their tongue due to the pain. Neither of these expressions have any real bearing on our daily lives, but they have stuck around because we are so used to them.
The other reason the terminology of “lines” being used to describe army formations is that, while armies no longer formed in single straight lines with everyone standing right next to each other, in a certain sense, describing your army as forming a line was still a fairly accurate and useful way to visualize where your army stands in relation to the enemy. You see, even during the First World War, it was absolutely vital to make sure that the only part of your army that was being attacked by the enemy was its front, rather than on the side or behind, something we will explore more in a little bit. To be shot at or charged from the side or behind can be absolutely devastating to an army formation, as it usually takes too long for the unit to move and redeploy to face this new threat before getting absolutely annihilated. Even in an age where individual soldiers can hide behind cover and move around based on their own personal initiative, units made up of thousands of men simply cannot turn to face an attack on their side or rear fast enough before getting ripped to pieces. So it was absolutely critical for any commander to prevent this from happening at all costs, and to do your best to inflict this kind of situation upon the enemy. So seeing both your forces and the enemy’s as forming opposing lines was still a useful way to visualize combat that was far more chaotic, and often looked more like thousands of little skirmishes involving a few hundred men, with these thousands of gun fights spread out across dozens of miles, than simply two distinct lines crashing into one another. Plus, once trench warfare really gets going at the end of 1914 and beginning of 1915, especially on the Western Front, you really will see two distinct lines opposing each other, visually demarcated by two unbroken trench lines running from the North Sea all the way to the border with Switzerland.
Now from the ancient Romans (and even before, frankly) all the way up to the First World War and beyond, the formations and deployment of units in large, organized armies of course varied wildly from time to time and place to place. But in general, commanders always tried to deploy their armies into some kind of solid, unbroken, and critically straight line formation. In order to best ensure victory, a commander would always try to have the front of his line hit the front of an enemy line or, whenever possible, the sides or rear of the enemy, for the simple reason that when soldiers are hit from the side or the rear, they cannot defend themselves nor strike back at their attackers, and it takes a long time for even the best organized and drilled unit of soldiers to turn direction and face and oncoming attacker who has the drop on them.
In military terminology, the sides of an army are always referred to as flanks, with each side of the army referred to as the right or left flank relative to which direction the line is facing. To expand upon that, while the very far edges of the army are referred to as flanks, usually the few units on the far side of the army are referred to as wings, again left or right. So, for example, if an army is facing north, or put another way if all the soldiers in the army are facing north, with their backs to the south, the left flank would be to the west and the right flank to the east. This further means that, most of the time, the different flanks of two different armies are swapped, and by that I mean usually your army’s right flank faces the enemy’s left flank, and vice versa. As to an example from what we’ve covered so far in the podcast, recall that the German strategy to defeat France and Britain was to launch a massive attack on the Allied left flank, which was to be carried out by the German right wing.
Perhaps the most fundamental and long standing tactic throughout all of warfare, from the armies of Egyptian Pharaohs during the bronze age right up until basically the present, is to try to have some of your soldiers maneuver in such a way as to hit one or the other flank of an enemy army. If this maneuver manages to drive the units on the far end of either flank away, you have accomplished something known as “turning the enemy flank,” a phrase I have used a lot in the last few episodes.
When this happens, victory is almost always assured to the side that has “turned the enemy flank.” The first reason for this goes back to what I said a minute ago, that when attacked from the side a unit has no way to quickly turn around and face the enemy force now attacking them from the side. And if such a unit is already fighting with enemy forces to their front, then even if they could manage to turn around, all they will have done is present their other flank to the forces that had once been at their front.
Now, if an army’s flank has been turned, defeat is not inevitable, although it is extremely likely. Few generals throughout history have managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat if one of their flanks has been turned and the whole army starts to get surrounded. However, if this does happen, a general can try to at least delay the enemy advance, if not stopping it entirely, by sending in their reserves.
This is another term I’ve used a bit throughout the show, “reserves.” Simply put, reserves are some proportion of your army that you have stationed behind where you expect the fighting to take place. These units can then be sent forward if a unit in front turns and flees to take their place, can maneuver to the sides if one of the flanks is threatened, or simply relieve a unit that has been in non-stop fighting for a long time and is therefore becoming exhausted. Keeping reserve troops behind the “front lines” has been a feature of warfare for thousands of years, and is still practiced today. There is a great quote from famed Prussian military theorist von Clausewitz, whom we’ll discuss more in a bit, that explains why this has for so long proved to be a successful idea. Quote, “If I cannot… decide all by the first success, if I have to fear the next moment, it follows of itself that I employ only so much of my force for the success of the first moment as appears sufficient for that object, and keep the rest beyond the reach of fire or conflict of any kind, in order to be able to oppose fresh troops to fresh, or with such to overcome those that are exhausted.”
Nevertheless, if you as a general are deploying your reserves not to reinforce or relieve exhausted troops, or to try to launch a surprise attack on the enemy who has not noticed your reserves, but are instead forced to try to stop one of your flanks from being destroyed, the battle will almost certainly be lost. And the reason for this has to do with a fundamental truth of military theory.
Many people not familiar with military history often assume that the goal of battle is to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible, perhaps even all of them. However, this is a misunderstanding of how battles and ultimately wars are won. Of course, in battle the killing of enemy soldiers is the point of basically any maneuver and the job of basically every soldier (along with, of course, not being killed yourself). However killing enemy soldiers is rarely if ever the goal of individual battles. Now there are exceptions to this, which we will discuss more at the end of this episode, but for the vast majority of human history, the goal of a commander in a battle was not to kill all of the soldiers in an enemy army. Their goal was to get the enemy army to break and run.
To understand this, we must put ourselves not only in the shoes of a general, but of a common soldier. If you as a commander simply try to have your army fight it out to the death with an enemy army, even if you “win”, you will suffer atrocious casualties. Thus a victory will lose you almost as much as you gain, sometimes even more. This concept is actually where we get the phrase “Pyrrhic Victory.” This phrase is derived from an ancient Greek general named Pyrrhus of Epirus, who attempted to conquer Italy and Sicily during the 200s b.c.e. to establish a personal empire for himself. During this war, his primary opponent was the rising Roman Republic. Though not particularly famous today, in his time Pyrrhus was considered to be one of the most skilled generals of his generation, a time rife with warfare in ancient Greece following the death of Alexander the Great and the breakup of his empire.
In his war against the Romans, Pyrrhus won every single major battle he fought, and yet he was ultimately forced to leave Italy in humiliation and disgrace. Why? Because although at each of these battles he managed to force the Romans to abandon more and more territory in southern Italy, each of these “victories” cost Pyrrhus’ armies thousands of casualties, losses he could not easily replace as he was far from his home territory in Greece. Meanwhile the Romans, fighting on their home turf, were able to replace the casualties they suffered far more easily, despite the fact that at basically each of these battles the Romans suffered more casualties than Pyrrhus did. This is all to say that while, yes, battles and wars always involve the killing of enemy soldiers, this in and of itself is almost never enough to ensure victory.
Ok, so, that’s all well and good, but why is it then the goal of battle to make the enemy army break and run? And how do you accomplish that? Well, as to the first question, there are actually a lot of moving parts here that need to be unpacked. First, to piggyback off of what we just discussed, when the soldiers of an enemy army are standing firm and fighting against your soldiers, they are incredibly dangerous. Not just to the individual soldiers on your side they are immediately facing, but to your army as a whole. But when an entire enemy army, or at least a significant part of it, breaks and runs away in panic, they pose no threat to your army and, more importantly, cede the battlefield to your control. Better yet, if you can get the enemy soldiers to surrender to you, that is the greatest prize of all on the battlefield. If an entire army breaks and runs away in panic, you have won the battle and taken that army out of the fight for a while, as it will take time for that army to reorganize. But those enemy soldiers who manage to flee the battle with their lives will be able to come back to fight another day. If an enemy soldier surrenders to you, than not only is he taken out of the fight permanently, but this also gives an implied signal to the other soldiers of the enemy army that have not surrendered. That message being: “Hey, there’s no need to fight and die! Just come on over and surrender to me, and you will be well taken care of and get to go home after the war is over.”
If, however, you make a habit of refusing surrender or slaughtering those soldiers you do capture, than that will signal to the other soldiers of the enemy army, “If you fight me, you will very likely die. But if you try to surrender, I will kill you anyway. So might as well try to fight to the death if you are cornered since you are doomed either way.”
Now let’s expand upon this idea I’m proposing here, that the goal of battle is almost never to wipe out the enemy army but to get that army to break and run. On a larger scale, we might say that the goal of a war is almost never to wipe out an entire generation of young men of fighting age, but to win some political or territorial concessions from your enemy. Again, we can see that killing enemy soldiers (and unfortunately more often than not, civilians) isn’t really the goal, unless we’re talking about a genocidal war of mass extermination which, though the First World War did see more than its fair share of genocidal atrocities, at its heart the First World War was a political conflict, not a war of annihilation. To summarize this argument, I think I’ll let another famous German military theorist describe his take on the issue.
Carl von Clausewitz, a prominent Prussian general and writer during the 19th century, wrote one of the most famous treatises on military history, titled simply “On War,” which in many ways was the foundational text of military history as an independent field of academic study. The work is famous for a lot of fantastic quotes, probably the most famous being a slightly paraphrased version of his own words, that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” For our purposes let’s take a look at the very beginning of “On War,” when Clausewitz compares warfare between two countries to a duel between two duelists. Or, as he puts it, quote:
“War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale. If we would conceive as a unit the countless number of duels which make up a War, we shall do so best by supposing to ourselves [to be] two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: each endeavors to throw his adversary, and thus render him incapable of further resistance.
“War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.
“Violence, that is to say, physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of States and Law), is therefore the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object. In order to attain this object fully, the enemy must be disarmed, and disarmament becomes therefore the immediate object of hostilities in theory. It takes the place of the final object, and puts it aside as something we can eliminate from our calculations.”
This theory by Clausewitz, that violence in warfare is the means by which both adversaries attempt to pursue their goal, with that goal being to force one’s opponent to give in to your demands, can be applied to individual battles as well. The difference being that in battle, the demand that you are most often trying to impose upon your enemy is not a political concession, but to gain control of the battlefield, usually because said battlefield controls an important piece of territory necessary for the larger goal of winning the war.
Now I also want to just quickly mention one other reason why, in most of the history of warfare, the goal of a commander in a battle was not so much to kill off as many enemy soldiers as possible, but to get the enemy army to break and run. This is not really a dynamic that we see very often in the First World War, so again I’ll try to be brief here, but we can see that for most of human history, relatively few soldiers are generally killed during the battle itself, when both armies are fresh, organized, and actively clashing with one another. For most of human history, we often see that battle casualties are way higher among the army that is defeated and driven from the field than the army that secures victory. Why? Well, the short answer is the existence of one of the most important units in a land army for most of human history: the cavalry.
You might think that riding around on horseback seems like a pretty dangerous and, frankly, stupid thing to do on a battlefield. And indeed, during the First World War, it was, which is why for most of the war cavalry rarely if ever charged enemy forces, but were rather used as reconnaissance. But in the long ago of Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and even Napoleonic warfare, before rapid fire rifles and machine guns became a staple of the battlefield, the job of cavalry, besides scouting, was to charge an enemy army after that army broke and ran.
You see, when soldiers are organized into tight units marching and fighting together, while death is a constant threat looming over them, they are able to defend themselves and at least partially guarantee one another’s safety. But when the cohesion of a unit breaks down, everyone just starts running in panic and it becomes every man for himself, these soldiers become incredibly vulnerable. This is when a commander would usually unleash his cavalry to ride down and slaughter enemy infantry, who now no longer have any real means of defending themselves, and of course since guys on horseback are always much faster than guys on foot, these fleeing soldiers have no way to outrun charging cavalry, which is why sticking together in organized units was so vital to a soldier’s survival on the battlefield.
A great way to illustrate this is to look at the career of Alexander the Great, who in his entire conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, never lost a single battle. Just looking at one of his most famous battles, Gaugamela, it is estimated that Alexander’s Army suffered only about 1,000 to 1,500 casualties, while the Persian Army perhaps lost as many as 40 to even 90,000 casualties (though I personally think the lower number of 40,000 is more probable). This is simply because when soldiers stay in formation they are relatively safe. When they break and run, they are sitting ducks to charging cavalry. Or, as our friend Dodge puts it, quote, “The rule in all old battles is the same. The victors lose little; the vanquished are cut to pieces.”
Now this, of course, raises an obvious question: if soldiers who stay in formation, even when put in a disadvantageous position, are far safer than when they all break and run in a panicked rout, why would they ever run, knowing as they all would that as soon as they do they’ll be charged down by men on horseback? Well, to understand this, we have to understand some rudimentary human psychology. As we all know, we humans are by nature social creatures. Our identity is intimately bound up with an ingroup, outgroup mentality, and we often take behavioral cues from those around us. From this, we can understand why many emotions, which we might consider to be personal and internal things, can often be influenced by outside forces, including the perceived emotions of others around us. I’m sure we’ve all experienced a case of contagious laughter: one or two people in a group start laughing, and the rest of the group quickly joins in. Well, just as laughter is contagious, so is fear.
Being in battle, even for the bravest and most experienced of soldiers, is an terrifying place to be. The threat of instant death or grievous injury looms over you at all times, and it is in fact remarkable that people will remain in a battle at all, let alone voluntarily march towards one, even if not compelled by the state to go to war. But we humans can usually gain some measure of confidence and comfort from being surrounded by our friends, or a group of people that we consider to be members of our metaphorical tribe. A soldier can take courage from his comrades, and in turn lend their own courage to those comrades, all from the simple fact of sticking together. But if even a single person’s panic takes ahold of them and they break and run away, this can quickly spread to a group of dozens, which can lead hundreds more to follow suit, and soon an army many thousands strong that was just minutes earlier standing together and fighting can be reduced to a mass, panicked rout.
This phenomenon is well explained in a book written in 1962 by American sociologist Neil Smelser, titled “Theory of Collective Behavior.” In this book, when discussing the phenomenon of a mass rout of an entire army, Smelser wrote, quote,
“This pattern of mobilization reveals two distinct phases of the actual rout – a “real” and a “derived” phase. The first phase often consists of flight as a response to the original threatening situation. This threatening situation is made up of appropriate conditions of conduciveness, strain, anxiety, and so on. But then the initial flight itself creates…a new set of necessary conditions for panic. To see someone running wildly is prima facie evidence that he is seeking to escape through limited exits…that he is fleeing from an unknown threat…Furthermore, this observed flight is a precipitating event for the observer, even though this “something” may not be identical to that which caused the original flight.”
This is the basic reason why commanders in battles throughout human history will often hinge their battleplans on trying to break through, annihilate, or drive off a specific part of the enemy army. First of all, of course, this weakens the position of the enemy army, makes them more vulnerable to further attack and loss of life. But even more importantly, the rout of a single unit of soldiers can often trigger the rest of the entire army to break and run as well. In short, the goal of battle is not to inflict death upon the enemy. This is merely the means by which the real goal is achieved. That goal is rather, to instill fear. The mark of the victor of a battle or indeed an entire war is in holding the battlefield, keeping your army intact while breaking the resistance of the enemy, and then imposing terms upon the vanquished. It is almost never a matter of counting casualties.
Now before we move on to our last topic of military concepts applicable to the First World War, I think we should spend some time talking about this term “casualty.” When talking about battles and wars in shorthand, people often conflate the words “casualty” with “killed” or “killed in action.” However these two words do not mean the same thing. The number of soldiers killed in a battle or a war is, well, that’s exactly what you think it means, although it is worth pointing out that for most of human history, the vast majority soldiers who died in large scale, organized wars, were not killed on the battlefield, but rather succumbed to disease. More on that later.
I once had a teacher in high school who described the word “casualty,” in a darkly humorous way, as “dead as far as the army is concerned.” Essentially, the term “casualties” include soldiers killed on the battlefield, wounded on the battlefield, taken prisoner by the opposing side, or “missing-in-action.” Now this latter term is itself pretty broad, and simply indicates that a soldier’s officer has been unable to determine the fate of the soldier in question. Often times this means the soldier died and their body was never identified, often it means they were taken prisoner, but no one was able to confirm that’s what happened to them. Sometimes it simply means that they were separated from their unit and might turn up later. Although in many cases it means that this soldier has taken the opportunity provided by the chaos of battle to desert.
Due to the nature of the fighting in the First World War, where the majority of military deaths were caused by soldiers getting blown to smithereens by artillery, battle reports during the war often recorded a huge proportion of their casualties as “missing,” with everyone knowing full well that most of these “missing” soldiers had simply been reduced to paste by high explosives or ripped to shreds by shrapnel, and that their body would never be identified. This was often an agonizing situation for the families of millions of these soldiers, who would never learn with any certainty what had become of their father, their husband, their son.
Now what my teacher meant by his, uh, pretty macabre joke about casualties being “dead as far as the army was concerned” was that a soldier who has become a casualty is no longer able to march and fight in the army, either temporarily or permanently. So in any description of any battle or war, the number of “casualties” always far outweighs the number of deaths, as deaths are simply one component part of the casualty list. This can sometimes be pretty misleading, as it can give you the sense that there was far more loss of life in a given battle than actually occurred. For example, the famous Battle of Gettysburg during the U.S. Civil War, which lasted for three days, resulted in approximately 50,000 total casualties, both sides combined, out of a total of around 160,000 total soldiers present. If you mistake the word “casualty” with “killed” than this would be a slaughter of unmatched proportions in the history of the United States. And while Gettysburg was, absolutely, an incredibly bloody affair, only (only) about 7,000 of those casualties were deaths. The rest were all wounded, taken prisoner, or missing in action. Still unbelievably awful, and god knows how many of those soldiers wounded at Gettysburg later died of their wounds, but it’s important to remember the difference between battlefield deaths and casualties.
On that note about soldiers dying of their wounds after the battle has concluded, I’d also like to explore one of the more interesting facets of the First World War, namely that it was basically the first large scale war in human history where more soldiers were killed in action than died of disease. (Though, this is not counting civilians).
For most of human history, before antibiotics, blood transfusions, even germ theory, every general had to account for the fact that the longer his army stayed out on campaign, more and more of them would die every day from all kinds of camp diseases: pneumonia, cholera, typhoid, malaria, and perhaps the most common, dysentery. Now the difference between soldiers killed in battle and felled by disease can get a bit fuzzy once you start talking about soldiers dying of infection from wounds suffered days or even weeks earlier. But regardless, this was just a commonly accepted reality for most of human history. And really, as I mentioned before, the First World War was basically the first major armed conflict in human history where more soldiers were killed in battle than died of disease.
Not to dwell too much on this point, but I’d like to share a brief quote from a paper written about the intersection between war and disease written by U.S. statistician Clara E. Councell in 1941. Quote, “The waging of war has always been attended by increases in the prevalence of disease…The concentration and movement of large bodies of men from various parts of the world; the limitless hardships, with fatigue, general malnutrition, famine and exposure; and the lack of medical care, sanitation, and personal hygiene often experienced by civilians and soldiers alike provide the fuses for the explosion of widespread epidemics.” I bring all this up, first of all, to explain a fairly simple but important point about military terminology seen in any war, but also to give you some background understanding to give you a better sense of the casualty reports I am going to share in the battles of the First World War.
Now throughout this episode, as I’ve been trying to explain military terminology and theory, there is one major monkey wrench that has been (or, in any case, soon will be) thrown into this little theory I’ve proposed. Certainly in the opening weeks and months of the war, generals on all sides imagined winning their battles and ultimately winning the war the old fashioned way: get the opposing army to break and run, chase them down with your cavalry, march on the capital and enforce your will upon the loser once you have conquered their territory and eliminated their armies as a serious threat to your own armies. And certainly, though the losses suffered in the battles of August and into September by all the armies, even the victorious ones, were orders of magnitude larger and more destructive than anyone had expected, this has been how these battles have mostly been conducted.
During basically every battle we’ve covered so far – the Battle of Liege, the Battle of the Frontiers, the Battles of Mons and Le Cateau, and especially the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes – each army attempted to break through the lines or hit the flanks of the enemy army, and the side that managed to pull this off then chased their opponent off the field. However this state of affairs is not going to last too much longer.
Eventually, and there is no hard date for this but roundabout the end of 1914 and the beginning of 1915, the trench warfare that has become so inextricably linked to the First World War in our collective imagination will truly begin to solidify. For a while, the armies will still attempt to flank their opponent or punch a hole in their lines to drive them from the field to win the war in one or two big decisive battles. But over time it will become all too apparent to everyone involved – not just politicians and generals but civilians and rank and file soldiers – that this war was not going to be won by smashing the enemy army in one big, flashy battle, and then marching on the capital. Though attacks would be launched regularly throughout the war to break through the enemy’s trenches, it soon became clear that this was not going to drive the entire army back in a panicked rout, but simply allow your troops to occupy part of an enemy trench and thereby push the lines forward a few hundred meters. By about 1915, the war had developed into a war of attrition.
The transformation of the First World War from a war of maneuver and speed into a stagnant war of attrition is what really lends this conflict its distinct, almost unique, awfulness. All war is terrible. All war is misery and murder and heartbreak and pain and trauma. But the First World War is about to turn into something virtually unprecedented in the European experience.
Once it becomes unavoidably clear by roundabout the middle of 1915 that the trench lines were never going to move more than a few hundred yards in any direction in a single attack, the goal of battle changed from driving off the enemy army, to whittling down its strength by killing off as many of its soldiers as possible. Soon enough, this goal of killing off more of the enemy than you yourself lost became a process of trying to essentially wipe out an entire generation of young adult men. The winner of this war will eventually be decided not by one side having decisively routed the enemy and driven them from the field, but by the fact that by late 1918 every major combatant was scraping the barrel in terms of finding able bodied men to conscript into the army that were not already dead or invalids.
By 1918, all the “Great Powers” that had launched this war four years earlier had, for all intents and purposes, lost. But some countries, or perhaps better put some alliance systems, lost more than others. Just looking at two of the primary belligerents on the Western Front, it is estimated that around 4-5% of the population of both France and Germany died as a direct result of the war between 1914-1918. The majority of those deaths were men of fighting age. So, and this is an extremely rough estimate but it still, I think, gives you a sense of the loss of life inflicted upon an entire generation, both of these countries lost something like 15-20% of its adult men of fighting age as killed in action. Add to that perhaps a further 40 to even 50% of those young men in these countries being grievously wounded and we are, for all intents and purposes, talking about the death of an entire generation.
So on that cheerful note…we are going to close our two-week digression in talking about some basic military concepts that are going to be applicable for pretty much the rest of the war. Next week, we will return to the narrative and watch as the Armies of Britain, France, and Belgium, try desperately to halt the inexorable German advance on Paris.
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War (Third Edition). London: N. Trübner & Co., 1873.
Councell, Clara E. War and Infectious Disease. Public Health Reports Vol. 56, No. 12, March 21, 1941.
Dodge, Ayrault Theodore. Alexander: A History of the Origin and Growth of the Art of War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company: 1890.
Dodge, Ayrault Theodore. Great Captains: A Course of Six Lectures. Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1889.
Delbrück, Hans. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe, Jr. Warfare in Antiquity: History of the Art of War, Volume 1. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975.
Smelser, Neil J. Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: The Free Press, 1962.
Encyclopedia Britannica. The Battle of Gettysburg. https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Gettysburg
Encyclopedia Britannica. World War I: Killed, Wounded, and Missing. https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-I/Killed-wounded-and-missing