Sunday, 16 November 2014

Strength of the combatants and the nature of 'modern' war

The scale of hostilities in World War One was unprecedented. The five major powers had not all been in action at the same time since Waterloo in 1815. All, of course, had been in major wars and many military actions (e.g. Franco-Prussian war 1870; The Seven Weeks War between Austria and Prussia in 1866; Russia and Britain in the Crimea 1853-56; and the Russo Japanese war in 1904). However the advances (sic) in weaponry and technology dictated different terms of engagement - not fully realised during the preparation. Perhaps only the American Civil War of 1861-65 gave an impression (for those willing to look) of the carnage and mass casualties created by new instruments of war - heavy artillery, rapidly repeating rifles, machine guns, barbed wire, submarines... and railways. 

Although Germany was widely feared and respected for the strength and efficiency of its army, all major combatants (with the possible exception of Austria Hungary) had their particular assets.

This post is based on Buchan's comprehensive review of the opposing forces of 1914.


The German army in the final form given to it by law in 1912 was organised in 25 army corps which, except for the Guard Corps were recruited on a territorial basis.
On mobilisation, each corps (2 Divisions) formed a third, or reserve, Division from the regular Reserves. Germany had 15million men available, and this structure would provide 6m under arms, of whom 5m would be in the battle line.
Of the whole machine, the General Staff was the key. In the unassuming building in the Alsen Platz, hard by the Brandenburg Gate, the Great General Staff, created by Scharnhorst and perfected by the elder Moltke and von Schlieffen, had for years been making plans in full detail to meet every conceivable crisis.


The armed forces of A-H were organised mainly on the German system. There were 16 army corps, on a territorial basis, each corps with two infantry divisions, one cavalry brigade and one artillery brigade. However they were faced with the difficulty of many races within their armies – conscripts with affinities beyond A-H borders and dubious commitment to the Hapsburg empire.


The French army had been subject to repeated experiments in the 40 years since Sedan (the denouement of the 1870 war). There were 20 army corps organised on a territorial basis, plus a 21st in Algeria. Roughly speaking their system allowed France a month or so after the commencement of war to mobilise around 4m trained men, giving a first line army of approx. 1.5m; a second line of 0.5m, and a reserve of 2m. France’s strength lay in the quality of her men rather than their numbers or equipment. She had a magnificent first line, but too little behind it.


Russia’s military was divided into three regular armies – the European army of 27 army corps and 20 cavalry divisions (around 1.2m in peacetime); the army of the Caucasus of 3 corps and four cavalry divisions; and the Siberian army of five corps – a total strength of about 1.7m in peacetime. Over the course of the war it is estimated that 14m men were called up to serve.

Great Britain

The British army was totally different, given the country's naval power and prowess, and its need for armies to deal with small colonial wars - the most recent being the Boer War at the turn of the century.
Lord Haldane was minster of war from 1907-1910, and reconstructed the army in the light of the changing world and the experiences in South Africa. 
He followed three principles:
·        Firstly, a true General Staff must be created;
·       Secondly, that all organisation must be on a wartime basis rather than peacetime;
·       Thirdly, that a larger fighting unit was needed than the Brigade, and this should not be the old small British Division, but the great continental division of three brigades, complete with divisional infantry, cavalry and artillery.

He had, therefore, an Expeditionary Force of six divisions capable of mobilising
and concentrating on the continent within twelve days, and at its back a Territorial army of fourteen infantry divisions and fourteen mounted brigades. At the outbreak, the BEF for immediate use numbered 160,000 troops of all arms. Overall there were around 250,000 in the army and a similar number in reserves.

There was a general agreement that modern war was a venture into the unknown, and while the existence of new factors in weaponry and technology was plain, their working was incalculable. The number of troops, the length of front, and the duration of actions must be definitely enlarged. The improvement in firearms would itself, as Schlieffen had pointed out in 1909 lead to a great extension of fighting front. Railways would be of the first importance – Moltke had seen this back in 1870.
It was the first instance in history of large bodies of men operating in a closely settled populated country. "Nevertheless, the ancient battle grounds - the valleys of Somme, Oise, Aisne, of Vardar and Tigris; the Pripet Marshes, the Palestine coast road exercised their spell as faithfully over the 1914-18 armies as over Roman and Crusader. For, as Clausewitz had written a hundred years before, the “pit of the stomach of French monarchy is between Brussels and Paris”."

From 18th August to mid-September, more Divisions fought on more days, and more men were killed or wounded than in any full year of the entire war. Two great crises produced this unprecedented number of casualties -  one in the east (resulting in Lemberg and Tannenberg); and one in the west (the battle of the Frontiers that preceded the Marne, and the Marne itself).

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