For 1915 and 1916 in World War I, the lines between Allied forces and the Germans remained almost fixed, and yet approximately 3.1 million men were killed. Ignoring the drastic changes the machine gun brought to the trenches, generals continued to send troops endlessly forward in to fire, a bloody and fruitless tactic. Isaac Asimov, in Asimov's Chronology of the World, has said of this strategic blindness "It is impossible to imagine a war fought more stupidly."

The primary failures of generalship on the Western Front in World War I (none of the other fronts saw such total deadlock) were not quite that clear cut. The avowed intention in most cases was that the infantry assault should not be into the teeth of withering machine-gun fire; the failure lay in an inability to deal with two factors:

  • that artillery was a great deal less effective at cutting the wire and suppressing or killing the enemy than had been expected, not just because of improved fortification techniques, but because of its limited effectiveness on soft ground, the high proportion of dud ammunition - which is still being dug out of the ground at Ypres, the Somme and Verdun - and ammunition shortages, so the preliminary bombardments which were intended to give the infantry an easy walk through the opposing front lines almost invariably failed to do so.
  • that communications between the front line and their commanders - even at regimental level, let alone above that - became practically impossible almost immediately an attack started, as they generally relied on telephone lines - usually cut by artillery fire - and runners, poor bastards with predictably low life expectancy.

This meant that active coordination between units was practically impossible, unless everything went exactly to the carefully drawn up plans, which is even less likely in warfare than the rest of human endeavour. The generals had no choice but to draw up plans and set the circus in motion with their fingers crossed. Unexpected setbacks could not be rectified - the rolling barrages just kept moving forwards even if the infantry were pinned down - and (less often) unexpected successes could not be reinforced.

The prevailing image of the Western Front - a not-particularly-Napoleonic line of infantry walking slowly forwards into a devastated no-man's land to be mown down by machine guns - is not particular to any one combatant, but it is fairly clear that the British were some way behind the French and Germans in terms of tactical doctrine; the quality of the BEF notwithstanding, Kitchener's New Army, the enthusiastic recruits of 1914, was not deemed well enough trained to be permitted much in the way of individual initiative; the other two countries had far larger standing armies and reserve forces from which to draw on experienced troops, particularly at the vital NCO ranks. Further refinements in tactical doctrine allowed the Germans to make extensive breakthroughs by sneak attack and infiltration during the Ludendorff offensive of May 1918, but they lacked the logistical strength to maintain their gains.

In short, it was not so much a case of failures of generalship as the almost inevitable result of a particular set of technological, political and geographical circumstances. Any sane person with 20/20 hindsight might well have seen that the most reasonable thing to do would have been to acknowledge that the situation was an obvious stalemate - with no foreseeable advantage to be gained for either side in continuing - by about February 1915, declare the whole thing a draw and go home, giving the Belgians their country back. However, governments are rarely as sane as people in their actions, and rather worse informed. The blame for the slaughter on the Western Front lies not with the generals, but with the politicians.

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