For two solid years, the trench systems of the First World War claimed the lives of millions. Russia (briefly) broke the stalemate through imaginative planning, rehearsals, and targeting, while Great Britain and France took a more technological approach. Under the auspices of the Royal Navy, “landships” were created which were heavy enough to crush the wire of no man’s land, long enough to cross trenches, impervious to shrapnel and machinegun fire, capable of traversing the tortured countryside, and with enough firepower to break the German lines. The caterpillar vehicles, code-named “tanks” (to hide their development), were tested and manufactured in the south of England in response to the butchery on the battlefields of Flanders in 1915. On the Somme in 1916, a new level of slaughter was achieved, and British leaders decided to unveil their secret weapon.
On 15 September 1916, Mark I tanks of the eager and frustrated Heavy Section advanced at a walking pace toward the Germans between the French villages of Flers and Courcelette, followed closely behind by British infantry. 19 of them would break down or become stuck before reaching their objectives. But 13 of the Iron Behemoths rumbled forward like the Juggernaut crushing all before them. German soldiers who just the day before were well entrenched and confident of victory, fled at the sight of the earth shaking, fire breathing impenetrable steel beasts. The British advanced over three kilometers in a battle whose gains for the last 76 days had been measured in yards. One French pilot observed from above, “Tank walking up High Street of Flers with British Army cheering behind”.
Regrettably, the British had no plan to exploit this breakthrough, and the Germans recovered all of the ground in subsequent counter attacks. Many derided the effort as at best a premature disclosure of an asymmetric advantage, and at worst a failure and waste of resources. It would be months before another tank saw action. Nonetheless like the bow, stirrup, gunpowder, bayonet, and the Dreadnought before it, the tank changed warfare forever.
The week long artillery bombardment was largely ineffective. The German troops stayed in their deep bunkers, and the smoke and debris made corrections and assessment difficult. They caught the British on open ground, and once machine guns went into action, they massacred them.
The veterans of the old colonial army, the “Old Contemptibles” as Kaiser Wilhelm II dubbed them, were mostly either dead among the poppies at Ypres, or disbanded to form the cadres for Lord Kitchener’s New Army of volunteers. Most of the recruits joined the “pals” battalions in which they served with those whom they enlisted. In the coming weeks, many a small British village or neighborhood were informed that the entirety of their young men were either dead or wounded.
In the British zone, the fighting around the Tiepval village typified the day. The Ulstermen of the 36th Division captured the Schwaben Redoubt, but the 32nd Division just south at the Thiepval village was pinned down and slowly murdered. The 4th Army commanding general, LieutGen Henry Rawlinson, refused to deviate from the plan and instead of committing the reserves to the Swaben Redoubt and flanking the village strongpoint, he committed them to two unsuccessful and very bloody frontal assaults. To add insult to injury, a hard charging German brigade commander launched a counter attack without waiting for two other brigades to move into their assault positions, who were delayed. They seized the Schwaben Redoubt, and the retreating Ulstermen were massacred crossing back across no man’s land.
Despite the loss of more than 90,000 dead or wounded on 1 July, the largest single day’s battle casualties in history, there was some success. The more experienced French troops south of the Somme River captured most of their objectives, but because the British were so preoccupied with their zone, the French couldn’t exploit its success properly.
All along the front, smaller Schwabens and Thiebvals occurred and the British gained almost nothing on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The Battle would continue for another 144 days.
At exactly 0729, 1 July 1916, 1800 British and French artillery pieces bombarding the German trenches ceased firing. At 0729:42, the last echoes of the explosions from the last shell ended. For the next 18 seconds, as maddeningly long as only the second hand on a pocket watch can be, an eerie silence drifted across the Somme battlefield, as thousands of hushed and tense men waited for the signal. When the hand ticked to 12, junior officers blew their whistles, and 90,000 men went over the top, a number larger than the populations of Watertown NY, Leavenworth KS, and McKeesport, PA, combined.
They didn’t charge, or even jog. They walked. Some even formed ranks like their great-grandfathers did at Waterloo. They were heavily burdened with extra food, water, and ammunition, and they had 400 meters of no man’s land to cross. It was a long walk over open ground, but they were told that no Germans could have survived the week long bombardment. Also, their officers thought it prudent that they at least have the energy to engage at the end, if need be, in that most tiresome of activities, close quarters combat.
Most units were barely 20 meters from their trenches when they heard the first distinctive “crack” from a German Mauser rifle. Maybe a minute later the first Maxim machine gun opened fire. Very soon, many units came to the horrific realization that the wire to their front hadn’t been cut by the artillery. Within seconds, great swaths of men were cut down, as they continued to trudge forward, or jog slightly but only as far as one could carrying 70lbs of kit. Then German artillery, largely unaffected by the bombardment, began to fire. From 0732 until 0750 16 July 1916, about 450 men would die and more than 1300 wounded every minute. That is at least 1750 bleeding and horrifically mangled men in less time than it took you to read this.
The Battle of the Somme had begun.
On 24 June 1916, at exactly 0900, 427 British and French heavy field guns and howitzers, and 1010 pieces of field artillery opened up on at a 23 km section of the German trench lines just north of the Somme River. (That’s one gun firing for every 16 meters of trench.) They would fire ceaselessly for next week, stopping only when the gun barrels overheated. Once they cooled off, they continued firing. They were tasked to destroy the German trenches and strongpoints, and cut the wire in no man’s land.
As it began, General Sir Henry Rawlinson commented, “Nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it“
On 12 June 1916 during the battle of Verdun, two battalions of the French 137th Infantry were caught in exposed trenches by German artillery observers. In the subsequent bombardment the regiment broke and scattered . As the survivors reformed, no members of the 3rd Company were found.
Three years later after the war was over, French burial and UXO teams exploring the battlefield found a precise row of bayonets sticking up from the earth. Digging underneath, they found the members of the 3rd Company locked in a death pose preparing to go over the top. They were all simultaneously killed by concussion and their trench instantly filled by debris from the bombardment.
In 1915 and 1916 the First World War battles along the solidified trench lines of the Eastern and Western Fronts followed a familiar pattern: the attacker would launch a massive weeks long artillery bombardment to shatter the defenses. At the appointed time, the attacking infantry officers would blow their whistles and they and their men would climb out of their trenches i.e. “go over the top”, into “no man’s land” and get mowed down by machine guns because artillery never kills everyone. But soon the weight of numbers told and the attackers broke through. However the breach was not exploited because the attacker’s reserves and logistical support couldn’t traverse the artillery shattered terrain quick enough. Even if they could, the defensive reserves were already close because the build up and long bombardment gave away the point of attack. The defenders would inevitably counterattack and retake the positions. The defeated attacking commanders would cry lack of artillery and demand more and heavier guns, and more shells. The bloody cycle would continue. Millions died.
In early May 1916, the Imperial Russian government was under intense pressure to launch a general summer offensive in order to draw the Germans away from Verdun where the Germans were erasing a 3000 man infantry regiment from the French order of battle every day. The Russians reluctantly did so but only had enough shells for an adequate pre attack bombardment for one front, and they chose General Ewart’s Western Front. The other fronts would have to make do with enough shells for just a single day’s bombardment, well below the minimum ten days thought necessary to break the standard German or Austro Hungarian triple belt defensive line.
The Southwest Front Commander, General Aleksei Brusilov, protested that the lack of shells would cause excessive casualties. He was told that was his problem and to attack anyway. Brusilov wasn’t a deep thinker but he was a practical and competent cavalrymen who cared deeply for his soldiers. He gathered his staff to figure out a way to break the opposite Austrian lines without murdering entire armies. He and his staff locked themselves in the headquarters for three days and did what Russians do best: drink vodka and figure out new, efficient, and effective ways to kill people.
After the vodka laden brainstorming and planning session with his staff, Brusilov issued new guidance to make up for the lack of artillery support for the upcoming June offensive. Normally, at least ten days’ worth of shells were needed to break a triple belt trenchline, he had but one. To make up for this weakness, he had to use what he had more efficiently, specifically his infantry. Strong points and key terrain in the Austro-Hungarian line were identified, scale models were created, and picked troops were assigned, specially equipped, trained, and rehearsed in their capture. The rest of his troops dug massive underground bunkers that could house these assault troops close to the front lines without alerting the Austro-Hungarians. They also went back to old siege techniques from 17th and 18th centuries, and dug assault and infiltration trenches into no man’s land, some of which got to within 75m of the enemy forward trenches. Brusilov also used his artillery to directly support the infantry attacks, instead of the indirect blanket support heretofore used so far in the war. He would have just a single hour’s worth of initial bombardment, and its only task was forcing the defenders into their own bunkers. The artillery would then switch to counterbattery and opportunity fire which necessitated an overhaul of the poor fires coordination between the artillery, infantry, and aviation. Finally, he brought up all of his reserves, and more importantly, delegated most of them to his army commanders since he did not see the Austro-Hungarians counterattacking in force the way the Germans would farther north. His army commanders could respond more quickly with them close at hand.
On 4 June, 1916, the entire Russian Army, from Baltic Sea in the north, to the Carpathian Mountains in the south, went over the top. Troops of Ewart’s Western Front facing the Germans were massacred. Brusilov’s Southwestern Front broke through and exploited the breach on the first day.
With no massive telltale artillery stockpiles and troop concentrations, the Austro-Hungarians were completely surprised by the attack. Brusilov’s revolutionary new tactics ensured that most forward Austro-Hungarian units were captured in their bunkers settling in in anticipation of a long bombardment. In most areas, two of the three trench lines were overrun before the defenders put up any resistance. And the third was easily punched through. Since the roads were relatively undamaged by the shelling, the nearby reserves quickly drove into the Austro-Hungarian rear areas.
In a war where offensive gains were measured in yards for the last 20 months, Brusilov’s Southwest Front drove forward fifty miles in 72 hours. Despite the seemingly narrow gains on the map, Germany’s ally crumbled.
By July, the Germans had to withdraw troops from the North and West to finally stop Brusilov’s drive from knocking the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the war. This relieved pressure on the French, but it finally ground the Russian’s wildly successful offensive to a halt. Still Brusilov was the darling of Tsar Nicholas’ II court and the Southwest Front was showered with resources. If Alexei Brusilov could do so much with just a single day’s artillery, imagine what he could do with twenty!… or so the thinking went.
Unfortunately, Brusilov didn’t learn his own lessons.
With the massive support, Brusilov reverted back to the old ways. Four months and one million casualties later, the Russian people were tired of the senseless killing. Revolution was in the air.
In the winter of 1915/16 Mexican counter-counter-revolutionary (I think), Pancho Villa, was on the losing end of his fight against “Primer Jefe” First Chief Venustiano Carranza. The “Villistas” as Pancho Villa and his men were called, were holed up in the Chihuahua Mountains and were desperate for supplies to continue. Three miles across the US/Mexican border was the town of Columbus, New Mexico, which could provide the necessary guns, horses, food, and blankets.
Before dawn on 9 March, 1916, Pancho Villa and 500 Villistas attacked Columbus and Camp Furlong just outside of town where 120 troopers of Headquarters, H, and F Troops of the 13th Cavalry were stationed. The garrison at Camp Furlong was saved by the actions of two lieutenants, one barefoot, who organized a defense around the post’s guard shack with the headquarters troop’s machinegun platoon. Once the Villistas were beaten back at the camp, F troop moved into Columbus where the civilians were fighting back from the brick schoolhouse while Pancho Villa and his men looted and burned the rest of the town. They arrived just in time to prevent the Villistas from robbing Columbus’ bank when a well-placed Hotchkiss machine gun prevented any attacker from crossing Broadway, Columbus’ main street.
The raid was successful, if at a heavy cost, as Pancho Villa stole hundreds of horses, rifles and pistols, and much needed food and blankets from the town at the cost 90 casualties, 70 of whom were killed. But he wasn’t counting on the natural aggressiveness of the United States Cavalryman. As Pancho Villa raced to the border, and then 15 miles into Mexico, the regimental executive officer with 40 men dogged them for the next 8 hours, killing or wounding another 250 Villistas, and forcing Pancho Villa to abandon much of his booty.
In the end Pancho Villa suffered over 300 casualties and the Americans eleven troopers and ten civilians killed and another dozen wounded in the Battle of Columbus. The raid sent shockwaves through the United States, particularity the death of the pregnant Mary James, who was killed by the Villistas fleeing the burning Hoover Hotel. President Wilson would authorize a punitive expedition into Mexico led by LTG John J. “Blackjack” Pershing to capture or kill Pancho Villa.
The German Chief of Staff, Field Marshal von Moltke the Younger was replaced by his rival FM Erich von Falkenhayn after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in the autumn of 1914. In 1915, von Falkenhayn chose to solidify the trench lines stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea and focus on defeating the Russians. After vast gains in the East that year, von Falkenhayn decided to focus back on the West and defeat the French in 1916.
His plan was to “bleed the French white” in a battle of attrition for the emotionally significant city of Verdun. Von Falkenhayn knew the French would never allow the Germans to keep Verdun, so he planned to destroy the counterattacking French with a concentration of artillery unseen in history. Moreover, the terrain around Verdun favored the Germans: the area was littered with natural choke points that could be exploited. The most significant being the single road the French had to use to supply their armies, and the location of Verdun on the east bank of the Meuse river, forcing the French to rely on just seven bridges, all within range of German artillery. Finally the French forts protecting the city, robust and built after the French loss in 1870, were criminally undermanned after being stripped for fighting in Flanders the year before. The centerpiece of which were the massive twin forts of Vaux and Douaumont.
At 0715, 21 February 1916, Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Execution Place) began with a 10-hour artillery bombardment by 808 guns. The German artillery fired over a million shells along a front just 19 miles long by 3 miles wide. Twenty-six super-heavy, long-range guns, up to 420 mm (16.5 in), fired on the forts and the city of Verdun; a rumble could be heard 99 miles away. The bombardment was paused at midday, as a ruse to prompt French survivors to reveal themselves. The main German attack was launched that afternoon. The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time and the infantry followed closely with rifles slung, to use hand grenades to kill the remaining defenders. The battle would eventually last ten months and cause almost a million casualties on both sides throughout the year.
1916 was one of those seminal years in Western history, comparing only to 440 BCE, 34 CE, 410, 843, 1066, 1096, 1492, 1648, and 1776. It can be argued (convincingly imo) that the culmination of 2500 years of recorded history occurred at the Battle of Verdun, and it’s two incestuous offspring: the Battle of the Somme and Brusilov’s Offensive. These battles pitted the four great Christian, rational, progressive, technologically advanced (all by the standards of the time) Westphalian states in an irrational, emotionally driven, nationalist, suicidal, industrial slaughter the effects of which our great great great grandchildren will still deal with.
Everything before Verdun led to it, and everything after Verdun was because of it. If Western civilization continues its slow slide back into barbarism, historians in the far distant future will look at 0715, 21 February 1916, as the moment the descent began.
On 10 February 1906, HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first modern battleship, was launched. The Dreadnought was a revolution in military affairs so rarely seen in history. The moment the Dreadnought slid into Portsmouth Harbor, every fighting ship in the world was immediately obsolete. Upon learning of it, US President Theodore Roosevelt sent America’s battle fleet, “The Great White Fleet” (because it was painted white, you bigot) to circumnavigate the world ostensibly to show America’s global commitment. But in reality because America’s pre-dreadnought battleships were no better than scrap metal in an actual fight, and only useful for showing the flag against colonies and nations whose resident professional naval personnel were ignorant of the new paradigm in naval warfare. It’s telling that the Great White Fleet only made one stop in Europe, Gibraltar.
At the turn of the century, naval battles were characterized by slow battleships initially firing at long range by a small amount of big guns in order to damage the enemy enough to put him out of position. Then the object was to close the range so many more smaller guns with higher rates of fires could do the killing damage. Advances in metallurgy meant the smaller guns had to get closer to penetrate. And the larger guns’ splashes couldn’t be identified among smaller guns’ splashes making correction difficult and marginalizing the bigger guns at close ranges. In any case, the widespread use of the torpedo in destroyers and cruisers kept distances long (in order give the ships time to avoid them). By the Russo-Japanese War, long distance gunnery reigned supreme and the first combatant to gain position usually won (as seen clearly in the Battle of Tsuchima).
The HMS Dreadnought was the first ship built specifically to these new realities. She had a uniform battery of ten 12” guns in five turrets and forewent the medium range 6” and 8” guns of her predecessors. She was the first ship with steam turbines which nearly doubled her speed. She had the latest fire control, and her armor was impenetrable to all but the largest guns and torpedoes of the day. (Shit quality steel was used in passenger liners… like the Titanic.)
The HMS Dreadnought was as fast as a cruiser, had as many torpedoes as a small destroyer squadron, had the long range fire power of five pre-dreadnought battleships, and the armor of Cthulhu. She set off a naval arms race across the world that wouldn’t slow down until after the First World War.
On 6 September, 1915, the prototype British Mark I Tank rolled off the assembly line. “Little Willie” was 14 tons, underpowered, routinely overheated, and couldn’t traverse a trench: its raison d’etre. Even though Littlle Willie was a far cry from the Battlefield Dominating, Fire Breathing Iron Leviathans we have today, he would eventually evolve into the British Mark IV tank that made its debut a year later on the battlefields of the First World War.