Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 and when by mid-August the Belgians had been mauled by the German Army only one intact force stood in their way – the British Expeditionary Force. The BEF fired its first shots of the war on 22 August. Next day the advancing German infantry were pulled up short near Mons as the withering rifle fire of the British caused them heavy casualties, two days later at Le Cateau the story of Mons was repeated, only on a bloodier scale. Once again the Germans attacked in tightly bunched waves and again they were met with rifle fire so intense that they thought the British were equipped with machine guns. Tactics changed during the war and what might now be called SOPs - Standard Operating Procedures had emerged by the end of the conflict.
At the beginning of the war the French particularly were keen to press the attack. In part this was a philosophical concept based on the desire to regain the territory lost in the Franco-Prussian War. The French theorist Colonel C.J.J. Ardent du Picq believed that morale was the winning factor while Marshal Ferdinand Foch expressed the belief that it was impossible to lose a battle until the general believed himself defeated. In 1914 even though the first trench warfare had been fought in the Russo-Japanese War and even in parts of the American Civil War, few theorists imagined it would happen in Europe where a conflict would surely be one of manoeuvre.
In 1914 a German Army battalion had six Maxim MG Model 1908 machine guns, while in contrast a British battalion initially had only two Vickers Mk Is or Maxims. However, from the outset of the fighting the Germans tactically concentrated these already coordinated battalion teams into batteries and thus gave the appearance, and effect, of having even more machine guns than they actually did. This appeared the case at Loos when German machine gun crews opened fire at 1,400 metres on the advancing British infantry on the afternoon of 26 September 1915. They inflicted 8,000 casualties (50 per cent) on just two British New Army divisions (21st and 24th). One single German machine gun crew is said to have fired 12,500 rounds.
In 1917-18 the British and Germans made a change from a defensive to a more offensive role for the machine gun. The British had established the Machine Gun Corps to undertake highly coordinated offensive and defensive tactics, including barrages. The infantry then concentrated on the deployment, with much success, of the lighter Lewis machine guns at the platoon level. In many ways the infantry platoon in the latter part of the First World War with its specialist ‘bombers’ – men carrying bags of grenades, Lewis gunners providing fire for the riflemen and bombers to manoeuvre would be familiar to a platoon commander on operations in Afghanistan.
As early as 1914 Erwin Rommel, who would gain fame as the commander of the Afrika Korps in the Second World War, noted in his training manual ‘Infantry Attacks’ that though his platoon was under heavy fire from French positions they broke down into small groups and advanced in rushes. In what reads like current infantry tactics each group provided covering fire for the other. When they reached the French position the enemy had fled and the Germans realised that the reason their casualties were so low was that the French had not adjusted the sights on their rifles and were aiming high. As can be imagined Rommel was the exception in 1914. At the time the British, French and Germans all believed that offence was the war-winning tactic and if supporting fire was concentrated correctly the impetus of the assault would succeed. The British 1914 manual ‘Infantry Training’ stated that casualties decreased with a steady advance because of the morale effect upon the enemy; in other words his fire would become erratic as he began to panic at the sight of his enemy closing with the position and because the range would be changing. The tactics favoured by Rommel worked only if the platoon or company had good junior NCOs who could ‘read the battle’ and lead or drive the men under their command. Men like this could be rare in mass conscript armies, such as that at the beginning of the First World War, and consequently attacks were often made one British soldier recalled, resembled ‘a swaying football crowd’.
Terrain could shape the theory and practice of tactical formations. Edmund Priestman of the 6th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment described how in training his platoon adopted ‘artillery formation’ for advance across country. In this formation the platoon formed a loose column four abreast to (in theory) present the minimum target for artillery:
‘Across the first field we kept this formation beautifully. Then we met a second hedge and then a wet ploughed field. On switching my attention from the ground to the platoon in front I found (by some unexplained means) they had disappeared and left no sign of themselves! At this point a head poked over a hedge and saw me – and wanted to know “What the **** I thought I was doing?” To which I replied that “I was under the impression that I was advancing in artillery formation”. On closer examination I found my formation was more like a Mothers’ Meeting out for a walk... the Colonel (for the head belonged to no less!) cursed me and my Mothers’ Meeting most vilely for ten minutes and then went in search of the Major to repeat the best bits over again to him …’ (Haythornthwaite, The World War One Source Book)
Priestman’s experience of the failure of command and control was in training; on the Western Front, shell and small arms fire would be the lethal addition to the mud, craters and barbed wire.
Barbed wire, which had been invented in 1867 in the United States, was first used as an obstacle in the Spanish-American War during the siege of Santiago and extensively in the Boer War, where it played a strategic role in bringing areas under control, at military outposts and also in holding the captured Boer population. At the turn of the century it was used in the Russo-Japanese War, a conflict that was almost a proving ground for weapons, tactics and equipment used in the First World War. Military barbed wire was closer together than a hand’s width. While it was thought that artillery fire could cut wire for localised breaching a more reliable system was the Bangalore torpedo, which was first devised in 1912 by Captain McClintock of the Madras Sappers and Miners, part of the British Indian Army and based at the military depot at Bangalore, India. The Bangalore torpedo consists of interlocking explosive filled tubes that can be pushed into a barbed wire belt. When it explodes shards of metal cut the wire while the blast pushes it to either side. A soldier can crawl forward and slide a Bangalore torpedo into place without enemy troops being aware that an attack is about to be launched. Wire cutters were the other way of breaching wire. Though they were heavy and rather cumbersome they could be issued widely and consequently gave soldiers their own individual breaching kit.
The commanders and soldiers at Ypres were to face all of these problems during the year 1914-15: coordination of artillery fire and infantry, the difficulties of overcoming terrain and barbed wire, as well as the horrors of chemical warfare – the German tactic that caused such devastation during the Second Battle of Ypres. The experience of all these elements which culminated in the realisation that the days of offensive warfare and full-on assaults with rapid movement were gone, to be replaced by a draining and demoralising existence of static and entrenched warfare that would characterise the Western Front.
Extracted from Battle Story: Ypres by William Fowler