The Inter-World Wars Military Thinkers

General Erich Ludendorff

Throughout history, all too often the conclusion of one armed conflict has served as a prelude to the next. Never was this more true than at the end of World War I, which, although it was sometimes described as “the war to end all wars,” provided only a temporary respite. Scarcely had the guns fallen silent than people started looking into the future on the assumption that the Great Powers of this world had not yet finished fighting one another. Which gave rise to the question: How was this to be done?

To virtually all of those who tried, the point of departure was the need to avoid attrition, reopen the way toward decisive operations, and reduce the number of military casualties on the battlefield. The casualties themselves had been the direct result of the superiority of the defense as brought about by modern firepower, hence the most pressing problem was to find ways to bypass or overcome it. One of the first serious theoretical treatises to look at the problem was written by an Italian general, Giulio Douhet. An engineer by profession, during the early years of the century Douhet had become fascinated with the military applications of the internal combustion engine. A little later he was also found dabbling in futurist ideas concerning the spiritual qualities allegedly springing from those two speedy new vehicles, the motorcar and the aircraft, claiming that they possessed the ability to rejuvenate the world and Italy in particular.

As a staff officer in 1915–18, he was in a position to observe, and reflect on, the twelve abortive offensives the Italian army had launched across the River Isonzo. Surely there had to be a better way of doing things—one that, in fact, he had already promoted during the war itself, arguing in favor of the creation of a massive bomber force and its use against the enemy. His masterpiece, Il Commando del Aereo (the command of the air), was published in 1921 and, as the title suggests, tried to do for the air what Mahan had done for the sea. In his own words, “the form of any war … depends upon the technical means of war available.” In the past, firearms had revolutionized war; then it was the turn of small-caliber rapid-fire guns, barbed wire, and, at sea, the submarine. The most recent additions were the air arm and poison gas, both of which were still in their infancy but possessed the potential to completely upset all forms of war so far known.

Douhet surmised correctly that as long as war was fought only on the surface of the earth, it was necessary for one side to break through the other’s defenses in order to win. However, those defenses had become stronger and stronger until the ability to maneuver past them and take strategically important targets such as cities and industrial areas became impossible. Sheltered by this reality, the civilian population carried on almost undisturbed. As we saw, it was by mobilizing that population that the belligerents were able to produce what it took to wage total war and sustain the fight for years on end.

The advent of aircraft changed this situation. Capable of flying over battle lines and natural obstacles, and possessing a comparatively long range, aircraft were free to attack centers of population and industry. Because no effective defense against such attacks was possible—given that the air could be traversed in all directions with equal ease and there was no predicting which target would be hit next—any war would have to start with a massive attack on the enemy’s air bases so as to establish “command of the air.”

That having been achieved, and extrapolating from the events of 1916–18, Douhet suggested that forty aircraft dropping eighty tons of bombs might have “completely destroyed” a city the size of Treviso. A mere three aircraft, he calculated, could deliver as much firepower as a modern battleship in a single broadside, whereas a thousand aircraft could deliver ten times as much firepower as could the entire British navy—counting thirty Dreadnoughts—in ten broadsides. The kicker was that the price tag of a single battleship would buy about a thousand aircraft. As Douhet pointed out, moreover, even these calculations failed to take account of the fact that the science of military aviation had just begun and that aircraft capable of lifting as much as ten tons of bombs would soon be built. Carrying Douhet’s views further, investments in armies and navies would by necessity come to a halt, and given that the new weapon was inherently offensive in nature, most of the aircraft ought to be not fighters but bombers. And instead of being grafted on to the army and navy, such air fleets would be formed into an independent air force. At the outbreak of the next war, that air force would be launched like a shell from a cannon. Having obtained command of the air in this sense by destroying the enemy’s airfields, the attackers would switch from military to civilian objectives. Using gas as the principal weapon, the aim should be not merely to kill but to demoralize. Leaping over the enemy’s ground defenses, a war waged by such means might be over almost before it had begun. By minimizing the casualties of both the attacker and the defender (whose population, feeling the effects of war directly, would force the government to surrender) represented a humane alternative to an endless battle of attrition. To carry out the air offensive, Douhet proposed a comparatively small force made up of elite warriors, a vision that meshed well with the anti-democratic, fascist ideas he also entertained.

The dream of avoiding warfare by attrition was also alive in the great prophet of mechanized land warfare, John Frederick Fuller. Even as a young officer, Fuller had given evidence of a formidable intellect expressed by an interest in everything from Greek philosophy to Jewish mysticism. In the years before World War I, he made great effort to discover the principles of war, of which he settled on nine: direction, concentration, distribution, determination, surprise, endurance, mobility, offensive action, and security.’

In numerous publications—Fuller was a prolific writer who, however, often tended to overstate his case—he argued that war, like every other field of human life, was decisively affected by the progress of science. Like Douhet, he considered the most important fruits of science to be the internal combustion engine (on which depended the airplane and the tank) and poison gas. For him, future warfare on land would center on the tank and the mechanization of artillery, reconnaissance, engineering, signals, supply, and maintenance units. Fully mechanized, an army would enjoy almost as much freedom of movement as did ships at sea. Now armies could once again maneuver against each other, concentrating against select sections of the enemy front, breaking through, and bringing about victory at comparatively low cost.

In the debates about tanks and mechanization, his views, coming as they did from an ex–chief of staff of the most advanced mechanized force in history, commanded particular respect. Yet even barring his most extreme ideas—say, that armies should consist of tanks alone and every infantryman provided with his individual tankette—many of his suggestions have come to pass. Considering himself not merely a military reformer but a philosopher as well, Fuller went on to spin an immensely complicated network of intellectual propositions on the nature of war, life, history, and whatever. Combining all these different strands, many of his historical writings were decidedly brilliant. However, much of his theorizing was decidedly half-baked, tied as it was to his interest in mysticism and the occult.

In the history of twentieth-century military thought, Fuller’s name is almost always associated with that of his younger contemporary and friend Basil Liddell Hart.’ Unlike Fuller, Liddell Hart was not a professional soldier, but rather studied history at Cambridge before enlisting, received a commission, and fought in France. Gassed at the Somme, Captain (throughout his life he enjoyed emphasizing the military rank he had attained) Liddell Hart spent the rest of the war in England training infantry recruits. It was in this capacity that he first started thinking seriously about the best way to prepare for, and wage, armed conflict.

Concerning his intellectual development, two points are worth noting. First, like so many of his generation who were educated in public schools, Liddell Hart was brought up on the notion that war was akin to sport and games. In his memoirs, he explains that he was good at football—not because his coordination and technique were in any way outstanding, but because he could envisage all various combinations of play and foresee where the ball was likely to end up. Second, and again like so many of his contemporaries, Liddell Hart ended the war as a fervent admirer of the British military establishment, which after all had just fought and won the largest armed conflict in history to date.

However, within a few years he reversed himself, joining the then fashionable trend of disillusionment with the war in general and with its conduct at the hand of the British high command in particular. In criticizing that conduct, his stature as the popular journalist he became after the war and interest in sports were to come in handy. Like Fuller, Liddell Hart concluded that sending men into the maws of machine guns had been the height of folly, the origin of which was to be found not in simple bloody-mindedness but in the writings of the greatest of all military philosophers, Carl von Clausewitz. To Liddell Hart, this was the prophet whose clarion call had misled generations of officers into the belief that the best, indeed almost the only, way to wage war was to concentrate the greatest possible number of men and weapons and launch them straight ahead against the enemy. In 1914–18 the “Prussian Marseillaise” had borne its horrible fruit.

To restore the power of the offensive and save casualties, in his early writings Liddell Hart recommended “the indirect approach.” Rather than attacking the enemy head-on, he should be thrown off balance, achieved by combining rapidity of movement with secrecy and surprise, with attacks carried out by dispersed forces (so as to conceal the true center of gravity for as long as possible), coming from unexpected directions, and following the least expected route, even if this meant overcoming topographic obstacles. Above all, every plan had to possess “two branches”—drawn up in such a way as to keep the opponent guessing concerning one’s true objectives. Any plan should also be sufficiently flexible to enable an objective to be changed if it turned out to be too strongly defended.

All such maneuvers were to be carried out in two-dimensional space, along lines of communications, overcoming all natural and artificial obstacles, while trailing “an umbilical cord of supply,” and against an enemy who presumably was both intelligent enough to understand what was going on and capable of engaging in countermaneuvers. War, consisting essentially of movement, was presented almost as if it were some kind of sophisticated game played between opposing teams. This was particularly true of Liddell Hart’s mature work. The older he became, the more pronounced his tendency to give tactics a short shrift. Other subjects such as mobilization, logistics, intelligence, command, communication and control, and questions of killing and dying were also lightly skipped over. Reading his most famous and oft-reprinted book, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, one might be excused for thinking war was about operational movement and very little else.

During the early 1920s, Liddell Hart also became interested in mechanization, and in this so much of his thinking was “borrowed” from his mentor, Fuller, that their friendship suffered for it. Thus it was little surprise that Liddell Hart’s vision of mechanized armed forces, as set forth in his Paris, or the Future of War (1925) as well as The Remaking of Modern Armies (1927), employed a combination of aircraft, tanks, and poison gas as weapons with which defenses could be skipped over or overcome, resulting in the war brought to a swift and cheap, if violent, end.

What prevented Liddell Hart from making a detailed forecast of the Blitzkrieg, with its characteristic combination of armored divisions and tanks, was his abiding revulsion for the horrors of World War I and his determination, which he shared with so many of his generation, that they not be repeated. From about 1931 on, this caused him to switch from attempts to devise more effective ways to win toward thinking about less costly ways to avoid defeat. Following Julian Corbett without bothering to acknowledge the master, he now claimed that the “British Way in Warfare” had always been to stay out of massive Continental commitments. Instead the kingdom had relied on its navy to keep the enemy at bay (and harass and weaken him by means of well-directed strokes at selected points) and on Continental allies to deliver the coup de main. By 1939, Liddell Hart had convinced himself that “the dominant lesson from the experience of land warfare, for more than a generation past, has been the superiority of the defense over attack”; even in the air, as experiences in Spain had shown, “the prospects of the defense are improving.” Therefore, instead of Britain repeating its World War I error—which had led to so many casualties— it could safely trust the “dauntless” French to stop the Germans. Britain itself, its armed forces thoroughly modernized and mechanized, should revert to its traditional strategy, relying primarily on blockade on the one hand and airpower on the other. This had the additional advantage that it would make universal conscription and mass armies unnecessary—a preference for small professional forces that Liddell Hart, a liberal, shared with some thinkers like Douhet.

Compared with Douhet, Fuller, and Liddell Hart, Erich Ludendorff was a towering figure. Much more than the first two, he understood what modern war was like from the top, and unlike the last-named he did not regard it as some kind of field game; “the war has spared me nothing,” he would write, having lost two sons. On the other hand, and again unlike Liddell Hart in particular, neither did he shrink from its horrors.

At first, Ludendorff was perhaps no more bigoted than was required of a German officer of his generation. Indeed, during the war he once opened a proclamation to the Jewish population of occupied Poland with the words, “Meine liebe Jidden.” In the 1920s, however, influenced by his second wife, he started dabbling with anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-freemasonry (he could never make up his mind which of the three international forces posed the greatest danger to Germany). He also took a part in the 1923 Nazi Putsch; for all this he has been rightly condemned. However, this should not obscure the fact that his vision of future war was more nearly correct than any of the rest.

Having spent more than two years in charge of Germany’s war effort, Ludendorff did not believe that a first-class modern state could be brought to its knees rapidly and cheaply by aircraft dropping bombs, or by fleets of tanks engaging in mobile operations, however brilliantly. In part, his Der Totale Krieg merely continued the work of some pre-1914 militarist writers, such as Colmar von der Goltz and Theodor von Bernhardi, who had advocated total mobilization and mass armies. And up to a point, his book recounted his own experience, which by attacking many of his less cooperative colleagues sought to explain why Germany had lost the war. Yet whatever the book’s precise origins and purpose, Ludendorff’s main thesis was that the developing technologies of production, transportation, and communication made modern war into much more than merely a question of armed forces maneuvering against one another for mastery of some battlefield. Instead, war would now demand a nation’s total effort, and therefore a total devotion of all resources to its execution.

To be sure, the next war would make use of all available weapons, including poison gas. Both civilians in their cities and soldiers in their trenches would be targeted, and the resulting casualties, destruction, and suffering would be immense. Therefore, by necessity, as important as the total mobilization of material resources would be the spiritual mobilization of the people—a point on which, as Ludendorff and many of his countrymen saw it, imperial Germany with its old-fashioned, authoritarian system of government and its neglect of the working classes had been sadly deficient.

The implication of such mobilization was an end to democracy and the liberties it entailed, including not only freedom of the press but workers’ rights and capitalist enterprise as well. For either industrialists or union leaders (during the war, Ludendorff had had his troubles with both) to insist on their own privilege was intolerable. Along with the entire financial apparatus available to the state, they, too, were to be subjected to a military dictatorship. And having experienced the process firsthand, Ludendorff was under no illusion that the nation’s spiritual and material mobilization could be improvised. Hence the dictatorship he demanded, and for which he no doubt regarded himself as the most suitable candidate, was to be set up in peacetime and made permanent.

The next war would be a life-and-death struggle to be won by the belligerent with the greatest resources and the strongest will to mobilize and deploy them—which incidentally disposed of any childish illusions concerning small, professional, and highly mobile, let alone chivalrous, armed forces. Anything that did not serve the war effort would have to be ruthlessly suppressed. Politics would, in effect, be swallowed by the war. Ludendorff was never one to mince his words. “All of Clausewitz’s theories should be thrown overboard…. Both war and policy serve the existence of the nation. However, war is the highest expression of the people’s will to live. Therefore politics must be made subordinate to war.” Or else, to the extent that this did not happen, treated as superfluous and, indeed, treasonable.

In the decades after 1945, Ludendorff’s military ideas were often attacked by featherweight commentators who mistook their world—in which nuclear weapons had made total warfare as he understood it impossible—for his. During these years, it was Liddell Hart and Fuller who, whether rightly or not, were celebrated as the fathers of the Blitzkrieg. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was not their vision of World War II but Ludendorff’s that turned out to be only too horribly true.

To be sure, fleets of aircraft, though they did not drop gas, did fly over fronts and bombed cities on a scale that, had he been able to envisage it, might have made even Ludendorff blanch. The combination of airpower, armor, mobility, and wireless restored operational mobility, laying the groundwork for some spectacular campaigns in which countries the size of Poland and France were knocked down at a single blow. The Second World War also demonstrated the reestablishment of the balance between defense and offense, although events were to show that both tanks and aircraft were equally as capable of preventing a breakthrough as they were of helping one take place.

Where Ludendorff proved most correct, however, was in his insistence that the Second World War—a term, of course, that he did not use—would be broadly like the first, and like its predecessor would develop into a gigantic and prolonged struggle. As was the First World War, it would be waged on many fronts, at sea and in the air as well as on land. Like its predecessor, it would both demand and make possible the mobilization of all resources. He was also proved right in that even democratic Britain found it necessary to curtail the role of politics by setting up a national coalition government—which meant that, as long as the conflict lasted, there was no parliamentary opposition, and elections were postponed. Ludendorff’s posthumous triumph may, indeed, be seen in the fact that, by the time the war was over, a continent had been devastated and an estimated forty million people lay dead.

 

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