THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY, 1914–1918

The A7V was first used in action in the St. Quentin canal area on 21 March 1918, where five tanks under the command of Hauptmann Greiff were deployed. Three of the vehicles broke down before they could engage the British forces, the other two playing a relatively minor part in preventing a British breakthrough. Meanwhile the first recorded tank battle took place towards the end of an engagement involving eighteen A7Vs at Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April 1918.

As the months and years passed, the formidable German army that took to the field in 1914 continued to evolve and modernize in response to changing operational situations; to take advantage of technological advances by Germany; and to counter those by the Franco-British and other Allied forces ranged against the Central Powers. By 1917 the old divisional organization with four regiments had been reduced to three, and battalion strengths also reduced in order to enable the creation of new divisions. A host of special-purpose combat and support units were created to deal with particular aspects of the new forms of warfare. At the same time the size and capability of the artillery increased significantly. Machine-gun units also proliferated, including specialist machine-gun units for mountain warfare and anti-aircraft defence, and for operating with cavalry and cyclist units. The development of light machine-guns and automatic rifles also resulted initially in the creation of special units to man these weapons, but they were later categorized as general-purpose weapons. Protective technology for the individual soldier advanced in parallel with weapons technology, the most visible evidence of this being the iconic ‘coal-scuttle’ Stahlhelm steel helmet, which replaced the traditional Pickelhaube spiked helmet from 1916. From 1915 ever more efficient anti-gas respirators also became an indispensable part of every soldier’s equipment.

Many other changes were precipitated by the rapid advances in military technology as the army sought new weapons and tactical solutions with which it might break – or at least predominate in – the deadlock on the Western Front. The war of attrition and emphasis upon defensive operations on the Western Front meant that the army had to be able to hold and regain ground while also maintaining its offensive spirit and flexibility. The high command’s publication in December 1916 of the new operational doctrine set out in The Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Positional Warfare was but one of the more significant such documents among various doctrinal and tactical papers and publications. Field engineering in particular became a growth industry, and in addition to their existing engineering functions the army’s pioneers took on responsibility for flamethrowers, trench mortars, mining, poison gas apparatus and projectors, pontoon and other bridging equipment and searchlight operating. All forms of electronic communication moved on apace, with the responsibility for telegraph communications eventually allocated to a newly-created signals organization from January 1917. Meanwhile, the command and control of all ground transportation units and movement functions were centralized under the quartermaster general’s department.

Above the battlefield, meanwhile, advances in airship and aeroplane design – including innovations such as Anthony Fokker’s system of synchronization that allowed pilots to fire their machine-guns forward through an aeroplane’s propeller – opened up a whole new arena for war-fighting. In 1916 the army’s pre-1914 airship battalions were grouped with its aviation (aeroplane-equipped) units and established as the Luftstreitkräfte (Air Service) as a separate branch of the army; the army later transferred its airship capability to the navy. In due course, Germany’s use of Zeppelin airships and (later on) long-range heavy bombers for the strategic bombing of London and other suitably prestigious targets heralded an extension of the conflict far beyond the armies in the field. Long-range bombing together with unrestricted submarine warfare challenged many of the traditional rules of warfare, as had several core aspects of the doctrine set out in the general staff’s Kriegsbrauch im Landkriege ever since August 1914.

From late 1916 the appearance of the first British tanks on the battlefield dramatically reduced the dominance of the machine-gun, introducing new tactical opportunities and beginning to restore a degree of fluidity and unpredictability to the battlefield. For German troops not directly in contact and serving in the front-line positions, the Allied tank threat changed what had become a comparatively safe and relatively comfortable troglodyte existence into an unacceptably risky daily lifestyle. Although German operational planning on the Western Front had been dominated by defensive imperatives ever since late 1915, it was nevertheless surprising that the army high command failed fully to appreciate the significance of the tank before their more general use by the British, or that Germany had failed to develop an equivalent combat vehicle in anticipation of resuming the offensive in the west once Russia had been defeated. On the other hand, the premature use of tanks by the British in relatively ineffectual penny-packets may well have belied their true potential in the view of the German general staff, at a time when the army’s mechanization programme was already suffering considerable practical and raw material constraints. In any event, despite the army’s traditional emphasis upon offensive rather than defensive action, the general staff’s preferred response to the threat posed by Allied tanks was to concentrate upon developing anti-tank weapons and tactics rather than developing a German tank.84 This was indeed ironic in light of the fact that tanks heralded the resurrection of manoeuvre warfare, which was something that the high command had strived to achieve ever since 1914.

By 1917 it was clear that the Franco-British forces had an unassailable lead in tank development. The German army adopted the expedient of using suitably converted tanks (Beute-Panzerkampfwagen) captured from the Allies, and more than fifty of these vehicles (suitably emblazoned with the German Iron Cross or similar identifying markings) were being used by the end of the war. Despite this pragmatic action to redress the situation and Germany’s late entry into the business of tank warfare, a German-designed tank was eventually manufactured. This prototype armoured vehicle was first demonstrated to senior commanders and members of the general staff in May 1917, less than a year after Allied tanks first appeared on the battlefield. The demonstration and associated trials were judged successful, and in due course a total of twenty production models of the 33-tonne Type A7V tank were deployed with the field army. It had a crew of eighteen and mounted a 5.7-centimetre gun plus six 08 pattern machine-guns.

The A7V was first used in action in the St. Quentin canal area on 21 March 1918, where five tanks under the command of Hauptmann Greiff were deployed. Three of the vehicles broke down before they could engage the British forces, the other two playing a relatively minor part in preventing a British breakthrough. Meanwhile the first recorded tank battle took place towards the end of an engagement involving eighteen A7Vs at Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April 1918. There the massed German tanks had successfully brought about a withdrawal by British and Australian infantry when three of the A7Vs were unexpectedly confronted by three British Mark IV tanks south of the town. After a short tank-versus-tank battle the Mark IVs forced the German tanks to withdraw. Overall, the A7V tanks were less capable and less mobile than the Allied tanks; whenever A7Vs were captured by the Allies they were not usually taken into service by their forces. The introduction of a successor to the A7V was already under way in mid-1917, with the development of the more heavily armed 165-tonne (subsequently reduced to 120-tonne) Type K Großkampfwagen super-heavy tank. This armoured leviathan had four 7.7-centimetre guns plus seven machine-guns, and when the war ended it was already in the final stages of development, with two prototypes almost completed.

Despite ever-increasing mechanization within the army, this process was unavoidably constrained by strategic factors and was therefore much slower and on a smaller scale than the general staff might have wished. Consequently, the army’s critical reliance upon horse-drawn field artillery and transport and (although much reduced since 1914) a mounted cavalry capability continued throughout the war, which in turn meant that the veterinary services expanded in size and importance to maintain this essential form of mobility. The medical services had also grown rapidly in size, expertise and complexity in order to deal with the huge numbers of casualties sustained as the war progressed, utilizing a comprehensive organization of regimental aid posts, field ambulance units, motorized ambulance columns, ambulance trains and military hospitals. Thus the organization, equipment, weapons and appearance of the army at the beginning of 1918 were in many ways very different from those with which it had gone to war in August 1914.

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