Trench Warfare: Destruction or Neutralization

At the start of 1915, the French mounted several unsuccessful offensive operations in the Artois and Champagne, while, at the beginning of March, the BEF launched an offensive at Neuve Chapelle. The significance of Neuve Chapelle was not that it failed but that it very nearly succeeded. The problem for the BEF was converting the break-in into a breakthrough. The German defensive line consisted of only one trench line and lacked support and reserve lines, although it did include several strongpoints 1,000 yards behind the trench line. There was some wire in no-man’s-land. After an intense bombardment by 354 British guns lasting only 35 minutes, targetting the trenches, four divisions of 40,000 men from the First Army attacked along a 3,280-yard front. The artillery was supported by eighty-five Royal Flying Corps aircraft which acted as aerial spotters. This was not an innovation as aerial spotting of this kind had been tried during the Balkan Wars a few years earlier. The field guns successfully destroyed the wire but the howitzers, which were supposed to destroy the trenches and the strongpoints, failed to do any significant damage.

Taken by surprise, the Germans were overrun and, in a matter of a few hours, the British had advanced beyond the German line of strongpoints. A rigid timetable and an inflexible plan, made worse by poor communications between the advancing troops and First Army HQ, all contributed to poor control of the battle and prevented the near breakthough from being developed further. After the success of the first few hours, the advantage had been lost by the afternoon. German troops were quick to counter-attack and, within two days, the status quo had more or less been restored, the Germans having lost very little ground.

Sir John French, blamed the failure at Neuve Chapelle on the severe shortage of high-explosive shells. This shortage not only afflicted British artillery at Neuve Chapelle but the whole of the BEF during the first six or seven months of 1915, and became a national scandal when it was made public. The Shell Scandal brought down the Liberal government and led to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions in June 1915, which took over all aspects of munitions production in Britain. The shortage of shells had undoubtedly been a significant hindrance at Neuve Chapelle as the guns had been restricted to 200–400 rounds apiece, a paltry figure when later bombardments lasted for days and weeks of sustained firing. The problem highlighted the importance of artillery in deciding the outcome of battles on the Western Front. Without enough guns and without enough shells, no army could attack and expect to win. Moreover, and just as important, no army could properly defend itself or, in this case, deal effectively with counter-attacks. The intensity – although not by later standards – and the brevity of the preliminary bombardment at Neuve Chapelle wrong-footed the Germans, however, who had already come to expect a longer bombardment to precede an infantry assault. Without question the short, heavy bombardment of the trenches and line of strongpoints had been a major factor in the initial success but the fixed barrages on a strict timetable had been unhelpful. However, at that time, there was no means by which the schedule could be amended once the fire plan had been set in motion.

Despite the shortage of shells, the bombardment neutralized the Germans, thereby allowing the British infantry to seize their objectives. However, because the howitzers failed to destroy the German defences, which allowed German infantry firepower to recover from the initial shock, the British drew the conclusion that more intense and longer bombardments were necessary to secure success. The conclusion that neutralization of enemy firepower rather than destruction of his defences was the key to success was not apparent to anybody at that time. Neuve Chapelle led to an expansion of the artillery so that it became the dominant force on the battlefields of the Western Front. It was evident from French and German experience earlier in 1915 that a preliminary bombardment was essential to success. The question was whether it should be short and intense, or carried out over several days, choices that tended to made according to the number and calibre of guns available. After Neuve Chapelle, a doctrine of destruction of the enemy was adopted by the British in the belief that, not only was complete destruction possible, but the inevitable loss of surprise that came with long intense bombardments did not matter as there would be no enemy left to be surprised.

At the Battle of Festubert in May of the same year, the British adopted a policy of destruction with a bombardment that went on for two days. The loss of surprise cost the British 24,000 casualties, although the failure at Festubert was attributed to insufficient destruction of the German defences. When the British launched an offensive at Loos in September, the barrage lasted for four days but its effects were diminished by the fact that the gun density was only one every 30 yards of front engaged, whereas at Neuve Chapelle it had been one gun for every 5.5 yards. This compromise had been necessary because of the shortage of ammunition which did not allow a heavier bombardment. The ideal level of destruction of the enemy defences was not achieved. The bombardment at the start of the Somme offensive, nine months later, lasted a week and included a hitherto unprecedented number of heavy guns, as well as trench mortars. The number of guns per yard during the preliminary bombardment on the Somme was approximately twice that at Loos, while the frontage was twice as long, 25,000 yards compared with 11,200 yards. Unlike at Loos, there was no shortage of ammunition. The prolonged bombardment and the greater gun density on the Somme was intended to obliterate the wire and German resistance, and especially to destroy German machine-guns, before the infantry assault on 1 July.

At Messines, in June 1917, the preliminary bombardment lasted seventeen days as the doctrine of destruction reached its zenith. The mines fired at Messines were in accordance with this doctrine. The gun density was such that, yard for yard, there were twice as many field guns at Messines than for the preliminary bombardment on the Somme and three times as many heavy guns. On the Somme, there was one field gun for every 21 yards and one heavy for every 57 yards, whereas at Messines, there was one field gun every 10 yards and one heavy every 20 yards. Between 3 June and 10 June, the guns fired 3,258,000 rounds, nearly twice the quantity fired during the first eight days of the Somme (1,732,873 rounds). The mortars at Messines fired 800,000 rounds.

At the same time that the number of guns and quantities of ammunition were increasing in order to bring about the realization of the ideal of complete destruction of the enemy, the manner in which the bombardments were conducted and the targets engaged by the guns went through a series of fundamental changes. Such changes were driven by a need to overcome the enemy and his trench systems. The nature of defence also changed. The concept of defence in depth was created after Neuve Chapelle so that by the time of Loos, the Germans had more than one line of trenches. Had not the nature of defence changed, the search for ever greater firepower to destroy the enemy’s defences would have lacked impetus. At the same time, the increases in firepower and the increases in defensive depth drove a change in infantry tactics. By the beginning of 1916, the power of artillery was such that infantry were at its mercy, while the firepower of the infantry in defence had also increased so that attackers stood little chance if they were caught in the open, especially en masse. The purpose of the attackers’ artillery was to destroy the defenders, to enable the infantry to take their objectives. To complicate matters, the enemy artillery attempted to destroy the attacking infantry and the attackers’ artillery. While counter-battery fire had been employed before the Russo-Japanese War, it now came into its own. This was not merely a question of shooting first since weight of fire and accuracy were crucial. Accuracy was not simply making sure that the shells landed where they were intended, but it was imperative to know the location of the enemy batteries. Thus, aerial photography and mapping became essential to gunnery. Then there was the question of how the infantry should work with the artillery. This was the nature of the struggle which attackers and defenders both faced in 1915–17.

While the French and the British both concluded from the battles of 1915 that the way forward was to increase the firepower of their artillery and lengthen the preliminary bombardment phase of an offensive, the Germans took a somewhat different lesson from these battles. On the one hand, the growing power of artillery seemed to offer the German Army a way to defeat France, which ultimately led to the epic struggle at Verdun that began at the end of February 1916 and continued for ten months; while on the other, the Germans realized that a single line of trenches was not sufficient to prevent a determined Allied assault from breaking through, sweeping all before them. The solution to this problem was to build a second line of defence, similar to the first, which would contain any break-in and prevent a breakthrough. By the time the British launched their offensive at Loos in September 1915, the Germans were in the process of building this second line. And by the time of the Somme offensive in the summer of 1916, the Germans had developed their defence in depth to include a third line. When in 1917, they built the Hindenburg Line, the defensive zone was up to 15 miles deep and included five lines.

To make matters more difficult, the Germans stopped manning their front-line trenches in strength, but withdrew the bulk of their troops to what was, in effect, the second line, with only about a quarter of the infantry being located in the first two trench lines immediately facing no-man’s-land. Thus, at the start of the Somme in 1916 the German trenches closest to no-man’s-land were held very thinly and, once the preliminary bombardment started, the troops in them sheltered in deep bomb-proof dugouts, leaving very few troops to man the trenches. By 1917, the German front line was no more than a series of outposts, thinly held, located hundreds of yards in front of the main line of defence. At the same time, the development of strongpoints with all round defence began to replace linear defensive lines of continuous trenches, a process of change that led to the construction of the Hindenburg Line. Here, the defensive lines were more in the nature of zones than linear trench lines of the sort commonly employed in 1915. In conjunction with the dissolving of rigid lines of defence, the Germans adopted an elastic defence in which the immediate counter-attack to retake any ground lost played a major role.

The tactics employed by the infantry went through a similar process of change. While the infantry tactics of the assault employed in the early battles of 1915 tended to be based on pre-war tactics, so that infantry engaged infantry and artillery provided support, this was soon found to be costly and ineffective. Nevertheless, the notion of attacking in lines or waves persisted well into 1916, largely because of the relationship between the infantry and artillery, whereby the artillery timetable dictated how the infantry attacked. The growing dominance of artillery placed restraints on the infantry because of the nature of artillery barrages. The barrage was intended to support the infantry by preventing the enemy from engaging the assault troops as they approached. However, it forced a rigid timetable on the infantry and took no account of obstacles that might have to be overcome which slowed the advance. Equally, the assault troops had to contend with enemy fire and as his firepower increased so the likelihood of their crossing no-man’s-land unscathed to engage the enemy on his territory diminished. Thus, while linear tactics favoured reasonable coordination between the attackers’ artillery and their assault troops, it also favoured the enemy as linear waves presented unmissable targets, especially when the enemy was able to enfilade the attacking waves. Far from being a straightforward problem that might offer a straightforward solution, a quite different approach to infantry assaults was required.

The idea of doing away with rigid linear tactics and adopting a more flexible approach was considered as early as May 1915, when Captain André Laffargue devised tactics of infiltration which avoided the massed frontal assault. These were derived from his own experience and were a variation on the wave theme. No one took much notice of his theories. At much the same time, and quite independently, Major Wilhelm Rohr, who commanded the German Army’s Assault Detachment, also devised tactics of infiltration. The purpose of the Detachment was to develop new tactics for offensive operations. Rohr and his unit tried the new tactics against the French in the Vogues before using them at Verdun. Rohr and the Assault Detachment, renamed Assault Battalion Rohr in April 1916, were the first Stormtroopers.

The artillery barrage, as distinct from the bombardment that preceded an infantry assault, was intended to help the assault by preventing the enemy infantry from bringing their weapons to bear on the attackers. Counter-battery fire, on the other hand, was purely a duel between the guns, a duel which the Germans increasingly lost from about 1917 because the Allies, and the British in particular, could bring a heavier weight of fire to bear. It was clear from early 1916 that artillery had become the dominant force on the battlefield, and battles were won or lost according to how the artillery was used, or, at least, the casualty level was decided on how well the artillery could deal with the enemy. Indeed, when the Australians attacked Pozières during the Somme campaign and did so without a preliminary bombardment, they suffered very high casualties and failed to take their objectives because of German firepower, both from infantry in the trenches and from artillery. The protective barrage in support of an assault was not an alternative to a preliminary bombardment, of course. The problem was how to hit the enemy trenches while the infantry advanced without causing friendly casualties in the process.

The first barrages were no more than lines of bombardment across the width of the battlefield, targeting the front-line trenches. After a fixed time interval, it moved on a somewhat arbitrary distance to lay down another line of shelling beyond the advancing infantry but not necessarily on the next line of trenches. The straight barrage was of very limited help to the infantry who were often left behind by the advancing barrage. The next development was the lifting barrage, first used by the French in early 1915 in the battles in the Artois and Champagne. The barrage still advanced in the same way as the straight barrage but it hit trenches each time it lifted to the next target. By now, the infantry were accompanied by Forward Observation Officers whose job it was to direct the artillery to improve its shooting. In both cases, the artillery employed indirect fire and one of the problems this highlighted was the difficulty of accurately locating the targets due to a lack of reliable maps. Shooting by the map with accuracy was more of an aspiration than an achievable goal before the middle of 1916. Unfortunately for the infantry, the lifting barrage was no easier to follow than the straight barrage. The added disadvantage was the necessity for the guns to fire registration rounds beforehand to ensure that they had the range of the target. In registering the guns, the enemy was, of course, alerted to the targets that were about to be hit and, indeed, to the fact that an offensive was likely in the near future. Suspicions were increased if a lot of guns were firing registration shots. They were easy to identity because of their apparent randomness, although they bracketed what was clearly a target. It was because of this easy identification of registrations that trench mortars hid theirs during an artillery bombardment.

Although the preliminary bombardment also gave away the fact that an offensive was starting, prior registration of the guns was insignificant to overall lack of surprise. Any bombardment that lasted more than a few hours gave the enemy time to move his infantry and his guns. By 1917, greater effort was made to conceal registration shots so that the targets were less likely to be identified by the enemy. With this in mind, every effort was made to conceal the location of gun batteries to avoid counter-battery fire. They were sited on reverse slopes and some batteries remained inactive so that they remained hidden until the moment they opened fire for the offensive.

In 1916, the so-called piled-up barrage was introduced to satisfy the infantry’s need for a barrage that focused on the trace of the enemy trenches. Whereas the earlier barrages moved forward in lines parallel with the gun line and passed over the enemy trenches in the same straight line irrespective of the trace of those trenches, the piled-up barrage concentrated or piled up as it hit the enemy trenches, until the rest of the barrage had caught up, thereby concentrating the fire on the trenches. This ensured that the entire trace was hit simultaneously, which had not been possible with straight-line barrages. Both the straight and lifting barrages had allowed the enemy in those parts of the trench that were ahead of the advancing barrage line to enfilade the infantry to their left or right. The piled-up barrage overcame this problem. However, to be effective, the full extent of the enemy disposition needed to be identified beforehand. Trench raiding and patrolling helped in this respect but there was no foolproof way to locate all the enemy’s trenches or to determine the strength with which he held the various sections. There was also the disadvantage that the attacking infantry had to assault the trenches simultaneously, irrespective of the location of the trenches. In practical terms, this meant that those troops which had the furthest to go to hit the enemy trench allocated to them had to leave their own trenches before those troops which had a short distance to cover. This made them vulnerable to enemy fire.

The creeping barrage was a solution to the problems posed by the piled-up barrage. Now, instead of the barrage moving forward parallel with the gun line, it was parallel with the enemy trench line. For the first time, it was possible for the assaulting infantry to hit the enemy trenches immediately after the barrage had passed over these trenches. To achieve this, the infantry still had to leave their trenches according to their distance from the enemy so that they all hit the enemy, irrespective of the trace of his trenches, at the same time. Unlike with the piled-up barrage, the infantry did not have to wait until the entire enemy line was under the barrage before leaving their trenches, although in practice they had left their trenches before then, but had to slow their advance or speed it up according to the distance between them and their targets. Good planning and execution were necessary with every type of barrage. And in every instance, the infantry had to advance as close to the exploding shells as they could safely get. Hence, rehearsals on ground that replicated the enemy line were carried out before the offensive, although this was not done with live shells.

Until about the middle of 1916, the infantry assault was a linear operation in that it consisted of lines, or waves, of men with specified time intervals between each line, each of which was straight irrespective of the trace of the enemy trenches. The first day of the Battle of the Somme has been made infamous by the fact that the British troops approached the German trenches in straight-line waves. While the idea of infiltrating groups of men was considered, the plan was not taken up. It has passed into folk lore that the reason for this was the lack of faith of the generals in the troops of the New Armies to execute anything but simple manoeuvres on the battlefield, with infiltration and group tactics being considered too sophisticated for their abilities. However, not only is this view of the relationship between British generals and the New Armies quite unfounded, but the reason for using linear wave tactics had nothing to do with any supposed lack of ability on the part of the citizen soldier of Britain’s New Armies. The linear nature of artillery tactics at that time precluded an alternative to linear infantry tactics. To have attempted to employ non-linear infantry tactics would have required a highly complex artillery plan. Moreover, there was a real fear among the planners of the Somme offensive that localizing concentrations of artillery firepower, which nonlinear infantry tactics would require, could lead to sections of the German trenches, and machine-guns in particular, being missed by the barrage. One advantage of the linear barrage was that the whole of the hostile territory was eventually swept by fire so that everything was subjected to shelling before the infantry reached the trenches. To this end, there was one 18-pounder for every 25–30 yards and one howitzer or heavy gun for every 65 yards.

The infantry wave tactic would have been successful had the artillery been able to destroy or neutralize all the enemy machine-guns, some of which were positioned in shell holes in no-man’s-land, as well as between the trench lines, but the artillery had been unable to do this. So long as the waves moved forward according to the timetable in the plan, they could keep up with the barrage. In some areas of the front, the lifts were short enough for a creeping barrage to be created. This was as much a function of the accuracy and precision of the guns as it was a deliberate intention to creep the barrage forwards. But as soon as the leading wave was held up by more resistance than anticipated, such as machine-guns or surviving enemy infantry, the whole assault scheme ran the risk of descending into chaos as each successive wave ran into the back of the preceding wave. For the plan to function smoothly, the timetable had to be followed, which was governed by the artillery lifts and the resistance of the enemy. Had the artillery had the technical sophistication to achieve a precise piled-up barrage rather than an imprecise approximation of one, the effect on the German trenches would have been much more destructive. To achieve a precise piled-up barrage, precise gunnery was needed but, at the time of the Somme, such precision was not technically feasible.

The rise in importance of counter-battery fire meant that more heavy guns were allocated to this role than to infantry support, which hindered the weight of fire in the preliminary bombardment and in the supporting barrages. The Germans discovered in 1915 from their experience on the Eastern Front that surprise and weight of fire were more important to success than bombardments which might last for up to a week. Indeed, contrary to the Allied practice of prolonging bombardments and increasing the weight of fire, the Germans increased their weight of fire but decreased the duration of the bombardment. Whereas the Allies bombarded the Germans on the Somme for a week and the British shelled the Germans at Messines in 1917 for a week, the Germans fired a preliminary bombardment on the French at Verdun for only 10 hours. On 21 March 1918, at the start of the German Michael offensive, the assault was preceded by a bombardment of only 5 hours in which 6,473 guns and 3,532 trench mortars fired millions of shells, including more than 2 million gas shells. German artillery outnumbered British guns by more than 2.5 to 1.

This highlighted the different philosophies of destruction and neutralization. While the Allies had gone down the total destruction road, the Germans had opted for neutralization and had developed their infantry assault tactics accordingly. At the same time, they adapted their defensive policy to reflect the same principals. As the Allies tried ever harder to destroy the German lines before an assault in 1917, so the Germans withdrew the bulk of their infantry and artillery from the forward zones at the start of an Allied offensive, shelled the British trenches when they calculated the assault was about to start, withdrew again and shelled their former positions when the Allies were in possession. Reserves were kept out of artillery range, approximately 5.5 miles to the rear but still within the defence zone. By extending their defence zone the Germans diluted the effect of Allied destruction tactics. They developed island strongpoints each of which was located to take advantage of local topography and road links and sited so that each strongpoint could act cooperatively with its neighbours, thereby creating lethal zones through which attacking infantry would have to pass. And always the Germans used the immediate counter-attack, with ad hoc formations of troops when necessary, to deal with any loss of ground. The notion of linear assault tactics and barrages were made redundant by such defensive measures.

Destruction tactics were applied by the British with ever greater intensity at Vimy Ridge, Messines and Passchendaele. While Vimy and Messines were both limited actions, Third Ypres was a major offensive and, while the limited actions achieved limited successes, Third Ypres became a costly battle of attrition in atrocious conditions which, in terms of its original objectives, was far from a success. At Passchendaele, the tactic of destruction was at last shown to be counter-productive.

The last British offensive of 1917, Cambrai, marked a radical departure from previous artillery and assault tactics. Not only were tactics of neutralization employed by the artillery, but Cambrai saw the first use of massed tank assaults in support of the infantry. The tank had been devised independently by British and French engineers during 1915 and 1916, as a solution to the trench deadlock. British tanks first saw action during the later stages of the Somme battles in September 1916. The French first used theirs in April 1917 during the disastrous Chemin des Dames offensive. Neither debut was a success, however, and their achievements, such as they were, were modest. From the outset, tanks were under-gunned, under-armoured, under-powered and mechanically unreliable, while they were quite unsuited to crossing the shell-cratered landscape of the Western Front as they easily stuck in craters and trenches, tended to throw a track on rough ground and sank in mud. Indeed, their unreliability was the biggest cause of operational losses; more tanks broke down or were ditched than were knocked out by enemy action. At Cambria, 378 tanks started out from the start line on the first day of the offensive and, although some tanks remained in continuous action for 16 hours, no fewer than 114 were lost through mechanical failure and ditching, while sixty-five were knocked out by enemy action.

Cambrai also saw the use of aircraft in an air-support role to suppress the enemy’s ability to fight, an operational innovation pioneered by Lieutenant Colonel J.F.C. Fuller, one of the advocates of tank warfare. Moreover, there was an emphasis on air observation for communicating the fall of shot to the artillery batteries. The artillery did not fire registration shots before the battle so that complete surprise was possible. Instead, gunners used predicted fire for counter-battery work. Although predicted fire had been tried before, it was not until late 1917 that it could be relied upon as an effective means by which to hit enemy batteries. Predicted fire was a science, not an art, which combined the technical skills of several disciplines to ensure that the target was hit precisely. Not least among these was map-making. Without accurate maps, no amount of clever gunnery was ever going to result in the intended target being hit except by chance. To this end, thousands of aerial photographs were taken by reconnaissance aircraft flying over enemy-held territory, in support of which fighter aircraft flew escort patrols to prevent enemy aircraft shooting down the reconnaissance planes. From these photographs, accurate maps were prepared and regularly updated using new photographs by the map-making branch at GHQ.

Fundamental to accurate gunnery was an understanding of the science of ballistics. Aspects of this included the weight of the shell, muzzle velocity and the effect of barrel wear on range and accuracy. Such issues applied specifically, not to the artillery in general or to a battery, but to individual guns. Since 1915, gunners had become aware that the rifling in a barrel was worn down by each shot fired and that, as barrels became worn, so accuracy and range diminished. Indeed, shooting from very worn barrels could result in shells landing unpredictably on friendly troops. By the end of 1917, gunners were able to factor all this into their calculations, for each gun, along with the wind speed and direction as well as the air temperature to ensure that the first shot fired from each gun would have a very high probability of hitting the target. Thus, the need to fire registration shots became redundant and tactical and strategic surprise were once more realistic possibilities. Cambrai was the first opportunity for British gunners to put all this into practice. The object at Cambrai was not to destroy the Germans in a prolonged artillery bombardment, like those of the past, but to prevent the enemy from engaging the British artillery, tanks and infantry. In other words, the object was to neutralize the enemy’s ability to fight. With this in mind, smoke and tear gas rounds were fired in addition to high explosive, while the tanks created corridors through the wire obstacles for the infantry and acted as mobile artillery to deal with pillboxes and strongpoints. There was no preliminary bombardment. When zero hour arrived, a creeping barrage from more than 1,000 guns led the way and the tanks and infantry moved forward, 300 yards behind the barrage.

The Germans were completely surprised and overwhelmed. The assault broke into the German line and penetrated to a depth of 5 miles on a 6-mile front in 10 hours, by which time tank crews and infantry were exhausted. Tanks outran their infantry, despite their slow speed. There were no tank reserves so that by the third day there were, in effect, no tanks in action. The initial success could not be exploited and when the Germans counter-attacked ten days after the start of the battle, the advantage had passed to them. The British lost most of the ground they had taken but more importantly they had been stopped from converting the break-in into breakthrough.

During the Cambrai counter-attack, the Germans applied infiltration techniques and used them again in their spring offensives of 1918. At the same time, they applied more flexible artillery tactics that, like the Allied artillery, now no longer focused on destruction, but on neutralization. The object was not so much suppression of the ability of the enemy’s ability to fight, as destruction of their morale by subjecting them to a sudden and very intense bombardment of short duration, followed by an immediate infantry assault. Such artillery tactics were devised by an artillery commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bruchmüller, who tried them out on the Eastern Front before applying them to the Western Front. The Germans also used predicted fire without registration. The new artillery tactics were combined with infantry tactics which emphasized infiltration, as well as fire and movement, and both were integrated in a strategy which sought to apply a heavyweight punch on a short sector of front to achieve a breakthrough. Such tactics were named after General von Hutier who first applied them at Riga on the Eastern Front in September 1917. Part of this overall attack plan included so-called stormtroop tactics which were aggressively applied in the assault phase by elite units of stormtroopers, leaving more conventional troops to deal with pockets of resistance bypassed by the stormtroopers. This was how the spring offensives of 1918 were mounted.





‘After Amiens’: Technology and Tactics in the B.E.F during the Advance to Victory, August–November 1918 Part I


On 8 August 1918, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), together with their French allies, launched a major offensive which finally accomplished an overwhelming physical and psychological victory over the German forces on the Western Front. In this, the Battle of Amiens, the BEF successfully combined infantry, artillery, aircraft and armour in an orchestrated operation, applying to good effect the lessons of four years’ fighting. The BEF’s attack broke its opponent’s defences and penetrated to a depth of up to eight miles, inflicting heavy casualties and causing significant loss of matériel that the Germans could ill-afford.

Experience had taught the high command that if casualties in any offensive were to be minimized, it was essential for attacks to be made on a wide front by infantry with good artillery support and close co-operation by tanks. By the end of the fourth day of the battle, these conditions no longer prevailed at Amiens, and the attack was rightly closed down.

In switching their attention to other parts of the front, the British commanders then faced the necessity of maintaining operational tempo while ensuring that the lessons of Amiens were disseminated and applied in subsequent operations. This was especially true in connection with the tactical employment of armour. During the following months and until the end of the war, and against an increasingly popular perception among all ranks that tanks offered a means to reduce casualties in the offensive, and consequent demands to use them in operations, senior commanders endeavoured to manage the available assets as effectively as possible. Their responses combined innovation and pragmatism but were frequently conditioned by the realities of logistical and operational considerations as well as environmental factors such as terrain and the weather.

This is how the BEF’s assimilation of tanks into the so-called all-arms battle held up under the pressure of events during the last months of the war. In doing so, it stresses certain key factors that defined the environment in which this task was undertaken and reviews the Tank Corps’ own analyses of its performance after Amiens.

Operational tempo: A two-edged sword

The generals’ desire for maintenance of operational tempo was significant in its effect on tank use on the Western Front in the latter half of 1918. While striving to keep the Germans on the back foot after Amiens, the high command created an environment that was counter-productive to the reduction of tank-infantry co-operation to an effective drill honed by practice before battle. The almost continuous nature of operations worked to preclude extended periods of training. After the Cambrai Battle in late 1917 which had ‘defined the standard of training and planning required for truly successful co-operation between tanks and other arms’, any opportunity for infantry and armour to rehearse together was recognized as a significant factor in successful tank-infantry co-operation. The publication of S.S.204 Infantry and Tank Co-Operation and Training in March 1918 had represented a concomitant attempt by General Headquarters (GHQ) to offer practical direction on how this training might be carried out. However, in reality, few such opportunities arose after Amiens.

Nevertheless, the high command continued to recommend the value of training in its doctrinal publications. Yet S.S. 214 Tanks and their Employment in Co-operation with Other Arms, published in August 1918, could offer little more than suggestions for army and corps school instructors to be attached to tank units to train junior officers and NCOs in the hope of gradually disseminating knowledge and ideas. This was surprising in what was, in other respects, a valuable document full of practical and sound advice based on combat experience.

The significance of this lack of training opportunities and the value placed by tank unit commanders on training in co-operation is illustrated by the remarks of Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Johnson of 1st Tank Battalion in reviewing operations with 30th American Division at Bellicourt on 29 September 1918: ‘All the old lessons have been again learned [sic] . . . One suggestion only will cover all the points I desire to make; greater facilities for training in the attack are essential to secure greater efficiency.’

Operations involving armour in late 1918 were also constrained by the actual numbers of tanks available to the BEF for use in the fighting which, in turn, were complicated by the closely-linked issues of tank supply and salvage. These matters have been given more detailed consideration elsewhere but, essentially, because tank wastage in mid- to late 1918 was many times greater than was anticipated, stocks of spares were severely depleted and supplies of replacements were inadequate. As a consequence, men usually engaged on repairs were instead salvaging parts from abandoned tanks. Meanwhile, tanks that might otherwise have returned to action after suffering battle damage were cannibalized to compensate for the spares shortage. In addition, the desire for a rapid tempo in operations involved frequent switching of attacks from one sector of the front to another. This presented insurmountable logistical problems (given the available transport and technologies) when assembling tanks for use en masse in each of these widely-separated attacks.

The approach adopted by GHQ and the Tank Corps to the deployment of available armour was entirely sensible, given the logistical and operational circumstances. They allotted a tank brigade (consisting of two or more battalions) to each of the three armies undertaking the major offensive operations in France, that is, First, Third and Fourth. This meant that the somewhat rigidly established logistical support arrangements needed to maintain the tanks of each unit in the field could be built on and expanded as necessary and not severely disrupted as they would surely otherwise have been.

Logistics were especially important in defining the circumstances for tank use in the final advance. It was only in early 1918 that a sophisticated and relatively robust infrastructure for the equipment, supply and reinforcement of the Tank Corps in France and Belgium was fully established. There was now a vast array of workshops, supply and equipment dumps and training bases along the Ternoise valley north-west of Arras. In addition, the introduction in February of the first roll-on, roll-off cross-Channel train ferry service capable of carrying numbers of tanks loaded on rail flat cars, gave significant advantages to tank units at the front. Yet, despite these important developments, the very nature of the fighting in late 1918 with an advance continuously away from the established bases and supply dumps presented a host of logistical challenges that undoubtedly influenced the numbers of available tanks in some operations.

This point should, however, be treated with a degree of caution. There was a significant period between 4 and 18 September 1918 in which there was an absence of tank operations. Although this period offered benefits in the planning and execution of attacks involving armour, it did not witness a significant rise in available tank numbers for the next phase of operations. Indeed, Brigadier-General Anthony Courage commanding 5 Tank Brigade was especially vocal in criticizing a relatively small number of tanks from one battalion being spread too thinly for action on 18 September. Clearly, other factors were at work in connection with the tanks available for action from mid- to late September.

Tanks were usually deployed in larger set piece battles because of their relative mechanical fragility (especially in terms of durability of their tracks) and their heavy logistical requirements which basically demanded the use of railways for their transportation and supply. Moreover, limiting the distance tanks were required to travel under their own power and on their own tracks before being committed in action increased the likelihood of both them and their crews arriving at the point required in good enough physical condition to be of use in combat.

It is also important to recognize that in the operations in the last months of the war the set piece battles for which tanks were most suited by logistical considerations took place over a greatly reduced time period between initial planning and execution. As Andy Simpson points out, ‘Even though the set piece operations, such as the attacks on the Hindenburg Line, look ponderous, they were launched at a far greater speed than their equivalents in 1917.’ In one example, mentioned by Simpson, the planning and execution of an attack by units of IV Corps on 23 August took a total time of 19 hours from the start of the initial conference involving divisional and corps commanders to zero.

While this reduced cycle was an indication of how efficient the staff work of the BEF had become by 1918 and how strong was its logistical base, it gave rise to unexpected problems for the tank arm. Since the planning and execution of operations was now considerably devolved, with corps and divisions making arrangements with tank brigades, this should, in theory, have produced a closer mutual understanding between the various arms undertaking an attack. However, when combined with the desire demonstrated by all corps commanders to have some tanks (even in small numbers) allotted to them for any assault they were about to make, the end product instead was a return to the much-derided ‘penny-packeting’ of tanks in sections or companies among each of the attacking corps.

In 1916, given the paucity of tanks available and a desire to make use of what there was, there had been little option for army and corps commanders other than to commit tanks in ‘penny-packets’. Indeed, there had been a number of successful occasions of their use in this manner in the latter part of the Somme battle in that year. However, by 1918, a more robust Tank Corps defence was mounted against this approach, which disrupted command and control arrangements. The response from GHQ, in the person of Lieutenant-General the Hon. Sir Herbert Lawrence, was to warn of the consequences of penny-packeting but, once more, to be pragmatic in accepting the need if operational circumstances demanded. In a memorandum of 1 September, intended to address ‘the unfamiliarity of many Divisional and Brigade Commanders with the functions and limitations of Tanks’ which had produced disproportionate tank losses to the results attained, Lawrence wrote:

The units and formations of the Tank Corps have been so organized in order to facilitate their handling both tactically and administratively. This organization has been frequently departed from in order to meet local conditions. Although at times this may be unavoidable it should be borne in mind that such a departure from the normal organization must result in a loss of fighting efficiency.

This pragmatic approach was in keeping with Lawrence’s intention not to manage the detail of tank operations but more appropriately to ensure a defined general framework for the conduct of such operations.

Inevitably, given the continuing requests for tanks to be made available for operations, the splitting up of tank battalions and companies continued and, equally inevitably, produced its own problems. A complaint from one tank battalion commander after operations on 18 September that ‘The time for preparation was insufficient for proper co-operation with three corps’ did not prevent this distribution of tanks from one unit among several corps being repeated on 8 October 1918 when those from two battalions were split across four corps and eight divisions.

The demand for tanks in the fighting of late 1918 in combination with the logistical constraints on their availability and further compounded by tank casualties from action, necessitated another pragmatic response from both the tank arm and the higher echelons of the BEF. While both continued to expound the tactical principles associated with each type in use, the realities of the fighting prompted occasions when any tanks of whatever type were what were demanded and used – especially on the second and subsequent days of a major offensive. This was particularly the case with the Medium A ‘Whippets’. Notionally ‘intended to exploit success when the enemy’s line has been broken’, they were sometimes used in direct contact with the infantry.

Notwithstanding these issues, significant tactical successes were achieved in a variety of circumstances. In common with the units of all arms, the Tank Corps was industrious in post-battle analysis and used the results of this analysis to inform tactics and technology for future operations. From these after-action reports it is instructive to see how the tank arm regarded its own performance in the fighting from late August 1918 to the war’s end.

The Royal Air Force and the Tank Corps

One undoubted area of significant progress and success (and perceived as such by both the Tank Corps and Royal Air Force) was in the use of RAF aircraft to assist tanks in offensive operations. In January 1918, Brigadier-General Hugh Elles, commander of the Tank Corps in France, had asked Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard for Royal Flying Corps assistance for tanks in offensive operations. Elles’ principal point was that when the tanks got ahead of the infantry and beyond, or at the extreme range of, the British artillery fire, they were likely to encounter German anti-tank guns at point blank range as happened at Flesquières during the Cambrai Battle. His request was for aircraft to give warning of such anti-tank guns and, if possible, to keep down their fire. The two general principles of Elles’ request encapsulated the areas in which tactics and technology were developed for aircraft to co-operate with tanks during the rest of the war and which, in the Final Advance, were being refined and conducted with considerable success.

The principal step forward in air co-operation after Amiens was the allocation of a second RAF squadron to the role of counter anti-tank work. No. 73 Squadron, which flew Sopwith Camels, was specifically assigned to the task of ground attacks on German field guns that might operate in an anti-tank role and first saw action in this capacity on 23 August. Between that date and 11 November, according to the squadron history, ‘continuous low-flying was carried out, and a total of 153,600 rounds were fired at, and 1,176 25-lb bombs were dropped on, ground targets. The record for one day being 25,000 rounds fired and 160 25-lb bombs dropped’. This ground-attack work complemented that of the existing tank co-operation squadron, No. 8, which flew Armstrong-Whitworth FK8 two-seater general purpose aircraft.

Once again, this decision to employ a second squadron arose from the actions of Elles who, on 16 August, had written to Major-General John Salmond, now commanding the RAF in France, regarding ‘the importance of having definite aircraft units detailed to engage anti-tank guns’. In suggesting that, ‘for the protection of the Tanks from the fire of hostile guns, a complete unit of fighting machines should be detailed to carry out this work and have no other mission’, Elles acknowledged that he might be perceived to ‘be making too great a demand on the RAF but I put it forward as I consider it to be of such importance if the Tanks are to be able to fulfil their tasks to the full’.

Typically, the role of the two squadrons in operations where they both participated was as follows. At least one machine from No. 8 Squadron was to be up during the attack to keep the co-operating tank brigade or battalion headquarters informed as to the advance of the tanks and any points where they were held up. Other aircraft from this squadron were to bomb and machine gun any German artillery which they witnessed firing at tanks, and keep under periodical machine gun fire all places where German guns were likely to be. Meanwhile, No. 73 Squadron machines actively roamed the attack front looking for likely locations for anti-tank guns to be sited. Major Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had overall responsibility for the two RAF tank co-operation squadrons, had swiftly concluded that using such aircraft to send down Zone Calls for British artillery to open fire on the hostile batteries was out of the question since the anti-tank guns did not generally start to fire till the tanks were between 1,500 and 1,000 yards away. Consequently,

the only sound principle was obviously immediate action on the part of the aeroplane with bombs and machine guns, with a view to driving the German gunners from their guns until the Tanks had overrun the position.

This scheme to which the two squadrons worked derived first from a thorough post-action reconnaissance of the Amiens battlefield conducted by Leigh-Mallory and Brigadier-General Henry Karslake, the Tank Corps’ senior staff officer. The two examined the positions of German anti-tank guns during the various phases of the fighting. The principle then established was for the RAF squadrons and Tank Corps officers to discuss the location of anti-tank guns and draw up a map showing the places where the tanks would be most exposed, and the most likely places from which they could be fired at by anti-tank guns. It was soon found that the tanks did not require as much assistance at the commencement of a battle, when they were advancing under a barrage as they did later, when the artillery protection thinned and gradually diminished.

As the fighting went on, the airmen’s knowledge of the anti-tank guns increased and was greatly enhanced after 2 September with the capture of a document detailing the German methodology for allotting guns for anti-tank work and the kinds of positions they were to take up. According to Leigh-Mallory:

This gave us a great deal of valuable information, and greatly increased the use we could make of the existing Counter Battery Maps, which of course only lasted while we were fighting to break down the Trench System. The scheme worked in the following way: The pilot and observer copied the likely anti-tank positions on to their own maps, in the area over which they were going to fly, each machine only having about 2,000 yards of front to watch. They were to machine gun and bomb periodically all the likely places in their area, whether they were seen as active or not, and then when they actually did see a gun firing, to attack it with everything they had got. In this way, by looking at the right sort of places, a great number of anti-tank guns were spotted as soon as they opened fire. As time went on we could reckon on at least 50% of the places so marked actually being active.

RAF co-operation with the Tank Corps was only one strand of the very important ground-attack work the air arm undertook in 1918. But it was, without doubt, one of the great tactical successes of the last months of the war.

‘After Amiens’: Technology and Tactics in the B.E.F during the Advance to Victory, August–November 1918 Part II

Getting things right?

A review of combat analyses produced by units of the Tank Corps after Amiens and in the immediate post-war period suggests the Corps believed that its tactical principles and methods in the last months of the war were, largely, appropriate to the circumstances. ‘Tactical Experiences of all past Tank Corps Operations Collected and Issued by the 3rd Tank Group’ stated that:

The co-operation as laid down in S.S. 214 and ‘The Infantry and Tanks Training Leaflet, No. 12’ issued by I[nspectorate].G[eneral]. of Training, are both considered to contain the essential point of co-operation which have been brought out in the recent operations; the co-operation as laid down in these pamphlets is universally approved by tank commanders.

S.S. 214 has been mentioned above. Its publication had been intended to provide the BEF with tactical guidance for tank use in late 1918. Analysis of tank operations in the latter part of 1918 show it was widely used, supporting the remarks in the 3rd Tank Group document. But given the fact that, unlike most previous doctrinal publications, the Tank Corps had had a significant amount of involvement in the creation of both documents, it is hardly surprising that the tank arm felt they were appropriate to their needs and that a particular section or paragraph of S.S. 214 dealt with most or all of the situations that had been encountered. This was also the case with the Inspectorate-General of Training’s Training Note No. 12 Infantry and Tanks published in September 1918, which was ‘really excellent and fill[ed] a long felt want’ according to one Tank Corps staff officer in January 1919.

While this could be regarded as complacency, a more positive interpretation (and one supported by clear evidence) is that these publications were closely based on an analysis of the ‘lessons of the fighting’ detailed in the after-action reports produced by tank and infantry units. To take one example, S.S. 214 carried stern warnings that:

When, in any operation, continuity of attack is necessary, tank echelons must be organized in sufficient depth to enable the first echelon to reorganize by the time the last echelon goes into action. This means that from the beginning of the battle a strong reserve of tanks must be kept in hand. The hasty improvisation of reserves while the battle is in progress leads not only to a general disorganization of tank units, but also to the destruction of telegraphic and railway communication owing to the lateral movements of tanks. Unless all arrangements are made beforehand, infantry attacks are also liable to be delayed owing to the tanks arriving late at the assembly points.

This was clearly a reference to the experiences of Cambrai where a strong reserve of tanks had not been kept in hand and where the minor tank units (sections) operated to some extent in echelons, but where no echelons were employed by the Tank Corps as a whole. Furthermore, again and again, on 21 November 1917 and subsequent days, Cambrai had featured badly-coordinated and poorly-executed attacks in which tank co-operation was frequently unreliable and inadequate and liaison with the infantry ineffectual and fitful.

Yet the same combat analyses make clear that the need to adhere to this tried and trusted guidance was as strong as ever in the war’s final months. As one tank battalion commander advised after his unit’s operations on 23 and 24 October:

I would suggest that, in view of the character of the present operations, in future the greater weight of Tanks be held in reserve to be thrown into the battle as it develops and the strong points and positions which the enemy intends holding become apparent. If all tanks are committed to a fixed plan of action before the battle commences there will probably be none available to assist the infantry in any specific operation, which is to be undertaken on the spur of the moment.

In the same way, the IGT’s Training Note also drew on actual combat experiences. It suggested training exercises that might illustrate: the initial advance, dealing with machine gun opposition, dealing with enemy who had not been ‘mopped up’, how a tank might assist neighbouring infantry, infantry assistance to tanks, what to do when the tanks were out of action and action after the capture of the final objective. All these were likely or, in some cases, frequent occurrences during the fighting.

Training Leaflet No. 12’s simple ‘bullet points’ concerning an exercise covering action after the capture of the final objective neatly encapsulated all the crucial elements of learning in connection with this phase of operations and in particular that after the final objective was reached and the infantry had pushed out patrols and started consolidation, tanks should withdraw to the nearest cover. Only when the tank unit commander had ascertained from the infantry commander that the situation was OK, should the tanks withdraw to a rallying point flying red, white and blue flags.

The necessity for tanks to withdraw under cover and not to stay out in front of the infantry had been recognized before Amiens but success on 8 August seemingly prompted a loss of caution concerning this aspect of the assault. Operations between 21 and 24 August were reminders of the dangers inherent in undertaking this role, prompting one tank brigade commander to state frankly that it was ‘asking for trouble if Tanks hang about or patrol in front of an objective’. Yet in spite of the losses suffered, the doctrinal guidance issued on the subject and the warnings of many (including Lawrence in his 1 September memorandum), demands for tanks to cover consolidation continued although, in the latter part of the fighting, operation orders became more definite in instructions to counter this.

The risks to their tanks and themselves during consolidation were clear to the crew members as illustrated by the remarks of one concerning orders for his company’s attack on 3 September:

Imagine our poor tanks crawling along the brow of a slope for an indefinite period, in full daylight, in full view of the enemy’s gunners! It seemed to us as if we were to be deliberately offered up as a sacrifice to appease the anger of certain infantry commanders.

An interesting justification was given on this occasion for consolidation work:

There had been complaints in previous actions that tanks, after reaching their final objectives, had gone home and left the infantry to meet unaided any counter attacks that might have come. So in this particular show it seemed to us that we were not to have the slightest chance offered us of going home!

Here was a good demonstration that different arms in late 1918 drew entirely contrary lessons from after action analysis.

Thus, lessons might be learned inconsistently. To continue on the subject of consolidation, 3rd Tank Group’s Tactical Experiences report also remained concerned regarding tank support for infantry consolidation:

In the past tank commanders have on many occasions, been much too keen to move their tanks elsewhere and to leave an objective, before the Infantry have actually arrived to take it over. This must be carefully guarded against by Tank Commanders and should never happen if they are carefully watching the advance of the Infantry.

The tank arm also acknowledged therefore the fine balance between success in giving the right amount of assistance and failure in ‘abandoning’ the infantry.

Yet, despite the potential for inconsistency in how the tank arm considered the lessons arising from the fighting at Amiens and afterwards, this was in fact largely avoided. In many cases, learning was consistent and appears to have been widely disseminated both within and beyond the Tank Corps. Innovation in responses to battlefield problems was also evident and especially so in the technological responses. Two examples were the ‘crib’ and smoke.

The fascine was a medieval siege device reintroduced to the modern battlefield in late 1917 to counter a particular problem the tanks encountered there, that is, a means to cross the wide trenches the Germans were increasingly employing in their defensive systems. It was an enormous bundle of brushwood about 5 feet in diameter that weighed over 1½ tons. One was carried on the top of each tank and secured there by chains. It proved valuable at Cambrai but the need for an improved version was identified and lead to the production of the ‘crib’ – ‘an immense hexagonal [open] crate of timber and steel, carried as before on top of the cab’. This comparatively lightweight device was available for use in operations in late September 1918.

The necessity for greater use of smoke to mask the movements of tanks had been a lesson from the 1917 Ypres fighting and at Amiens in 1918 both artillery barrages mixed with smoke and co-operation from the Royal Engineers No. 2 Special Company using Livens Projectors to screen tanks and infantry on 3rd Canadian Division’s front were employed. In addition, at least one tank battalion had provided its tank crews with rifles and rifle grenades. These were to ‘be fired out of the top of the tank should it be desired by Tank Commander to temporarily cover themselves with a smoke screen.’

After Amiens, the Tank Corps concluded that the ‘necessity of smoke protection for Tanks operating in daylight was again conclusively proved’ but it is interesting that the idea of tanks providing their own local smoke protection had been firmly grasped and was being immediately pushed forward. The first edition of Weekly Tank Notes issued on 10 August 1918 noted a decision that ‘all fighting types of Tanks will be equipped with Commander Brock’s exhaust smoke device’. This decision was already being enacted by the time orders were being issued for the operations with Third Army which commenced on 21 August and the devices proved especially useful in the capture of Bourlon village on 27 September. However, it is clear that the ambition to equip all tanks with such devices was not met in reality and most tanks were still using smoke grenades for local smoke protection. Nevertheless, although the technology fell short in this case, the pragmatic use of smoke rifle grenades was typical of the Tank Corps’ clear and consistent response to the lessons of previous fighting.


British armoured operations in late 1918 may be said to have been characterized by a degree of pragmatism and practicality within a general framework of commonly understood principles and methods.

This would suggest that such operations were conducted along the lines suggested by Albert Palazzo, that is, the use of an effective ‘ethos’ compensating for a formal series of doctrinal principles. However, there is clear evidence that in the tactical employment of tanks, as in all other areas of its conduct of operations, the BEF did evolve and apply a ‘doctrine’, albeit a semi-informal one based on the pre-war Field Service Regulations (FSR). The report on ‘Tactical Experiences’ issued by 3rd Tank Group contained several references to the applicability of principles defined in S.S. 214 and Training Note No. 12, and the latter made specific reference to FSR when stating that the actions of infantry and tanks in the firing line should be governed by the principles of mutual support. Since S.S. 214 was based on combat experience, the link between doctrinal theory and operational practice was a strong one.

What is of particular interest concerning the BEF’s use of tanks in late 1918 is the dichotomy between, on the one hand, the tactical flexibility and technological innovation the BEF continued to demonstrate during this period and, on the other, the rigid logistical and practical constraints under which it was necessary to carry out operations. Most especially, the logistical arrangements necessary to support the tanks in the field were the chains that bound them to use in particular circumstances, that is, set piece operations.

These limitations were understood and accepted by the tank arm. Indeed, in some cases, tank brigade and battalion commanders had to remind corps and divisional commanders of these practical constraints when they had been requested to co-operate in a planned attack at short notice. With the same corps and divisional commanders pressing for more tanks for use in operations and with the numbers of available tanks under pressure from mechanical wear and tear and a shortage of the right spares, it is remarkable that the Tank Corps managed to deliver on its tasks on so many occasions in the war’s last months.

Throughout the period, the processes for after action reporting continued. Frequently the suggestions drawn from the lessons of operations were minor enhancements or changes to existing tactical principles or technologies. Generally, the tank units believed that the principles they were guided by were the correct ones. What remained keenly felt was the absence of training opportunities. Two days before the war’s end (a fact of which he was, of course, unaware), one experienced senior tank officer was still stressing the need for as much training as possible to be undertaken during the winter months. Nevertheless, even without extensive training opportunities in the war’s final months, armoured operations had been highly successful and the tank, while not the ‘war-winning weapon’ had made a significant contribution to the BEF’s overall success.

The Prusso-German Revolution in Military Affairs, 1840–1871 Part I

The term “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) became decidedly fashionable in the course of the 1990s. It lies at the heart of debates within the Pentagon over future strategy and has gained increasing prominence in Washington’s byzantine budgetary and procurement struggles. Yet few works throw light on the concept’s past, help situate it or the phenomena it claims to describe within a sophisticated historical framework, or offer much guidance in understanding the potential magnitude and direction of future changes in warfare.

From colonial times Americans have sought force multipliers against an unforgiving physical environment. The man who masters the machine, Hank Morgan rather than John Henry, is a dominant archetype. The Western hero combines moral force and technical proficiency: righteousness sustained by a six-gun in expert hands. The heady visions of supremacy through technology found throughout U.S. policy and military–professional literature through the 1990s and beyond derive both their substance and their persuasiveness from this underlying cultural predisposition.

American analysts have in consequence defined revolutions in military affairs as technological-organizational asymmetries between combatants, usually embracing three distinct but interrelated areas. The first and most obvious is straight-line improvement in the capacity to destroy targets. Second is an “information edge” generated through exponential and synergistic increases in the ability to collect, process, and distribute information. The third decisive aspect of the American-style RMA is the provision of doctrines, skills, and force structures necessary to optimize the potential of new materiel. The fate of French armor in 1940 and of the Arab air forces in 1967 demonstrates the uselessness of hardware without appropriate concepts for its use and competent personnel effectively organized to implement those concepts.

The Prussian army from the 1840s onward provides an almost classic model of technological innovation that acted as catalyst for radical changes in tactics, operations, military organization, and state policy. Those changes in turn allowed Prussia between 1866 and 1871 to alter the very structure of the European state system. The “Prussian RMA” thus fits neatly – at first glance – into the American conceptual framework. But it also entails a stern warning: within twenty-five years all other European great powers except Britain had adopted its chief technological and organizational features and had nullified any asymmetric German advantage. Above all, the other powers also had a strategic answer to the “semi-hegemonial” great power that German violence had created in their midst: defensive alliances to blunt the offensive power of the swift “German sword.” The collision in 1914 between the conceptual, technological, and organizational traditions founded in the Prussian RMA and the resistance of Germany’s belatedly but similarly equipped neighbors produced a cataclysm: a four-and-a-half-year Weltkrieg – on the pattern of the U.S. Civil War – that ended in German defeat.


Revolutions in military affairs are most likely to occur in peacetime through the efforts of armed forces that perceive themselves as laggards under the existing rules of the game. It was not accidental that in the early 1980s the Soviets began addressing their future prospects in an arms race driven by technologies they could not match without denying the essence of their regime.4 Prussia in the decades after 1815 faced a similar riddle. But it involved personnel rather than materiel.

The staggering successes of the French revolutionary armies make the decision by Europe’s generals and politicians after 1815 to “reprofessionalize” their armed forces appear anomalous. The common explanation for Britain’s continuing pattern of long-service enlistment and the use by France, Russia, and Austria of troops conscripted for periods from five to twenty-five years is political. Rulers ostensibly prized soldiers so recruited for their dynastic and regimental loyalties, their relative lack of susceptibility to radical ideas, and their willingness to shoot down adherents of those ideas when duly ordered.

That interpretation is only partially valid. The French military system that had called the tune for Europe from 1793 to 1815 had depended heavily on mass. It had also shown a disconcerting tendency to outgrow its nervous system. Even under the emperor’s hand, the conscript masses of Borodino or Leipzig had proved significantly less effective than the relatively lean striking forces of Lodi, Marengo, and Austerlitz. In the post-Waterloo era, a wide range of military figures who included some of Napoleon’s own marshals advocated a return to smaller forces susceptible to precise control: quality rather than quantity. The increasingly demanding tasks of nineteenth-century warfare on a battlefield ever more swept by fire demanded men who had served long enough to become thoroughly proficient.

That was the pattern established in the armies of the great powers and defended by most contemporary military theorists. It was in that context that Prussia after 1815 found itself in the position of a short-money player in a table-stakes game. Even before Napoleon crushed the Frederician army at Jena and Auerstädt, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had argued for fundamental changes in the relationship between army and society, an “alliance between government and people” that would allow Prussia to remain a great power. The reformers’ initial aim of creating citizen-soldiers swiftly evolved into the notion that military service was the essence of citizenship itself. The years in uniform, whether in war or peace, became the defining element of a man’s public identity.

The resulting mass army depended heavily on popular enthusiasm; it passed the test of war in 1813–15. But the possessor of such a force risked inheriting Napoleonic France’s position as an objective threat to European order. That position Prussia had neither the will nor the capacity to sustain. After 1815 Prussia was concerned instead with maintaining and aggrandizing itself within the stable continental and regional environment created by the Congress of Vienna and the German Confederation. Its national strategy in these years depended on what would now be called crisis management: modest initiatives employing a mixture of negotiation and compromise, underwritten by the credible threat of controlled force for limited objectives.

Prussia’s economy in any case could not support the kind of army that post-Napoleonic France developed: a force ready for war from a standing start, emphasizing quality, yet large enough to give its possessor great-power status. The Prussian army depended on men recalled from civilian life. It had divided the kingdom into military districts, each responsible for mobilizing a wartime army corps. In its final Biedermeyer form each corps consisted of two divisions, each division of two brigades, and each brigade of two regiments. But only one of the regiments was an active army formation, and its peacetime strength even on paper was little over half its wartime establishment. The Landwehr, a citizen militia improvised in 1813 and placed on an equal footing with line units by the army’s fundamental law, the Wehrgesetz of 1814, provided the remaining regiment.

That structure, similar to if more drastic than the U.S. Army’s post-Vietnam “roundout” system, made it virtually impossible for Prussia to wage anything save general war. Even active regiments required large infusions of reservists in order to take the field. Far more significant for operational purposes, Prussia’s military organization assumed, indeed required, the equal efficiency of the active and Landwehr formations: their missions were identical. But the natural increase in the population after 1815 combined with cuts in the military budget made impossible the financing of a full term of active service for every able-bodied man except at the expense of basic requirements such as barracks, uniforms, and weapons, and the reconstructed network of fortresses deemed vital to Prussia’s security. The army therefore ended up with a system analogous to the Selective Service machinery employed in the United States from Korea through Vietnam. The principle of universal military obligation enshrined in the Wehrgesetz remained a principle; in practice the army frequently reduced its three-year term of service, assigned more and more untrained conscripts to the Landwehr, and left an ever-larger segment of the male population untapped.

The resulting “Landwehr recruits” were often worse than useless. Post-1815 experience showed that the army’s drillmasters could teach a mass of several hundred men the rudiments of company drill in a few weeks if they worked the recruits to exhaustion. The recruits might also receive some sense of group identity and of the meaning of military order. But they were destined to remain ignorant of skirmishing, fieldcraft, marksmanship, and the other essential skills that modern war and the Prussian drill regulations demanded.

The Landwehr’s creators had expected that popular enthusiasm would ensure participation in its drills and exercises. But in the long peace after Waterloo the Landwehr lost its novelty. Socially or martially ambitious young men no longer sought its commissions. No public eager to watch the show and buy drinks afterward for its brave defenders attended its drills. The civic zeal the reformers had postulated as the basis of the Prussian military system proved difficult to sustain within a political system that even in 1813–15 had never abandoned its deep suspicion of public enthusiasm.

By the 1840s Prussia thus had the worst of both worlds. The state’s international position called for a front-loaded army able to deter potential rivals and to undertake swift and decisive operations for clearly defined objectives, yet the institutional legacy of the reform movement was a ponderous blunt instrument ill-suited to policy wars of any sort. Moreover, the reliability and efficiency of that instrument were open to serious doubt.

The revolutions of 1848 and subsequent lesser crises evidenced sullen compliance rather than patriotic eagerness among the reservists and Landwehr men summoned to active duty. Discontent tended to be personal rather than principled. Family men in their thirties, forced to abandon farm, shop, or profession for a long-discarded uniform, were likely to feel anything but happy when cheered on their way to glory by bachelors ten years younger who had been omitted from the call-up list. Prussia’s semi-willing warriors hardly seemed the raw material of glorious victory in future conflicts.

One possible solution involved using technology as a force multiplier. The impact of industrialization frequently appalled Prussia’s officer corps, which long remained suspicious of the social, political, and environmental consequences of the factory system and uncertain of the appropriate degree of state involvement in the process of economic development. The vitalist heritage of the French Revolution and of the military reform movement – the emphasis on enthusiasm and willpower as the key to victory – also limited the army’s eagerness to exploit new technologies.

The artillery, a logical focus for innovation, improved by stages. The cast-steel breech-loading rifles that Alfred Krupp developed and the army adopted in 1859 represented an incremental rather than an exponential improvement. Early cast steel was not self-evidently superior to the traditional bronze. Nor, in an era of fixed gun carriages, did breech-loading offer a significant increase in artillery firepower. By the time a cannon was hauled back into firing position after recoil, a reasonably efficient gun crew could have it reloaded from either end. And like all continental armies in the 1850s, the Prussians were uncertain whether the definitive field gun of the future would be a long-ranged rifle or a large-caliber smoothbore best able to fire shell, shrapnel, and canister at short and medium ranges: the Napoleon of Civil War fame. Until after 1866 Prussian field batteries were armed with both types of gun in a fifty-fifty ratio.

The Prussian RMA instead began with the rearmament of the infantry.15 So many stories surround the breech-loading needle-gun that it has been long forgotten that the rifle was designed around its cartridge. The percussion caps that replaced flints in the first quarter of the nineteenth century had a nasty habit of spraying fulminate and metal fragments into the shooter’s face when struck by the musket hammer. A German gunsmith, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, proposed instead to insert the explosive into the base of the bullet itself and detonate it with a firing pin long enough to drive through cartridge paper and gunpowder.

Dreyse originally used this early approximation of a safety cartridge in a muzzle-loading smoothbore that the Prussian army adopted in small numbers in 1833. These first needle-guns were dangerous to load: premature discharges were inevitable when ramming a paper cartridge onto a firing pin. Powder gases rapidly corroded the firing pin, and replacing a broken pin was difficult. The obvious answer was to develop a breech-loading mechanism. Sporting weapons had been employing such systems for years, but existing designs were too fragile or complex for military use.

What kept Dreyse going was connections. Regimental officers were interested in the potential of his design, and – above all – the Crown Prince, the future King Frederick William IV, and his brother Prince William directly supported Dreyse’s efforts. Without that personal element and the institutional momentum that the adoption of a few hundred of Dreyse’s original muzzle-loaders had created, the needle-gun might well have been no more than a footnote to military history like its American contemporary, the Hall rifle. Instead, Dreyse was able by 1836 to offer a working model of a breech-loader for consideration – a breech-loader with a rifled barrel.

For four years the army tested the rifle for accuracy, reliability, and durability under all possible conditions. One of the needle-gun’s advocates declared that with 60,000 men armed with this weapon, the king of Prussia would be able to determine his frontiers unilaterally. The official testing commission praised the rifle as a gift of providence and recommended that it be kept secret until “a great historical moment.” The 60,000 needleguns ordered on 4 December 1840 were stored in arsenals until enough were available for the whole army or until a major emergency – whichever came first.

Dreyse’s breech-loader combined a rate of fire higher than that of a smoothbore musket with the accuracy of a rifle. Its user could reload and fire lying down – no small advantage for skirmishers. Breech-loading also eliminated the danger of ramming charges on top of one another in case of a misfire, and soldiers no longer had to have a certain number of teeth in a certain position to bite the cartridges. Yet doubts persisted. In the Prussian army, rifles had been long-range, precision weapons used by an elite corps of specialists: the Jäger. Over decades they had developed their own version of what has been called a “gravel-belly” mentality. The Jäger wanted a rifle that could hit small targets at a thousand paces and more. Yet the front-to-back combustion of the needle-gun’s cartridge confined its effective range to seven hundred paces at best. It also produced an irregular trajectory that lowered the range scores of even the best marksmen. For the rest of the Prussian infantry, the extraordinary demands it placed on fire discipline were the primary stumbling-block to the needle-gun’s acceptance. Fear of introducing a weapon because it uses too much ammunition is an easy target for ridicule. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, many combat-arms officers have come to regard logistics as a religious experience: prayer into the radio causes supplies to appear from heaven! But under mid-nineteenth-century conditions it was difficult if not impossible to refill even cartridge boxes in battle. The needle-gun’s ease of operation seemed to invite an automatic reflex of loading and pulling the trigger that could end in terrified flight when an empty cartridge box recalled the shooter to reality.

The revolutions of 1848 forced the army to move from theory to practice: the storming of the Berlin Arsenal on 15 June put a number of Prussia’s carefully guarded secret weapons into rebel hands. The army then issued them to units assigned to counterinsurgency operations, and the needle-gun repeatedly proved its worth both in street fighting and the open field. Its virtues were moral as well as material: even inexperienced troops armed with the new rifle were firmly convinced of its superiority, and by extension of their own. In 1851 the government ordered that Dreyse’s breech-loaders be used to fill all future requirements for infantry small arms.

The limited operations of 1848–49 highlighted the importance of training. Men carrying needle-guns did in fact tend to open fire at excessive ranges and fire off their ammunition almost randomly. The new rifle’s firepower also highlighted a problem already of deep concern to the Prussian army: the conduct of the tactical offensive in the face of modern weapons such as the shell-firing cannon and the Minié rifles sighted to a thousand yards that Europe’s armies began introducing in the 1850s.

The resulting exponential expansion of killing zones and killing power, demonstrated in the Crimea in 1854 and northern Italy in 1859, jolted the Prussian army in a way essentially different from its counterparts. All available evidence indicated that Prussia’s active regiments, to say nothing of the Landwehr, were probably incapable of sophisticated tactical movements, especially in the early stages of a war. Skirmishing against modern rifles might well prove wholly beyond the skills of reservists and especially of Landwehr troops. Avoiding long firefights and coming to close quarters with the enemy as rapidly as possible seemed the wave of the future or at least the most promising option.

Yet the popular lack of enthusiasm for military service mentioned earlier was an unspoken argument against the practical prospects of headlong attacks. Prussians committed to such an operation were likely to be neither well-trained nor well-disciplined. They might indeed charge like hell out of temporary exaltation. But no one could predict the direction and duration of their movement or assume that many of them would live long enough to run away. Nor could the Prussian army base its doctrine and training on defensive tactics. In principle it was clearly preferable to maneuver the enemy into attacking. But in practice, Prussia’s infantry would in the end have to advance against modern firepower. The question was not whether it could advance, but how to do so without crippling losses, and how to convince the troops to attack for a second or third time.

The Prussian army tested skirmish lines organized into small squads under the direct control of a noncommissioned officer. The 250-man company column increasingly replaced the massed battalion during field exercises. The army expected companies to make up in flexibility and firepower what they lacked in mass. But all these innovations highlighted a structural problem. The army’s trainers faced persistent difficulties in implementing the new methods. Fire discipline, unit cohesion, and battlefield control remained deficient. Through the 1850s critics – by no means all of them anonymous reactionaries – wondered whether breech-loading rifles might not be leading Prussia down a blind alley to military disaster. The Prussian army’s annual exercises, never a showpiece, became an embarrassing joke. A French observer declared one performance so bad as to compromise the whole profession of arms.

Clearly the needle-gun by itself could not serve as the fulcrum of military revolution. A possible alternative involved developing innovations that offered strategic and operational opportunities rather than tactical ones. Railroads had made their first appearance in Prussia in the early 1830s. Their promoters, men like Friedrich Harkort and Ludolf Camphausen, had argued for the military potential of steam transportation. The army’s initial reaction was more positive than often recognized. But planners and commentators nevertheless feared that railroads might facilitate enemy invasion, and warned against neglecting the construction of a paved highway network in favor of a new and untried innovation. The limited carrying capacity of early railroads also sharply restricted their ability to move troops and materiel except in token amounts. As late as 1836, a pamphlet accurately demonstrated that a full-strength Prussian corps on foot could cover in sixteen days a distance that would require twenty by rail. Nor were railroads without potentially serious consequences for state policy. Hermann von Boyen, the reform era hero reappointed as war minister in 1841, believed firmly that the widespread use of railroads might make mobilization plans dangerously rigid and mechanical. The army could find itself wrongly concentrated and the state forced into war through railroad time-tables.

Despite growing military pressure for nationalizing or subsidizing the railroads, or at least for requiring private companies to conform to military requirements in particular cases, commercial factors largely determined Prussia’s routes and track systems. Even the Ostbahn, built after 1848 at government expense to cover the six hundred kilometers from Berlin to the Russian border, served economic and political rather than strategic purposes. Nevertheless the growth of track mileage and the steady improvement of rails and rolling stock on the private lines significantly enhanced the military potential of the railroad. During the revolution of 1848 the railroads allowed the army to deploy swiftly mobile reaction forces of a few battalions to actual or potential trouble spots. In the spring of 1850 Moltke, then chief of staff of the Rhineland-based VIII Corps, used local railroads in field exercises. In May 1850, when steadily worsening relations with Austria led Prussia to order mobilization, the army recalled almost half a million men to the colors in the expectation that the railroads would move them to the frontier.

Prussia had intended a classic exercise in deterrence: a show of force that would convince Austria to modify its position rather than escalate. The result wavered between tragedy and farce. No significant plans for using the railroads existed. Loading and scheduling was haphazard, and frequently separated equipment and the units to which it belonged. Men, animals, and supplies piled up at loading centers and shuttled randomly from station to station. Food, water, and sanitary facilities were all lacking. Prussian chaos contrasted sharply with Austria’s relatively troublefree movement of 25,000 men into Bohemia by rail within less than four weeks – an achievement long-forgotten but legitimately described as “the birth hour of modern military transportation.” In the aftermath of the 1850 fiasco the Prussian general staff began to develop systems for the large-scale transport of men and supplies by rail. But the thrust of expert opinion still perceived the railroad as a defensive tool through which to reinforce threatened sectors and maintain communications between the fortresses deemed vital to Prussia’s security. Railroads only became part of an RMA in 1857, when Helmuth von Moltke became chief of staff.

Along with an increasing number of his contemporaries, Moltke had drawn three conclusions about railroads. Their effective use for military purposes required detailed planning of a scope, and on a scale, unprecedented in Prussian history. The temptation to bring the largest forces to the largest railroad junctions posed logistical risks as well. The horse transport connecting railroad-fed supply dumps with the cartridge boxes, haversacks, and nosebags of units at the front limited the force that could be supplied by a single major road to 30,000 or so men. Nor did an army a hundred thousand strong really march: it inched across country, using every possible dirt track and cowpath to move the food and forage on which it depended. Finally – a point frequently overlooked by contemporary RMA enthusiasts – machinery made its own laws. Appeals to patriotism and threats of punishment alike were futile in the face of broken axles or hotboxes, and tracks leading to operationally undesirable destinations.

These factors in combination made calculation and preparation the keys to the successful use of railroads in war. The Prussian army of the late 1850s was hardly capable of managing its mobilization and concentration through a Teutonic counterpart to France’s national tradition of genial improvisation, the “système D”; Prussia needed every initial advantage that its best brains could secure. The general staff had existed in embryo even before the war of 1806. But no one had a clear idea of its functions or its authority. After Waterloo the army formalized its structure, but its spheres of influence and control remained limited. Mapmaking, war-gaming, and historical research were the everyday stuff of general staff routine; the institution only developed into its modern form in response to railroad technology.

The Prusso-German Revolution in Military Affairs, 1840–1871 Part II

The battle of Königgrätz on 3 July was the needle-gun’s apogee.

Dreyse needle gun, model 1862.

The general staff started down the technocratic road by reconfiguring one of its principal departments to deal with mobilization, and creating a railroad section. Planning thenceforth depended on machines. Mobilization orders went out by telegraph, reducing notification time from five days to one. Formations were to remain intact: each train would carry a battalion, squadron, or battery from initial loading point to final destination. Loading and unloading boxcars became part of the army’s training schedule. As early as the summer of 1859, V Prussian Corps completed a practice mobilization in twenty-nine days – no small feat given its location in Posen, an eastern province that lacked a developed communications network. Prussian railroads passed their first major administrative test in 1864, against Denmark, when they successfully moved most of an expeditionary force to Schleswig-Holstein, supplied it there, and brought it home after victory.

The challenges of 1866 were more complicated. Prussia fought the Seven Weeks’ War in widely separated theaters, Bohemia and central Germany. Austria began its mobilization and concentration weeks before Prussia. French intervention was a significant possibility. But Prussia held the trump cards: five railroad lines leading to the main theater of war. Moltke and his subordinates used those lines to move the bulk of the army to Bohemia in less than a month and to supply three separate maneuver armies as they moved forward to concentrate on the battlefield at Königgrätz on 3 July.

Events in 1870 followed a similar pattern. As late as 1867 the army of the new North German Confederation required over a month to concentrate in the West for a projected war with France. By 1870 a constantly updated movement plan had cut that time to twenty days. When implemented at the outbreak of war it functioned so smoothly that Albrecht von Roon, the minister of war, jovially complained he had too little to do! Swift and well-organized strategic concentration gave Prussia’s forces a decisive initial edge over a French army that in its own way was at least as modern as its enemy.

The Prussian army’s adaptation to the railroad is an example of what has become known as the “Boyd cycle” – the ability to analyze, decide, and act faster than an opponent. Moltke succeeded twice in presenting Prussia’s adversaries with innovations to which they could not adapt in time to prevent Prussia from setting the rules of the conflict. The Austrians had expected to win their wars on the battlefield, and had correspondingly limited strategic research and development. They had spent on fortresses money not wasted on pensions and sinecures for a bloated officer corps and an inefficient military administration. France had more rolling stock and more double-tracked lines than the North German Confederation. Its trains were faster and its loading facilities larger. Extensive government involvement in railroad construction had ensured a much higher degree of concern for strategic considerations than in Prussia. What was absent was a concept for the effective use of these advantages.

The French had been committed since the 1820s to making war from a standing start, and prefigured the German and Japanese armed forces of the Second World War in regarding logistics and administration as the concern of bureaucrats rather than warriors. France and Austria were the defining military powers of mid-century Europe, and their inability to anticipate or counter Prussia’s unique approach to railroad warfare suggests the nature and magnitude of the Prussian RMA.


By 1860 the technological components of an RMA were clearly present in the Prussian army. The railroad could move troops and supplies exponentially faster and in exponentially greater mass than any land transportation system in human history. The breech-loading rapid-firing, medium-ranged needle-gun had far more in common with the modern assault rifle than with the smoothbores it replaced or the Minies that were its contemporaries. But as yet these innovations remained within a traditional framework. Prussia’s revolution in military affairs moved to its second stage only when Moltke began developing new strategic and operational concepts and Roon began changing the army’s institutional structures in order to maximize the potential of the new hardware.

Two factors influenced Moltke’s perspective on strategic planning. He recognized Prussia’s need for short, decisive conflicts. That was hardly an original insight: it dated back at least to Frederick the Great. Carl von Clausewitz had argued as early as the 1820s that limited war was not a degenerate cousin of the Kantian ideal of “absolute war” illustrated in the wars of the Revolution and Empire. It was rather a valid form in its own right: violence that expressed rather than replaced diplomacy.

An approach to strategy focused on control and limitation was particularly congenial to a military system that since the first decade of the century had stressed the importance of education. After 1815 the Prussian War Academy had become the chief point of entry to high command. Between Waterloo and Königgrätz the war ministry and the general staff developed as organizations whose main purpose was the taming of Bellona: organizing the most efficient use of Prussia’s limited resources for the greatest number of contingencies without destabilizing the society that the army existed to serve.

Moltke was convinced that the swift decision Prussia required was most likely in a war’s early stages. It was best achieved by seizing the initiative and forcing opponents to react to Prussian moves. But the battlefield itself offered increasingly limited prospects for decision, particularly given the nature of the Prussian army. The flank attacks and encircling movements that Moltke perceived as the best counters to modern firepower were tactically demanding. Napoleon had repeatedly demonstrated the use of operational maneuver, but an army on the Prussian model was not likely to match the skills of Napoleon’s veterans – or even of their French and Austrian contemporaries. Maneuver must therefore begin before the war started: envelopment was a strategic problem.

Railroads were decisive in the execution of this concept. Prussia lay without natural frontiers in the midst of powerful and potentially hostile neighbors: time was all-important. Railroads could buy time. They could counterbalance geography. They made possible a new approach to concentration by deploying forces simultaneously to widely separated areas outside the projected theater of operations, then moving them forward into enemy territory. Moltke’s offensive approach owed as much to track layout as to strategic principle. Existing commercial lines were ill-suited to counter invasion: no enemy would be obliging enough to direct his advance against Prussia’s major railroad junctions.

Moltke’s planning blended neatly with the views of Otto von Bismarck, who became Prussia’s prime minister in 1862. Historians have frequently and legitimately described Bismarck as Europe’s last cabinet warrior. However willing to use the solvents of liberalism and nationalism, however extreme his rhetoric, Prussia’s minister-president recognized that wars end with negotiation. He insisted on keeping that option always open. Less familiar, and less generally accepted, is Moltke’s adherence to a similar principle. Moltke insisted that military considerations must determine the conduct of war, and clashed frequently and bitterly with Bismarck in 1866 and 1870–71. But he also held the firm belief that after victory, the soldier must yield to the statesman.

Institutionalizing Prussia’s RMA also involved matching soldiers to weapons and tactics. In 1858, before his appointment as war minister, Roon had presented a memorandum calling for a New Model Prussian Army that combined the traditional Prussian virtues: low cost and high fighting power. This apparent squaring of the circle involved converting most existing Landwehr formations into active army units and filling their ranks by increasing the numbers conscripted. The annual call-up would rise from 40,000 conscripts to somewhat over 60,000. This was still fewer than half the men theoretically available, but increasing the conscription rate from 26 to 40 percent would make the draft something less than the random process perceived by those subject to it. Roon set the term of service at three years in the active army beginning at age twenty, with four more as a reservist assigned to bring the line units to field strength upon mobilization. Only after completing those seven years would the troops, by then in their late twenties, pass into a Landwehr whose primary mission was to provide occupation and garrison units.

In 1859 the new soldier-king, Wilhelm I, gave Roon the chance to implement his recommendations. Supporters said that relieving the Landwehr of first-line operational missions it clearly could no longer perform did no more than place the burdens of war where they rightfully belonged: on those who were youngest, fittest, and least encumbered by civilian responsibilities. The army described the third year of active service as necessary to polish the marksmanship, fire discipline, and prompt response to changing conditions that were the essence of the modern soldier – particularly one carrying a breech-loading rifle and expected to fight in small formations and dispersed skirmish lines. Critics shrank from the cost, and also argued that the purpose of the third year of service was merely to indoctrinate the young with militarist and conservative principles. Advocates of the additional year agreed that two years were more than enough to inculcate the fundamentals of drill – Moltke himself said that task required less than two months. But for the army two years was a second-best solution, acceptable only as a final price for ending the struggle with parliament. Reduced training time would cost blood when the cannon next sounded, and Prussia’s soldiers were not mercenaries. They were the sons of the state, and their lives were precious.

Contemporaries and historians so universally dismissed that position as window-dressing for the underlying goal of inculcating “corpse-obedience” (Kadavergehorsam) in conscripts that it is worth emphasizing the relative absence of such an argument from the professional literature on Roon’s proposed reforms. Negative evidence is always questionable, but it is reasonable to speculate on whether the possible social implications of the longer term of active service represented a kind of afterthought, a secondary consideration intended to appeal to conservative circles by no means universally pleased with reforms that included among their consequences an officer corps that would have to expand beyond the limits of the aristocracy’s capacity to provide lieutenants – and to a king whose intransigence on the three-year issue had increased with time.

As for the officer corps, the reformers argued that amateurs could no longer command on the modern battlefield. Particularly at company level, where most Landwehr officers were concentrated, skill in minor tactics, an eye for terrain, and the ability to act on one’s own initiative were required complements to courage and enthusiasm. With the best will in the world, no one could acquire those qualities on weekends. They demanded full-time commitment and what later generations came to call professionalism.

The intense debate over the proposal triggered the lengthy constitutional crisis that brought Bismarck to power, and has tended to obscure the fact that the Prussian parliament scarcely challenged the reforms themselves. The Jacobin notion of a necessary link between citizenship and military service influenced the Liberals of varying stripes who dominated the Prussian lower house. They also shared in a German nationalism that had long singled out Prussia to play the decisive role in the unification of Germany, a mission for which it required a powerful army. The status of the Landtehr and the three-year term of active service, which dominated political debate and the newspapers, were mere stalking-horses. The ultimate issue was who was to be master: whether crown or parliament would control the force emerging from the reorganization that began in 1860 and continued even after parliament refused funding. The Liberals, confident that they would prevail, were correspondingly willing to give the soldiers room to knot the noose for their own eventual hanging.

Roon’s reforms neither triggered revolution in Prussia nor upset Europe’s balance of power. The army’s peacetime establishment increased by over 65,000 officers and men to a total of 211,000. Its war strength, however, grew more modestly, from 335,000 to 368,000 – hardly enough to trip alarms elsewhere on the continent. In fact the expansion initially seemed likely to make an unsatisfactory situation worse. In the maneuvers of 1861, for example, senior officers continued to employ mass formations in frontal attacks while conspicuously ignoring terrain features and maneuver tactics. Despite a “rocket” from no less a personage than the Crown Prince, the same officers were making the same mistakes two years later.

But at regimental level the army was beginning to learn how to use its rifles and respond to enemy firepower. The expeditionary force sent to Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 departed in a cloud of rhetoric about bayonet charges and hand-to-hand combat. In practice, Prussian officers from commanding general Prince Frederick Charles downward observed the employment of shock tactics by their Austrian allies and concluded that they were a recipe for disaster – or at least for unacceptable casualties. The Prussians preferred to give the Danes a chance to come to them. And time and again the needle-gun, even in the hands of confused or disorganized troops, turned Danish charges into target practice.

Tactical weaknesses remained. The combination of company columns and skirmish lines was difficult to control in the attack – so difficult that some officers continued to advocate battalion-sized close-order formations. The thrust of opinion within the army, however, accepted the argument that training and discipline could compensate for the dispersal that rifled weapons made necessary. The army had in fact little choice. Prussia’s Liberals had by no means given up the struggle for control of the state. Instead they were waiting for Bismarck, Roon and Moltke to create the kind of disaster that would force the government to abandon its authoritarian stand or risk destruction. Prussia’s military professionals had staked their position in Prussian society and their state’s international position on their ability to develop a conscript army able to win a modern war without bleeding Prussia white.

The year 1866 was both test and turning point for the Second Era of Reform. Against an Austrian army committed to massed bayonet charges in close order, senior officers such as Frederick Charles suggested that officers dismount and troops lie down, meet the Austrians with five or six well-aimed volleys, then counterattack anything still standing. From the first days of the decisive campaign in Bohemia these apparently simple suggestions paved the way to victory. At Podol on 26 June a single Prussian company fired 5,700 rounds, an average of twenty-two per man, in thirty-three minutes during an encounter battle that cost the Austrians 1,000 of the 3,000 men they sent into action. Prussian casualties amounted to 130. The next day at Nachod the Prussian V Corps engaged the Austrian VI Corps in another contest of “target against marksman.” For a loss of less than 1,200 V Corps inflicted over 5,600 casualties, including many who surrendered rather than risk trying to withdraw under the Prussian rifles. On 28 June another Austrian corps lost 5,500 men in futile attacks against inferior Prussian forces around the village of Skalitz. And when Prussian infantry attacked or counterattacked, the poorly trained Austrians consistently fired too high or too slowly to stop the skirmish lines and company columns that came forward like clouds of hornets.

Ludwig von Benedek, commanding the Austrian Northern Army, was so shocked by casualties as high as 50 percent in some regiments that he issued an order forbidding infantry attacks without artillery preparation. Prussian riflery repeatedly turned back the vaunted Austrian columns with ease. Prussian troops took hundreds of prisoners shocked into incoherence by the hail of bullets from the needle-gun. Tales of victory spread from regiment to regiment. Morale soared.

The battle of Königgrätz on 3 July was the needle-gun’s apogee. In the center a series of Austrian attacks into Prussian-occupied woods created a smoke-shrouded inferno with no flanks or rear, a contest of ramrods and bayonets against rifle bolts. Prussian units dissolved into groups of men commanded by anyone who set an example. But the conscripts, both active soldiers and reservists, trusted their officers and their rifles. From first to last, the Austrians committed forty-nine battalions to the fight in this sector. The needle-gun, in the hands of desperate men, destroyed or disorganized twenty-eight of them. Austrian officers managed to rally thirteen more, but the survivors were so badly shaken that they were virtually useless. A single Prussian division, twelve battalions strong, had done most of the damage.

The Austrians had focused their attention so firmly on their center that they failed to detect an even greater threat from the north until far too late. About 2:30 P.M. elements of the Prussian Second Army struck the Habsburg flank with an impetus little if at all inferior to that of Stonewall Jackson’s corps at Chancellorsville. But mass was less important than surprise; Prussian companies took advantage of standing grain, broken ground, and smoke-thickened mist to mow the Austrians down in windrows. Prussian rifle fire rendered Austrian artillery positions untenable within minutes. Prussian companies did not bother to form square before opening fire to smash Austrian cavalry charges. The Austrians once more mounted counterattack after desperate counterattack. But the Prussians held their ground and worked their rifle bolts until the surviving Austrians finally abandoned the field.


In the immediate aftermath of Königgrätz, journalists and observers on both sides proclaimed the needle-gun as the key to Prussian victory. Ironically the Prussian army was quick to disagree – at least for public consumption. The victorious army of 1866 was at once a major symbol of Prussia’s military virtues and a major integrating element of the new North German Confederation. A good way to reconcile to Prussian methods and discipline the territories annexed to Prussia after the war and the states of the new North German Confederation was to stress the worth of their populations as soldiers. The government’s presentation of the victorious army of 1866 as the rightful heir to the “people’s uprising” of 1813–15 against Napoleon, recruited from citizens in uniform doing their patriotic duty, eased the Prussian parliament’s acceptance of Bismarck’s offer to end the constitutional crisis.

Prussia’s men rather than their weapons thus received the credit for victory. Military considerations also influenced a post-1866 shift in focus away from hardware. Moltke’s emphasis on concentrating in the face of the enemy – “march divided, fight united” – required an army consisting of units that were essentially equal in quality. It was impossible to be certain beforehand which troops would face the greatest strain or play the decisive role; even Napoleon had not always used his Guard to best advantage. Moreover, the army of the post-1866 North German Confederation possessed a first-line war strength of over 550,000, plus another 400,000 garrison troops, reservists and Landwehr. Instead of the nine corps of the Prussian army of 1866, it had thirteen plus an independent division. That expansion was far larger than the original increase of 1860, and demanded a corresponding emphasis on common doctrine and training methods at all levels from general staff to rifle company.

Above all, the window created by Prussia’s most obvious technical advantage was beginning to close. Dreyse’s rifle was twenty-five years old, its basic design a decade older. New developments on both sides of the Atlantic eclipsed it. French arsenals were beginning to produce the Chassepot, a paper-cartridge breech-loader more reliable and longer-ranged than its Prussian counterpart, and the American Civil War had given metallic cartridges an extended field test. Prussia had reaped the advantages of being first in the field. Now it suffered the inevitable consequence: obsolescence. The needle-gun’s decisive contribution to victory in 1866 was irrelevant to the future challenges facing the Prussian army; resting on past laurels had proved fatal in 1806. Prussia’s next opponent would obviously hardly be as willing as the Austrians to present mass formations as targets for the breech-loader or to pit bayonet charges against rapid fire.

The campaign of 1866 had also clearly demonstrated the problem of maintaining control of skirmish lines and company columns. Prussian officers were fully aware of the high levels of straggling and shirking that accompanied their looser formations; only Austrian weaknesses in skirmishing and marksmanship had prevented them from taking full advantage. What would be the result against an enemy that regarded the rifle as something more than an inferior pike and was skilled in open-order combat – as were the French?

Between 1866 and 1870 both drill regulations and maneuver practice assumed the use of close-order formations in the attack. At the same time regimental officers put greater emphasis than ever on fire discipline, on controlling skirmish lines, and on indoctrinating men to push forward independently should they lose contact with their units. Terrain exercises absorbed more and more training time at the expense of close-order drill. But proponents of columns and skirmishers, close formations and open order alike believed that morale, training, and discipline were more important than weapons. Prussian fighting spirit and Prussian tactical skill would carry the day even against breech-loaders. In Moltke’s words, “superiority is no longer to be sought in the weapon, but in the hand that wields it.”

These tendencies reflected a fact indicated by the strength figures given earlier and often overlooked in accounts stressing Prussia’s mid-century development of a mass army. Roon and Moltke were primarily concerned with quality, not numbers. Superior strength fell into the “nice to have” category. But in contrast to their successors in 1914, they had no intention of creating large numbers of second-line formations for field use. The North German Confederation expected to wage and win its wars with its active units.

The events of 1870–71 justified that assumption. The French army took the field with a tactical doctrine that almost exactly replicated Prussia’s in 1866: meeting attacks with massed rapid fire, then counterattacking. Time and again in the war’s early weeks Prussian commanders obliged, sending their men forward in head-down frontal assaults. At Wörth a single charge cost more men than the entire army had lost at Königgrätz. At St. Privat the Prussian Guard suffered 30 percent casualties in an advance in columns up an open hillside – the longest mile in the Guard’s history. But Prussian officers learned swiftly. Mass and élan gave way to flexible formations supported with concentrated artillery fire. Prussian casualties dropped significantly. Soon one French field army had surrendered, another was hopelessly besieged, and Napoleon Ill’s empire yielded to revolution – a dire portent for the loser of any future war, and the culmination of an RMA that had began over a third of a century earlier with an experimental musket cartridge.

The Prussian revolution in military affairs proved short-lived. By the mid-1870s “railroads and rifles” were the heart of every major continental army. Prussia’s rivals likewise imitated – without quite replicating – the general staff system. Universal short-term conscription became the dominant form of military service. That process was not mere imitation. It reflected the existence of a common European Mentalität, a common mindset generating similar approaches to common problems: in this case the challenge of maximizing military effectiveness under the new rules that Prussia had established. In the decades that stretched toward 1914, Europe’s armies became increasingly symmetrical – recruited alike, trained alike, commanded alike. Innovations, whether in armament, doctrine, or organization, were incremental rather than fundamental. That pattern persisted through the First World War and into the 1930s. Not until May 1940 did asymmetrical forces again contend for the mastery of Europe. But for a brief period in the 1860s, Prussia changed the face of European war and the balance of power of a continent.

The First Three Generations of Modern War

The 1982 Hama Massacre

The Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu said, “He who understands himself and understands his enemy will prevail in one hundred battles.” In order to understand both ourselves and our enemies in Fourth Generation conflicts, it is helpful to use the full framework of the Four Generations of modern war. What are the first three generations?

First Generation war was fought with line and column tactics. It lasted from the Peace of Westphalia until around the time of the American Civil War. Its importance for us today is that the First Generation battlefield was usually a battlefield of order, and the battlefield of order created a culture of order in state militaries. Most of the things that define the difference between “military” and “civilian” – saluting, uniforms, careful gradations of rank, etc. – are products of the First Generation and exist to reinforce a military culture of order. Just as most state militaries are still designed to fight other state militaries, so they also continue to embody the First Generation culture of order.

The problem is that, starting around the middle of the 19th century, the order of the battlefield began to break down. In the face of mass armies, nationalism that made soldiers want to fight, and technological developments such as the rifled musket, the breechloader, barbed wire, and machine guns, the old line-and-column tactics became suicidal. But as the battlefield became more and more disorderly, state militaries remained locked into a culture of order. The military culture that in the First Generation had been consistent with the battlefield became increasingly contradictory to it. That contradiction is one of the reasons state militaries have so much difficulty in Fourth Generation war, where not only is the battlefield disordered, so is the entire society in which the conflict is taking place.

Second Generation war was developed by the French Army during and after World War I. It dealt with the increasing disorder of the battlefield by attempting to impose order on it. Second Generation war, also sometimes called firepower/attrition warfare, relied on centrally controlled indirect artillery fire, carefully synchronized with infantry, cavalry and aviation, to destroy the enemy by killing his soldiers and blowing up his equipment. The French summarized Second Generation war with the phrase, “The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies.”

Second Generation war also preserved the military culture of order. Second Generation militaries focus inward on orders, rules, processes, and procedures. There is a “school solution” for every problem. Battles are fought methodically, so prescribed methods drive training and education, where the goal is perfection of detail in execution. The Second Generation military culture, like the First, values obedience over initiative (initiative is feared because it disrupts synchronization) and relies on imposed discipline.

The United States Army and the U.S. Marine Corps both learned Second Generation war from the French Army during the First World War, and it largely remains the “American way of war” today.

Third Generation war, also called maneuver warfare, was developed by the German Army during World War I. Third Generation war dealt with the disorderly battlefield not by trying to impose order on it but by adapting to disorder and taking advantage of it. Third Generation war relied less on firepower than on speed and tempo. It sought to present the enemy with unexpected and dangerous situations faster than he could cope with them, pulling him apart mentally as well as physically.

The German Army’s new Third Generation infantry tactics were the first non-linear tactics. Instead of trying to hold a line in the defense, the object was to draw the enemy in, then cut him off, putting whole enemy units “in the bag.” On the offensive, the German “storm-troop tactics” of 1918 flowed like water around enemy strong points, reaching deep into the enemy’s rear area and also rolling his forward units up from the flanks and rear. These World War I infantry tactics, when used by armored and mechanized formations in World War II, became known as “Blitzkrieg.”

Just as Third Generation war broke with linear tactics, it also broke with the First and Second Generation culture of order. Third Generation militaries focus outward on the situation, the enemy, and the result the situation requires. Leaders at every level are expected to get that result, regardless of orders. Military education is designed to develop military judgment, not teach processes or methods, and most training is force-on-force free play because only free play approximates the disorder of combat. Third Generation military culture also values initiative over obedience, tolerating mistakes so long as they do not result from timidity, and it relies on self-discipline rather than imposed discipline, because only self-discipline is compatible with initiative.

When Second and Third Generation war met in combat in the German campaign against France in 1940, the Second Generation French Army was defeated completely and quickly; the campaign was over in six weeks. Both armies had similar technology, and the French actually had more (and better) tanks. Ideas, not weapons, dictated the outcome.

Despite the fact that Third Generation war proved its decisive superiority more than 60 years ago, most of the world’s state militaries remain Second Generation. The reason is cultural: they cannot make the break with the culture of order that the Third Generation requires. This is another reason why, around the world, state-armed forces are not doing well against non-state enemies. Second Generation militaries fight by putting firepower on targets, and Fourth Generation fighters are very good at making themselves untargetable. Virtually all Fourth Generation forces are free of the First Generation culture of order; they focus outward, they prize initiative and, because they are highly decentralized, they rely on self-discipline. Second Generation state forces are largely helpless against them.

Fighting Fourth Generation War: Two Models

In fighting Fourth Generation war, there are two basic approaches or models. The first may broadly be called the “de-escalation model,” and it is the focus of this article. But there are times when state-armed forces may employ the other model. Reflecting a case where this second model was applied successfully, we refer to it (borrowing from Martin van Creveld) as the “Hama model.” The Hama model refers to what Syrian President Hafez al-Assad did to the city of Hama in Syria when a non-state entity there, the Moslem Brotherhood, rebelled against his rule.

In 1982, in Hama, Syria, the Sunni Moslem Brotherhood was gaining strength and was planning on intervening in Syrian politics through violence. The dictator of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, was alerted by his intelligence sources that the Moslem Brotherhood was looking to assassinate various members of the ruling Ba’ath Party. In fact, there is credible evidence that the Moslem Brotherhood was planning on overthrowing the Shi’ite/Alawite-dominated Ba’ath government.

On February 2, 1982, the Syrian Army was deployed into the area surrounding Hama. Within three weeks, the Syrian Army had completely devastated the city, resulting in the deaths of between 10,000 and 25,000 people, depending on the source. The use of heavy artillery, armored forces, and possibly even poison gas resulted in large-scale destruction and an end to the Moslem Brotherhood’s desires to overthrow the Ba’ath Party and Hafez al-Assad. After the operation was finished, one surviving citizen of Hama stated, “We don’t do politics here anymore, we just do religion.”

The results of the destruction of Hama were clear to the survivors. As the June 20, 2000, Christian Science Monitor wrote, “Syria has been vilified in the West for the atrocities at Hama. But many Syrians – including a Sunni merchant class that has thrived under Alawite rule – also note that the result has been years of stability.”

What distinguishes the Hama model is overwhelming firepower and force, deliberately used to create massive casualties and destruction, in an action that ends quickly. Speed is of the essence to the Hama model. If a Hama-type operation is allowed to drag out, it will turn into a disaster on the moral level. The objective is to get it over with so fast that the effect desired locally is achieved before anyone else has time to react or, ideally, even to notice what is going on.

There is little attention to the Hama model because situations where the Western states’ armed forces will be allowed to employ it will probably be few and far between. Domestic and international political considerations will normally tend to rule it out. However, it could become an option if a Weapon of Mass Destruction were used against a Western country on its own soil.

The main reason we need to identify the Hama model is to note a serious danger facing state-armed forces in Fourth Generation situations. It is easy, but fatal, to choose a course that lies somewhere between the Hama model and the de-escalation model. Such a course inevitably results in defeat, because of the power of weakness.

The military historian Martin van Creveld compares a state military that, with its vast superiority in lethality, continually turns its firepower on poorly-equipped Fourth Generation opponents to an adult who administers a prolonged, violent beating to a child in a public place. Regardless of how bad the child has been or how justified the beating may be, every observer sympathizes with the child. Soon, outsiders intervene, and the adult is arrested. The power mismatch is so great that the adult’s action is judged a crime.

This is what happens to state-armed forces that attempt to split the difference between the Hama and de-escalation models. The seemingly endless spectacle of weak opponents and, inevitably, local civilians being killed by the state military’s overwhelming power defeats the state at the moral level. That is why the rule for the Hama model is that the violence must be over fast. It must be ended quickly! Any attempt at a compromise between the two models results in prolonged violence by the state’s armed forces, and it is the duration of the mismatch that is fatal. To the degree the state-armed forces are also foreign invaders, the state’s defeat occurs all the sooner. It occurs both locally and on a global scale. In the 3,000 years that the story of David and Goliath has been told, how many listeners have identified with Goliath?

In most cases, the primary option for state-armed forces will be the de-escalation model. What this means is that when situations threaten to turn violent or actually do so, state forces in Fourth Generation situations will focus their efforts on lowering the level of confrontation until it is no longer violent. They will do so on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. The remainder of is therefore focused on the de-escalation model for combatting insurgency and other forms of Fourth Generation warfare.


The technical characteristics of weapons systems had an important influence on the fighting off Guadalcanal. In the interwar period, the firepower of surface ships had dramatically increased. Improvements in fire control—including more advanced models of the Ford rangekeeper—had made gunfire and torpedo salvoes more accurate; advances in fuse and shell technology had made shells deadlier; and new torpedoes had increased lethality. These enhancements combined to make ship combat more intense than ever before. However, the maximum effective range of these weapons was still limited by that of the human eye.

The upper limit of visual range at night off Guadalcanal was almost always within ten thousand yards; often it was within five thousand. At the battle of Savo Island, the Japanese opened fire on the northern group of Allied cruisers at about ten thousand yards, using searchlights. During the decisive portion of Guadalcanal II (sometimes “the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal”), the battleship Washington engaged the battleship Kirishima at 8,400 yards with the aid of radar ranging and star-shell illumination. At Cape Esperance, the Japanese were sighted at five thousand yards, and fire was opened almost immediately. Guadalcanal I descended into a melee because of the low visibility. The leading ships of the opposing formations first sighted each other at three thousand yards; fire was opened soon thereafter.

The close engagement ranges, combined with the lethality of the ships’ weaponry, explain why the combat off Guadalcanal was so furious and deadly. They also illustrate the importance of hitting first. Surprise was decisive in the night surface battles, a better predictor of victory than any other single factor. The other hallmark of these fights was extreme confusion. The Navy had anticipated that night combat might be chaotic. A 1938 doctrinal manual for light cruisers warned that night battle would develop quickly and be fast-paced, with only brief opportunities to score hits on opponents as they appeared out of the darkness. This emphasis found its way into drills and practices, which stressed getting on target extremely quickly. Hitting first was important in daylight action; in night combat, it was decisive.

Night battle practice—scores in which made up a significant percentage of a ship’s individual gunnery merit ranking—reinforced this emphasis by training crews to acquire and engage targets in the shortest possible time. The highest scores went to the ships that got on target the fastest and scored the most hits.6 The heavy cruiser Augusta gave an exceptional performance in March 1937 while flagship of the Asiatic Fleet:

A total of thirty-eight hits, or 42.2% on run one with the main battery, of which fifteen were early hits obtained in the first six salvoes in three minutes and ten seconds can be considered little short of remarkable. . . . The target diagram of hits shows the high degree of accuracy and consistency in both range and deflection, indicating extreme thoroughness of the director check and battery line-up as well as the accuracy of the fire-control procedure and spotting.

Augusta’s ability to get on target quickly was aided by her ranging technique. She fired “a three salvo ranging ladder in 500 yard increments by individual turrets” to determine more accurately the target range. That is, the first salvo would have been fired at a range five hundred yards beyond the estimated range, the second at the estimated range, and the third five hundred yards below that. Spotting from these three salvoes would have provided an accurate target range very quickly. In effect, she used her gun battery as a rangefinder.

Lloyd M. Mustin, a future admiral, served on board Augusta during this time and described how her gunners achieved such impressive scores: “I guess there were really two keys to our whole approach of taking a target under fire at night, both much interlaid with each other. One was heavy emphasis on the utmost speed in opening fire . . . [using] an estimated range. . . . [The other was] much more streamlined internal procedures that [permitted] . . . a minimum of required transmissions back and forth between the Captain on the bridge and the man who had the firing key in his hand.” Augusta’s approach of using the guns to find the range became standard procedure. Reports of night battle practices stressed that rough estimates of enemy course and speed were all that could be made before opening fire. Hits were to be obtained by firing immediately and correcting the fall of shot; there was no time to develop a model of the target’s movements. This was the opposite procedure from that used in daylight, when firing was deliberate, controlled, and based on precise calculation of the target’s future position.

Firing without a precise solution would introduce errors. Through experimentation, the Navy discovered that the best way to secure a large number of hits was a “rocking ladder.” Once they found the range, Mustin and his contemporaries altered the range up and down in slight increments with each salvo, “rocking” the shells back and forth across the target. The variation in range compensated for errors in the fire-control solution and increased the number of hits. At night, it was extremely easy to believe that shells were on target when in fact they were slightly short or long. Continually rocking the shells back and forth overcame this problem and became the prescribed doctrine for night firing. The results were impressive; Mustin described the target raft after one practice as a “shambles”—it had been “literally shot to pieces.” The emphasis on opening fire immediately was well worthwhile; all the night surface actions of the campaign—except for the last one—were to be decided by gunfire.

Radar too played an important role in the night battles of 1942. The Navy’s willingness to experiment allowed it to realize quickly the potential of using radio waves to develop a more detailed picture of the surroundings. However, the radars used at Guadalcanal were fairly primitive. Most displays were unsophisticated, and effective procedures to harness the information they provided had yet to be developed. Radar was not yet a transformational technology, but in the right hands, it was an extremely useful tool.

Radar research and development was performed under the auspices of the Navy’s technical bureaus. There were two parallel threads. Search radars, designed to provide early warning of approaching ships and planes, were the responsibility of the Bureau of Ships. BuOrd focused on fire-control radars, which could provide range, bearing, and other information necessary to augment fire-control solutions. The Navy’s heuristic emphasizing quick and effective gunfire led to the rapid development of the latter.

Search and fire-control radars used similar technology but were employed differently. Search-radar antennas were typically kept rotating so that they could scan the area around the ship. When an unknown echo was observed, the earliest installations—like the SC radars in use in 1942—had to be stopped so that range and bearing could be estimated. When its antenna was stopped, the radar could not search other sectors, increasing the chances that the operator would miss approaching contacts.

Fire-control radars were occasionally used to search like this, but their specialty was specific targets. The open architecture of the fire-control system made it easy to integrate radar into it; there was no need for major modifications to take advantage of radar information. Fire-control radars could augment existing fire-control procedures by providing the range to the target, reducing the need for ranging ladders and allowing the target to be “straddled” more quickly.

The Navy’s most modern fire-control radars, the FC (Mark 3) and FD (Mark 4) were used extensively off Guadalcanal. The FC was designed for surface fire control; the FD was similar but configured differently to allow it to be used against airplanes as well as surface ships. Both used lobe switching—alternating transmission in two lobes on either side of the antenna—to improve directional accuracy. Although some ships considered the FC and FD sufficiently accurate for “blind” firing, fire control was most accurate when using radar ranges and visual bearings. This helped ensure that the engagement ranges at Guadalcanal were short.

Initially, the standard radar display was the “A-scope,” a two-dimensional view of reflected signals on a specific bearing. The horizontal axis displayed range, while the vertical axis indicated the strength of the reflected signal. If the radar detected nothing, there would be no return, and the display would be dominated by “grass”—low-level noise signals detected by the receiver, akin to “snow” on early television sets.14 When the radar did detect an object, a vertical spike would appear at the appropriate range. The strength of the signal was indicated by the size of the spike. Strong signals produced a tall vertical “pip”; weaker ones were shorter. If using a search radar, the operator would stop the antenna and note the bearing and range. The nature of the display meant that the radar could either search, scanning for potential contacts, or focus on a single bearing, recording the specific location of a contact. It could not do both simultaneously.

It took effort to translate this information from the display into a picture of potential contacts. Search-radar operators were trained to focus on pips and accurately determine their range and bearing. They were not responsible for tracking the contacts they identified, and the A-scope made it very difficult for them to do so. Instead, they reported a series of ranges and bearings. Other members of the crew took this data and added the necessary context to create situational awareness. On large ships, like carriers and battleships, this was done in a Radar Plot. On smaller ships, it was done in the captain’s brain. Both mechanisms were frequently overwhelmed.

On fire-control radars, the focus of the A-scope could be narrowed. Operators could increase the resolution and zoom in on a small area of the display—either five hundred or a thousand yards in range—and see more detail around the target. This allowed them to determine target range very accurately and, if conditions were right, even to observe the splashes of shells. However, this procedure limited their view to a narrow window. If the target slipped outside, it could easily be lost.

Radar signals reflected off land as well as ships, and the peculiar littoral terrain near Guadalcanal made it difficult to identify contacts. Savo Sound is surrounded by three islands. Guadalcanal forms the southern border. To the north, Florida Island hems it in and forms the sheltered anchorage at Tulagi. The southern tip of Florida reaches toward Guadalcanal, forming the eastern entrance to the sound. Reefs segment that entrance into three separate channels: Nggela, Sealark, and Lengo. To the west, the small island of Savo divides the western entrance to the sound into two roughly equal channels. The proximity of land interfered with radar signals, cluttering displays with echoes from the islands and making it difficult or impossible to distinguish targets. This interference was a surprise, and it undermined prewar faith in radar systems. These limitations informed how radar was used and how battles were fought. Radar was not yet the sophisticated technology we think of today; for the first year of war in the Pacific, it was a rudimentary tool that did not seamlessly integrate with existing shipboard information systems. This largely explains why the Navy, despite this powerful new technology, found the battles off Guadalcanal so confusing and difficult.

However, some ships benefitted from much more sophisticated radar installations. One of the most important outcomes of the prewar work with radar was the development of the “plan position indicator,” the PPI scope. It was a dramatic improvement over the A-scope and vastly enhanced the ability of operators and their ships to process radar information. The PPI was the brainchild of Dr. Robert Morris Page of the Naval Research Laboratory. Page applied a particularly nautical solution to the problem of radar displays; he took the Navy’s established plotting paradigm—the top-down view—and devised a way to present radar information in a similar format. It was the first iteration of the display with which we are all familiar, with the radar in the center surrounded by a bird’s-eye view of contacts.

As the radar revolved, potential contacts appeared as pips. Each pip would remain momentarily on the screen, allowing the operator to record the bearing and range without pausing the radar’s scanning motion. The strength of the return, giving some estimate of the relative size of the target, was reflected in the size and brightness of the pip. The new display tightly integrated radar information with the mental models of the operators, making it much easier to translate that information into a picture of the surrounding world and increase situational awareness.

The first radar to use the PPI scope was the SG, the Navy’s first microwave search radar; later, it became the standard display for all search radars. A few ships that fought near Guadalcanal, including the cruiser Helena, destroyer Fletcher, and battleships Washington and South Dakota, were equipped with the SG radar and PPI scope. These ships consistently had better situational awareness in combat, but they lacked an effective means to share that picture with other ships in company.


They were missing because of invalid assumptions about how commanders and their ships would approach combat. The Navy recognized that a decentralized system—in which each commander applied his own judgment to his circumstances—could adequately deal with the complexity of combat. The emphasis on decentralized doctrinal development reflected this, and it made squadron and task force commanders responsible for formulating doctrines and plans to guide their forces in battle. To make the system effective, however, ships had to stay together long enough to absorb a common doctrine and create a shared context for decision making. But the demands of the Guadalcanal campaign and the needs of a two-ocean war combined to destabilize the Navy’s fighting units and undermine this process.

Creating a shared context took time and required preparation. Although the fleet had devoted significant attention to preparing for major fleet actions, it had spent very little time preparing for fights between smaller task forces. Individual task force and squadron commanders were expected to fill the gap and develop specific plans for their forces. Off Guadalcanal, they were consistently unable to do so. Forces were repeatedly thrown together piecemeal without the necessary time for indoctrination. The resulting problems are evident throughout the campaign. In the aftermath of the defeat at Savo, Vice Admiral Ghormley cited the lack of time available for indoctrination: “Detailed plans and orders for the Watchtower Operation were of necessity prepared in a short space of time immediately prior to its execution, giving little, if any, opportunity for subordinate commanders to contact commanders of units assigned to them for purposes of indoctrination.”

During Guadalcanal I, the lack of an effective doctrine was an acute problem. Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan was given command of a “scratch team” formed from two separate forces the day before the battle. There was no time to indoctrinate the new ships, and because Callaghan had assumed his own post as a task-group commander (TG 67.4) barely two weeks prior to the battle, there was no doctrine even for his own force. Vice Adm. William S. Pye, president of the Naval War College, would note this deficiency in his comments on the action: “It seems . . . that the American force went into this action without any battle plan; without any indoctrination, or understanding between the OTC [Callaghan], and his subordinates; with incomplete information as to existing conditions in possession of subordinates.”

At Guadalcanal II, two days later, Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee was in a similar situation. None of his six ships had ever operated together before. His four destroyers were from four different divisions and possessed nothing resembling a common doctrine. The same held true for his two battleships. Lee suffered “from the same lack of practice in teamwork that had plagued Callaghan.”

Planning suffered along with indoctrination. Before the war, the Navy assumed the OTC would develop a battle plan that would explain his intentions and the way he expected to fight. It would provide context for the interpretation of task-force doctrine and help align decision making. To prevent confusion, these plans had to be concise and extremely clear. Unfortunately, the same circumstances that undermined the ability of task force commanders to develop common doctrines also inhibited the creation of battle plans. Captains frequently went into battle without the shared context required for effective coordination. Instead of fighting as cohesive units, the Navy’s task forces broke apart and fought as individual ships.

The Navy understood that this approach was very costly, but there was no alternative. The battles of Guadalcanal I and II came during the decisive moment of the campaign; Lee and Callaghan were fighting to ensure the survival of Henderson Field, which had become the key to victory. Success or failure depended on their ability to fight their confused collections of ships.

The Navy’s performance in the night battles of 1942 was also hindered by prevailing assumptions about how to employ torpedoes. The emphasis on major fleet action limited the Navy’s destroyer doctrine and focused destroyer commanders on attacking a well-defended enemy formation at night. In such an attack, torpedoes would be fired at the enemy battleships after the cruisers and destroyers had used their guns to penetrate the screen. This meant that destroyers were trained to preserve their torpedoes and use their guns first. Originally weapons of stealth, the Navy’s destroyers had lost the art of using their torpedoes in a surprise attack.

The 1929 Destroyer Instructions reflected these prevailing assumptions. Torpedoes were to be used primarily against the “objective,” the enemy capital ships. Only a limited number could be expended against other targets: “While the main mission of the attack is to sink the objective [enemy battleships,] . . . it must be remembered that favorable positions for torpedo fire are very seldom gained in night operations, and that every opportunity must be taken to inflict damage on any enemy ships encountered. . . . For this reason, destroyers are authorized to fire one torpedo at any destroyer and two at any cruiser or light cruiser encountered at such close range that there is a practical certainty of hitting.” The 1938 version of Night Search and Attack Operations reinforced the emphasis on preserving torpedoes for large targets: “While penetrating an enemy screen advantage will be taken of any favorable opportunity to torpedo enemy cruisers. Torpedoes will not normally be used against enemy destroyers.”

These assumptions led to simplistic interwar torpedo exercises. Battle Torpedo Practice C was the Navy’s standard night-torpedo exercise, designed to simulate an attack on an enemy battleship. It assumed that the target would be slow-moving and that the attack would come after the destroyer division had penetrated the enemy screen. This meant the target would be fully alert to the presence of the attacking destroyers, open fire to repulse them, and thereby reveal its location and provide a convenient point of aim for the destroyer torpedoes. Blinking lights simulated the battleship’s gunfire.

While the Navy’s gunnery exercises measured how quickly the guns were brought on target and how often they hit, successfully focusing crews on the importance of quick and accurate gunfire, Battle Torpedo Practice C considered only the accuracy of a single torpedo. If the torpedo hit the target, the ship received a perfect score. If it missed, the score was zero. Most destroyers, aided by the blinking lights, managed to hit. The only way they could improve upon their scores was to fire their torpedoes earlier in their attack runs. The artificialities of the exercises and emphasis on major action prevented the development of more sophisticated and effective torpedo tactics. Although there were extensive night exercises before the war, not one of those held in 1938 simulated an encounter like the battles off Guadalcanal, which were to be dominated by fast-moving cruisers and destroyers.

Immediately before the war, more complex exercises with faster targets and more challenging torpedo-fire-control problems were in fact introduced. But they came too late to alter the pervasive beliefs that enemy capital ships were the primary target for destroyer torpedoes and that most attacks would be delivered at close range against slowly maneuvering, well-illuminated targets. Off Guadalcanal, the Navy eschewed the potential of stealthy torpedo attacks and focused instead on gunfire as the dominant weapon.

The IJN approached the problem quite differently. Forced by the interwar naval-limitation treaties to accept a fleet of significantly smaller size, the Japanese had sought to redress the imbalance through technological innovation. The U.S. Navy failed to anticipate this and went to war assuming that Japanese ships and weapons would possess capabilities broadly similar to its own. That the Japanese would develop torpedoes with unprecedented range and striking power was wholly unanticipated.

The Type 93 Mod 2 torpedo, more commonly known as the Long Lance, was the IJN’s counter to the large size and fighting power of the American battle line. Introduced in 1936, it was capable of a range of 20,000 meters (21,900 yards) at fifty knots, its highest speed setting. Its warhead weighed 490 kilograms (1,080 pounds). The Navy’s contemporary, the Mark 15, had a range of only six thousand yards at forty-five knots; it carried an 825-pound warhead. The better performance of the Japanese torpedo was due to its larger size and the fact that it used pure oxygen as a combustion agent. The Mark 15 used regular air.

The Japanese also developed stealthy tactics that emphasized firing torpedoes before opening fire with their guns. At night, gun flashes created clear aim points. If torpedoes were fired and gunfire held until the torpedoes were among the enemy ships, the targets could be quickly overwhelmed by shells and torpedoes striking simultaneously. The lethality of this tactic was demonstrated at Savo Island.

American naval officers consistently underestimated the range and speed of Japanese torpedoes. They believed that submarines were firing them, not cruisers and destroyers. In the aftermath of Savo Island, Rear Admiral Turner expressed his belief that heavy cruisers Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria “ran into [a] submarine and torpedo trap.” An intelligence summary issued after Guadalcanal I reflected a similar assumption about Japanese torpedo tactics: “Jap[anese] torpedo attacks are the biggest threat. They appear to succeed in firing well placed torpedo salvoes. They hit from the flank and also the disengaged side. They undoubtedly use destroyers and cruisers as well as submarines well placed in area.”

Ignorance regarding the range and accuracy of Japanese torpedoes resulted in tactics that played to their strengths. At the battle of Tassafaronga, Rear Adm. Carleton H. Wright maintained the course and speed of his cruisers while rapidly firing at Japanese destroyers. The cruisers’ gun flashes provided excellent points of aim, and their steady course carried them right into a barrage of enemy torpedoes. Two struck Wright’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Minneapolis; New Orleans, Pensacola, and Northampton were also hit. The Navy failed to recognize the true capabilities of the Long Lance until late 1943, far too late for the Guadalcanal campaign.