During World War I, two equally-matched armies sat deadlocked on the Western Front, each ensconced in elaborate entrenchments. While night patrols and trench raids took place, they did not amount to much, and lobbing grenades at each other only went so far. Creative thinking was needed to end this bloody war of attrition.
Through the combined use of new weaponry and tactics, the stalemate was finally broken in 1918, beginning with the German Spring Offensive.
Frontal infantry assaults on heavily fortified trenches led to devastating losses and little ground gained. Shelling the trenches beforehand had proved ineffective (such as in the Battle of the Somme). The following new tactics were developed in hopes of ending the stalemate:
- Pre-battle training: Model trenches (see picture here) were designed to help soldiers visualize what they would be running into, so that they could avoid dangerous spots and target the weaker sections of an enemy’s trench system. Sharing this knowledge with a number of soldiers, rather than just the senior officers, meant the men would know what to do in the event their officers were shot down during battle. Junior officers were also given a larger role, as the armies realized that it was unrealistic to carry out a large orchestrated military maneuver from afar. Junior officers would need to think on the spot and show initiative.
- Artillery coverage: The new plan was to have the artillery suppress the strongest portions of the enemy entrenchments, while the infantry went around them to the weaker points. Artillery also used new intelligence-gathering techniques in order to find enemy guns and destroy them, so that they would not be in the way of the infantry.
- Pushing forward: The army was to constantly push into enemy territory without letting up, so that the enemy did not have time to reinforce their trenches and deploy their reserve troops.
- Combining forces: The main key to success was to combine artillery, infantry, and new weapons and to throw everything at the enemy at once.
So what happened when these tactics were put into action?
In March, 1918, the Germans launched a full-scale offensive in an attempt to end the war. Seeing that the war of attrition was tipping in the Allies’ favor with the United States entering the fight on their side (with fresh troops and supplies), the Germans knew they needed to launch an attack before the United States had a chance to become a formidably trained fighting force.
The plan was to attack the weakly defended Somme area, outflank British troops there and defeat the British army, thus causing the French to call for an armistice. The German army had developed specialized units known as “stormtroopers” to move through the weakened sections of enemy lines, disrupting artillery, enemy headquarters, and supply depots, and rapidly seizing enemy territory.
At first the Germans found success with this tactic, surprising the British troops, who suffered heavy casualties. However, the German army began to lose momentum as they were unable to keep the stormtroopers supplied. These delays gave the Allies enough time to regroup and slow the German advance. By April the German offensive was no longer a great danger to Allied forces.
During the Spring Offensive the Allies lost 255,000 men, numbers that could be replenished by American troops. The Germans lost 239,000 men, most of whom were the best soldiers Germany had to offer, the “stormtroopers” that had been sent in during their final big push to win the war. The lack of decisive victory lowered the remaining German troops’ morale.
Amiens and the last 100 days
In August the Allies launched a surprise offensive against the weakened German army. The “combined arms” approach was used for this successful attack, with the infantry advancing behind a curtain of artillery fire, and with the support of tanks, armored cars, cavalry, and close air support. The Allies almost broke through the German lines, but reinforcements were rushed in, preventing the Allies from moving farther.
However, the battle of Amiens had shaken the German army’s confidence, while bolstering the Allies’. Before Amiens, the Allied army saw the war stretching on for another two years at least, but the battle had proven just how weakened the German army was.
In the hundred days that followed, the Allied troops continued to forge ahead, pushing past German trenches using the same techniques (tanks, artillery, and air power). Outnumbered and outgunned, the German army was forced to retreat, and it was soon obvious that the war was drawing to its conclusion.