Reading through the accounts of the Somme, Verdun, French generals insisting on parade ground blue uniforms, Nivelle's troops rebelling, the Isonzo battles, I often have the impression that the top generals were wasteful of their men, incompetent and generally unable to do anything right. The opposite of Sun Tzu's "defeat your enemy without fighting" axioms, really.
But, is that really fair? Even if the Ludendorff offensives in 1918 generally seemed like they achieved a lot, and came up just short, was that not partially because both sides were so punch drunk by that time?
Yes, there was a tremendous amount of incompetent fools running the show, but was anything else than a bloody grind going to happen, once the front settled in late 1914 and switched to static warfare?
A big part of that was that defense was momentarily way above offense with the machine gun + trench + barbed wire combination.
But, beyond the tactical defensive advantages, what would any tactical breakthrough really achieve in any case? Once you smashed through a gap you created in the enemy trenches, how could you exploit it and derive strategic advantage? The enemy had reserves and could move them in quickly by train, while the attacker would have had to move troops and supplies through a chewed no-man's land. And their troops, would have been unable to move quicker than walking speed, except for cavalry which doesn't do well against modern weapons. Western front was also too narrow - unlike the Civil War - to just pivot elsewhere.
Adding trains/trucks to MG+trench+barbed wire was what really caused the stalemate.
Sometimes you do read things about penetrating 5-10 km, which must have been a considerable achievement, but I've never really gotten a feel for what the next step would have been at that point. The enemy would just destroy any train tracks and keep a massive edge in logistics.
If you did push through enough troops, but through a narrow front and with limited mobility, seems you were putting yourself at a massive risk of encirclement.
The real killer now seems to me to have been the lack of exploitation potential, rather than only tactical leadership shortcomings. So lacking that, the war was fought by attrition. Better assault tactics, less waste of your troops would have helped, but it would just be copied by the enemy in time.
i.e. it's easy to look at any other period in history, esp WW2, and find WW1's leadership wanting.
But, on the land component of it at least, what could possibly have been done much better until the advent of tanks in 1918?
This is mostly a Western Front question - better Russian leadership would have made the 2 front war untenable for Germany - as per Schlieffen's original calculation.