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.

  • 3
    Technically, bad leadership was what caused Europe's great powers to go to war in the first place. Everything else is a consequence of that decision.
    – SPavel
    Feb 9, 2018 at 17:32
  • 7
    Most sources I've seen blame the relative power of defensive weapons for the body count. I haven't seen any that blame individuals (and really, if all your military leaders are incompetent, don't you actually have a systemic problem?)
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 9, 2018 at 18:57
  • You're listing the reason why blitzkrieg tactics were needed. Most sources I see quickly blame the trench warfare tactics (remember this was also the age of chemical gas attacks) well before stating bad leadership. Not quite sure if this is a question or a commentary
    – Twelfth
    Feb 9, 2018 at 19:21
  • 1
    This question has multiple close votes; I recommend that you cite all nontrivial assertions - for example, the assertion that bad leadership is the perceived cause of the casualty count.
    – MCW
    Feb 9, 2018 at 22:29
  • 1
    @T.E.D.: But isn't incompetence to order your troops to attack a strongly defended position, when even if the position is taken, nothing significant will be gained? Surely the competent leader would just stay behind those strong defenses, and let the enemy chew themselves up in the meat grinder?
    – jamesqf
    Feb 10, 2018 at 4:13

4 Answers 4


Much of the World War One slaughter was more due to a lack of imagination, coupled with a distrust (in European armies) for non-comissioned men.

Read a good book on the Vimy Ridge assault by the Canadian Corps, under Arthur Currie. Two fundamental changes were made in preparation.


Rather than issuing the timetable to every commissioned officer in the Canadian Corps, Currie had the timetables and objectives printed and issued to every rank down to lance corporal. This ensured that units could continue on the proper schedule even in the event of suffering casualties to all officers. This was important because the intent of the walking barrage was so that assaulting troops would be in the German trenches less than 60 seconds, ideally 30 seconds, after the barrage lifted.

Individual gun calibration

As guns fire a long barrage the barrels heat up, and their range drops due to the increased windage. Before Vimy, generals on both sides calibrated guns by their age, on the premise that anything more precise was pointless. This led to barrages walking backwards, generating friendly fire casualties and preventing assaulting troops from getting in to the enemy trenches soon enough after the barrage lifted.

In the 4 months preceding Vimy, Currie had every single gun individually calibrated, every 5 shells. During the attack itself, this allowed the Canadian troops to stay within 50 yards of the barrage, easily getting into most of the German trenches within 60 or even 30 seconds.

The result was a successful capture of Vimy Ridge with only 1/4 of the casualties sustained during the unsuccessful French attempt.


Hindsight is cheap, and often misleading.

  • Officers liked to believe in dash, elan, and maneuver warfare in general. It gave them the hope that by being better, braver, more daring than the enemy they could make a difference. Read The Charge of the Light Brigade.
  • Generals liked to believe in strategy, maneuver, and the short victorious war. It allowed them to promise an affordable victory to their kings and presidents.
  • And maneuver warfare and a short war might have been possible. If a French corps had marched faster here, if a German advance had taken a fortress there by coup-de-main, if a pair of Russian armies had been better coordinated and better supplied, it might all have ended before the stalemate began. The answers to those "terrible ifs" don't quite belong on History.SE, realizing that the questions exist does.

If any of those "ifs" had happened, if the Russians had taken much of East Prussia, if the Germans had raced through Belgium to find the French slightly more off balance, it might have become another 1870/71.

  • 1
    I am well aware of all you say and I agree with it. But, the front did bog down after an early war of maneuvers. Otherwise it wouldn't have become what we know as WW1. Knowing what we know now, but with the technology of those days, could better generals, on either side, have broken the trench stalemate in 1915-1917, once it got started? What could they have done differently? That's the core of my question. Feb 9, 2018 at 19:50
  • The Allies were faster than the Germans to adopt the tank. Germany was faster adopt the Sturmtruppen, I think. Especially the latter might have come to the mind of a clever general in 1915, if that general could have overcome institutional inertia.
    – o.m.
    Feb 9, 2018 at 19:54
  • Don't forget cran!
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 9, 2018 at 20:43
  • Seems to me that OP & this A conflate W+E fronts. It is not primarily but entirely about W. At least from the Germans' view E was proof that mobile warfare was entirely possible at the time with the tech available. In any case W+E fronts were completely different stories. Ludendorff was in W when it was mobile, went East when it was mobile, was made PrimEvil of OHL just to get it all mobile again, partly succeeding. German goal was throughout to make another Cannae, Sedan, Tannenberg possible. Politicians might have wanted Paris, Generals wanted annihilation. km would then follow. Feb 9, 2018 at 22:47
  • @o.m.: Try reading Rommel's Infantry Attacks - his company was using infiltration tactics in August 1914.. The Germans began developing StossTruppen in March 1915, based on the success of numerous small unit commanders such as Rommel - but it takes three years to retrain an army of 5,000,000 million men. Feb 9, 2018 at 22:56

In addition to o.m.'s answer, it is worth commenting that it was not as if commanders refused to try new solutions to avoid the horrifying loses and break the stalemate:

  • Use of artillery was progressively increased to provide more and more cover.

  • When it was discovered than an excessive use of artillery helped the defenders by providing advance warning, creeping barrages were developed.

  • Gas and flamethrowers, tanks and stormtroopers were devised and used.

And, when introduced, those solution did work! But usually they were used first in small, test attacks1, which gave the enemy enough time to recognize the threat and adapt their defenses.

Add to this the natural tendency towards confirmation bias (or simply optimism). The front was not totally static, small advances were made, and confirmation bias made commanders believe:

  • that their operations were more successful than they really were, by overestimating enemy casualties,

  • that, because of the above, just "another push" would definitely "break the enemy" for good,

  • that anything positive from those operations was the confirmation of their good leadership/improved strategy2, while anything negative was due to other factors: "thanks to the barrage of artillery that I designed we advanced a kilometer, but we were stalled short of breaking through because the men could not move fast enough"(disregarding -or even not having been told- that the men could not move fast enough because the barrage had made the terrain impracticable, and that despite the artillery there was still enemy resistence slowing the advance).

And yes, you could qualify those points as "bad leadership", but it is not as simple as "they simply did not care".

1And of course, we know now what worked and how it had to be used to be effective, but at the moment sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to a big offensive on the basis of new, untested tactics and equipment was the kind of risky behavior that could lead to a massive amount of casualties.

2The generals wanted to have a solution to the stalemate/massive casualties; when they thought they had found one they were reluctant to leave it because it would leave them with no alternative to the slaughter...

  • 2
    I take your comment "we know now what worked", but how many times must you beat your head against a wall before your can be criticized for not trying something else? The armies of WWII nearly always learned and learned quickly from their failures, whereas the WWI approach seemed to be "Well, that didn't work. Let's try it again!". (I suppose an argument could be made that WWI was "normal" and WWII armies avoided the old normal because it had such a horrible example to point to.)
    – Mark Olson
    Feb 28, 2020 at 15:39

Not until the time of the tank.

"Repeating" rifles of the late 1800s brought about the rise of trench warfare. (Ditto for other "repeating weapons such as machine guns and Gatling guns.) That's because a defender with such a weapon in a static position had the advantage over an attacker who had to run and fire at the same time. Trenches, and other fortifications such as barbed wire that protected defenders amplified these advantages. So for the first two years of the war, the British and French allies couldn't do much against the Germans in trenches, even with a 5-to 4- numerical advantage. At that time, they could not be accused bad leaderships.

The arrival of the tank in 1916 changed the picture. This was a weapon that could "collapse" a trench, nullifying the defenders' advantages. Initially, they were used as infantry support: The "Blitzkrieg" tactics of World War II were 20 years in the future. Nevertheless, a mass of several hundred tanks could be used to break a trench line manned by infantry, as was the case at the battle of Cambrai (1917).

After Cambrai, the Allies could be accused of "bad leadership" for not taking better advantage of the tanks that they had a virtual monopoly over. Ironically, it was the Germans that learned the lesson and who made "tanks" the focus of World War II land operations.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.