Wartime 44 - A very different war
It took several years of changing technology and tactics to place the Western allies in a position to win the war. By Meleah Ward
Warfare on the Western Front was a very different matter in 1918 than it had been at the beginning of the war in 1914, or even at the battle of the Somme in 1916. Increased industrial production meant that by 1918 the British Empire armies on the Western Front had more armaments available than ever.
For example, in 1916 the infantry battalions had only begun to receive the Lewis light machine-gun; by 1918 each infantry platoon was likely to have two or possibly three. From the beginning this added firepower changed the tactical use of platoons. There were now more Vickers machine-guns too.
The artillery also benefited from enormous advances in technology, as well as from improved quality and increased production levels. The artillery of 1916 had normally laid down heavy barrages before an attack. But they needed several shots to accurately range their guns and their observers had to be able to see the targets. So while artillery could support infantry attacks with a creeping barrage, the element of surprise was lost.
This had completely changed in 1918. Gunners learned to calibrate the guns, test-firing and noting the characteristics of each one. This was done behind the battlefield. Factors such as barrel wear, weather conditions and wind speed were all now built into every firing calculation. Together, these gave allied artillery a degree of accuracy previously unheard of.
Furthermore, with artillery no longer needing to fire ranging shots before an action, commanders could build surprise into their offensive plans. It also became possible to neutralise the enemy’s artillery. Techniques such as flash spotting and sound ranging allowed the allies to locate enemy batteries before an action and then quickly engage them at the beginning of the attack.
Aerial photography improved mapmaking dramatically. While dogfights and dramatic chases along the trenches are the usual image of First World War aircraft, reconnaissance, observation and aerial photography were their most important tasks. Commanders also began to use aircraft more imaginatively in the war’s final year.
For example, when tanks and troops were moving into the front areas in preparation for an attack, aircraft with engines that sounded similar to those of tanks would fly above the trenches in normal patterns to mask the sound of the movement. Aircraft also dropped smoke bombs during attacks to screen advancing troops. They could even drop ammunition supplies to forward troops with some accuracy.
Tanks were a more visible change on the battlefield. This new invention had experienced a number of spectacular failures and some limited successes before 1918, with early models struggling to reach the front line without breaking down or becoming bogged. It was not until the battle of Cambrai late in 1917 that tank development had reached a stage where they could successfully be employed on a large scale in battle.
Tanks did not win the war but they did play a significant role in many important battles of 1918. They advanced with the infantry to destroy machine-gun posts and strong points as needed. Tanks were still susceptible to artillery and mortar fire, mines and mechanical breakdown, and frequently had little effect beyond the first day or two of a battle. But their contribution at the beginning of an attack was important, and they were being produced quickly enough that they became a standard feature on the allied side of the battlefield. The Germans did not use many tanks and those they did have were far inferior.
The Germans also improved their weaponry but remained focused on breaking through the allied lines and pushing a large force towards Paris. They succeeded in doing this in March 1918, and advanced for about 50 kilometres before being stopped just short of Amiens. However, the further the German troops advanced, the greater became their problems of supply and communication.
The allies, too, had spent years trying to create gaps in the German lines so that cavalry could then pour through. By 1918, however, they had come to realise that this was costly and impractical. Instead, they now sought to push the German line back across a broad front.
Army commanders developed the “leapfrogging manoeuvre”: one group would move forward to capture an objective, then another would move up to the captured position before advancing to the next objective. Eventually this tactic was used by larger units until entire divisions could leapfrog through each other to achieve successive objectives and consolidate positions.
The complexity of such tactics required a higher degree of skill by all participants. More responsibility and technical ability was required of junior officers and non-commissioned officers to understand and communicate their positions and to coordinate with other arms in the heat of battle. It required presence of mind to make communication a priority when under pressure. At the level of the ordinary soldier, training was vital.
The experiences of the previous years of the war had, on the whole, created a more professional approach towards battle, both on and off the field.
By 1918 commanders were able to take into account a wider range of weapons and more complex tactics when planning battles, and those in the field were able to apply their knowledge and professionalism to carry out those plans successfully. The allies had finally reached a position by which they were better placed to win the war.
Cite as: Ward, Meleah, “A very different war”, Wartime 44 (2008) 42–45
Text © the Author