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German Assault Troops of the First World War the First Stormtroopers
By Stephen Bull
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Stephen Bull
All rights reserved.
The Problem of Attack
The European powers may have had very different reasons for going to war in 1914, and many varied objectives, but when it came to their detailed expectations of battle and tactics these were surprisingly similar: the war would be short, and it would be won by the side which attacked most determinedly and persistently. The majority opinion in Germany was definitely that any war would be over quickly. After all, there were plenty of examples of wars since 1860 involving Germany, or German states, which had been very brief. The conclusion of these wars had usually been to the German advantage, and over the years, particularly under the guidance of the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck, war had been widely accepted as an instrument of policy.
The War of the Danish Duchies in 1864 lasted less than six months, and led to the occupation of Schleswig. Famously, the war in 1866 had been a 'seven weeks war'. It ended in Austria's total defeat, and the reining in of Hanover and other hitherto independent states in northern Germany, effectively adding five million people to the Prussian lands in the North German Confederation. The Franco-Prussian War was declared on 19 July 1870, and ended six months later with French capitulation. Paris had been besieged and Alsace and Lorraine seized for Prussia. At the same time the remaining independent states (most importantly Bavaria, Baden and Wurttemberg), were finally influenced to make King Wilhelm of Prussia, Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany. The Second Empire was declared at Versailles on 1 January 1871. The widespread conclusion for many patriotic Germans was that wars were usually quick, and in the longer term a good thing, despite short-term sacrifice. Strangely, and despite his posturing and love of military uniforms and manoeuvres, Wilhelm II, who ascended the throne in 1888, would face stinging criticism declaring him a 'Peace Kaiser'.
Whilst the general expectation was of a short war, there were voices – surprisingly little heeded at the time – that suggested that any major European struggle between wealthy, heavily populated, and industrialised nations was likely to be both bloody and protracted. Some General Staff planners raised doubts: perhaps the war would not be won in a single campaign, or perhaps the artillery would be insufficient to deal with French and Belgian forts. There were also influential individuals who held contrary views. Amongst these were at least two who were extremely well placed to take an informed position: in Britain, Lord Kitchener, who immediately saw the war as a matter of 'years', rather than months; and in Germany, Helmuth von Moltke the younger, who was more pessimistic in private than his public face would suggest. In 1905, before he came to the pinnacle of his career as Chief of the General Staff, the brooding Moltke had even offered the surprising opinion that a general European war might be a war 'of murder'. Rather than agreeing with many of his contemporaries who prophesied that any conflict would be over in a year, he foresaw a 'people's war' which would turn into a 'long, difficult, painful struggle'. If anything, however, this percipience made him bend his efforts all the more towards finding a way to end the titanic struggle quickly. His calculation that reforms in both France and Russia would improve their military efficiency only added greater urgency to the need for a swift war – one that would be started soon. So it was that after 1906 Schlieffen's now infamous plan was not jettisoned, but modified, still with the major objective of finishing France as rapidly as possible.
There were even tacticians, albeit some of the more erudite theoretical school, who had begun to suggest the idea that weapons had advanced to the stage where present offensive tactics would be ineffective or unworkable. Though events would demonstrate that there was more than a grain of truth in this line of reasoning, none was to offer any definitive solution to the problem he had postulated. In such a vacuum it was scarcely surprising that relatively little investment was made in the development of radically new infantry tactics to meet situations which might, or might not, arise in the event of war. Nevertheless, there were certain practical matters which could be adjusted, and were considered at length long before 1914. Formations, for example, had been changed in the past, and history taught that judicial alterations could be efficacious.
Whether 'open' or 'closed' order formations were more suitable had been a debate which had been going on in the Prussian army even before Germany itself came into existence as a nation state. After the Bruderkrieg war of 1866 which pitted Prussia against Austria, there had been a move towards accepting that modern, rifled small arms had given a new advantage to the defence. There was therefore some questioning of the accepted adage that no war could be won without vigourous offensive action. It was, however, extremely hard to formulate new infantry tactics, not only against the background of an 'attack orthodoxy', but the very real problem that more dispersed formations meant more dispersed fire, and more difficult command. History seemed to suggest that although skirmishers could exact terrible casualties on formed bodies of troops, when it came to solid bodies closing on scattered skirmishers, the latter had no option but to retire, or be completely overwhelmed by the denser unit.
By the first battles of the Franco-Prussian war it had become usual to push more troops into the 'skirmish line' early in an action, but still this was regarded as a mere preliminary to the real fight. Only after August 1870 and the slaughterhouse of St Privat when the Prussian Guard lost 6,000 men in half an hour, was it finally determined that existing practice had to be seriously modified. So it was that many of the infantry actions in the later stages of the war relied on skirmish lines, rather than deeper formations, to carry the burden of the action. Moreover, full advantage was now taken of the fact that soldiers armed with breech loaders in general, and not just designated skirmishers, could fire from the prone position. Shooting when lying down offered the significant benefits that the shooter was a smaller target and more difficult to see. At the same time, having both elbows and the body on the ground offered a firm tripod to the rifle, and produced far more accurate fire than could be maintained by a soldier standing up, breathing hard, and with the muzzle of his gun wavering around as he picked out a target.
Infantry combat would never be quite the same again. As A.H. Atteridge remarked, writing in 1915:
After these terrible days the old close order was doomed. The skirmishing line became henceforth recognised as the firing line. Instead of merely clearing the way for lines and masses of troops to follow, it was gradually to work its way forward, fed from the rear by reinforcements to replace its losses. It was to be just dense enough to bring as many rifles as possible into action. It was to be supported by other lines in the same open order from which it could be fed with men and ammunition, and the decision would be produced by its beating down the fire of the opposing enemy, and as this return fire weakened the moment would come when the supports in rear could go forward with the firing line to clear the hostile position.
This new kind of fighting evolved itself at first without any precise orders or directions. Officers and men found they could only get forward by opening out, feeding the firing line, and working onwards from cover to cover. In the battles of earlier days it was only the skirmisher who could lie down behind a rock or bank under fire to take cover; for the officers and men of the main fighting line such an attitude would have been regarded as cowardly. But under the storm of bullets from new rifles, taking cover became a necessity. For the German Army of 1870 battle experiences gave very plain lessons, which however were only learned with much sacrifice of life. In the second stage of the war the Staff began to embody these lessons in provisional regulations and orders.
A good example of the latest practice was by described by Prince Kraft zu Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen, during an attack by two battalions of the Franz regiment at Le Bourget in October 1870:
The officer commanding this regiment had already practised the attack ... Accordingly he sent forward the whole of the leading line, which consisted of two companies, in thick swarms of skirmishers, and made them advance over the open ground in two parts (by wings) which alternately ran in 300 paces. After each rush the whole wing which made it, threw itself down, and found cover among the high potatoes: there they recovered their breath while the other wing rushed in. As soon as they arrived within range of the needle gun [a rifle whose cartridge was activated by a needle-type striker], the wing which was lying down opened a fire of skirmishers on that edge of the village which they were attacking. I can still remember, as I write, the delight which we felt as from our positions we watched this attack which had been so carefully thought out, and was so well carried through. The best thing was that, as the commander of the regiment assured me, these troops suffered no loss up to the time when they reached the edge of the village.
It was also clear that the balance of power between the various 'arms of service' was altering – indeed, had altered. Whilst at the start of the nineteenth century the cavalry had, often correctly, been identified as a battle-winning weapon, its performance in 1870 had been at best uncertain. Whilst cavalry could certainly get from one point to another more quickly than the infantry, this was essentially a tactical rather than a grand strategic advantage. Any army that wanted to go a long way in the European theatre would now undoubtedly do so by train or ship. Cavalry clearly maintained a significant niche, particularly as scouts and mounted infantry were able to spot the enemy and create flexible outposts and screens that covered other formations very effectively. Nevertheless, the old near-monopoly of the rider as order carrier was under threat. Messages could now be sent from town to town, if not from unit to unit, by Samuel Morse's telegraph. Indeed, the Berlin Treaty of 1851 had long since produced a modified version of 'Morse Code', which (unlike the original American Morse) contained accented letters and other measures, making the transmission of European languages easier.
Yet it was in the actual clash of arms (what had been its old charging 'heavy' or 'battle' cavalry role) that the reputation of mounted troops was most in jeopardy. Horsemen could be stopped by bullets and shells very effectively, and when the men shooting at them were doing so from inaccessible cover, a cavalryman who remained on his steed was powerless to do anything about it except ride away as quickly as possible. The best practice for the most 'modern' cavalry was therefore to get off the horse when it ceased to be useful, and start using rifles – much to the chagrin of the traditionalists. That the sabre in particular was long past its best was ably demonstrated by the French Colonel T. Bonie. Examination of German medical corps statistics from the Franco-Prussian conflict showed that of 65,000 reported casualties on their lists, only six died and 212 were wounded by swords. This suggested that just one-third of one per cent of the damage on the battlefield was inflicted by the edged weapons of the cavalry, and those that were actually killed in this way were a vanishingly small proportion of the total.
Over the next few years the infantryman's firearm became ever more effective, and by the 1880s most powers had adopted a magazine rifle. Cavalry tended to follow suit with abbreviated versions of the longer infantry rifles. The German army, hitherto armed with a single-shot, 1871 model Mauser, moved on to an improved 1884 type during the later part of the decade. This had an eight-round tube magazine under the barrel. Nevertheless, it was soon surpassed in technical excellence by the French 1886 model Lebel, which used a more-powerful cartridge of smokeless powder. In a spurt of breakneck development, the Germans replied with the swift appearance of the Gewehr 88, an 1888 model which married many of the benefits of the recent Mauser and Mannlicher patterns, including the latest 'box' magazine. The last German rifle to be introduced before the outbreak of the First World War was arguably a design classic: the Gewehr 98 Mauser. This was highly accurate and provided with sights for shooting at anything up to 2,000 metres, though only the best shots could hope to score hits on anything but extremely large targets at such prodigious range. Long and elegant, the G98 had a five-round box magazine integral to the wooden furniture. From 1905 the G98 was brought fully up to date to use the latest 'S-Patrone', a cartridge with a pointed, streamlined bullet. Though the emphasis in training was on deliberate, carefully sighted fire, a novice could easily manage five or more aimed rounds in a minute and trained shooters, ten. Fitted with one of the several models of sword or knife bayonet, the rifle was also well calculated to give maximum reach in a bayonet fight.
It was also during the last decade of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth that the machine gun was finally and decisively embraced by the German military. The French Mitrailleuse had played a modest part in the Franco-Prussian War, but this was not a true 'machine' gun as it required hand cranking like the Gatling of old. It had also been deployed on carriages with large wheels, like a light artillery piece. Truly automatic weapons, which continued to fire as long as a trigger was depressed and ammunition was in the feed mechanism, dated from the invention of Hiram S. Maxim's famous gun in the early 1880s. Early examples reached Germany not long afterwards, but, initially at least, lacked a champion to push them forward, or a recognised tactical purpose. Trials at Spandau arsenal in 1888 fascinated observers, but led to no immediate orders.
In 1894, however, Prince Albert Edward, later to be King Edward VII, visited the arsenal in the company of the Kaiser for a further display. This time a Maxim gun was set up in competition with Gatling, Nordenfelt, and Gardner guns. As Maxim himself later explained:
Three hundred and thirty-three rounds were to be fired from each gun at a target at a range of two hundred metres. The old Gatling gun was worked by four men, and got through with the cartridges in little less than a minute. The same number of men fired the same number of rounds in the Gardner gun in little over a minute. The Nordenfelt was also fired and did just about the same. Then one man advanced, took his seat at the trail of the Maxim gun, touched a button and 333 cartridges went off in less than half a minute. They examined the targets and found that the hand worked guns had made bad targets because the guns themselves had participated in the action of the lever or crank. All the projectiles from the Maxim gun were in the bull's-eye and the whole centre of it had been shot away. The Emperor walked back, examined the gun, and, placing his finger on it, said: 'That is the gun – there is no other.'
With this Imperial endorsement some purchases of Maxim guns were now made, the Navy being one of the first customers. At first the Prussian War Ministry gave land service Maxims to the artillery to determine what their 'successful purpose' might be in battle. Probably correctly, the artillery branch failed to identify the weapon as suitable to its arm of service, and passed the new guns on to the Jäger (literally 'hunter' – but better translated as 'light infantry') battalions in 1898. Various manoeuvres and tests followed, provoking the initial conclusion that machine guns were best grouped in units of six, so that some guns of the group would keep firing even if one or more suffered mechanical malfunction in action. In 1899 Friedrich von Bernhardi, in his book Our Cavalry in the Next War, was one of several voices to speak up in favour of giving some machine weapons to the mounted regiments. For the time being therefore, the home of the machine gun would be with the Jäger, cavalry or fortress troops, depending on circumstance.
To some extent the rather uncertain footing of the machine gun in the German military was made more sure with the turn of the century, for by then there were a number of combat examples from other parts of the world which enthusiasts could point to as showing the utility of the new weapon. A 1901 model Maxim was adopted by the army, and, given home production of the gun, development and procurement were significantly eased. By 1904 there were sixteen army machine gun detachments. A new model of machine gun appeared in 1908, and it was this which would bear the main burden of service in World War I. It was now all too apparent that whatever had been achieved in the 1870s with single-shot weapons would, if anything, be far surpassed by the new generation of efficient 'repeating' and 'machine' firearms. Whilst there was continued worry that magazines and swift shooting would lead to profligate expenditure of ammunition, even bloodier battles were a near certainty.
Despite these inventions and realisations, the argument between solid and open battle formations was by no means resolved. Periodically, the subject would be revisited by the critics of dispersion, such as Jakob Meckel and Fritz Honig, with the result that the drill regulations of 1888 were no unequivocal endorsement of the skirmish line as a battle-winning technique. In 1900, following British defeats at the hands of Boer irregulars, the whole matter would be reopened again. Indeed so far did interest in 'Boer tactics' extend that in 1902 General von Moltke mounted an exercise at Doberitz outside Berlin to test similar methods. Later the 'Boer attack' was demonstrated at Tempelhof to the Kaiser, who, being a great enthusiast of many a novelty, endorsed the idea immediately. Nevertheless, it is arguable that in their German incarnation 'Boer tactics' were very much a watered-down version of what had happened on the veldt – they involved many more men in a far smaller space, used relatively little of what might now be called 'field craft', and were practised in the abstract rather than learned practically. Moreover, critics now raised the argument that firepower was being misunderstood. As one contributor to the Military Weekly put it: 'Isn't firepower cover of a sort?' Even the cavalry arm now enjoyed something of a resurgence.
Excerpted from Stosstrupptaktik by Stephen Bull. Copyright © 2014 Stephen Bull. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Problem of Attack,
2 Confronting Stasis,
3 Grenades, Flame and Gas: Tactics and Technology,
4 Development of Defence,
5 The 'Stormtroop' idea,
6 Machine Gun Tactics,
7 Close Combat and the Tank,
8 1918: Birth of a Legend,