Lessons from the Great War

100 years ago to the day, a truce was called in the ‘War to end all Wars’. What most combatants had believed would be a short affair lasting a few months had taken four and a half years and cost millions of lives. Men from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and North and South America had fought and died, on land, at sea, and in the air. History teaches us several lessons from it.

Don’t antagonise those who may otherwise be neutral or even sympathetic to you

While still Chancellor of Greater Germany, Otto von Bismarck had warned Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II not to build up the Imperial German Navy too fast, as that would alarm the U.K. His warning was disregarded and the Kaiser later dismissed him. Sure enough, the U.K., concerned with the buildup and Germany’s general bellicosity, in 1904 negotiated the Entente Cordiale with France, her oldest enemy, and launched HMS Dreadnought, the World’s first modern battleship, in 1906.

As part of the Schlieffen Plan, the German Army invaded Belgium to attack France from its northern border. Belgium’s neutrality had been guaranteed by the United Kingdom, which felt compelled to declare war on Germany and the rest of the Central Powers. The UK decision to go to war was a very narrow one. Other nations, including Portugal, also declared war on Germany over its violation of Belgian neutrality.

In 1917, things were going badly for the Allied Powers. Russia had signed an armistice with Germany and Austria Hungary, exiting the War and ceding large parts of territory to the Central Powers. And then came the Zimmermann Telegram.

The Zimmermann Telegram was a secret diplomatic communication issued from the German Foreign Office in January 1917 that proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event that the United States entered World War I against Germany. The British successfully decoded it. Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Secretary responsible for the Telegram, admitted it was true. As a result of the Telegram, and of Germany reintroducing unrestricted submarine warfare and sinking US shipping, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917. This proved decisive in the War’s outcome.

Militaries must be under civilian control

In Germany before World War 1, the Military had equal authority to the civil branches and politicians. As we now know, this led to recklessness and overambition. Compounding this, Kaiser Friedrich-Wilhelm II, in overall charge of the Military, was an insecure and vainglorious man. Had the civilian parts of the German Government been in control, the part of the Schlieffen Plan that saw Belgium invaded would likely have been quashed. This would have seen the UK either enter the War much later, or not enter it at all.

Overconfidence leads to tragedy

With the exception of Austria-Hungary, all major combatants were certain that World War One would take just a few months and end in victory for their side. Every nation underestimated both the capacity and capabilities of the nations opposing them. They also were sure of the security of the codes they were using, even though they had cracked a lot of their opponents’ codes.

Pessimism and despair lead to failure

According to Geoffrey Regan’s book ‘Military Blunders’, in the late 19th Century after a string of defeats the Austro-Hungarian Military gave in to despair. This was the case for more than 40 years!

After Napoleon defeated the Prussian Army at the Battle of Jena–Auerstedt and occupied Prussia, officers including Blücher, von Clausewitz, Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, and von Boyen instituted reforms that modernised Prussia and turned the Prussian Military into the most formidable one in Europe. Had the Austro-Hungarian Military, instead of giving up, looked to identify and fix its problems, Russia may have sued for peace well before it did.

Thoroughly vet anyone shortlisted for key posts

Alfred Redl was an Austrian military officer who from 1907 headed the Evidenzbureau, the counter-intelligence wing of the Austro-Hungarian Army. He was also a double agent for the Russians. Why he did is uncertain, but it is suspected that the Russians discovered he was homosexual and blackmailed him. The extent of what Redl disclosed is not fully known, but it is believed to have contributed significantly to the defeat of Austria-Hungary and by extension the Central Powers. Many now consider him not just a traitor, but an arch-traitor. Paradoxically, it was techniques and technologies that Redl himself introduced that in 1913 exposed him.

Redl was well paid for his intelligence, and lived a lifestyle far beyond what his official salary could cover. This should have been a warning sign that something was amiss. Proper vetting may have revealed his treason before too much harm was done.

Secure all lines of communication

As mentioned above, many of the codes used by the belligerents in World War One were broken. In the case of the Zimmermann Telegram, the consequences changed history. Today, communication of strategic documents uses ultra secure channels and signals officers use techniques to prevent interception.

Regularly revise and update plans in response to changes in the situation

In addition to the problem mentioned above, the Schlieffen Plan was out of date when it was implemented. The Russians had introduced a railway system that cut their time needed to mobilise significantly. In addition, they had reformed their military. This meant that the central tenet of the Schlieffen Plan (fight a holding war in the East, knock out the French, then transfer most of the Army east to fight the Russians) was no longer valid. In France, the German advance outran its supplies and Joffre used the railways to move his forces behind the River Marne and the Paris fortified zone, faster than the Germans could pursue. He then defeated the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne. Revision of the plan based on the changed situation may have changed matters.

When planning, include several worst case scenarios

Many strategic plans of World War One failed to accurately calculate the response and capabilities of the other side. The best (worst?) example of this was the German Naval Plans.

The Plan assumed that any Royal Navy blockade would have to come close to the German coastline, making their ships easy targets for German Torpedo Boats and U-Boats. This was not the case. The Royal Navy had enough warships to conduct an extended blockade. It was able to interdict German shipping without ever entering German Coastal waters.

When Germany reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, it calculated that even if the USA declared war on Germany, it would not have enough merchantmen to keep the supply lines to France and the UK open. It forgot about German shipping. When the US declared war in April 1917, there were numerous German ships in US harbours. These were immediately seized and placed into service with the US. Because of this, the US had enough ships to keep supplies flowing to Britain and France.

Including Worst Case Scenarios is now best practise in military planning.

Properly assess new technologies

World War One saw the introduction or mass use of technologies that hadn’t been used in those ways before. Submarines, machine guns, poison gas, aeroplanes and tanks were a few of these new technologies.

On the 22nd September 1914, German submarine U-9 sank three armoured cruisers ((HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue, and HMS Cressy). Prior to that, submarines had largely been viewed as toys. At the outbreak of World War One, Germany had 48 submarines. Unrestricted submarine warfare warfare was used by Germany during several periods in the War. The U-19 Class, the first practical class of German submarines, had been introduced in 1912. Had the U-Boats been properly assessed and operational palns introduced for their use before World War One, they may have succeeded in cutting British supply lines.

The 15th September 1916 saw the first use of tanks in combat. Early tanks were unreliable, slow, unwieldy, and still quite vulnerable. They were nevertheless quite effective. Learning from experience, later designs improved reliability, protection and firepower. New tactics were introduced to take advantage of their attributes.

J. F. C. Fuller compiled Plan 1919. It would have used massed tank assaults to penetrate the German lines and advance into their rear area to destroy headquarters, supply bases and lines of communication, and render them unable to regroup or counterattack.

The Germans initially responded by focussing on anti tank weapons and largely ignored tanks. Eventually, they fielded their own design, the A7V. But by the time it entered service the War was almost over, and only 20 were produced, in contrast to literally thousands of British Tanks Marks 1 through 6. The Germans also made use of captured Allied tanks.

Use metrics and data, not guesswork

In 1917, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was First Sea Lord. He refused to institute convoys to protect merchant shipping, believing that since 5,000 ships entered and left British ports, such a system would be untenable.

Commander Reginald Henderson proved Jellicoe’s assumption wrong. There were fewer than 150 ocean going sailings a week. He also confirmed that escorted vessels suffered very few casualties compared to those without escorts. But when he presented his evidence to Jellicoe, he was ignored. Henderson eventually had to appeal to then British Prime Minister David Lloyd George to get a convoy system introduced, in the face of Jellicoe’s objections. Results were soon obvious. Sinkings of merchantmen declined rapidly. It is possible that the introduction of convoys tipped things back to the Allies and won the War.

Vindictiveness will come back to bite you

The Treaty of Versailles vindictively and unfairly held Germany responsible for World War One. The reparations levelled were horrific. One person who foresaw the consequences was Australian cartoonist William Henry Dyson. His famous cartoon “Peace and Future Cannon Fodder” warned that the cruelty of the Treaty would lead to another war. It proved prophetic. World war Two was in part triggered by the harshness of the Versailles Treaty. Had Hitler not been so incompetent, the whole World would have suffered.

100 years, or 36525 days, on, we have learnt.


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I am a Software Test Analyst. Shortly before I turned 21 I was officially diagnosed, although I had long suspected I was autistic. Welcome to my blog
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