VIRILITY AND SLAUGHTER:
Battle Strategy of the First World War
By Richard Koenigsberg
In the First World War, 1914-1918, it is estimated that nine-million soldiers were killed, twenty-one million wounded, and nearly eight million taken prisoner or reported missing. Thus, of sixty-five million troops mobilized, nearly thirty-eight million, or fifty-eight percent were casualties. What was the meaning of this massive episode of civilizational destruction? Why were millions of young men killed or mutilated?
In this paper, I examine what happened during the First World War from the perspective of the central strategy that guided battle, that of the “offensive at all costs.” The belief that it was worthwhile to attack whenever possible derived from the idea that morale and discipline were the crucial factors determining success on the battlefield. A nation could achieve victory only if its troops had the courage and will to continue to attack in the face of heavy casualties.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR AS PERPETUAL SLAUGHTER
When I began my research on the First World War and encountered this episode of perpetual, futile slaughter, I assumed that historians were capable of accounting for what had occurred. My assumption was unfounded. Although historians report the events, they are unable to explain the magnitude of destruction and persistence of the slaughter. One of the best and most prominent historians of the First World War, Jay Winters, concludes his six-part video series in a tone of baffled bewilderment, summing up his reflections as follows: "The war solved no problems. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict."
As one studies the battles of the First World War and learns of the prodigious number of human beings killed in each of them, the mind boggles. What was going on? What kept the war going? Why did leaders persist in sending young men to die? Why didn’t Generals alter their battle strategy when it was evident that what they were doing did not work? Why did soldiers rarely rebel against their fate? Why did they continue to fight on even though death stared them in the face?
The First World War began when Germany attacked France through Belgium, expecting a quick victory that did not occur. The French counterattack also failed. Britain joined the war to honor its treaty obligation with Belgium. Soon there was stalemate. The combatants then built five hundred miles of zigzagging trenches in France and settled in on opposing lines, many less than one thousand yards from one another. Which side would give in first?
The high casualty rate during this war reflected the nature of the battle strategy. “Attack" occurred when massive numbers of troops along the front line, supported by artillery fire from thousands of guns, got out of trenches and ran into "no man's land," hoping to cut the barbed wire, assault enemy trenches and break through the opposing line. Attacks were nearly always unsuccessful. Here is Modris Eksteins' description of the fundamental pattern:
The victimized crowd of attackers in no man's land has become one of the supreme images of this war. Attackers moved forward usually without seeking cover and were mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a scythe, like so many blades of grass. "We were very surprised to see them walking," wrote a German machine gunner of his experience of a British attack at the Somme. "The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down in the hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them."
Ecksteins describes the results of the first year of fighting on the Western front, 1914:
German and French casualties had been staggering. The Germans lost a million men in the first five months. France, in the "battle of the frontiers" of August, lost over 300,000 men in two weeks. Total French losses by the end of December were comparable with the German, roughly 300,000 killed and 600,000 wounded or missing.
What did all of this killing and dying accomplish? Eksteins writes, "For over two years the belligerents on the Western Front hammered at each other in battles that cost millions of men their lives but moved the front line at most a mile or so in either direction."
THE DOCTRINE OF THE “OFFENSIVE AT ALL COSTS”
How may one account for such monumental destructiveness? How can one explain the fact that governments and military leaders persisted in employing a battle strategy that continually failed while costing millions of men their lives? We move toward understanding the slaughter by examining the battle-doctrine that guided the thinking of many British officers and military leaders of other European nations. This doctrine of the "offensive at all costs" grew out of the Russo-Japanese war, 1904-05, where the Japanese sent wave after wave of men against the Russian lines and machine-guns, eventually overwhelming them. Europeans were impressed by the "morale and discipline" of the Japanese soldiers, which allowed them to push forward relentlessly in the face of horrendous massacres.
Thus evolved a paradigm that fixed on the "psychological battlefield" as the key element of warfare, the real problem being whether troops had the courage and will to cross the fire swept zone, suffer heavy casualties in the attack and still keep going. The doctrine of the offensive was put forth as the antidote to modern firepower. Precisely because modern firepower made the offensive difficult, therefore offense must be heavily overemphasized. An offensive strategy was likely to be very costly in manpower in the face of modern weapons such as machine-guns; the doctrine of the offensive must take account of this and still remain offensive.
It even was sometimes suggested that offensive tactics must actually aim at heavy losses since this was the reliable and sure way of getting through enemy defenses. In the American movie about the First World War, Paths of Glory, the General justifies his ruthless tactic of requiring his soldiers to attack in the face of machine-guns by explaining that soldiers on the front line of the assault "absorb bullets and shrapnel and by doing so allow other men to get through."
Given a battle strategy guided by the philosophy of the offensive at all costs, British officers who did not encourage the offensive spirit often were removed. In 1918, General Sir Hubert Grough complained to his aide that his troops had "no blood lust" and his officers "no spirit of the offensive." He told his aide, "I want to shoot two officers." The aide said, "Beg your pardon, Sir, there are no officers under sentence." Grough looked at him as if to say, "You fool," and explained, "Yes, I know that, but I want to shoot two officers as an example to others." Two officers were shot.
The fear of removals gave General Headquarters considerable leverage. Faced with obviously hopeless attacks, commanding officers were reluctant to complain and felt compelled to attack regardless of circumstances. Attacks that failed with considerable casualties were given a sympathetic hearing, whereas attacks that failed with light casualties inevitably were condemned. If a Brigadier lost a position, he might be removed, not for losing the position, but for not losing enough men in trying to hold it. Haig castigated Division 49 for not holding Ancre in September 1916, complaining, "Total losses of this division are under a thousand!"
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME
In 1916, the British felt that they had found a commander-in-chief with the courage and resolve to sustain the heavy losses that would be necessary to break through the German line. General Douglas Haig believed that, given an adequate supply of arms and men, victory could be achieved quickly, though not without great loss of life. The specter of massive losses did not deter him. Haig said that what was needed for victory was patriots who "knew the importance of the cause for which we were fighting."
Whereas Germans, he said, had been “impregnated from youth up with an intensely patriotic feeling so that they willingly die for their country," British men could not do this unless well led. To Haig's annoyance, this simple fact seemed to have escaped the King who, during a visit to the front seemed inclined to think that our troops are “by nature brave.” The King, Haig said, is ignorant of “all the efforts which commanders must make to keep up the morale of their men and all the training necessary to enable a company to go forward as a unit in the face of almost certain death."
British strategy was set forth in a document written by General Montgomery dated April 11, 1916, asserting, "The assaulting troops must push forward at a steady pace in successive lines, each line adding fresh impetus to the preceding line." Although two or three lines of attack sometimes succeed, yet four or more lines usually succeeded. "War,” Lieutenant General Ian Hamilton declared, is the “triumph of one will over another weaker will.” According to the theory of the offensive at all costs, victory essentially was a question of morale, belonging to the side that could cross the fire-swept zone and persist in the attack in spite of heavy casualties. Such a determined assault would unnerve the enemy, delivering a decisive moral and physical blow.
In July 1916, British forces amassed along a thirty-mile front near the Somme River, hoping to achieve a breakthrough. Haig said that if you tried for a great, decisive victory, it would be necessary to get your men killed. An extraordinary artillery shelling preceded the attack. For several weeks, 100,000 shells a day were fired. It seemed impossible that the German soldiers could survive such a barrage. Hiding themselves deep within their trenches or bunkers, most of them, however, did survive. When the British attacked, German soldiers rushed to their machine-gun posts.
The July 1 attack on the Somme was a disaster, the worst day in British military history, 20,000 dead, 40,000 wounded. This result, however, is not unlike what occurred at the Battle of Loos. Pushing through to the German line on the second day of battle, British troops crossed the road. Their numerical superiority was considerable, but several dozen German machine guns faced them. The German regimental diary describes what happened:
Ten columns of extended line could clearly be discerned. Each advancing column was estimated at more than a thousand men, offering such a target as had never been seen before, or thought possible. Never had the machine gunners such straightforward work to do nor done it so effectively. They traversed to and fro along the enemy's ranks unceasingly. The men stood and fired triumphantly into the mass of men advancing across open grassland. As the entire field of fire was covered with the enemy's infantry, the effect was devastating and they could be seen falling literally in hundreds.
These were not atypical results of the British strategy of the "offensive at all costs." Was the Somme campaign called off after the first few disastrous days? On the contrary, it continued for five months, with horrible scenes like those described above occurring again and again. During the second week, the British were losing 10,000 men, an entire division, per day, and for the remainder of the battle the daily average was 2500 men.
“VIRILITY” AND THE BATTLE OF VERDUN
Another spectacle of mass-slaughter took place in 1916 at Verdun. German General von Falkenhayn—convinced that the French would defend the forts of Verdun to the last man—told Kaiser Wilhelm that whether the forts were captured or not, the French forces would "bleed to death," thus permitting Germany to emerge victorious. General von Falkenhayn’s statement—that he would compel the forces of France to bleed to death—is one of the most famous (or notorious) of the First World War, crystallizing the underlying assumption of this “war of attrition:” The losing side would be the one that ran out of men first. The war would end when one side or another had no more blood to give.
A French officer conceived of the Battle of Verdun as nothing less than a pure contest of French and German masculinity. "The two races,” he said, have “put all their youth into the furnace, to test which is the strongest and most virile." For their initial attack at Verdun, the Germans brought up 2.5 million shells, using for the purpose some 1,300 trains. By June, the artillery had grown to about 2,000 guns. It was calculated that in just over four months of battle a million shells had been pumped into this dedicated stretch of ground, an average of 100 shells per minute.
The French action to recapture the famous Fort Douaumont employed 711 guns on a front of just over 3 miles. A notice in the fort today informs us that 1,000 shells were used for every square meter of the battlefield. Verdun was captured by the Germans—then recaptured by the French—so nothing changed except that there were 650,000 more dead soldiers. When added to that of the Somme, this made a death toll in 1916 of almost a million men; an average of more than 6,600 men killed every day, more than 277 every hour, nearly five men a minute.
Imagine the pathetic plight of those who were on the battlefield at Verdun, confined within a narrow space that glowed like an oven for miles because of the constant artillery bombing. During battles, most soldiers barely knew what was going on, spending most of their time hiding from the incessant shelling and bombardment of rifles and machine-gun fire rather than actually fighting. A French Lieutenant described his situation: "Nearly all of our trench has caved in. In what remains, we have scraped our niches in the walls. We huddle up in them to get at least a bit of shelter from the explosions, but we are so tightly packed that our sore limbs can't move." He notes that before attacking his men were either "drunk, howling out patriotic airs, or weeping with emotion or despair." One had the temerity to remark within earshot of the company commander: "Baa, baa, I am the sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse."
We have observed that an officer conceived of the battle of Verdun as a test to determine which of the two races—French or German—was the most virile. We now can see that “virility” amounted to the capacity to endure endless slaughter. To be virile was equivalent to being willing to die when one’s nation asked one to do so. The soldier is represented as the embodiment of active masculinity. The actual stance of the soldier at the battle of Verdun, however, was one of abject passivity.
Soldiers during the First World War—those of every nation—were expected to obey their officers and to do their duty without shirking; to offer no resistance when they were ordered to put their bodies onto the battlefield to face mutilation and death. The “strength” of a soldier amounted to his willingness to submit to the leadership absolutely and resign entirely to his fate. To be virile, in short, was to offer oneself up as a sacrificial victim.
THE SACRED IDEAL
Wayne Dyer in his book War declares, "You offer yourself to be slain: This is the essence of being a soldier. By becoming soldiers, men agree to die when we tell them to." Joanna observes Bourke in Dismembering the Male that the most important point to be made about the male body during the Great War is that it was "intended to be mutilated." She notes, "There was no limit to the danger to which the male body could be subjected. Gunfire cut bodies in half." In war, men's bodies are turned over to the state and its leaders to be used as seen fit, mutilated or destroyed in the name of the sacred ideal.
What is the nature of the sacred ideal in the name of which bodies may be mutilated and destroyed? The sacred ideal that generates killing and dying is, of course, one's nation, for example, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, etc. These are the objects or entities that require and justify abject submission. In a lecture that formed an important part of their training, Colonel Shirley told British officers that the words that he was about to speak would be among the most “serious you will ever hear in all your lives. Now that you have entered upon the service of your Country, you must proceed to serve her with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” He consoles his officers by telling them that if they have done their best and yet must fall, they might take comfort in the thought that “you will have suffered for a cause greater and more noble than that for which any man has ever yet sacrificed his all."
Patriotic rhetoric resonated. One million volunteers joined the British army in the first year of the war. War Office recruiting stands were inundated with men persuaded of their duty to fight. On September 9, 1915, Basil Hart asked his parents not to wear mourning clothes in the event of his death. He wrote, "I do not wish you to regard my death as an occasion for grief, but of one for thanksgiving, for no man could desire a nobler end than to die for his country and the cause of civilization."
Eight months of battle did not alter these noble sentiments. On May 27, 1916, he appended the following words to his will: "Also I wish to say that while I feel it an honor to die for England, I feel it an even greater honor to die as an officer of the British Regular Army—many of the finest gentlemen whom God has sent into this world." Similar expressions of commitment and devotion were common among soldiers of all nations. Shortly before his death, Frenchman Robert Dubarle wrote of the "glorious privilege of sacrificing oneself, voluntarily. Let us try, without complaining too much to offer our sacrifice to our country and to place the love of fatherland above our own grief."
Willingness to go to battle and if necessary to die, then, was the way in which one demonstrated one's devotion to one's nation, the sacred ideal. To fight for one's nation—risking bodily mutilation and death—represented the pledge of allegiance in its most radical form. A reporter described his encounter with a Canadian soldier who had been wounded in battle, but survived:
As I looked into his face and saw the look of personal victory over physical pain, I gripped him by the hand and said, "My good man, when you go back to your home, you need not tell them that you love your country—just show them your scars."
In Great Britain, Bourke observes, soldiers' mutilations were spoken of in public rhetoric as badges of courage, hallmark of their glorious service, and proof of patriotism. The wounded or disabled soldier was "not less but more of a man." According to the London Times, "Next to the loss of life, the sacrifice of a limb is the greatest sacrifice a man can make for his country." The virtue of giving over a part of one’s body to one’s nation was expressed in a song entitled “England’s Broken Dolls” that was popular during the war:
A man and maiden met a month ago.
She said, "There's one thing I should like to know
Why aren't you in khaki or navy blue?
And fighting for your country like other men do?
The man looked up and slowly shook his head
Dear Madam, do you know what you have said.
For I gladly took my chance.
Now my right arm's out in France.
VIRILITY AND SLAUGHTER
I've provided several accounts of how British soldiers were torn apart by machine-gun fire as they attacked. In the following report, British General Rees describes the massacre of his own brigade as they moved toward German lines.
They advanced in line after line, dressed as if on parade and not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out. I saw the lines, which advanced in such admirable order melting away under fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never seen, indeed could never have imagined such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports from the very few survivors of this marvelous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes: that hardly a man of ours got to the German Front line.
It is evident that in spite of the total failure of the attack, General Rees regarded the destruction of his brigade in a positive light. He observes that not a man “shirked” in the face of the machine gun and rifle fire that wiped them out. He is proud that even though his troops were “melting away under fire,” the soldiers continued to advance “in admirable order.” In the face of the barrage of bullets, his men did not waver, break ranks, or attempt to come back. The General gushes that he had never seen such a magnificent display of “gallantry, discipline and determination.” Although his soldiers were slaughtered and “hardly a man of ours got to the German Front line,” he characterizes the advance as “marvelous.”
Or perhaps is it more accurate to say that the General believed the assault was marvelous precisely because British soldiers had been slaughtered. The General does not view the battle from the perspective of success or failure. His perception is shaped, rather, by his judgment of the morale and spirit demonstrated by his troops. It is the fact that his soldiers were being riddled with bullets—yet continued to advance—that leads him to conclude that the attack had been “marvelous.”
General Rees responded positively to the slaughter of his own men because he viewed their behavior as a testimonial to the depth of their devotion. By virtue of the fact that they did not shirk but continued to advance in the face of machine-gun fire, his troops showed that they were committed absolutely to the ideals of Great Britain, the British Empire and its leaders. Willingness to walk into machine-gun fire provided definitive proof that the soldiers loved their country.
Soldiers during the First World War were required to adopt a posture of absolute submission to their nation and its leaders—obedience unto death. Conscientious objectors in Britain during the First World War were disenfranchised. Some thought that soldiers who had not seen overseas service should have the right to vote taken away from them. In the First World War, the social consensus was that the body of the soldier belonged to the nation-state. The nation could use these bodies as it saw fit.
War requires that the soldier hand over his body to his country. In order to encourage men to do be willing to do this, the soldier’s role is represented in terms such as honor, masculinity and virility. In the First World War, however, being honorable, masculine and virile was equivalent to entering a situation where there was substantial probability that one would be slaughtered. One demonstrated one’s virility by getting out of a trench and walking into machine gun fire. Such is the strange paradox of war: That “goodness” or morality requires a posture of abject submission; that “love” requires self-destruction; that willingness to die becomes the highest form of virtue.
© 2004 Richard Koenigsberg. Designed by Orion Anderson.