Defensive Tactics


There are four recognised phases of war. The 'advance to contact', 'the attack' , 'the defence' and 'the withdrawal'. this provides a useful model for examining the developments in the tactics of the Great War

Defence can be conducted on two bases. Firstly the intention can be to hold ground i.e. the aim is to continue to occupy a certain geographical location. The second is to  destroy the enemy over a certain piece of ground through   fire and manoeuvre within an area, this is often called mobile defence.

In the Great War defensive tactics started out as linear ground holding tactics. This was because the main weapon of the infantry was the rifle and it was thought that a straight trench offered the best opportunity to use  the firepower of that weapon and it was envisaged that the killing ground would be in front of the trench .Experience showed that given the scale and firepower of the attacks it was very likely that heavy casualties would be incurred in the front line and that some level of penetration would be achieved. In consequence the concept of defence in depth  or elastic defence in which limited penetration of a defensive area was permitted and the defenders within that are were permitted to move around  during the defence and counter attacks could be mounted to re- take area lost to the enemy became the norm.

Defensive tactics also evolved in the light of the attacking tactics of the participants new attack methods being met by new methods of defence. and vice versa.

Initially the armies had expected to manoeuvre and tactics for defence had been considered as either temporary expedients whilst waiting to resume the attack, or as full blown siege based on fortresses or towns like the defensive systems around Liege, Verdun, or Pryzemsyl. Such full scale siege action had been fought quite recently around Port Arthur during the Russo Japanese war where they had been seen by European observers, and it was recognised as a very costly option. But despite this most armies seemed surprised by the effects of fire when they encountered it during the encounter battle.

Armies on the Western Front seem to have blundered into each other in equal force and then the troops dug to protect themselves into temporary pits to prevent casualties and when the line became continuous and   there was no further  way to manoeuvre, they were forced to fight a frontal battle intended to penetrate the enemy's line.

It then became apparent that contemporary technology favoured the defence. Commanders knew more or less where their troops were .They could lay line communications support them with railways to carry reserves and  supplies, and command the massive amounts of artillery .

The first defences were fortresses which were besieged by large formations according to plans laid before the war. or roadblocks followed by small trench systems for riflemen. The latter were then linked with the artillery. which could fire defensive fires just in front of them in the event of an attack or around them . This could keep the enemy out of the trench system or  cut them off from  further reinforcement from their own side. These linear defence systems were then elaborated into multiple lines and supported by larger pieces artillery tasked with such jobs as the destruction of enemy artillery as well as supporting their infantry. Reinforcements could be delivered to any point behind these line within forty eight hours meaning that the problem of attack was now complicated by a time factor Penetration and break out had to be accomplished within forty eight hour time frame. In addition the systems became deeper meaning that in order to use artillery effectively on them an attacker would have to move his guns forward during the course of the battle because they did not have enough range to cover the whole depth of the system.

Attack methods concentrated on the break in-with increasing amounts of fire as the major support, and the aim became to literally blast a hole large enough for the attackers to fight their way through the lines . This process was unsuccessful for two major reasons, armies had not provided enough ammunition and this led to a shell crisis in all of the countries involved in the war and this led to the destruction of the reserves of trained man power, making training and command much more difficult. The German Army then realised that keeping men in large numbers in the front line with orders to hold ground was very costly and started to develop the idea of a lightly manned front line providing early warning the flexibility of moving around within the defensive area to avoid very heavy fire and the need to keep forces back at every level to counter attack when the enemy broke through.

The next step was attrition If the attack was too costly then a battle in which the aim was to draw in and destroy the enemy's manpower rather than attempting to break in and out of their trench systems would be more effective. this could use artillery fire as the major component. Battles like Verdun showed how effective this could be. But attrition was also very costly and manpower reserves showed signs of drying up . Gradually new weapons were evolved and the idea of defence in depth rather than a linear defence became accepted on all sides. Cooperation between different arms became the norm with aircraft ,wire, artillery, machine guns being tied into defensive schemes .



 The development of German Defensive Doctrine on the Western front occurred rapidly after their initial offensive operations were halted in 1914. Thereafter with few exceptions they held onto the defence and allowed the Allies to attack because of their political necessity to regain lost ground. The only exceptions were local attacks and the great offensives at Verdun in 1916 and the Michael offensives of 1918.By contrast on the Eastern front where the forces arrayed against them were less effective and the distances greater the Germans were able to engage in offensive operations. This led to some remarkable developments in coordination characterized by the famous offensive at Riga, which led to the technique being used on the Western Front.

From: Samuels Command or Control? Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German armies 1888-1918 Frank Cass London 1995 Chapter 6







1914 Manoeuvre leading to stalemate because of equivalent firepower and the need to dig in to neutralise it. Lack of understanding of the problems involved




1915/1916 Siege warfare in which increasingly firepower is concentrated in order to blast a hole in order to resume the manoeuvre battle. Mathematically a ratio is developed where this can succeed but it has other deleterious effects. The artillery starts to develop new techniques and introduce new equipments and ammunition types




1916/17 Attrition where firepower is used to kill the enemy in situ and the artillery works out a massive system logistical and training system to support itself and makes many technical and structural innovations. Artillery is used to cause mass destruction




1917- 1918 Return to the idea of combined fire and manoeuvre which does succeed in breaking the stalemate and achieving a return to manoeuvre on the battlefield. Neutralization is used to produce precise effects preventing the enemy form developing the opportunity to interfere with your own operations.














Based on firepower of rifles  forward line manned

Artillery about 600 m behind

Reserve concealed to rear Sectors under won commanders and own reserve Intention to fight aggressively



Linear but further developed

As above but also importance of infantry fire  to be integrated with artillery Guns 600 metres behind infantry On defensive location although forward positions to force deployment could be used  Not a continuous line bur battalion company sectors gaps covered by fire  Invisibility Maximum to be left for reserve  Counterattack once enemy in forward location aim to try to defeat attack in front of forward position



Single linear trench line  Wire obstacles adopted  battalion sectors linked to form continuous trench


Insufficient troops forced weakening of front line


Revisions at Neuve Chappelle

Trench line

Strong points

Support troops



Depth now 2,500 m Front single trench line held by half the companies  1000m behind line of concrete MG positions  which could cover the intervening ground  They were not linked by trenches  Artillery 1500m behind strong points a further 2500m was a further artillery position

Defence in depth. Half of troops in forward trenches,  supports about 2,500 m back ( outside artillery range) reserves further 3500m back The general reserve could deploy in 24 hours. Front trench 100m from British but everything else difficult to locate. Supports and reserves to be aggressive and hurl attackers back. Counter attack before British could consolidate

British easily got into Forward Zone but died on difficult to locate strong points. A mere 6 machine guns did for the lot

1915 after Neuve Chappelle

Trenches with strong points

Second trench therefore two lines of mg points

Previous scheme expanded A second continuous line of trenches was prepared with  strong machine gun posts constructed in front trench The two lines of machine gun posts were very effective, difficult to see and counter.


13 May 1915

Third army Scheme developed after French attacks in Champagne

Trench network

Network of trenches 2500m deep.  A fortified zone rather than lines of trenches  this permitted liberty of action  so best use could be made of ground. Camouflage Main Defensive Zone on reverse slope but the crest line had to be controlled.  Large number of positions to draw fire.  Counter attack before British could consolidate other wise carefully prepared counter attack with artillery, mortars, and rifle grenades.

Defensive area had three elements,

Line of forward positions  covering forward slope  trenches with good field of fire.  Listening Posts, Observation Posts, mortars and machine guns Secondly main defensive location on reverse slope Then a Second Zone  field with lengths of trenches to channel a breakthrough  and block it. Command Posts , Observation Posts and Heavy weapons here. All positions to have flanking works and double entrances.  Direct fire by heavy weapons was provided under infantry command. Basis of defence to be fire  by artillery and machine guns  in  both direct and indirect fire. Attacker to be separated from his own artillery support, fragmented channelled into killing zones and counter attacked  A complete second line was constructed  2000m behind the front line This was only implemented in certain areas due to cost


1915 Lossberg and Bauer

Change doctrine in light of experience

Lossberg argued for rigid front line but   recognized the need for depth positions, flanking machine guns to hold position and the infantry to counter thrust. Penetrations of First Position were to be expected but prevented if possible.  Essential principle of defence of positions August 1915. Many formations refused to put this into operation




Bauer Realised that holding the front position  meant  the massed troops in the front line were an excellent artillery target. Advocated a thinner forward garrison and more flexible defence. Penetration should be encouraged, once cut off by strong points in front position larger forces could carry out  counter thrusts. The enemy cut off and out of sight of supporting artillery would be easy to overcome with attacks by larger reserves. This was a very aggressive scheme. This was largely rejected on ground it placed too much responsibility on troops 


Sept 1915

Lossberg Chief of Staff Of Third Army

Claimed new system for his own, 8000 m deep Outpost Zone on crest Reverse slope first position several trench lines  these held rigidly but there were not very many.  Next zone 2500 m deep occupied by supports, direct fire heavy weapons,  field guns This was Rearwards Zone built on forward slope of next ridgeline giving clear observation over rear of Outpost Zone local reserves guns observation postss etc. 2500m back further 2nd Rearward  positions  again on reverse slope and providing cover for general reserves. Firepower of first position very high. Lots of guns and machine guns but reduced in manpower.The majority of defenders were  counter thrusters Lossberg changed his mind in the particular condition on the Champagne Front

Counter attacks now very important. First form was small counter thrusts  by squad  sized groups within First Position in immediate response  Second from  company and battalion groups  supported by heavy weapons and artillery. If no counter thrust possible full scale counter attack  planned over several days. Great importance laid on command and liaison  higher commanders and staffs to maintain contact with troops on ground

1915 Lossberg seen as an aberration rather than the way forward and the army maintained doctrine until the Somme

Return to ideas of February 1915

Falkenhayn ordered three full positions. Battle to be fought in first position only  and half troops were deployed here, most in second trench which had dug outs.  First trench largely held by flanking machineguns.  Maximum use to be made of depth of first position  with machine guns placed to rear but covering ground to front.  Infantry to counter thrust Penetration  front line on forward slope  discounted the importance of artillery there was  less need for strong reserves  and this nearly led to disaster at Thiepval. On appointment as Chief of Staff Second Army at the Somme Lossberg returned to his previous scheme



Lossberg on the Somme

First position lightly held, most troops held back for counter-thrusts  Intermediate line between first and second positions  used to block enemy penetrations  and protect reserves. Recognized importance of effects of artillery fire  but believed that it had to be accepted Invisibility meant it was difficult for artillery to find German locations  After bombardment the positions were reduced to shell holes and were difficult to locate if used as a defensive location. Lossberg objected on grounds that command was very difficult  therefore he stayed with continuous trench lines  but men tended to move forward into shell hole if an attack was imminent.  Counter-thrust was reemphasis  on the bold initiative of subordinate commanders  delivered from flanks by bombing parties  these were carried out in waves  thus continuous forward pressure was maintained and the  enemy became progressively exhausted. Artillery fire would be laid down behind enemy troops leading to them being cut off  from reinforcement  if they had consolidated counter attacks had to be made  either with  or without artillery support  these were often led by elite �sturmtruppen�, and machine guns were  very important Command was decentralised with more responsibility being left to men on the ground This was vital due to the time it took to make messages reach their addressees Special command developed where front battalion commander  controlled his whole regiment all admin duties were taken over by the rearwards regimental commander this led to command being reduced from 5 to 2 levels pp176-77 Higher commander tried not to demand too many reports but had special liaison officers This sort of technique led to huge demands on the soldiers

Cost was very heavy over 450 000 on the Somme alone although it did stop the British army

August 1916

Elastic defence in depth

August 1916 Falkenhayn forced to resign and opportunity for change occurred He was replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Bauer and Ludendorff got on and Bauer had helped to get rid of Moltke in 1914.

Ludendorff argued current tactics were too costly German troops were no longer merely to hold ground. The dugouts in front line were to be filled in and posts given up if they were not worth holding  Defence had to be more flexible and this meant more emphasis on the counter thrust. 


1 Dec 1916

The Conduct of the defensive battle

Distribution in depth adoption of loose formation rather than linear formations  leading to an active defence. The infantryman could move in any direction provided he counterthrust.  The tactical unit became the squad of 8 men. NCOs became very important

The aim is to make the attacker fight to a standstill   and use up his men. The defence relies not on men but on armament, artillery, trench mortars, machine guns. Ground can be abandoned ground must be favourable whilst attackers are left on unfavourable ground. Distribution in depth forms the basis of all preparations. Initiative is very important

Three zones. Forward a zone lightly held- protected against surprise 400-100m deep. Held by a half company on regimental front.

Then the battle zone independent of forward zone sole criterion suitability for defence. They could coincide but normally behind1500-2500m deep  Held by two battalion of each regiment. Rearward combat zone at least 3000 m behind battle zone held bya  reserve battalion of regiment.

Frontages were wide. Division 2500-3250m each regiment 1000m. 1 soldier per 50m square

Each zone had trenches irregularly placed 150- 400m apart,  numerous strong points and rallying points  linked by further trenches  and diagonal switch line were to be dug to surround the enemy in front and flank by fire trenches and obstacles well hidden machine guns and trench mortars. Front garrisons could move within limits  avoiding areas of intense artillery fire trying to advance where possible. Everything to be difficult to see and reverse slopes where possible. Initiative from commanders in the counter thrust was required. If necessary there could be counter attackers by the general reserve.  Counterthrusts led by assault troops with lots of fire support cooperation of all arms. Divisional Commander in charge and continuity through Corps HQ. Particular importance placed on training NCOs, machine gunners, signallers, engineers and gunners schooled from divisional commanders and staffs. 




Division slow to adopt new technique and this showed at Arras and Verdun 15 December 1916 Germans remained in dugouts too long and reserve battalions and �Eingrief� division were too far away to respond quickly. On 25 December at Arras the same happened. Front areas were lost but there was not a great deal of counter thrusting


11 April 1917

Lossberg and Sixth army

Moser applies Ludendorff's doctrine at Bullecourt and is successful. Lossberg make personal reconnaissance and accepts Ludendorff's ideas He now used aspects of both. On river Scarpe he built a reverse slope battlefield 12 miles long  this followed the ideas he used in Champagne and separated attackers from artillery barrage out of sight of their own observers. In areas overlooked by British position at Vimy he used Ludendorff�s ideas as light battle zones to compel British to deploy. Germans withdrew When British were out of range of their artillery the Germans would counter thrust. Mingling with British to avoid artillery fire

In exposed sectors the effect of rigidly held strong points now achieved by fire alone. Artillery would fire on enemy trenches as soon as an attack began and �no mans land�  then heavy mobile machine guns in the battle zones. Fifteen gun sharpshooter units were used in Battle Zone to act as a rallying line and provide fire support for �Eingrief� divisions. deployment in depth to make an attackers flanks vulnerable Large scale counterthrust buy �Eingrief� division In practice both systems worked


June 1917

OHL issues further pamphlet which incorporates the lessons of April and May.

Decentralisation of command now accepted by Lossberg along lines put    forward by Bauer. Initiative of lower commanders stressed in counter thrust. On 8 June 1917 Lossberg prepares Messines battlefield.

Basis of defence counterthrust from behind the position using the Eingrief divisions. The �hastati� denoted forward garrison which faced initial attack. Second division the �principes� consisted of one regiment from each Eingrief division held ready to launch and immediate counter thrust ( also known as (Fredericus Rex) the �triarii� made up of remainder of Eingrief division held well back under cover to keep troops fresh. If �principes�  were needed to support the battle the �triarrii� would immediately replace them a constant flow of force ready for counterthrust was kept moving forward. All thrusts were to be planned carefully- the immediate counter thrust against weakened and disorganized attackers was emphasised. As soon as the emergency was over the original organisation to be restored to stop over dense front lines.  Attackers not to be drawn into depths of position  but repulsed by front garrison if possible but Lossberg thought British artillery so strong they  would generally  get in. The forward troops had to fight to the death  but do so aggressively using assault squad tactics within their area. Ludendorff and Lossberg were coming together On  31 July British attack on Paschendaele disordered by forward defenders and thrown out by counterthrust nonetheless the cost was high.

On16 August the British tried again but this time they used bite and hold The Eingrief divisions only arrived after they had dug in and they were repulsed This  also enable the British to wear down German reserves and the knowledge that the forward garrison would always be destroyed had morale implications. The Germans continued to argue for the basic validity of their methods but started to talk about limited attacks They reverted to rigid front defence followed by Eingrief attacks. These proved a total failure as artillery crushed them easily these methods were immediately abandoned 


4 October 1917


Own artillery did not damage the British far enough as they were assembling and in the assault. The Forward Zone was now to become vital it was 500-1000m deep.  Instead of just blocking enemy patrolling they would fall back 500m in the event of a major attack to line of resistance of forward zone thus making no mans land wider. This helped to negate the British barrage most of which now fell into empty space. This worked against  British infantry by turning over the ground and giving  more space in which German artillery could engage the British which meant more disruption. The rest of the defence followed the June pattern but the counter thrust forces had to become stronger and stronger. The front commander also got control of the Eingrief division. This system was adopted across the whole Western Front.


The evolution of German defensive tactics was very important. Partly it was the response of the army to British, French and Russian methods of attack but it also in turn affected the viability of  attacking tactics in those armies. As the British High Command worked on developing and training the New Armies  the situation was constantly changing. Methods of attack which worked in one situation could be outdated by the next time they were used. This made it very difficult to  learn lessons quickly and given the inexperience of the majority of the soldiers involved and the heavy casualties at each stage meant that it would take even longer to find methods to overcome the German trench lines and achieve the breakthrough that was needed to re-establish movement. In the event it was the effect of the attrition on  the German Army which meant that by 1918 it was weakened sufficiently to allow the British to drive them back from their positions and cause the army to start to disintegrate.




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