Saturday November 15, 2014
A full century after World War I we still cannot understand how generals sent so many soldiers to be slaughtered. Ten million soldiers died on all sides; millions more were left maimed or shell shocked. Seven million civilians died. 20 million horses died.
The image we have of hapless soldiers being forced to climb out of their sodden trenches and attack across a hellish no-man’s land pock-marked by water-filled shell holes, deep mud, thickets of barbed wire and rotten bodies is quite accurate for the Western Front. Waiting for them were quick-firing guns, heavy artillery, the greatest killer or all – machine guns – and, later, poison or burning gases, and flamethrowers.
How could the generals of that era have been stupid enough to send waves and waves of their soldiers to almost certain death? Trench warfare in the West quickly became siege warfare in which decisive victories became almost impossible.
Only in the East did the brilliant German generals Hindenburg and Max Hoffman achieve a war of movement in which they destroyed two Russian armies attacking East Prussia. Their triumphant battles at Tannenburg and Masurian Lakes were partly based on Hannibal’s battlefield tactics at Cannae in 216 BC.