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THE FRENCH AND GERMAN THEORIES OF WAR
BY GENERAL BARTHÉLEMY EDMOND PALAT1
IN France, after the period of prostration that followed the War of 1870, theories of strategy and tactics swiftly took a new direction. As the new army increased in strength, the former tendencies toward the defensive system began to disappear. Much profound study was given to the wars of the First Empire, and the secret of Napoleon's victories was sought in manœuvres alone. It came to be believed that the offensive was indispensable in every case. Doubtless there was merit in that doctrine. France owed to it, particularly, the resurrection of the military spirit which was destined to be one of the outstanding facts in the years preceding the present war. But it was accompanied by serious disadvantages. To all intent it presupposed a war of manœuvres, an 'open-air' war, in which evolutions would be easily carried out and of great extent that is to say, a war absolutely different from that which we have seen on the Franco-German front ever since the victory of the Marne.
Our staffs had not paid sufficient attention to the lessons of recent wars
perhaps because they were still hypnotized by the campaigns of the First Empire. The slavish acceptance of Napoleon's methods was no less
1 General Palat is the first French authority
on the Franco-Prussian War. Now retired for age, his judgment on military subjects is regarded by the profession with great respect. THE EDITORS.
mistaken than their scornful rejection had been in 1870-1871. If the leading principles of the art of war still are and will always be true, their application varies with the progress achieved in armies. Was it not the Master himself who said that tactics must inevitably change every ten years?
The South-African, Manchurian, and Balkan wars had demonstrated the major importance of fortifications and of heavy artillery. These indications. were still unperceived for the most part. It was considered that campaigns carried on under peculiar conditions could not afford information applicable in a great European war. Some very distinguished experts, General Langlois at their head, showed themselves hostile to heavy field artillery. He did not believe in the possibility of artillery dislodging an enemy with unimpaired morale from a strong position. He would combine with it the threat of infantry, that is to say, assault. He went so far as to write, in his Field Artillery in Connection with Other Arms, 'Heavy guns, in a field artillery of which mobility should be one of the leading characteristics, are a useless incumbrance, and the transportation of their heavy projectiles, especially on highways, introduces a serious complication. Let them remain in the siege trains. There should be but one kind of gun in our field artillery-our "seventy-fives" are adapted for all tasks in flat country.'
Another general officer, also belonging to the artillery aim, General Percin, expressed himself to almost the same
In 1911 an officer of the Staff, who was destined to fall gloriously at the Aisne in command of an army corps, Colonel de Grandmaison, delivered two courses of lectures which aroused widespread attention and which had a marked influence on the regulations then in preparation. Full of original views, expressed in a style no less original, these studies (published in 1912 under the title, The Idea of Safety and the Engagement of Large Units) give a very clear idea of the way in which the waging of war was then understood in France.
Grandmaison disclaims anything like the formulation of a general rule. 'It is even more true than in any other military matter, that in the management of large units there are none but special cases.' Having made this statement, he notes among the manœuvres contrary to rule the constant necessity 'of engaging at the outset on a wide front, instead of spreading out gradually as the progress of the battle seems to demand.'
This tendency toward the widening of fronts has many causes, among which these predominate-'the constant fear of being outflanked and the sense of the superiority of converging attacks in the present state of armaments.'
The fear of being outflanked seems to Grandmaison one of the characteristics of present-day fighting. The fact is that, in a defensive battle, the disaster of being outflanked may become irreparable more suddenly than under the old conditions. In the offensive the frontal battle is so long, so costly, and so uncertain in its results, that all methods of reducing its extent seem worth while. Grandmaison does not conceal the fact that these fears seem to him justified, and that he is in no wise opposed to the extension of
fronts: "The real danger - unless spe
cial dispositions have been made beforehand will not lie in extending the front too far, but in not extending it far enough.'
Thereafter, like Field-Marshal von Schlieffen, he extols the formation in several columns with wide intervals, which alone permits a rapid initial deployment on the corresponding front. He is led thus to turn his attention to the question of safety during the manœuvre, and concludes that in France the immediate rôle of covering detachments (advance-guard and flank-guard) has been exaggerated and, at the same time, perverted in the offensive.
We demand of this arrangement for immediate protection something that no system should or could give, namely, information which will enable the commander to decide upon his dispositions with confidence. On the other hand, we rely for the protection of our columns upon the external action of these covering detachments, whereas, especially in the offensive, such protection must in reality be looked for rather in the power to attack itself— that is to say, in the dispositions made for attacking quickly and in force.
On this point again, Grandmaison approaches the ideas of Von Schlieffen, and even of General von Bernhardi in other words, the doctrinaires who exerted a preponderant influence on the German army on the eve of the war.
From this conception of immediate security, as Grandmaison describes it, there results an almost complete atrophy of the principle of the offensive. The commander waits until he is definitely informed concerning the enemy's dispositions before deciding how to employ his main body. In this way he degrades the attack to the level of the defense, to which all initiative is forbidden. To avoid the preconceived idea, we foster the preconceived appre
hension, or the aggressive-defensive, and one serves as well as the other to ensure defeat. A commander would, in truth, incur a serious risk by applying these timid methods in face of 'a widely extended and violent assault, following its preordained path, without deviation and without evasion'— in other words, in face of the Germans. It is, Grandmaison continues, the rapidity in beginning the action which guarantees us against the enemy's manœuvres. 'In reality, the safety of a body of troops in an attack is based on this fact: a man whom you have by the throat, and who is busily engaged in parrying your blows, cannot attack you in flank and in rear. The value of the method depends on the speed with which you jump at his throat and the firmness of your grip.'
Under these conditions it is not surprising that Grandmaison recommends an offensive on the whole front: "The custom, which seems to be spreading, of employing different tactics on different sections of the front and of skillfully combining defensive and offensive, means the death of all true offensive.'
Instead of employing this timid method, well adapted to paralyze all enthusiasm, we should engage at once, on a front broadened beforehand extended almost as far as our effective strength will bear. In short, it should be a matter of the simultaneous engagement of several columns, carrying out, not a demonstration or anything like it, but an attack ‘in dead earnest with the bulk of the columns. Such simultaneous offensives on a wide front will not interfere with the formation of reserves, whose employment will be, in a certain measure, prearranged. They will most frequently be posted in rear of one or both wings, and will sometimes extend beyond them. On this point again Grandmaison's ideas approximate to Schlieffen's.
The colonel does not fail to notice this similarity. He relies, however, on the slowness of the German deployment it is hard to see just why. This is how he views the matter of engaging battle with our future adversaries:
'We do not propose to give them time to form in battle order. Our advance guard, and, immediately behind it, our main body will assume the offensive at once, in the direction of their objectives. On the other hand, we shall still have some forces in reserve at the outset.'
This is a hazardous sort of warfare, full of formidable risks, which Grandmaison proposes, and he does not conceal that fact. He admits the risk, because it enhances the importance of victory-if victory ensues. But he · seems to forget that the risk may increase to an extraordinary degree the burden of a defeat.
His last words are that we must foster 'with passion, with exaggeration, and even in the most minute details of instruction, everything which bears the mark - however slight-of the offensive spirit. Let us even carry it to excess, and that perhaps will not be enough.'
We see how intense a partisan Grandmaison is of the offensive, and of the offensive to the limit, the offensive whether or no. The fact is that it is German ideas, especially Von Schlieffen's, which lie at the root of this doctrine. However, he fights shy of the attack en tenaille1 so dear to the heart of the Teuton field-marshal.
There is a measure of truth in what he says as to the enforced extension of fronts, and as to the advantages of an energetic offensive undertaken as speedily as possible. But the doctrine is open to the criticism of being too dogmatic, and of taking too little account of facts. It would gain immensely if
1 That is to say, 'as with a pair of pincers.'
it were supported by examples borrowed from the most recent wars, and if it were not derived so directly from abstract reasoning, more or less accurate, and from pure speculation.
We have emphasized Colonel Grandmaison's theories because they influenced the studies of the army staff and the war school on the eve of the mobilization of 1914. While authoritative voices those, for example, of General Larrezac and Colonel Grouard raised to point out the danger of this infatuation with the most hazardous sort of offensive, they were not heeded as they should have been.
Furthermore, the regulations promulgated in France shortly before the war bear the imprint of the general tendencies that have been pointed out. The most important, in this regard, is the decree of October 28, 1913, entitled 'Regulation as to the management of large units' (a group of armies, an army, an army corps, and, to a certain extent, a body of cavalry).
This document, wherein we readily discern a number of Colonel Grandmaison's ideas, lays down in principle an axiom borrowed from Clausewitz: War aims at the annihilation of the adversary. But it admits the possibility, even the necessity, of a rapid execution, at the risk of being contradicted by events.
'In the present status of warfare... everything urges the endeavor to reach a decision in the shortest possible time, with a view of bringing the struggle to a speedy close.' It admits, therefore, the thunder-clap' after the style of Napoleon: "The decisive battle. . . constitutes the essential act of the war.' Offensive tactics alone can lead to positive results. However, the regulation does not adopt as its own the German views concerning the preconceived idea. In the scheme of manœuvre, it says, 'any disposition would be premature if it is based upon a definitive opinion,
arbitrarily formed, of the enemy's purposes, so long as he remains at liberty to change his position.'
In respect to the matter of safety, it reproduces an idea of Grandmaison: "The best way for a commander to ensure freedom of action is to impose his will on the enemy by a vigorously pushed offensive according to a wellconsidered controlling plan.' Let ús remark in passing that this last clause contradicts the passage previously quoted concerning the preconceived idea.
A very open order facilitates marching and enveloping movements. lends itself readily, by closing up the intervals, to a subsequent closer formation in view of an actual battle. Theoretically each army corps controls at least one road; thus, on this point again, the regulation approximates German theories.
By reason of the extent of the battlefront, it is difficult to shift the position of large bodies of men materially in the course of the action. The commander of the army, therefore, determines, most frequently beforehand, the direction of the main attack, and the weather conditions in which it will be undertaken - fresh confirmation of what we just now said as to the preconceived idea.
As to the actual method of attack, the regulation does not lay down any fixed rules, although it allows its pre- . ference to appear: the main action may be directed either against one wing of the enemy or against his front. Ordinarily, however, the attack on a wing is more advantageous, for it leads toward an enveloping movement. The frontal attack is more difficult, and, generally speaking, has less important results.
Under these conditions it would seem that, in manœuvres preparatory to deployment, an extended disposition is preferable to a deep one. Nevertheless this same regulation has nothing to
say in this regard, and one cannot fail to approve its silence, for the choice manifestly depends upon the special circumstances.
In the explanatory report which accompanies this document, its framers insist further on the advantages of the offensive: 'The conduct of warfare is controlled by the necessity of imparting a powerfully offensive impulse.' But they seem strongly opposed to the concentration of armies on the battlefield, so dear to Moltke and Schlieffen: "The essential thing is, first of all, to get the forces together, and assume the offensive as soon as they are got together.' As for the offensive itself, it is governed by the same rules as in Germany: 'The action, when once begun, should be pushed vigorously, without reservation, to the extreme limit of our power.' In accord with Grandmaison, the Commission sees in the headlong attack the best means of ensuring the safety of the column: 'A vigorous offensive forces the enemy to adopt defensive measures, and is the surest method of protecting the high command, as well as the troops, against any danger of surprise.'
Above all things we must impose our will on the enemy: 'In war every decision of the high command should be inspired by a determination to assume and retain the initiative of operations.'
Lastly, the Commission cries out against the distinctions between 'demonstrative battle,' drawn-out battle,' 'battle of attrition,' and battle pure and simple: 'So far as the executive officer is concerned, the attack must, in all cases, be conducted with the utmost vigor and a firm determination to come to close quarters with the enemy in order to destroy him.' It is the commanding officer's business to arrange the distribution of his forces in such wise that a certain section of the enemy's front will be assaulted less
violently than a certain other section. To sum up on the eve of the war,
the same tendencies toward the most energetic offensive prevailed in both French and German armies. There is no difference except in respect to the details of the attack. We admit the possibility of success in a frontal attack and of breaking through, as well as of success in an attack on the wing; we do not ascribe to the latter, and especially to the attack en tenaille, the altogether preponderant importance given to them by Schlieffen and most of the other Germans. Perhaps there is a tendency in France to force the action and to bring the main body into line, whereas in Germany the preliminary battle would be conducted with more moderation. But the substance of both theories is identical.
Let us add, however, that the German staff appears to have grasped much more fully than ours the major importance to be assumed by the fortification of the battlefield, by heavy artillery, and by aviation. In this respect the first weeks of the war taught us some cruel lessons.
However that may be, the inevitable result of the mutual inclination toward a general offensive was that the battles of August, 1914, most frequently took on the aspect of chance combats between two adversaries going straight to the attack without looking back. On our part, our natural impulses, intensified by those resulting from a study of the regulations and of the most authoritative publications, urged us to rush our assaults even more, without giving sufficient thought to artillery preparation and machine-guns. This state of mind, added to serious errors in concentration, and in the conception of the original plan of operations, is sufficient to explain our set-backs at the beginning of the war. The victory of the Marne, and the series of battles and