It’s been relatively quiet for a while on the Western Front, while German efforts have been focused on the Eastern Front, and Anglo-French strategists have been regrouping and reflecting after the ghastly failures of the spring. A hundred years ago today, with plenty of advance warning and full orchestration provided by a four-day artillery bombardment of forward German positions, mayhem recommenced as French c-in-c Joffre launched his giant, two-pronged autumn offensive.
As I’ve mentioned before, Joffre believed in ‘breakthrough’, the theory that the way to beat modern trenches was to concentrate a vast weight of artillery and infantry against one point and punch a decisive hole in the front line. The complete failure of breakthrough tactics during spring offensives in Champagne and Artois hadn’t shaken his belief, merely convinced him that he’d underestimated the amount of manpower and ordnance needed for the job.
Happily for Joffre’s faith, if sadly for posterity, both the French and British armies on the Western Front had received large-scale reinforcement during the summer, backed by rapid improvements in arms output as economic mobilisation for war gathered pace in both countries visite site. Meanwhile the German Army’s focus on the Eastern Front had reduced its strength in France and Belgium. Convinced his conditions for success had at last been met, and unwilling to try anything too complicated with armies full of raw recruits, Joffre went for the sledgehammer again in the autumn.
At the end of painstaking preparatory operations that made their intentions abundantly clear, French forces in Champagne and Anglo-French armies further north – in the sector now designated Artois-Loos – launched simultaneous massed infantry assaults on 25 September. Both were complete failures.
In Champagne, where German defenders were outnumbered 3-to-1, French forces gained about 3km of ground and lost 145,000 casualties before the attacks were halted on 28 September, by which time German reinforcements had arrived from the Eastern Front. French attacks were resumed on 6 October but gained only a few yards during five days of heavy fighting before being stopped by counterattacks. The two sides battled on indecisively until the offensive was officially called off on 6 November, having inflicted about 50,000 German casualties, half of them as prisoners.
The picture was hardly less bleak for the attackers further north, where the offensive’s secondary thrust was divided into French and British operations. French forces pushed towards the high ground of Vimy Ridge, in the Artois area, but struggled to make any progress against well-prepared German defensive positions. They did secure a tiny foothold on the Ridge for a while, but repeated attacks made no lasting gains before exhaustion and foul weather forced a halt to the operation in early November.
The British northern wing under First Army commander Haig – a general far more sceptical about breakthrough tactics than heritage history would have you believe – advanced towards Loos, and did achieve some initial success. Despite rough terrain, a continuing shell shortage and the wind-induced failure of a first British attempt to use poison gas, massive numerical superiority saw British troops through Loos and approaching Lens by the end of the first day. At this point BEF c-in-c Sir John French, nervous caution personified, forced Haig to halt by denying him immediate reinforcements, and next day a strong German counterattack forced the British back. When Haig was able to try again, on 13 October, his attack was repulsed with heavy losses, after which bad weather made further large-scale operations impossible.
German defenders in the Artois-Loos sector inflicted 50,000 British and about 48,000 French casualties, losing less than half that number in the process. Between them, the autumn offensives cost the Entente around 320,000 casualties, almost half as many again as had been lost during the spring offensives. Why? The autumn campaign did involve more Entente troops, with less training, and all the defence-friendly conditions that characterised contemporary trench warfare still applied, but another element had come into play. The German Army was developing new defensive tactics. Largely ignored by the offensive’s planners, they were working.
The British came to call it Defence in Depth, and with hindsight it was hardly rocket science. Instead of packing troops in forward trenches, where they suffered from preliminary bombardment before meeting the first enemy assault, German defenders learned to deploy relatively light first-line defences, and to give ground by withdrawing to strong, pre-prepared secondary positions, out of immediate bombardment range. Counterattacks would then be launched before the enemy could bring up artillery support.
This basic blueprint for defence rapidly became more sophisticated, with multiple layers of bombardment-proof fortifications designed to draw attackers forward into a kind of massive ambush. Perfected by the German Army, Defence in Depth was adopted by most British commanders in 1916, but many French generals continued to cram front-line trenches well into 1917, trusting in weight of numbers to hold the line and avoid the chaos of headlong flight into hastily-built second-line defences.
Defence in Depth can be seen as one of the first Western Front tactics that actually worked… but it was in the nature of the theatre’s first years for everything to look as if it might work, for many things to look as if they were working, and for nothing to do much good. Designed to save lives, or at least defenders’ lives, the system worked well enough unless both sides were using it. Once both sets of infantry were being drawn into empty space for an artillery ambush, the most intense fighting tended to take place on ground covered by both artillery arms, ensuring a much higher casualty rate.
In one sense, the ghastly non-event of the Entente’s autumn offensive in 1915 stands as a metaphor for the Western Front as a whole until 1918. You couldn’t win anything big if you were inflexible and stubborn; you couldn’t win anything big and lasting if you were flexible and intelligent; and you couldn’t lose if you stayed on the defensive. It would be some time before commanders were ready to address the problem of the Western Front in those terms – and a hundred years later plenty of voices are still loudly blaming them for the carnage, as if their failure to solve the techno-military riddle of the age was the problem, rather than a symptom.