Stormtrooper Tactics of World War I
The innovative new German stormtrooper tactics of 1918 were very successful and foreshadowed the blitzkrieg tactics of the Second World War, but their very success contributed to German defeat.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, with Russia defeated, allowed Germany to concentrate on the Western Front. Ludendorff, the co-dictator of Germany and supreme military commander, insisted on occupying Russia. Over one million troops were tied up in Russia and Romania. Another million troops and 3,000 artillery pieces were shipped to the western front. From November 1917 to March 1918, German strength on the Western Front increased from 150 to 208 divisions and included 13, 832 artillery pieces. (Terraine 45)
At this time in the war, military formations of the belligerents were similar. German divisions consisted of about 10,600 men, British 12,000, and French 13,000. The newly arriving American divisions were over twice as large at 28,105 men. Eventually, the American troops would be vital in saving the Allied cause and winning the war. (American 267)
By this time in the war, a complex system of trenches and machine gun posts arranged in depth had evolved. All battle trenches were connected together with communications trenches which led to the rear areas. In front of the trenches were deep belts of barbed wire. (Hogg 124) The British defense system was based on a captured German manual. (For this essay "British" will include their allies, including the Anzacs, Canadians, and Portuguese.) They copied the letter and not the spirit of the German system. The British believed the machine gun supported the infantry while the Germans more realistically believed the infantry supported the machine gun. The new defense system had a Forward Zone manned by one-third of the troops. Two to three miles back, and manned by one-third of the infantry and two-thirds of the artillery, was the Battle Zone of a depth of 2,000 to 3,000 yards. The Rear Zone was four to eight miles behind the Battle Zone. This system was not as efficient as the German system which allocated two-thirds of the troops for counterattacks. (Barnett 298) France was nearing the end of its manpower resources, so the artillery was their most important arm. The French wisely held their front lightly and kept most of their troops in the main position out of artillery range. (Barnett 295)
While defenses were evolving, the German army was developing new assault tactics to deal with the defenses. The new German stormtroopers, or Stosstrupp, were first used experimentally in 1915. Groups of three, one with a large shield, and two on either side would toss grenades to spearhead attacks. (Koch 503) Later, Gen. Oskar von Hutier developed tactics of massed artillery and infiltration at Riga in Russia. (Livesey 178) For the new offensives in France, the rigid chain of command was made more flexible. Army commanders could direct the actions of battalions, thereby potentially relegating corps and brigades to reinforcement and supply functions. (Barnet 291)
Because of the loss of non-commissioned officers in 1917, all German divisions were not converted into assault divisions. Divisions were categorized as assault or trench divisions and given different priorities of supply. Assault divisions were given stormtroopers and four weeks training in mobile warfare. (Terraine 23) The elite stormtroopers were in top condition and were commanded by non-aristocrats, thereby increasing their comradery. (Koch 506)
Each offensive was preceded by the concentration of vast numbers of troops and artillery. In Operation Michael, 69 German divisions were massed against 32 British divisions, and in some places the British were outnumbered four to one. (Hart 370) In the Lys Offensive, 9 German divisions attacked 3 British divisions. Twenty-two divisions were massed against five in the Second Battle of the Marne. (Hart 414) Artillery was massed in levels never before seen. For comparison, in 1915 at Loos, artillery pieces averaged one per 60 yards. In the 1918 Operation Michael, one gun was placed on average every 12 yards. Continuing this trend, the Soviets in World War II massed artillery one gun per every 3 yards. (Hart 190, 415) In contrast to earlier offensives, artillery bombardments were brief and shocking. The enemy artillery was first eliminated with shells and poison gas. Enemy headquarters, communication centers, and supply depots were targeted. Forward trenches were then devastated, machine gun posts being prime targets. Trenches of the Battle Zone were then bombarded. (Toland 16)
During Operation Michael, the British massed 30% of their troops on the front line. Instead of the desired effect of stopping the attack with overwhelming firepower, the troops were annihilated by artillery fire. In the sector of the XVIII Corps, only 50 of 10,000 front line troops survived the bombardment and subsequent attack. (Cavendish 2645)
The stormtroopers attacked immediately after the bombardment. In contrast with the standard infantry units used at the beginning of the war, the men were equipped with a wide variety of weapons, not just the standard bolt-action rifle. Wire cutters and explosives engineers created gaps in the barbed wire belts. Grenade throwers, flame throwers, machine gunners, and mortar crews infiltrated enemy positions. Three or four waves of infantry followed. (Koch 506) The attacking troops had no fixed objectives and left pockets of resistance for supporting troops to deal with. (Barnet 290) Success, not failure, was reinforced. The stormtroopers carried with them the first widely used sub-machine gun, the MP-18. The new sub-machine gun was light and easy to handle, and had much greater firepower than a rifle. (Reid 10) Infiltrating troops often advanced beyond artillery range, leaving their flanks vulnerable. Since most artillery was too bulky to be brought forward in the attack, light trench mortars and machine gunners protected the flanks. (Koch 506) The great German offensives were also supported by air power. Seven hundred thirty German planes were massed against 579 Allied planes in Operation Michael. (Toland 26)
By the standards of the First World War, Operation Michael was a great success. The Germans penetrated 40 miles, took 975 guns, and inflicted 300,000 casualties, but eventually the German attacked stalled from exhaustion. (Hart 373) The allies eventually found some antidotes to the new tactics. For example, on July 15, 1918 the French Fourth Army was attacked by three German armies. The front was held lightly and the main resistance was met two to three miles back. The French kept their command posts and ammunition depots beyond artillery range. The night before the attack, the German assembly points were bombarded, and the assault was stopped at the Battle Zone.
Despite their success, the spring 1918 offensives ended in exhaustion, and the summer offensives were halted. "The German Army in the west was short of men and had no genuinely motorised infantry, which alone would have given the German forces operational liberty." (Koch 519) "The very speed of the advance had brought the armies to exhaustion." Further, 20% of the men suffering from influenza. "When Ludendorff opened his campaign he had a credit balance of 207 divisions, 82 in reserve. Now he had only 66 fit divisions in reserve."
With German morale sagging after the failure of the offensives, and with many of the reserves committed, compounded further by the economic devastation caused by the blockade, Germany teetered on the verge of collapse. The allies learned from the German attack methods, and the British counterattack of August 8, 1918 was decisive. The Germans couldn't stop the Allied advance, and on November 11, 1918 the Armistice was signed. The new assault tactics had broken the stalemate. In the next war, tanks and other armored vehicles allowed decisive exploitation of a breakthrough, deep into the enemy's rear areas. The sensational methods of blitzkrieg had their roots in the stormtrooper tactics of 1918.
List of Works
A Guide to the American Battle Fields in Europe., prepared by the American Battle Monuments Commission., United States Government Printing Office. 1927.
Barnett, Cornelli., The Swordbearers., William Morrow and Company: New York, 1964
Hart, B.H. Liddell, The Real War. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1930.
Hogg, Ian V. A History of Military Defense, St. MArtins Press: New York,1927.
Koch, H. Wolfgang., History of Warfare, Gallery Books: New York, 1981.
Livesey, Anthony, Great Battles of World War I, Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, 1989.
Reid, Kevin B., Armament Section, January 1990, World War II Magazine: Empire Press.
Terraine, John, To Win a War, Doubleday and Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1981.
Toland, John, No Man's Land, Doubleday and Company, Inc.: Garden City, New York, 1980.
Young, Peter The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, Marshall Cavendish; New York, 1984.
REAL WAR, 1914-1918 B.H. Liddell Hart knew better than anyone the "Real War"- the incompetence, lost opportunities, and eventual decisiveness of the war. Hart believes the British came very close to a breakthrough in 1915, and he downplays the importance of the tank in favor of improved infantry and artillery tactics. The first several pages include an excellent discussion of the causes of the war and the diplomacy of the pre-war period. He also discusses the argument whether the war was won in the East and Home Front or on the Western Front.
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