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The Great War
Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Timeline Maps & Battles The Shaping of the 21st Century Historians
Historians OverviewTrevor Wilson

Generals Douglas haig & Erich von Falkenhayn
Trevor Wilson
"At the beginning of 1916, commanders on both sides believed that they had found the answer to stalemate.

"They recognized that stalemate was there. The trenches, supported by powerful defensive weaponry, presented an attacking force with a real problem. But the rival commanders were convinced that they now had the answer. The answer was the heavy artillery gun firing high explosive shells. They believed that if they could accumulate enough of these guns and shells, they could batter down the trenches of their opponents, wreck their barbed wire and machine guns, and so get forward.

"This was the conclusion reached equally by Haig, the British commander in chief, and Falkenhayn, his German opposite number. Each devised a great campaign for 1916, intending to employ high explosive shells on a scale never before seen in warfare.

"The way in which Haig and Falkenhayn planned to use these weapons was rather different.

"Haig believed that it was possible, actually, to break through the enemy's trenches and to sweep forward into open country. To do this, he must attack on a wide front – which meant spreading his bombardment – so that in the center of his attack his infantry and cavalry would be free from flanking fire from the unattacked parts of the enemy line. If Haig's scheme worked, he would have solved the problem at the Western Front. Trench warfare and stalemate would have ended.

"Falkenhayn took a bleaker view of the war. He did not anticipate a breakthrough. The most he believed he could do was kill the forces of the enemy without getting his own men killed. To do it, he would attack on a narrow front, against which he would direct so many high explosive shells that life would become insupportable for the forces he was assaulting. His chosen victims were the French. His chosen place was the system of forts called Verdun.

"As it happened, both these commanders had got it wrong, and in an important respect they had got it wrong for the same reason.

"Most of all, they did not have enough guns and enough shells. They were mesmerized by the huge accumulation of shells that had now come in to them. They said this was bigger than anything that had ever been seen in warfare. Perhaps this was true. But in terms of what they were trying to achieve, it simply was not enough.

"The British munitions industry, in fact, was still only at the beginning. It was starting to produce shells in large numbers, but either they were shrapnel, which couldn't do the job; or they were hurriedly-made high explosive shells, many of which didn't explode, or exploded in their own guns. This was, in fact, war still just entering its industrial stage.

"And this is where both commanders failed. Falkenhayn at Verdun, by concentrating his gunfire on a narrow sector, did much damage in that sector, but he laid his advancing troops open to devastating fire from French artillery on the unattacked flanks. So his forces made very little progress and suffered huge losses – almost as great as the French.

"Haig's failure was different, but just as conclusive.

"He intended to attack on the broad front, as I said, in order to get his cavalry through. But where he believed that he could annihilate the German defenses, actually, he scarcely dented them. By spreading his bombardment so wide, he couldn't knock out the great accumulation of guns the Germans had. Nor did he destroy the German trenches, or the German defenders in the trenches who were manning their machine guns when the British went over the top.

"So on the first of July, when Haig's troops clambered out of their trenches and started walking – almost strolling – across no-man's-land, they were simply swept away by a curtain of fire. The British Army suffered more deaths on 1 July 1916, than on any other single day of battle.

"Haig was not the dunderhead, certainly not the intentional butcher, that he's often portrayed as being.

"There's a popular view that Haig really set out to get his troops killed, believing that he would swap one of his men for one of the Germans. There would be a bloodbath on both sides; and because he had rather more men than the Germans, he would, at the end of the day, be left victorious, and the Germans defeated.

"This view of Haig is really quite untrue. Haig, in fact, remained an imaginative commander. He always believed that he could bring off great sweeping decisive victories. And that is why he failed.

"In this war, you were never going to bring off great sweeping decisive victories; and if you tried, you were going to get your men killed.

"So in 1916 he believed that he could break right through the German line and sweep into open country with his cavalry. In 1917, he was convinced that his forces could break out of the Ypres salient, sweep all the way to the Belgian coast, and there meet up with an invading force coming in from the sea.

"This sort of thing could not happen, and he was only getting men killed in trying to do it. Haig should have believed in attrition. This is the tragedy of the British in the First World War. Haig should have opted for attrition in the sense of wearing down the enemy gradually – step by step, stage by stage – and devising a means of doing this without getting his own forces worn down."

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