This study is not the work of a specialist in military matters; it has no concern, therefore, with developments of a purely technical nature. It undertakes the simpler task of explaining the great transformations which have taken place in the operations on the Western front, passing from a state of most rapid flux to the absolute immobility of trench-warfare, and now tending to abandon this stagnation in favor of fighting in the open.
These vastly important changes, which have caused the contending armies to employ radically variant tactics in the course of the same war, are to be explained by the prodigious advances made in armaments while the struggle goes on. For nearly three years now, the intellectual activity of half the peoples out of the civilized world has been focused on the perfecting of engines of destruction or defense. The results have been incalculable; they have revolutionized the tactics of the battlefield. In Napoleon’s time tactics changed every ten years or so, while to-day one might well say that they change every six months. This evolution is due to one factor which always works in the same direction: the continuous increase in strength, speed, and range communicated to projectiles by explosives. Artillery is the essential element of present-day warfare, and artillery tactics have gradually penetrated the province of all other arms. For offensive operations we have witnessed, not only an increase of the number, the calibre, and the firing-speed of cannon, but also the conversion of the infantry into a sort of light artillery, flexible and quick-moving, while aviation has become in a way the artillery of the air.
The defensive, on the other hand, has been preoccupied with finding new means of protection against an artillery which grows more varied and destructive. In their progress the offensive and defensive have not always kept abreast; and it is this fluctuating inequality which has created the various phases of the conflict. At first the methods of attack were most effective, bringing about that warfare of movement which lasted through the two months of August and September, 1914. The side of the defensive, however, bent all its energy toward improving its condition, and, after a rapid process of perfection, evolved trench warfare, which reached its fullest development between October, 1914, and the beginning of 1916. During this long term, the means of attack went on improving in quality as well as in quantity, and 1916 once more saw the dominant offensive. These are the three phases which we shall analyze.
1. The Warfare of Movement
The first two months of the war marked a real triumph of offensive tactics—a triumph accruing chiefly to the Germans, who reaped the harvest of their admirable preparation. It will not be amiss here to consider briefly the elements of this preparation, and the condition of their adversaries.
The German superiority lay almost completely in their armament—especially in the strength of their artillery. Every one of the army corps which went into battle was provided with 160 cannon. Among this number, it is true, were field guns of 77-mm calibre, of mediocre value, but there were in addition sixteen 105-mm howitzers and a battery of 150’s. The command also had at its disposal, groups of heavy 210-mm guns, besides the Austrian pieces of 305 mm, drawn by motor-tractors, and, finally, the famous 420-mm howitzers, which have long been discredited. All this heavy artillery, with a range of from five to ten kilometres, was directed by a well-organized aviation service, which made it possible to strike the enemy without seeing him and without being seen. Herein lay the prime element of the early victories.
The infantry, however, also had great advantages. Although its automatically loading rifle possessed no marked superiority, it was provided with great quantities of machine-guns, permitting a fierce intensity of fire. The German soldier, too, was almost invisible, thanks to the feldgrau uniform which had been thoughtfully devised for him. The scouting and reconnoitring service had at its disposal a great number of armored motor-cars, making it easy to penetrate the invaded territory with lightning speed. This supplemented the cavalry, whose rôle was unimportant save in September and October, during the ‘drive to the sea,’ when it took the place of extremely mobile infantry.
Add to this material excellence the valor of the German soldier, his thorough-going instruction, his amazing faith in the triumph of his arms, and we have the principal reasons for that brilliant initial success. It is reported that the German Emperor, shortly before the crisis, declared: ‘If war should come, we will show the world what an army really is.’ The Kaiser spoke truth. In August, 1914, the German war-machine might have been considered as a sort of terrible perfection.
The superiority of this instrument of attack was all the greater because Germany’s adversaries had been more or less negligent of their own preparation. The little Belgian army was taken by surprise in the midst of reorganization. The British army, sturdy and brave as it was, was insignificant in numbers. As for the French, if their personal courage, their dash, their spirit of sacrifice were incomparable, their equipment left much to be desired. By way of artillery, they had a marvelous field gun, — the ’75,’ with its extraordinary accuracy and speed, — but their lack of heavy cannon was cruelly felt. The rapid-fire gun was little used by the infantry. The uniform had preserved the dazzling contrast of colors—red and blue—which had been adopted in the days of Louis-Philippe for the purpose of fostering the culture of dye-producing plants. Army aviation, though originated by the French, was regarded as a kind of sport, with no practical application. This superb force, therefore, filled with enthusiasm and patriotic fervor, went forth to battle in a state of insufficient preparation which was destined to bring cruel disillusionments.
The first of these came with the speedy fall of the fortresses. Peace-loving France, whose chief preoccupation had been with defense, placed her trust in these great walls of concrete. It was only necessary, however, for the heavy artillery to appear before them to lay them low. The forts at Maubeuge and the powerful redoubt of Manonvillers, in Lorraine, fell like a house of cards. It was the same story with the Belgian fortifications: Liége held out only a few days against the guns of medium calibre; Namur resisted forty-eight hours, and a short time later Antwerp succumbed, bringing about a crushing demonstration of the superiority which offensive tactics, brought to perfection by an aggressive people, had won over the methods of defense.
It was the same story on the battlefields. The French army was filled with an admirable offensive spirit, but it had no means to give this spirit its proper outlet. In the first battles, therefore, we were treated to the spectacle of infantry were treated to the spectacle of infantry charging across open country toward objectives which had scarcely been touched by the artillery; the Germans invisible in their admirably protective uniforms of gray-green, rained down on the attacking columns such a storm of such a storm of artillery and machine-gun fire that the assailing forces did not even get within striking distances of them. This was particularly true at Morhange and in the Ardennes. The Germans, taking the offensive, began by battering the battlefields with their heavy projectiles, only letting loose the assault when they considered that the enemy had been demoralized by this violent fire from hidden batteries. And, in truth, a great number of the French soldiers who fell in these initial engagements did not have the consolation of having fought; the majority of them were cut down before they had even seen the enemy. These first battles, in which the French soldiers struggled, so to speak, in the dark, overwhelmed by an infernal fire coming from an invisible enemy, left, in the minds of the survivors, the most frightful recollections.
This same army, however, which was put to such a searching test in August, was able, several days later, to snatch victory from defeat on the battlefield of the Marne. This stroke of good fortune was, in the last analysis, due to the fact that the French commanders had kept their sang-froid, and the soldiers their spirit and confidence. It is hard to know where to accord the highest tribute of admiration—to the simple, clean-cut plan of the generalissimo, to the spirt of boldness and initiative of the army commanders, or to the generous ardor of the troops. It must be remembered, in this connection, that the extraordinary speed of the French retreat and the German advance had put the attacking forces at a considerable disadvantage. In spite of the admirable organization of the system of transports, the Germans were not able to bring up to the battlefield their full resources of heavy artillery, or to provide sufficient ammunition for their batteries. The battle of the Marne marked a munitions-crisis for both opposing armies. In fact, the material conditions of the adversaries were practically identical, so that the French soldier was able to give convincing proof of his superiority. The Germans had no choice but to retreat. Then, deprived for a moment of their powerful means of attack, they took the defensive in order to win time to bring up the material and the supplies which were so sorely needed. They thus provided an example to their opponents which from their points of view was bad: for when the Germans, finally reinforced, attempted to resume the offensive toward the end of September, the French simply imitated them. Then commenced that long period of trench warfare which marked for almost a year and a half the triumph of the defensive.
2. Trench Warfare
The trenches, whose part in the war became so vitally important toward the end of September, 1914, were no novelty. The Russians and the Japanese had dug themselves in for months in Manchuria, and throughout the Balkan War trenches were continually made use of. During the period of flux, the two adversaries dug trenches whenever the opportunity was presented, even during the battle of the Marne. The French, of course, were loath to employ this method, but they were forced to adopt it at times. If the Germans set them an example on the Aisne, the French returned the compliment with warmth in Picardie, near Arras, and in Belgium, where the great waves of the German offensives of October and November were thrown back from the weak, haphazard breastwork of trenches which their opponents had hastily established. From the fifteenth of November, however, both sides, thoroughly exhausted, turned all their energies toward converting their trenches into a powerful system of defense, under cover of which they could gather together once more their troops, their munitions, and their supplies. Both succeeded so well that, in spite of repeated attempts to break through, the battlefront remained fixed in an immobility which lasted more than one year. To the trenches, themselves a stout element of defense, was added a complete system designed to prevent the enemy from approaching the works; and though new means of attack were devised and perfected, no real advantages were secured by either side during the entire year of 1915.
The trench, at first, was a mere shelter, designed to protect the fighting men from the terrible fire which scorches the battlefields, and from the rifle-bullets and the fragments of shells from both sides; it also insures invisibility to the infantryman and puts him out of harm’s way. At the same time, too, it enables him to attack without being seen. It gives him an opportunity to shoot without exposing himself dangerously, and to prepare for the offensive under cover. It is, therefore, at the same time a sort of ambuscade from which the assaulting party emerges, and a fortification where it takes shelter. Naturally, however, when two lines of trenches confront each other, keeping close watch one over the other, the defensive role predominates, and the trench becomes above all else, a fortification, with its glacis, its redoubts, its arteries of communication and of access, and its barracks. A trench is a ditch about two yards deep, scarcely wider than one yard, and often less. The earth thrown up from the excavation is piled high on the side facing the enemy and forms a sort of rampart called the parapet, dominating the whole length of the trench. This parapet is pierced by loopholes for rifle-fire; these loopholes are generally concealed with great care, and are closed by shutters, and protected by high-heaped bags of earth. An infantryman, standing at a loophole, is safeguarded from bullets which pass above him or bury themselves in the parapet. Even the shells need not be reckoned with unless they explode just above the trench or within it; and, in order to minimize this danger, the trench takes an irregular course, forming a deep bend every four or five years, called a pare-éclat. Roughly speaking then, the trench is a zigzag ditch, and the men in it can scarcely be harmed except from above—or from beneath.
It was necessary, however, to find some means of preventing the enemy from advancing close to the parapet, whence he could leap into the trenches or hurl hand-projectiles. In front of the trenches, therefore, a network of barbed wire is constructed, the wire being fastened to wooden stakes or to chevaux-de-frise, which form the most dangerous sort of entanglement. Only a few intricate passages are left open through this wire, and these are watched with care. To make assurance doubly sure, narrow ditches are dug out in front of the trenches, in the direction of the enemy, ending in holes which are used as advance posts. These are the listening posts, joined to the trenches proper by means of saps.
This first line, the nearest to the enemy, is generally called the firing trench. In case it should be carried by a surprise attack, the enemy must be stopped short as soon as possible, and so, at a short distance to the rear, — twenty or thirty yards, — there is a second line, the auxiliary trench, and sometimes a third. These lines are connected by narrow sinuous trenches, the boyaux, in which barricades can be hastily improvised by means of bags of earth. Finally, in order to establish communications with the rear without fear of bullets or shells, another intricate system of trenches leads back from the firing-line for a distance never less than several kilometres.
We have, then, a labyrinth of winding narrow lanes, forming a whole city, half underground, swarming with life, but singularly silent.
In these muddy holes the soldiers live, perforce, day and night, with no chance to emerge. To protect themselves from rain or cold, they lose no time in digging themselves dwellings in the sides of the trenches. These are sometimes mere niches, hollowed out of the earth, or, again, deeper cavities, the ceilings of which are reinforced by timbers or by iron beams. These are the dug-outs, constructed below the level of the trenches to which one gains access by a rude stairway. Rough bunks are found in them, as well as benches and tables, especially in the rear lines. The soldiers crowd into these to sleep; sometimes it is possible for them to light a fire. These are the barracks, or rather, the houses, of the subterranean city.
As the life in this city is extremely crowded, great care must be taken with the sewage system. Gutters must be dug to carry off the surface-water, and a sort of pavement made of thin strips of wood must be laid. These precautions do not prevent the trenches, and especially the communication trenches, from being constantly flooded with mud in which the unfortunate men who lead this underground life of ten sink up to their knees, sometimes even disappearing completely, as though swallowed up by a quicksand.
As we have seen, the soldier is almost completely sheltered form bullets and shells. It remains to prevent the enemy form approaching the trench and seizing it. For this purpose, the defensive weapons have been brought to a high pitch of perfection. The rifle, whose role really grows less and less important, is the weapon of the sentinel who stands guard at the loophole; it is usually held firmly in a brace and carefully aimed at an enemy loophole. Here too, however, the machine-gun has been far more efficient. Located in a shelter and hidden with great care, it covers the open ground in front of the trench. It stands guard over every turning of the lines, and is ready to check by enfilading fire the progress of the enemy, is he succeeds in penetrating the works at any point. It is, on the whole, the most formidable instrument of defense.
Many others, however, have been devised—especially the short-distance projectiles which are hurled over the parapet and fall within the enemy’s trenches. Some of these are thrown by hand; at first they were nothing but jam-tins, fitted out with explosive and detonator; then came all the varieties of bombs, and, finally, the grenades, some of which are thrown by hand, others fired form a gun. There also grew up in the trenches a special class of artillery which fires with a very high trajectory all manner and size of projectiles—shells, bombs, and even aerial torpedoes loaded with a huge charge of explosive.
At the slightest apparent movement of the enemy in the trench close by, he is showered with projectiles, and a barrage-fire of artillery from the rear may even be called for. The field artillery always stands ready a short distance back of the first lines, taking advantage of the least protection and artfully hidden. At the least suspicion of an attack these field pieces rain down a hail of shells on the enemy’s trenches and in the zone called No Man’s Land, so that it is difficult indeed for the infantry to advance without suffering horrible loss through this terrible barrage-fire, which is reinforced by a storm of bullets from the machine-guns. Defensive tactics have thus become a formidable force; in fact, a good many people believe that they have reached their climax of efficiency.
There has been, nevertheless, a corresponding development of offensive tactics, calling into play all sorts of hideous devices. Obsolete methods of warfare were revived and put to present-day use; all the forces of nature were enslaved in the attempt to strike at the infantryman behind the frail, yet efficient barrier of his earthen parapet. Mine galleries, dug deep into the ground, were driven forward beneath the enemy’s works and exploded, the soldiers of both sides then rushing forward to seize the crater, join it to their own lines, and fortify it. The Germans, who recoil from no act of cruelty, invoked the aid of gas and chemicals. It is their practice to direct against their adversaries’ positions a jet of inflammable liquid which bursts into flame as it leaves the projector, and burns alive the occupants of the trench under attack. Toward the end of April, 1915, they began to employ chlorine gas, which, being carried forward by the wind, advanced close to the ground in an opaque cloud, flooding the French trenches, asphyxiating their defenders, and causing them to die in horrible torment. Later on, these tear-producing and asphyxiating gases were emitted by exploding shells.
Moreover, if the artillery, by means of barrage-fire, can effectively defend the trenches, it is even better fitted to destroy them. For this purpose the field guns are poorly adapted; the situation calls for cannon of short trajectory, firing high-explosive projectiles. Thus there came into being the trench-mortar, whose shells fall directly into the enemy lines. Heavy artillery, too, played an increasingly important role. It was the task of these big shells to break up the wire entanglements, shatter the parapets, and crush in the dug-outs. Out of every hundred shells fired, perhaps only one will find its mark, but this hundredth shell works terrible havoc. Heavy shell-fire will render a trench untenable and clear the way for assaulting parties.
All this elaborate system was gradually worked out in 1915. The progress made in defensive tactics, however, was so great that attempts to take the offensive were checkmated before any decisive results had been attained. Four times, in 1915, the combatants launched great attacks against the enemy lines, each marking an advance over the preceding effort, but failing to justify, on the whole, the efforts and sacrifices involved.
The first of these ‘drives’ was made by the French in Champagne, at the end of the first winter of war. It was practically fruitless. At that time offensive tactics against trenches were in their earliest stages of development. The artillery preparation, carried out almost exclusively by field artillery or b heavy guns which could fire only at long intervals, was quite insufficient; the wire entanglements remained intact, while the trenches themselves were scarcely touched. For the success of the attack everything depended on the infantry, who charged forward with fixed bayonets. Under these conditions, everything was mae easy for the enemy; the machine-guns mowed down the assaulting columns as they struggled in the barbed wire. By sheer force of bravery, the French captured a few sections of German line, the enemy digging himself in immediately to the rear; but after a few days of this the troops were exhausted, while the results obtained were nugatory. It was the same story when an attempt as made toward the beginning of April to reduce the salient of St. Mihiel. Such methods were effective in small local engagements, or in strengthening a position, but it was useless to count on them for winning a decisive success and breaking the enemy’s line.
At the close of April important progress was made. It was at this date that the Germans tried the use of asphyxiating gas north of Ypres, and almost succeeded. The French troops who first met this terrible ordeal were so cruelly tried that for several hours their entire defense gave way. If the Germans had had sufficient courage that day, the Ypres salient might have fallen, but it seems they did not know how to follow up their advantage. As it was, the French troops spontaneously made a fresh stand at the rear, and saved the situation. The Canadians, supporting them on the left, gave priceless assistance. In all, then, there was only a retreat of two kilometres. After this the Allied troops were immediately supplied with masks which permitted them to make a stand against this new death-dealing element. The gas was still formidable, to be sure, but its action was no longer irresistible.
The French, in their turn, undertook a great attack in May, 1915, which was almost crowned with success. This time the preparation was made with care; a great artillery force hammered away at the enemy positions, and the assaulting units were appointed each to its particular task, all details of time and space having been carefully worked out. It should be noted that the first line of attacking infantry was now instructed not to waste any time in the captured trenches, but to keep driving ahead, leaving it to the supporting forces to make a clean job of it. Unfortunately, the plan miscarried. On the right and left wings (Neuville-St. Vaast and Carency) progress was slow and difficult, while in the centre it took the attacking troops one hour to reach Souchez, instead of six hours, as had been calculated. The result was surprise, confusion and hesitation; the Germans were given a chance to reassemble their forces, bring up reinforcements, and stop up the great gap which had been torn in their lines. The battle dragged on until June—in vain; it was lost. Once more the action of the artillery had not been sufficient to permit the infantry either to carry the enemy positions, or to make the most of the advantage procured by their furious assault.
The French, undaunted, determined to do better. This time it was resolved to swamp the German lines under a deluge of projectiles that would blast away the entanglements, wipe out the trenches and the boyaux, and annihilate the dug-outs. For the first time the attack was industrially organized: back of the selected sector of the front (Champagne) railways and roads were constructed, special conduits of water were brought in, and batteries and munition dépôts established. Communication trenches and parallels were dug; from these the assaulting troops were to pour forth.
The artillery preparation, maintained in all its terrible intensity for 72 hours, almost completely destroyed the Germans first lines. The French infantry was able to penetrate to beyond them, practically unharmed, to a depth of from three to four kilometres, gathering in thousands of prisoners who were stunned by the ceaseless crashing artillery fire and starved by the cutting off of their communications with the rear. The Germans, however, anticipating the attack, had established a second line some distance back of the first, out of reach of the artillery, against which the French assault beat vainly for a fortnight. The same happened in Artois, between Loos and Vimy, proving that, in spite of the superhuman efforts which had been made, the methods of attack were inadequate, and that they must be brought to a higher pitch of perfection if it was hoped to break through the defense.
3. The Progress of Offensive Tactics (1916)
The Germans were the first to profit by the lesson of the Champagne drive of September, 1915. Inspired by this experience, they attempted an offensive at Verdun which narrowly grazed success. The Allies, in turn, did still better on the Somme, and finally the French, before Verdun, showed in October and December, 1916, that progress in carrying out an offensive had been constant and methodical.
The results of the battle of Champagne had shown that artillery can utterly demolish the defensive works of the enemy by deluging them with projectiles of all sizes, and that the infantry can then take possession with small sacrifice of life, capturing at the same time many prisoners. The German General Staff decided that this same procedure could be applied to operations on the broadest scale, provided the action were taken deliberately and carried out in such a way as to permit the artillery, after destroying the first lines, to deal with the secondary systems of defense along a wide stretch of front. The attack, then, must be delivered without haste, not in whirlwind fashion, as the French had constantly attempted in 1915. It would thus be certain, and economical of men, as the brunt of the task would fall on the artillery. Hence the formula, so often repeated, which was destined to become the guiding principle of later offensives: the artillery crushes, the infantry takes possession.
The essential condition of this method of attack is the use of an exceptionally strong force of artillery. The Germans fulfilled this condition well. They brought up to Verdun ordnance in immense quantities, employing only guns of large calibre—from 210 to 420 mm—in preparing for the attack. So many were there that it was at first impossible to determine the number of batteries in action. With such means at their disposal they counted on covering and blasting to powder every foot of coveted soil, thus shattering the defensive system of the French, together with their batteries, their stores of ammunition, and their lines of communication. Under these conditions, the infantry attack would be mere child’s play, all the easier because it would be held back until everything was ready. Before it was launched, a reconnoitering party was to be sent forward to the objective, followed by a detachment of pioneers and bomb-throwers. The waves of the assault could then roll on in safety, establish themselves on the captured ground, and organize the defense.
Of the successes of their plan the Germans felt no doubt. It is well known that during the first five days of the attack they won from their opponents, demoralized as they were by the fierceness and intensity of the artillery fire, greater gains than they had dared hope for, and in less time. The resistance offered them, however, was formidable; there were no signs of sudden demoralization. Leaving aside the heroic qualities of the French soldiers, their intelligence and spirit of sacrifice, — although these were important factors in the final success of their resistance, —the tactics employed by their leaders were also admirable. These were based on three cardinal principles. First, the barrage-fire of the artillery. If artillery almost captured Verdun, it was through artillery that the fortress was saved. Here, once more, were shown the marvelous defensive qualities of the 75-mm cannon, which protected the French positions by a veritable wall of fire and rained down projectiles on the points of departure of the German assaulting infantry. This bombardment was all the more effective because the enemy was now established in positions which had been pulverized by his own shells, where no shelter was left intact. In the second place, the machine-guns fulfilled the great hopes that had been built on them. Placed wherever there was the slightest protection, they swept the attacking troops with a pitiless fire. Finally, the French tirelessly delivered counter-attacks against the points which the Germans were trying to carry. It will be remembered that in May they took back Douaumont, and that Thiaumont was lost and recaptured ten times. Instead of marching forward quietly and irresistibly toward objective points already subdued by the artillery, the German infantry was continually held back by savage charges and hand-to-hand fights which brought them terrible losses and very little conquered territory.
And so the progress made in offensive tactics which had appeared decisive during the first five days of the battle of Verdun, was once more set at naught. In five months—from the end of February to the middle of July—the Germans had succeeded only in penetrating to the depth of two kilometres on the right bank of the Meuse, and this at the price of the heaviest sacrifices.
The Allies were determined to do better on the Somme; and, in fact, the results of their offensive were greater and more lasting. Just as the attack on Verdun had been inspired by the Champagne drive, so the Somme offensive was modeled on the precepts learned at Verdun. The French and British had at their command heavy, sift-firing artillery which assured them a means of attack which they had so far lacked. They determined, therefore, to destroy methodically each of the three lines of defense possessed by the Germans at this particular point, and to limit the infantry attack to certain specified objectives, beyond which no further progress was to be made. These plans had a most successful issue in the French sector, south of the Somme. In ten days the three German lines had been destroyed and taken by assault, with small loss of life to the French; the infantry, advancing no less than seven kilometres, penetrated as far as Péronne, isolated detachments entering even here. Unfortunately the sector thus captured was not sufficiently large to permit a general drive into the enemy’s rear. North of the Somme the British artillery had been unable to break down their adversaries’ defenses thoroughly enough to permit the infantry to make rapid progress. This delay gave the Germans a chance to bring up reinforcements in sufficient quantity—notably batteries for maintaining barrage-fire. The offensive, it is true, was not brought to a standstill: it continued to advance steadily from July to October; but here again success came hard, bought only by sheer heroism and lavish expenditure of life.
We have seen that in the drive on the Somme there was as yet no convincing affirmation of the new power of the offensive. By way of compensation, the last engagements at Verdun, undertaken by the French in October and December, 1916, were striking examples of what a well-prepared offensive can accomplish. Though the Germans were on their guard, though they had made every preparation for a desperate resistance, they lost in the October attack, in the space of a few days, all their hard-won conquests of five months, with 6000 prisoners, and 25 cannon to boot. In December they were flung still farther back, leaving in French hands more than 11,000 prisoners and 100 cannon. Thus was proof given that it is possible to crush the defense of the enemy on a front of eleven kilometres, drive him back to his artillery positions, and capture even these latter. The offensive had at last come into its own. Let us examine the conditions under which this was accomplished, as well as the arms and tactics employed.
The dominant principle of present-day battle-formation is based on the fact that it is impossible to break down defenses except by exceptionally intense bombardment. The entire responsibility, therefore, devolves upon the artillery. Countless batteries, of extraordinary variety, open the engagement, prepare the terrain, and follow every phase of the operations with their fire. The infantry itself has become a sort of light artillery, extremely mobile, whose function is to overwhelm the enemy with a storm of projectiles which tend to become progressively more numerous and powerful.
The artillery forces installed on the battlefield are like an enormous and highly specialized industrial plant. This plant has its own lines of communication—roads and railways which bring the munitions and material to the front. In the first line, the trench artillery is specially commissioned to destroy the enemy’s entrenchments. During the period of preparation its mortars ceaselessly pour forth high-explosive bombs which break up the wire entanglements and chevaux-de-frise, demolish the parapets, and crush in the trenches. At the same time, larger mortars, of calibre running from 220 to 400 mm, established in the rear, concentrate on all the fortified vantage-points, especially on villages where deep bomb-proof shelters have been constructed. They are assisted by the heavy artillery of short trajectory, which destroys the defenses out of reach of the trench artillery; the field artillery, with its guns of 75 and 105 mm, covers with its fire the entire zone under attack, helping on with the task of destruction and preventing the enemy from bringing up reserves or repairing the damage done his works. Other ordnance—long-range guns and heavy artillery of greater trajectory—are trained on the enemy’s rear, striking at his communications, his railroads, his camps, and his stores; while, finally, a great force of guns of all calibres is devoted to the silencing or the neutralization of the opposing artillery fire. This tempest of steel lasts from two to five days, according to the strength of the positions to be destroyed. The task of the cannon is not ended, however, when the infantry goes forward to the assault. Their fire accompanies the attacking troops, preceding them by a hundred metres or so, and continues to hold back the enemy behind a curtain of projectiles. Moreover, the fire of the light field-pieces still projects the infantry after they have reached their objective, keeping up a barrage-fire while they are establishing themselves in the new positions. The artillery, guided by the aviation service, never ceases to play a major part in all the phases of the battle.
The aeroplane, too, has become a real aerial artillery, no less specialized than the terrestrial variety. The largest machines are used in bombarding squadrons; their function is to drop projectiles on barracks, railway-stations, and munition-dépôts. They are accompanied and protected by the high-speed planes, which drive away enemy aviators who may attempt to make observations or drop bombs. Observation aeroplanes guide the artillery fire. Sometimes they go so far as to accompany assaulting parties, keeping the artillery posted as tot the progress of the onrushing waves of infantry; and occasionally they even turn their machine-guns on troop-trains and enemy infantry in the trenches.
If the infantry continues to be an important factor for success, this is due, as I have said, to its transformation into a sort of artillery, very mobile and of a strength undreamed of at the outset of the war. Like the artillery, it has become subject to endless specialization, according to the situation to be met. The rifle, with its bayonet, — the infantryman’s only arm in 1914, — was at one time nearly abandoned. To-day it is coming into use again, but its role is secondary, and if the majority of the troops still carry it, many of them now have arms which are more efficacious and better adapted to the new duties of the foot-soldier, such as the small fusil-mitrailleur, with its speed and precision, which needs a support and is served by a team of three soldiers. Then there is the grenade, in reality a little shell which can easily put several men out of the running. Sometimes it is thrown by hand, by men trained for the work; again, it is fired from a specially constructed gun. The regular machine-gun is naturally still employed, but where in 1914 one found four or six to a regiment, there are now twenty-four, served by special crews. The infantry also takes with it into action a small-calibre cannon, a marvel of speed and accuracy, which takes particular charge of the enemy’s machine-guns. Pioneers accompany this strange medley of grenadiers, machine-gunners, artillery-men and riflemen, which has evolved from the infantry units of yesterday. There is practically no resemblance to the old-fashioned bayonet-charge in the assault delivered by these infantrymen. They advance in open formation, nearly always at the double-quick, following up the progression of the artillery’s barrage, according to that strange formula which calls on them to march into their own shell-fire. Behind the first wave of assault come bodies of troops armed with knives, automatic pistols, and hand-grenades, whose duty it is to clean things up and crush such resistance as may be offered by the enemy left in the trenches. When they have reached their appointed goal they halt, bring the cannon and machine-guns into position, and wait until the lifting of the artillery fire permits fresh progress. An offensive attempted under these conditions is almost irresistible; it seems probable that it will soon become completely so.
It must not be thought, however, that the defensive is yet a lost cause. It disposes of powerful agencies. Even if trenches and wire entanglements are rendered useless, the machine-gun, which remains the greatest protective weapon, is established wherever possible—behind some fragment of wall, oftener still in a shell-hole, whence it can put a stop to the advance. The artillery lets loose its barrage-fir on the assaulting troops, often forcing them to hurry back to cover. In place of walls of earth we find ramparts formed by bullets and bursting shells, which often suffice to halt the strongest attack and provide sufficient time for the organization of new defenses at the rear. In spite of the formidable progress made by the artillery, a few men, standing firm under the deluge of projectiles, can set at naught a drive which would seem irresistible. The warfare of to-day has become a sort of colossal death-grapple between engines of destruction, an infernal factory kept in operation by mechanics and chemists; but it is an undeniable fact that never has the self-abnegation, the individual courage, and even the spirit of initiative of the combatants counted for so much. These are qualities which belong to Americans as well as to Frenchmen, and in this fact lies a new pledge of victory for both peoples.
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