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The horse had dominated the battlefield for thousands of years, providing speed and mobility to the cavalry and draft power for transport and logistics. And although horses played a major role throughout World War I, their days were clearly numbered by The transition to mechanical motive power did not occur all at once, of course, but it reached full maturity during World War I. The transition started with the invention of the steam engine and railroads during the 19 th century, but it went into high gear with the development of the internal combustion engine at the end of the century.

By the military technologies based on the internal combustion engine were starting to mature with the introduction of the tank and heavier-than-air combat aircraft. The aircraft ushered in the second major paradigm shift, the transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional warfare. Up to that point battles had been fought on two-dimensional planes, although any piece of high ground on that plane gave an advantage to the side holding it.

How America Goes to War (Modern Military Tradition)

Now, aircraft made the sky itself the new high ground, and it was no longer sufficient to dominate the horizontal space within the range of your weapons. You also had to control the sky above you, or you would be vulnerable to deadly attack from the air. The problem of control of the air also extended to the battle at sea, but there the introduction of the submarine extended the battle space below the surface as well as above it. The combination of submarines and naval aircraft quickly made the heavy-gun ship-of-the-line — the battleship — obsolete.

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The third paradigm shift was the introduction of depth. Throughout history most battles were fought and decided at the line of contact. Now, with the advent of aircraft, long-range artillery , fire-control technologies to engage accurately targets far beyond the line of sight of the gun crews, and target-acquisition technologies capable of accurately locating deep targets, it became possible to attack an enemy force deep in its vulnerable rear areas, rather than just along the hardened defenses of its front line.

Now, the combat problem became one of striking at the enemy simultaneously along his front and deep in his rear, while defending simultaneously along your own front and the vulnerable and critical installations in your own rear.


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Thus, warfare between and became an extremely complicated business. And they all had to be coordinated and synchronized. Modern communication technologies played a major role in making all that possible, but rapid communications and mobility also speeded-up the process, cutting down the reaction times and the time available for the decision cycles. If warfare before was like a standard chess game, warfare since World War I has been like a multi-level chess game where each player moves ten, fifteen, or even twenty pieces at the same time.

World War I was history's first high-tech war. The first wave ushered in breech-loading, rifled weapons of increased firing speed and accuracy. The second wave brought smokeless powder, repeating rifles, machine guns , rapid-firing artillery, and the internal combustion engine. All of these changes came together during World War I to create a technological perfect storm.

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The new technologies, which dramatically increased the tempo and lethality of combat operations, also made coordination between the various arms infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc. All sides in had difficulties coping with and integrating the new technologies, but especially the Germans. Despite their impressive tactical and organizational innovations later during World War I, the German army remained handicapped by an institutional bias against many of the technical possibilities, and pursued instead largely tactical solutions to most of the problems of the modern battlefield.

The moral forces in the breast of the commander and in the soul of the entire people are the qualities which have finally turned the scales in war. Nonetheless, other German analysts correctly identified the problem. The report of one of the post-war study commissions established by General Hans von Seeckt criticized the German General Staff for having too many tacticians but not enough technicians.

The Germans sorely lacked weapons specialists who really understood both the tactical effects and the limitations of current technology.

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The Germans, of course, were not completely hostile to the new military technologies. In some areas, they were significantly ahead of the Allies. Most of those areas fell into the realm of firepower—field artillery, heavy artillery, mortars, machine guns. The mobility area was where they seem to have had the greatest shortcomings, which is somewhat ironic considering their exploitation of the railroad during the later 19 th century. During the years between the two world wars the various armies of the world adopted modern technologies at varying rates.

The U. Despite their embrace of the tank, the German army overall was still heavily dependent on horses right through , as was the Soviet army. The two basic elements of combat power are firepower and maneuver. Firepower produces the kinetic energy effect that destroys, neutralizes, or suppresses an objective. Maneuver is movement throughout the battle space to gain positional advantage. The two complement each other. The side with greater positional advantage can position its firepower to better effect; and the side with superior firepower can better support its maneuver element.


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  • Over the course of military history, these two elements have been locked in a cyclical struggle for dominance. Rarely has one gained dominance over the other, or held it for very long.

    But in the seventy or so years before the start of World War I, firepower technology had advanced much farther and faster than mobility technology. Bolt-action rifles, machine guns, and rapid-firing artillery had increased drastically the rates of fire, but battlefield mobility still plodded along at the speed of a man or a horse. That would begin to change by , with the emergence of combat aircraft, the tank, and the increased use of motor vehicles.

    By , the balance between fire and maneuver was almost restored, which largely explains why World War II did not bog down in trench warfare. But, for most of World War I, maneuver in the face of such overwhelming firepower became almost suicidal. The result was trench warfare. Neither side anticipated or planned for anything like the long and drawn-out static warfare that actually developed, but many military thinkers did recognize the basic problems of modern warfare.

    In his five-volume book published in , the Polish civilian banker Jan Bloch argued that modern weaponry made offensive maneuver all but impossible. There was no common consensus for a solution to the problem of fire and maneuver. Many planners, likewise, recognized that any war on the Continent would be a long one, rather than the short and decisive war everyone hoped for.

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    The large numbers of troops committed at the start of the war quickly created a massive force density along the German, French, and Belgian borders, leaving little room for maneuver and no open flanks to exploit. That problem was compounded by the firepower-maneuver disconnect. The Wars of German Unification ended in , and from then until there had been no major wars in western or central Europe.

    During that same period, the vast technological improvements in weapons resulted in greatly increased range, accuracy, volume of fire, and lethality that placed the soldier in the open at a distinct disadvantage to the soldier fighting from a protected position. During the early battles of August and September , there was a great deal of attempted maneuver.

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    But, as both sides groped across the battlefield searching open flanks that did not exist, firepower took its grim toll. The troops themselves soon realized the near impossibility of survival on the surface of the earth. Soldiers on all sides hated and still hate the spade, but the overwhelming volumes firepower forced them to dig.

    As the war continued, these defenses became more elaborate and semi-permanent. The Eastern Front never quite solidified into the static and rigid network of trenches and fortifications so typical of the Western Front. While the problem on the Western Front was too many forces in too little space, the problem on the Eastern Front was just the opposite. The flat terrain and open spaces in the east, combined with the increased firepower yet very limited mobility of the World War I armies, resulted in the Eastern Front's own brand of stagnation.

    Many professional soldiers clung to the belief that aggressive spirit was the only way the attacker could overcome modern firepower. The cult of the offensive became a substitute for any coherent system of tactical doctrine. The military tacticians of the period, therefore, concentrated on ways to restore the old paradigm, failing to understand that the central paradigm of war itself had shifted.

    War was no longer a contest between two opposing forces of blood, muscle, and bayonets, but now a struggle between two armies consisting of machines. The most important human roles in warfare were now the operation and direction of those machines.

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    Gone forever were the days when massed infantry alone, attacking with bayonets could win battles. The greatly improved range, accuracy, and rates of fire of artillery created serious challenges for coordinating its fires with the infantry on the battlefield. Indirect fire techniques, which allowed guns to engage targets far beyond the line of sight of their crews, combined with the still primitive communications systems, made close support of the infantry very difficult the farther the attack advanced from the line of departure.

    Radio was still in its infancy.


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    The telephone worked well enough in defensive situations, but during an attack, messengers were the only way to send and receive requests for fire support and corrections. That sometimes took hours, assuming the messengers survived to get through. One solution to the problem was to advance the artillery fire on a pre-set schedule, controlled by phase lines on the map.

    That technique evolved into the creeping barrage, with the attacking infantry trained to follow closely behind the moving wall of their own artillery fire. Infantry commanders were ordered to keep their lead troops as close as possible to the advancing barrage, even though they almost certainly sustained casualties from friendly fire in the process.