Going Over The Top: East is East and West is West

By David Flin

There were two strategic schools of thought in Britain during the war about how the war should be conducted, and the debate between them was a bitter one. The end of the war brought about a change to the debate. The debate continued, just as fiercely fought, but now it was about how the war should have been conducted.

The two schools of thought were the Easterners and the Westerners. The Easterners took the view that the German lines in France were essentially like an impregnable fortress, and that the key to victory lay in fighting on other fronts, to drain away German strength in many wide-spread campaigns.

By contrast, the Westerners took the view that the war could only be won by beating the German army in the field; the German army was in northern France, and so that was where the all-important struggle lay, and anything that drew Entente strength away from this area diminished the capability of bringing the war to an end.

The near-stable stalemate position of the Western Front for so long

The debate rumbled through the 1920s and 1930s. Essentially, the debate came down to two views.

On the one hand, the Easterners said that there had to be a better way than what took place. The 4-year slaughter in the trenches of France devastated everything, and the price that victory cost was excessive. There were many proponents of this view: Liddell Hart probably expressed the view best in his development of the theory of the Indirect Approach. Both Churchill and Lloyd-George were in this camp, and in Lloyd-George’s case, he was very critical of the Westerners. Of course, during the war, for the period he was Prime Minister, he was directly responsible for the very strategy he was now criticising, and criticise it he did. He described it as a: “Narrow, selfish, and unimaginative strategy, a ghastly butchery of a succession of vain and insane offensives.” Hard to credit that he was responsible for the strategy.

Later, the debate shifted, and the effect that the campaigns in Gallipoli and Salonika, in Mesopotamia and Arabia, in east Africa and west Africa, all were essentially just minor affairs compared to the meat grinder of the Western Front. Liddell Hart took the view that what brought Germany down was the naval blockade, and internal collapse brought about by losses. The trouble was, without the Western Front, the losses from these campaigns wouldn’t have brought about internal collapse, and the war would have gone on for a lot longer than actually happened.

Image from the book " Our wonderful navy; the story of the sure shield in peace and war". An undeniably neutral and objective volume.

The Easterners preferred strategy was the traditional British wartime strategy, of using control of the seas to hem the enemy in, and concentrate on peripheral targets. This worked very well in limited colonial struggles, where the need is for a small, professional force capable of independent action is required.

However, that was no longer relevant to a mass continental struggle. It’s a strategy that inevitably takes years to have an impact. Given the political situation, with the German forces entrenched in northern France and Belgium, there was always going to be massive pressure on the generals to attack the German positions here.

There was always going to be a trade-off between the Westerners and the Easterners. Both had a coherent strategy, which is essential, but the first was always going to be costly of men’s lives, while the second was always going to take a very long time to have a noticeable impact.

Take, for example, the Gallipoli campaign. If it had achieved its objectives, it would have forced a route through from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, it would have knocked Turkey out of the war, put extra pressure on Austria-Hungary, and ensured a new supply route to get supplies to Russia. None of these are going to bring about a swift end to the war. It would have tightened the screw a bit more on Germany, increased the effectiveness of the blockade by removing Turkey as a route for supplies, and given the Russians more support.

Unfortunately, getting supplies to Russia wasn’t so much of a problem. The problem Russia had with supplies, and they had extensive supply problems, was getting the supplies to where they were needed. There were huge stockpiles of supplies deep within Russia, but the transport infrastructure to get these supplies to the front was woefully inadequate. Opening up the Dardanelles would have simply resulted in bigger stockpiles waiting transport to the people who actually needed them.

The impact on either the Western Front, or the Eastern Front between Russia and Germany, would have been initially slight. A turn of the screw, not a war-ending stroke.

Exactly the same can be said about the Salonika campaign, Mesopotamia, and others.

And yet the alternative was to force the issue on the Western Front, and as we have seen, that is going to cost in blood. This is especially true if the intention is to force the issue to get the war to end ahead of the OTL end-point. A lot was learned over the years, and the military historian Paddy Griffith described the evolution of tactics by the British Army on the Western Front in his work: Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack, 1916-18.

Implications for Alternate Time Lines. Rewriting WW1 absolutely requires the author to consider whether or not to adjust the balance of strategy between the Easterners and the Westerners. If the emphasis shifts towards the Strategy of the Indirect Approach, then unless there are other changes, the war will last longer.

If, however, the author shifts the emphasis to focus more on the Western Front, then we can look to see bigger and more frequent operations. The rats will be well fed, at least.

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