Frontal assaults in modern warfare (1870-1920 aprox.)

Dec 2016
Leaving aside books, I really enjoy historical film depictions of wars and battles that took place on 19th century and first decades of 20th century. So, I've recently seen the film "203 Kochi" about the siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) and you can clearly see lots of times how waves of several japanese infatry men are annihilated, wars are cruel, but these events seems to be too dramatic, those poor japanese young soldiers almost being sacrificed. I think I've also seen similar scenes in other films of the period, I barely remember something similar in an old film depicting Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). But the film that strongly caught my attention is "203 Kochi", and I would like to ask, those frontal assaults were a common infantry tactic during this period? I remember to read that in Anglo-Boer Wars soldiers of each side had better coverage in some extent, but then why events such as Siege of Port Arthur or Siege of Plevna were so "suicidal"? I am forced to assume that generals / commanders of that period should have their reasons to risk and sacrifice so many lives to achieve their objectives. But what confuse me even more is why those frontal assaults were even more common in the first decades of 20th century when machine guns and artillery were way more powerful than infantry capabilities? I am not familiar with First World War yet, but I remember to read that Battle of Somme in 1916 had some frontal assaults as well. From a military / tactical point of view, which were the reasons infantry frontal assaults with almost non-existent coverage were so common to the extent that this tactic was used in various wars?

Edited: And then you can clearly check monstrous casualties in battles where frontal assaults were used.
Sep 2016
Well, regarding WW1. What can you do anyway in that situation ? You have to keep millions of troops at front and feed them. All of that costs huge amount of money and even civilians suffer, because they are making sacrifices for the front. You can't just sit around for 4 years and do nothing. Defensive capabilities in WW1 heavily outweighed offensive ones, unlike in WW2. There was also obviously no way to outflank Germans on Western Front. Not to mention, that you had to put pressure on Germans sometimes so they wouldn't be able to transfer soldiers from Western front to the Eastern front and crush Russia.

Europe also has never seen such massive armies and many weapons or some of technology was really tested during WW1 for the first time. Obviously, there still were some foolish generals and terribly executed operations.
Jan 2019
If there are no flanks to turn (like in a siege like Port Arthur or in the Western Front where the battle lines extended from Switzerland to the Channel) then frontal assaults are the only thing left to do. But of course the attacker would try to make the assault as easy as possible by utilizing whatever supporting arms are available like artillery or later gas and tactics like infiltration, but that took time and technological advances (primarily in communications) to become more effective. WWI saw constant theorizing and trial and error in how to best utilize artillery and how to time the infantry assault with the artillery barrage for maximum effect.

Here's good lecture about the 2nd Battle of the Marne, and I timestamped an anecdote by a German soldier which gives a clue how intricately artillery preparations had to be planned in the absence of even WWII level of communication technology.

And of course determined assaults were often intially successful, the advantage the defenders had was more at the operational than at the tactical level as the attacker was now in range of larger number of defending guns, the defender could more easily bring in reinforcements as they had built rail lines and roads right behind their defences while the attacker would have to bring their guns, supplies and reinforcements through a blasted wasteland. In many battles at the tactical level both sides were constantly attacking and counter-attacking with positions frequently changing hands. And there too there was constant development, as the Hindenburg Line was built just that counter-attack in mind, and the the Allies devised tactics to counter and take advantage of that with bite-and-hold tactics.
Feb 2018
In World War I, generals were seduced by the vast numbers they had at their disposal and were driven by the institutional imperative to use them. Thus they were usually employed clumsily, and in the beginning in insane shoulder to shoulder linear formations.

As the war went on, much better frontal assault tactics were developed [along with a matching sophistication of defensive tactics]. By the end of the war the German stormtrooper tactics and British bite and hold coordinated attacks were incredibly advanced and sophisticated compared to even 1916.
  • Like
Reactions: macon and delta1

Tercios Espanoles

Ad Honorem
Mar 2014
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
I highly recommend the book "Surviving Trench Warfare - Technology and the Canadian Corps 1914-1918" by Bill Rawling. It carefully maps the changing infantry tactics used in the assault and is very instructive for all the Imperial forces.



Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
WW1 was the culmination of a breakdown of command ,
before a general would either see , heard or be informed by messages of what was going on , battles lasted hours

after radio allowed the general staff to communicate with the troops engaged in fighting at least at the company level

during WW1 , in an attack , a commander had very little clues as to what was happening and few means to send orders
artillery could'nt be sure where the front line was , while the defenders were much better informed of the enemy position
Nov 2010
The first months of WW1 saw most of the casualties of the war precisely because of massed frontal assault.
22nd August 1924 was the worst day in French military history with around 27,000 KIA.

This was due to the infantry tactics of the time. Being theoreticised as a doctrine, it took the French army some time to accept reality, even considering the appalling casualty figures. I'd say that Generals were also then more inclined than later on to sacrifice soldiers' lives for the purpose of breakthrough.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2016
Countless times in WW1 frontal assaults worked GREAT. Enemy trenches were captured, sometimes with ease and light casualties too.

The problem was "what next?" The issue wasnt just how to conduct a successful tactical offensive, it was really about exploiting it for operational success. IE, breakthrough was next to impossible. And that's where the stagnation occurs.

Scenario. Assault troops, having launched a corps level offensive, have taken ground, enemy trenches. Afterwards, they need to stop to reorganize. They need supplies, more ammo, which had to cross no mans land. They needed to evacuate casualties, across no mans land. They need to report success to superiors and wait for reinforcements, a back and forth across no mans land. Then they have new problems. Their own artillery often cannot range to new targets in the enemy's rear, and even if they could there are MAJOR communication problems in calling for and adjusting friendly artillery fire by front line assault forces trying to hold their newly gotten gains. In other words, after having succeeded they're at their weakest.

While the defender gets stronger. Their lines are shortening, it takes less distance to move supplies forward. Behind their front lines are communication trenches for movement of large number of troops below the ground level (protection from most artillery fire), so they can safely move counterattacking forces in almost any direction. Implying a defending unit was arranged initially in some depth, had local reserves of their own, only manning the very front lines with part (or minimal) of their total forces, then they don't even need to ask for the commitment of operational reserve from other sectors to deal with it (which can be used for legit emergencies). On top of that, the counterattacking force has the easiest time getting their own fire support, since their closer to most of their pieces, better communication networks still exist (wire telephone), and because they know EXACTLY what to aim at (they already had exact coordinates for their own trenches they need to recapture).

Now let's say someone launches an offensive that successfully takes ground (enemy trenches in depth plus their arty park) plus defeats local counterattack, plus they have fresh follow on forces all ready to pass forward to exploit the attack. Then it still comes down to the fact that subsequent attacks will be poorly supported by artillery (that range and communication problem discussed earlier). Those assault troops will be moving forward at the speed of a two footed man having to walk. How fast? Let's say 3.5 mph, they're really hauling butt. But behind the lines, the defending troops have a bunch of transport trucks and rail cars. They can pull the reserve from other sectors and move them to the sector in doubt at a much faster speed than 3.5 mph. They can respond faster to the breakthrough than the assault forces can exploit it (like like Operation Michael/Spring 1918 German offensive).

So while the attacking force might get a division or two (or even more,) into the breach to exploit, they'll be badly supported by artillery, possess a poor supply line, while the counterattacking force can position multiple corps, with really good artillery support, to cut the neck of the salient. Then, the original attacking force has to retreat or go firm defending, losing most if not all of the ground they took, losing lots of their best troops (those capable of offensive action). Meanwhile, the original defending force has stolen the initiative, they're locally stronger and they see their enemy in a bad position. So then THEY launch an attack... and the cycle repeats.

It keeps repeating until the mobility and communication problems are solved (done in interwar and shown in WW2). Or they grind away in an attritional war until one side has no reserve left to move anymore, and finally the once limited tactical breakthroughs can be exploited and maneuver regained, allowing for major operational and strategic successes (what was happening in Nov 1918, and why the Germans ended the war).


Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
It is significant that the French father of tanks doctrine general Estienne was an artillery man
his concern was to use tanks to provide artillery support to the advancing troops

aggienation hit the nail on the head , an attack at anything above brigade level would get bogged down past the first line of defense
once the Hindenburg line was manned , large assault with deep objectives became a pointless butchery

general Gough partial solution was attack limited in dept , no more idea of rushing for breakthrough , a ponderous step by step push , a constant erosion of positions ,
keeping a sector of the front under unrelenting sequential attack , draining the local commander forces , re-positioning artillery and ressources for the next step

the German high command choose to delegate command at a lower level , elite assault groups led by NCO each had their objective point and knew exactly what to do
they didn't need to be commanded for movement , once their objective reached , another team would leapfrog them to their next one
the defense was dismounted piece by piece
this was tried large scale for the taking of Riga and was very successful

the Canadian Curry had demonstrated the advantage of training planning preparation and coordination in the taking of the daunting Vimy ridge
an astonishing success

ultimately the Germans ran out of elite troops , while the allied worked out the combined assault of artillery , air , tanks and infantry in that order

the Australian Monash used this perfectly at the battle of Hamel ,
he took all his objective in 93 minutes , three more minutes than he had planned with very light losses

Both Curry and Monash were not professional soldiers , they came from civilian life
Nov 2019
United States
I did a lecture on WW1 about a year ago for a group. One of the things I pointed out was that technology played a huge part in how the war evolved, strongly changing the strength of the defense over the offense. Three weapons played a huge role in this change:

1.) The Mauser 98, and all the versions of it produced (to include the Lee-Enfield, and the French Lebel to some degree (though the usage of smokeless powder influenced the design of all other nations weapons). This basic design of the Mauser 98, with a 5 round stripper clip in the magazine, had an effective range of 550 yds (500 m) and a maximum range in excess of 2000yds. It's accuracy was unparalleled for it's time as a infantry weapon. This was a force magnifier of here-to-fore inexperienced import to infantry tactics.
2.) The Maxim machine-gun, and the variants and improvement thereof: World War I Machine Guns (1914-1918)
The Maxim allowed a single group of perhaps 4 soldiers to destroy units as large as companies or greater of attacking units.
3.) The evolution of artillery. A simple thing like having a recoil devise on a howitzer or rifled gun made an immense difference in accuracy, and in rate of fire. The change from "balls" to shells was another huge change in artillery, breech-loading meant again more rapid fire, shells were easier to store, and to stock. The rapid improvement of shrapnel shells, and timed fuses. Chaim Weizman a biochemist and future Prime Minister of Israel, changed artillery when he created developed acetone–butanol–ethanol fermentation process, which produces acetone, n-Butanol and ethanol through bacterial fermentation. His acetone production method was of great importance in the manufacture of cordite explosive propellants for the British war industry during World War I. Larger artillery, such as the famed Paris gun, allowed ranges of artillery to vastly advance from any weapons in prior history.

This doesn't even begin to touch on all the other technologies that had impact in the war, from telephones to radio, to airplanes, canned meats and food products, better optical devices, trucks, tanks, stronger metals, mass production, better logistical methods, and of course poison gasses.

The end of this however is that military science had not evolved to absorb the meaning of how all this technology would change warfare. The result was annihilation of soldiers on a massive scale.

It's very easy for us now to sit back and wonder at the "stupidity" of WW1 generals, and I'll admit to having done that quite a bit when I first studied WW1, but the problem is that most of them still had as their icons Wellington, Napoleon, and Moltke, and the infantry maneuver tactics that were prevalent during those times, none of which were applicable to the "modern warfare" of WW1.