Stationary versus mobile WWI and WWII

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,672
My understanding is that in WWI artillery and machine guns were so powerful that it led to it being advantageous for both sides to maintain defensive positions.However, by the time of WWII, tanks, aircraft, and infantry semi-automatic weapons made mobile warfare again practical and successful. There were situations in WWI where attempts to attack resulted in disproportionate casualties for the attackers, and that somewhat similar situations had occurred in the American Civil War, where the greater range and fire rate of artillery and small arms made some frontal assualts into disasters. Particularly, in the Battle of France the French tried to use a defensive approach, exemplified by the Maginot Line, whereas the Germans used an aggressive mobile approachs. Is this simplistic? Is my understanding correct?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
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Your understanding is generally correct. The technologies that enabled WW2 mobility (like tanks, aircraft, radios, and light machine guns) were too immature to allow the same level of mobility in WW1. The deadlock of WW1 stimulated the development of these mobility enhancing technologies.

In the century after Waterloo, almost all new military technologies favored the defense - rapid fire rifles, barbed wire, the telephone, quick firing artillery, smokeless gunpowder, railroads, etc. so that by WW1 the defense had gained a marked advantage over offense. The trend reversed after 1920 as most armies concentrated on developing new technologies and tactics for offensive warfare. France with their Maginot Line was the biggest exception. They stayed with defensive tech and tactics.
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,970
My understanding is that in WWI artillery and machine guns were so powerful that it led to it being advantageous for both sides to maintain defensive positions.However, by the time of WWII, tanks, aircraft, and infantry semi-automatic weapons made mobile warfare again practical and successful. There were situations in WWI where attempts to attack resulted in disproportionate casualties for the attackers, and that somewhat similar situations had occurred in the American Civil War, where the greater range and fire rate of artillery and small arms made some frontal assualts into disasters. Particularly, in the Battle of France the French tried to use a defensive approach, exemplified by the Maginot Line, whereas the Germans used an aggressive mobile approachs. Is this simplistic? Is my understanding correct?
changes from ww1.

Communications - Radios allowed communications and co-ordination. Every bit as important as anything else.
Transport - Trucks allowed much better mobility and transport and tucks now had some rough terrain ability.

During ww1 breaking the initial defensive line was routinely achieved. It was the lack of communication and transport that prevented a breakout form that.

Strategy.

The French saw the Germans as having a advnatge in mobilization and equipment, but as France and Britain changed to a war economy this advantage would decline and became an allied advantage. The Allies had greater resources, delay was to their advantage.

Doctrine.

The French had develped a doctrine around "Methodological Battle" heavily focused on set peices, planned attacks relying heavily on artillery. French rreaction was ww1 done Right.
The German response to ww1 was anythng but trench warfare which was to be avoided, improvisation and war of rapid movement.
 
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Oct 2015
999
Virginia
All true.
Development of new artillery tactics, infantry infiltration etc made breaking thru trench lines possible without prohibitive casualties. But like "Pugsville" says, communicating and getting guns, supplies and reinforcements across no mans land and captured trench lines was much slower and more difficult than bringing up reserves via rail and unobstructed roads to seal off the penetration.
 
Jan 2012
386
French Kingdom
Your understanding is generally correct. The technologies that enabled WW2 mobility (like tanks, aircraft, radios, and light machine guns) were too immature to allow the same level of mobility in WW1. The deadlock of WW1 stimulated the development of these mobility enhancing technologies.

In the century after Waterloo, almost all new military technologies favored the defense - rapid fire rifles, barbed wire, the telephone, quick firing artillery, smokeless gunpowder, railroads, etc. so that by WW1 the defense had gained a marked advantage over offense. The trend reversed after 1920 as most armies concentrated on developing new technologies and tactics for offensive warfare. France with their Maginot Line was the biggest exception. They stayed with defensive tech and tactics.
Actually the trend changed long before 1920, during the war itself.

WWI started as an offensive war where the aggressor tried to quickly gain a significant territorial advantage hoping that like in 1870 this would be enough to win, therefore Hindenburg and Lunddendorf plans required an aggressive strategy in order to threaten Paris as fast as possible.

When that strategy failed, only then did the war became a static war where defensive warfare got the advantage, but only until the German spring offensives of 1918 : the new offensives techniques based on short but incredibly intensive artillery preparation followed by the attacks of specialized German shock troops made instantly obsolete the classical trench warfare, and if eventually allied forces resisted victoriously they were originally totally unprepared to open field combat unlike those German new commandos, and only the superior mobility of the French troops that could carry entire divisions in a four hours to close the gaps avoided the defeat.

So ironically the allied forces were saved by their mobility, not static defensive warfare.

Later on during the aliied final summer offensives, Foch restart using very offensive tactics that were unachievable with static artillery as artillery fire couldn't support infantry attacks beyond the first enemy line of defense, but tanks changed that, being able despite their short autonomy to support infantry for a longer time, and especially because the French Renault FT 17 tank could be carried by trucks.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
6,091
The paradox of the French is that in WWI no other army motorized itself on the same scale and as comprehensively as the French. By comparison by WWII they might actually have regressed somewhat compared to how it worked in 1918.
 
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Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
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Actually the trend changed long before 1920, during the war itself.
Yes, this is true. I only used 1920 as an approximate date. I tend to take a long view of history. 500 years from now the difference between 1915 and 1920 won't seem very important.

the German spring offensives of 1918 : the new offensives techniques based on short but incredibly intensive artillery preparation followed by the attacks of specialized German shock troops
Yes, this is another difference between 1914 and 1944 - 1918 saw an early version of suppressive fire and maneuver tactics.

... WWI started as an offensive war where the aggressor tried to quickly gain a significant territorial advantage ...
only the superior mobility of the French troops that could carry entire divisions in a four hours to close the gaps avoided the defeat.
So ironically the allied forces were saved by their mobility, not static defensive warfare.
I question the importance of these mobilities in the context of this thread. Yes, the first two or three months of WW1 saw the armies still able to move rapidly, but this was the exception, not the typical experience, of WW1. As far as the French in 1918 being able to rapidly move forces through their own rear area to plug gaps at the front, most armies throughout history have been able to do that. It's not difficult to move through friendly territory. The hard part is overcoming opposition in prepared defenses. That has always been difficult but especially difficult during WW1. The allied successes in September and October 1918 had more to do with German exhaustion than with Allied technology or tactics.
 
Jan 2012
386
French Kingdom
Yes, this is true. I only used 1920 as an approximate date. I tend to take a long view of history. 500 years from now the difference between 1915 and 1920 won't seem very important.


Yes, this is another difference between 1914 and 1944 - 1918 saw an early version of suppressive fire and maneuver tactics.


I question the importance of these mobilities in the context of this thread. Yes, the first two or three months of WW1 saw the armies still able to move rapidly, but this was the exception, not the typical experience, of WW1. As far as the French in 1918 being able to rapidly move forces through their own rear area to plug gaps at the front, most armies throughout history have been able to do that. It's not difficult to move through friendly territory. The hard part is overcoming opposition in prepared defenses. That has always been difficult but especially difficult during WW1. The allied successes in September and October 1918 had more to do with German exhaustion than with Allied technology or tactics.
When I talk about mobility, it's not always in friendly territory as you said : in spring 1918 the French troops are literally thrown into combat from the moment they get out of the trucks! I explained that there was no more frontline, the German attacking troops had a wide opened range of field in front of them but were unable to efficiently exploit it, lacking the support of artillery or tanks but even more importantly lacking mobility : still they gained dozens of miles behind the allied lines before being stopped, not by trenches but by French divisions brought by trucks sometimes even behind the most advanced German elements, which created a lot of confusion as the French soldiers did not met their foe where they expected it to be.

After the failure of the spring offensives the German army was weakened but not exhausted, the allied forces did not outnumber them as they were themselves outnumbered during operation Michael, and they were protected by the most formidable set of fortified trenches you could find on the western front, the Hindenburg line.

The use of tanks is recognized as one of the main reasons for the victory of the battle of Amiens at the beginning of August which is the turning point of the war as that victory forced the German army to a retreat.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
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... French divisions brought by trucks sometimes even behind the most advanced German elements, which created a lot of confusion as the French soldiers did not met their foe where they expected it to be.
This seems to describe a few exceptions, not the norm for WW1 combat. The front could be fluid and not always well defined, but you're hardly describing Blitzkrieg or Deep Battle tactics here. Stumbling into a confused situation is not a tactic. No one does that on purpose.

When I talk about mobility, it's not always in friendly territory as you said : in spring 1918 the French troops are literally thrown into combat from the moment they get out of the trucks! I explained that there was no more frontline, the German attacking troops had a wide opened range of field in front of them but were unable to efficiently exploit it, lacking the support of artillery or tanks but even more importantly lacking mobility : still they gained dozens of miles behind the allied lines before being stopped, not by trenches but by French divisions brought by trucks.
When we compare WW1 and WW2 in terms of mobility, it's far more useful to think in terms of the ability to penetrate the enemy's front line, get into his rear area, and force him to retreat (or surrender). This was rare in WW1 but much more common in WW2. I'm pretty sure you're not claiming the French rode in their trucks through the German lines and into the German rear in some kind of WW1 blitzkrieg. There were differences between WW1 and WW2, and it's fair to describe WW1 as a war of static positions while WW2 was much more fluid and mobile. What little mobility existed in WW1 was not really decisive or defining.

Tanks were important at Amiens, but they don't explain why the Germans were unable to establish a new trench line afterwards. Even in the final months of the war, most tanks still broke down in the first 24-48 hours of an attack. If the Germans were still retreating on the third, fourth, fifth day etc. after an attack began, it wasn't because of the tanks. It was because the Germans were too exhausted to resist once they were kicked out of their trenches.
 
Jan 2012
386
French Kingdom
This seems to describe a few exceptions, not the norm for WW1 combat. The front could be fluid and not always well defined, but you're hardly describing Blitzkrieg or Deep Battle tactics here. Stumbling into a confused situation is not a tactic. No one does that on purpose.
On allied side we can certainly not talk about Blitzkrieg neither in spring as they were the defenders nor in August, but mobility is not synonymous of Blitzkrieg, it is only a necessary condition to achieve it. Allied troops won essentially because they eventually became more mobile than their enemy.

When we compare WW1 and WW2 in terms of mobility, it's far more useful to think in terms of the ability to penetrate the enemy's front line, get into his rear area, and force him to retreat (or surrender). This was rare in WW1 but much more common in WW2. I'm pretty sure you're not claiming the French rode in their trucks through the German lines and into the German rear in some kind of WW1 blitzkrieg. There were differences between WW1 and WW2, and it's fair to describe WW1 as a war of static positions while WW2 was much more fluid and mobile. What little mobility existed in WW1 was not really decisive or defining.
I agree with everything here except the conclusion : I insist on the fact that allied superior mobility first avoided a defeat in spring but also accelerated the defeat of Germany. It wasn't decisive as you said, Germany would have lost due to numbers but probably as Foch expected it in middle of 1919.
The speed allowed by the use of light tanks carried on trucks as a mobile artillery support allowed to support an attack during a much longer time and on a much bigger distance than before, therefore increasing the troops speed and mobility.

Tanks were important at Amiens, but they don't explain why the Germans were unable to establish a new trench line afterwards. Even in the final months of the war, most tanks still broke down in the first 24-48 hours of an attack. If the Germans were still retreating on the third, fourth, fifth day etc. after an attack began, it wasn't because of the tanks. It was because the Germans were too exhausted to resist once they were kicked out of their trenches.
Being able to sustain an attack with tank fire during 2 days was amazing for the standards of the period, with static artillery it stopped as soon as the attackers were breaching the first line of defense and were stopped by the second one a few hours after in the best case. Moreover the FT 17 was used in very large numbers but in successive waves :when a tank squadron reached its range limit another one arrived by trucks to replace it.

To conclude my original point wasn't to say that WWI was a mobile war but that the premises of Blizkrieg were already there before 1920. Clearly tactics changed after 1917 on both sides allowing to breach the defensive lines while this was impossible before, and on allied side as well as on German one the essential ingredients were mobility and speed.
In 1918 allied forces had twice the number of trucks per division the Germans had and the latter had almost no tank,this says more than any other argument I could bring to the discussion.