The Russian Review/Volume 1/February 1916/Why Was the German Drive Successful?
Why Was the German Drive Successful?
By A. Michailovsky.
Ever since Mackensen began his terrific drive against the Russian positions in the Carpathians, people have not ceased to wonder why the huge Russian armies, that had taken Lemberg and Przemysl and had climbed the Carpathian passes in winter, suddenly crumpled up and began their hasty retreat.
As a general thing, we are apt to attribute the Russian retreat from Galicia, and the subsequent Polish campaign, to lack of ammunition, dearth of commanding officers, and the inefficiency of strategic railroads, due to their poor construction and the insufficient supply of coal. But the Russian military writers, reluctantly admitting all this, tell us that there are specific points in the German military organizations which made the tremendous drives through Galicia and Poland possible.
In the first place, it is claimed that in her preparations for the war, Germany, which was, until 1914, the supreme authority on military affairs, preached doctrines of military tactics which she herself has not followed during the war. The German military writers have always, for example, argued against fortresses and even field fortifications as means of defense, emphasizing the principle that it is the human factor that wins a war, since no fortress can withstand properly directed artillery fire. Yet, it is clear that without field fortifications of the kind constructed in France, Germany would not have been able toher war on three battle fronts.
There are other factors, of course, that conspire to make such a campaign possible for Germany. The chief one is the German plan of artillery service. Before the war, the Germans had each army corps supplied with 144 pieces. But their experts always claimed that this number is too large and praised the methods of other countries, which reduced the number to from 96 to 120 pieces, on the ground that overloading a corps with artillery makes it too slow and unwieldy in motion. Nevertheless, the Germans themselves kept their army corps supplied with 144 pieces of artillery each. Since the beginning of the war, they have even increased each unit by sixteen heavy pieces, thus bringing the whole number up to 160, as against the much less numerous artillery of the Allies.
There seems to be no doubt that Germany began preparing for a war of the kind that began in August 1914, long before its outbreak. Her technical and industrial preparations were taken by the world as a matter of course. But Germany was also equipping herself with an intimate knowledge of the territory where the encounters of the possible war were likely to take place. It is said that von Kluck visited incognito, more than once, the part of northern France through which he led his brilliant drive at the very beginning of the war. The story is also told that part of the present German positions on the Aisne as prepared long before the war.
The German preparations in Poland were even more extensive, although ostensibly they were quite innocent. All through the western part of Russia, especially in the Polish provinces, the German colonists bought up land and settled there. Their estates were examples of thrift and industry. The courtyards were covered with heavy cement, which later served as foundations for the German heavy artillery. The buildings were constructed like small forts, which, too, were used to advantage during the German drive through Poland. Some of the farms were equipped with radio-telegraph towers, and these also, had a service to perform. As was later found out, the estates were in many places connected by a system of underground passages, miles in length.
The Germans had a very extensive and thorough system of espionage. This was more elaborately applied in Russia than in the West. Their spies were all over the country, in all layers of society, and they kept their government constantly informed of what was going on. It is said that even Emperor William took part in the organization of the system of espionage.
The German Emperor had hunting parks and castles near Vierzhbolovo, on the Russo-German border. Whenever he visited the grounds he always invited to his castle an obscure lieutenant-colonel of the border gendarmes. It was explained that this lieutenant-colonel was an expert at relating German anecdotes and that the Kaiser invited him as an entertainer. The name of the gendarme, who entertained the German Emperor, was Miasoyedov. It was he, who, at the beginning of the war, received the commission of a colonel in the army, was arrested later on the charge of treason, and executed as the most dangerous of the German spies discovered in the Russian army.
A popular Russian publicist, Nemerovich-Danchenko, writing from the front, describes several devices used by the Germans, which may be considered as factors in their success. In the first place, the German army is built on the basis of powerful units,—the regiments. Each regiment is recognized as having its own traditions and forming a compact body, which, in action, resembles a mailed fist. In order to achieve this result, it is necessary to fill the ranks of each regiment just as soon as they become thinned out, and to continue pouring into its ranks new material, which becomes rapidly assimilated. Thus, although there may remain very little of the original regiment, the spirit of the particular regiment never changes. It always remains a unit, acting as one body. Certain parts of the reserves are used, not for the formation of new regiments, but exclusively for filling in the old regiments that have lost men in battle.
The German plans of battles are wonderful for their accuracy and precision of execution. The division and corps commanders are like musicians in a well-trained orchestra. They appear on the scene of action at the precise moment when the score requires it. At times, of course, they suffer setbacks, or meet with resistance that makes absolute perfection impossible. But the organization of the German armies is such that the retreat, unless cut off, which happens very rarely, is executed very rapidly, as they possess excellent facilities for moving back their artillery. The retreat of the troops, unencumbered by artillery, is a matter of no great difficulty. This explains why there are so few German prisoners of war in Russia, as compared with the Austrians captured.
The Germans prefer to fight on a curved front. They do not send single regiments into action and rely on their rapid succession for success. Instead, their troops move in masses, which, immediately upon striking the enemy, begin to unfold their wings. As the main mass moves forward, the wings aim to accelerate their pace somewhat, thus producing a double enveloping movement, which is often irresistible. In the battle of Lodz, the Russians imitated this method by following out the German enveloping wings, and, in turn, enveloping them. The result was a Russian victory. Such a movement, however, was possible because of superiority in numbers, coupled with efficient artillery fire.
This movement of mass formation is one of the lessons that the Germans learned from Napoleon and applied to the needs of modern warfare. Like the great Corsican, the modern German strategists believe in the effectiveness of concentrated artillery fire. Their infantry is rarely used for direct attack. It is sent into action only after the artillery fire has prepared a way for it by demolishing the enemy's defenses. The infantry completes the blow.
Another of Napoleon's principles, applied extensively by the Germans, is concentration of large masses of troops at the particular spots where they can be used most effectively. The Germans recognize the commonplace truth that they cannot be strong everywhere, and their military genius lies precisely in the proper choice of points at which to concentrate their forces.
But even Napoleon never dreamt of such lavish use of artillery as that developed by the Germans during this war. The artillery equipment of the German army is truly wonderful, and their supply seems to be inexhaustible. Before the war, Germany supplied most of the world with implements and munitions of war. Now, all her war industries, with their productive powers and efficiency increased many times, work exclusively for the needs of the German army. The natural result is that there seems to be no limit to the German supply of guns and munitions, no matter how extravagant is their use.
Often it seems almost a miracle that the Germans are enabled to concentrate very large bodies of troops at certain points. Such movements, especially on the Eastern front, must, it seems, result in a weakening at other points. Yet the German line appears to be almost equally powerful everywhere.
The secret of this lies in the German use of machine guns. Germany has at present over 100,000 machine guns in her trenches, and she can, naturally, make very effective use of them. In the Russian army a machine gun is almost asas a cannon, while the Germans regard it as scarcely more valuable than a good repeating rifle.
The following case will serve as an excellent illustration. Suppose the Germans have four companies guarding a line of trenches. Against them are also four Russian companies, in trenches. The Russians usually have one machine gun for each two companies; the Germans have as many as they need. Now, suppose that three of the German companies are needed in some other part of the battle front. They are led away, but, in their stead, the number of machine guns is increased, so that there is one gun for every fifteen soldiers. As a result, considering the number of bullets that the defenders of the German trenches can discharge, they have the defensive strength of twelve companies, as against the Russian four. If we apply this on a much larger scale, we shall see how the Germans manage to keep all parts of their front strong enough for defensive purposes, and yet are able to concentrate great masses of troops for offensive movements.
(From "Satirikon," Petrograd.)