Global Reach, Global Power, Has Deep Roots in America’s Past

Mahan's vision attained: The U.S. Atlantic Fleet in 1907
Mahan’s vision attained: The U.S. Atlantic Fleet in 1907

W.J. Astore

The U.S. military today openly boasts of global reach, global power.  Full spectrum dominance is the goal, with that spectrum encompassing land, sea, and air operations, but also extending to space (“the shining stars, and beyond,” one Air Force advertisement claimed) and cyberspace.

The desire for global dominance has deep roots in American strategic thought.  In American strategic circles the foremost proponent of this vision was Alfred Thayer Mahan.  More than a century ago, Mahan promoted a vision of American dominance achieved through naval power, in those days big-gunned battleships.  Mahan believed America was the successor to England and was destined to build a great empire.

Mahan’s imperial vision was occasionally superseded by American tendencies toward isolationism, in which case the U.S. Navy sold its fleet as America’s best defender.  (This is also how early airpower proponents sold bombers in the 1920s; even though airpower enthusiasts embraced the offensive, they could spin on a dime to promote bombers as being more cost effective than naval ships and army coastal artillery in defending America’s coasts when isolationism held sway.)

Today’s U.S. military is inherently Mahanian.  Even though most Americans think of our military as defensive (after all, it’s advertised as the Department of Defense), our military is obviously structured to take the fight to the enemy. America’s “warriors” are forever leaning forward in the foxhole, forever on alert, forever ready for the next exercise in global reach, global power.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, prophet of global reach, global power
Alfred Thayer Mahan, prophet of global reach, global power

In part, we can thank Mahan and England’s boisterous imperialism for this.  What follows is an essay I wrote in 1992 for a Strategic Studies Seminar.  Perhaps it’s still worth reading, at least as a precis on how we became a country that openly sought (and brazenly exercised) global power.  It all started with Mahan and the navy, today’s “global force for good.”

Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and Naval Strategy before World War I (Written in 1992)

W.J. Astore

Prior to World War I, an uncritical demand for naval power, or Navalism, led to the greatest warship building boom in history. Nations built great battle fleets to help establish and protect colonial empires whether they could afford them or not. As Chancellor Bulow of Germany declared, “The question is not whether we want to colonize or not, but that we must
colonize, whether we want it or not.”

The rapid growth of England’s empire provided the justification for Navalism. In 1800 the British Empire had 20 million subjects, spread over 1.5 million square miles. In 1900 she had 390 million subjects, spread over 11 million square miles. Explaining England’s success was one mission of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, United States Navy (USN). In his Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890, Mahan plainly stated England dominated the world because of her holy naval trinity of merchant shipping, colonies, and, most importantly, her navy. He observed “a country’s power and influence must depend upon her hold upon regions without her own borders, and to which the sea leads. The influence of the little British islands gives a lesson our people will surely learn.” Mahan’s primary purpose in Influence was rhetorical: to persuade Americans that a large USN built around battleships was essential for their wealth and security, and to move them to support, with their votes and purses, such a navy.

This rhetorical subtext drove Mahan’s writings on naval strategy. Of the three traditional naval strategies — superior fleet, fleet in being, guerre de course — Mahan heaped scorn on the latter two while brazenly proclaiming the superiority of the former. “It is not the taking of individual ships or convoys…that strikes down the money power of a nation,” Mahan observed; “it is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves… This overbearing power can only be exercised by great navies.”

Mahan further drove home his lesson that superior fleets bring command of the sea and its subsequent benefits of national growth, prosperity, and security by using examples from history. He warned Americans they were “being led, by a like [that is, like France’s] redundancy of home wealth, into the same neglect of that great instrument [a navy].” France’s “false policy of continental extension swallowed up the resources of the country,” asserted Mahan, “expos[ing] the greatest source of [her] wealth [commerce and colonies] to be cut off, as in fact happened.” The one instance the French got it right was during the American Revolution. The French rebuilt their navy and got temporary control of the seas, partly due to blunders by the Royal Navy. To support his call for a larger USN, Mahan cleverly quoted George Washington on the decisive role the revitalized French fleet played at Yorktown.

To understand Mahan’s fixation on the superior fleet strategy, we need to study the distinctly American context in which he wrote. Mark Shulman showed in The Journal of Military History that there was an influential movement in America in the 1880s to reinterpret the War of 1812 between the United States and England. This movement played up the role of the USN at the expense of the Army, and emphasized the need for a powerful navy to protect America and to project American power abroad. Theodore Roosevelt’s The Naval War of 1812, published in 1882, was a prime example of the revisionist literature of this group. Mahan’s book is only the best known polemic of an American Navalist movement which sought to revitalize a USN struggling through fifteen years of post-bellum neglect.

Neglect there was. Elting Morison, a leading naval historian, has said that for about twenty years after the Civil War, “In [US naval] strategy the highest thought was that you existed to protect the coastline. You went out on station if there was a war and waited for the enemy to come to you. You then went close to her and at very short ranges either boarded or rammed or poured broadsides into her.” Mahan would have agreed with Morison; in his words, there was no formulated naval policy after the Civil War, only “apathetic drift,” a period of “decadence.” And while some pointed to the stunning successes won by the USN pursuing guerre de course in the War of 1812 as a possible future strategy, Mahan stressed our dismal failure to command the seas, which allowed the nasty Britons to burn our capital, stop our commerce, and threaten our national existence.

Mahan’s vision was a USN that would at least rival the Royal Navy. He thus unashamedly simplified naval strategy to mean battleship building, as when he stated “Naval strategy has indeed for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the sea power of a country.” The USN needed to grow, and a superior fleet strategy provided the most room for the USN’s future growth.

Mahan turned to Jomini when he dealt with the specifics of naval strategy. He quoted with approval Jomini’s definition of strategy as deciding where to act. Under “strategy” he listed such issues as the selection of the theater of war, the paramount importance of securing lines of communication, the role of military ports, and the choice of the objective and how to achieve it. Like Jomini, he stressed the geometry of strategy and the value of concentration, warning the USN must never divide the fleet into Atlantic and Pacific squadrons.

Mahan helped speed-up naval modernization in the US, and his efforts appeared justified by the Spanish-American War of 1898. But Mahan’s influence went far beyond American shores, and for several reasons. First, Mahan, imitating Jomini, searched for scientific or timeless principles of naval warfare. His Influence is a practical handbook enlivened by history, not a Hegelian tome obscured by dialectic like Clausewitz’s On War. Second, Mahan writes well. I hesitate to quote once again his melodramatic depiction of Nelson’s navy, “those far-distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which Napoleon’s soldiers never looked, [that] stood between them and the conquest of the world.” Nonetheless, it is worth quoting to demonstrate Mahan’s popular appeal. One can’t imagine Kaiser Wilhelm committing every word of Clausewitz to memory, good Prussian though he was. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mahan wrote the perfect book for the time. England had already voted for the Two Power Standard in 1889, which Mahan’s book seemed to verify as wise. His most attentive audience, however, was in Germany, where the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz seized upon his work to justify their naval buildup in pursuit of Germany’s place in the sun and world-power status.

Mahan’s drawbacks are well-known and many: he overestimated the decisiveness of navies in warfare, subordinating history to his “artistic” (as he termed it) vision of a powerful USN ruling the seas, and he almost completely ignored land-sea cooperation. Although he paid homage to the political dimensions of war, he preached almost exclusively that “victory goes to the side with the bigger fleets,” in effect reducing naval strategy to naval shipbuilding.

While it is true Mahan neglected such traditional naval functions as amphibious operations, he probably did so so as to not water down his argument for a powerful, blue water navy. His heavy-handed dismissal of guerre de course and fleet-in-being as viable strategies can be seen in a similar light. With respect to the former, Mahan admitted the importance of commerce raiding as a secondary naval operation, but he stressed “the great object of naval warfare” was first to get command of the sea through decisive fleet actions. The side commanding the seas, Mahan predicted, could severely restrict an enemy’s commerce-raiders (mostly cruisers at this time) by capturing their coaling stations. He did not foresee the rise of submarines as commerce-raiders, but this is hardly surprising, given the primitive state
of submarine technology. He did remark, based on second-hand knowledge of the Russo-Japanese War, that submarines, because they lay so low in the water, had a limited horizon and thus had difficulty locating ships.

He also criticized the fleet-in-being strategy, saying its utility had “been much overstated” and that the superior fleet would always sink or otherwise neutralize the inferior. Events in the Russo-Japanese War seemed to support his ideas. The Russian fleet in being at Port Arthur proved of little value, Mahan wrote, and the Japanese simply “masked” it by blockade. He did observe that if one was stuck with an inferior fleet, the proper strategy was to divide the enemy’s superior fleet by some tactic, then crush it in detail. He termed this the “defensive-offensive,” and here he spoke highly of the Dutch Admiral De Ruyter’s efforts against the Royal Navy during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century.

Mahan exerted a powerful influence over naval strategy in the United States, Japan, and Germany. In America, the USN became a top-heavy force of mainly battleships, serving as the nation’s “first line of defense.” Mahan’s dictum of “Never divide the fleet!” remained gospel up until World War II. In Japan, Mahan’s Influence was adopted as a text in all her naval and military colleges. In Germany, the Kaiser had it translated and boasted that all his naval officers were reading it. But while the United States and Japan prospered by following his teachings, Germany embarked on a dangerous and costly naval arms race with the Royal Navy. In building dreadnoughts to win command of the sea, the Germans created a cold war between themselves and the British while wasting valuable resources that could have been devoted to land warfare.

It is within the context of an England threatened by Germany’s naval program that we need to place Julian Corbett and his book Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, published in 1911. Two obvious differences — the time and the country in which he’s writing — separate his work from Mahan’s. Corbett had little need to convince his fellow Britons of the importance of a navy, nor did he need or want to win over a world audience already enthralled by Mahan. War loomed, and Corbett wanted to ensure the Royal Navy had given the matter some thought. His book is a sophisticated reading of Clausewitz and how the Prussian’s ideas can be applied to naval warfare.

Sir Julian Corbett
Sir Julian Corbett

Corbett, who taught naval history at the Royal Navy college at Greenwich, defined maritime strategy as the mutual relations of navy and army in a plan for war. War itself he defined in Clausewitzian terms as the continuation of policy by other means. Corbett’s strategic theory is more modern sounding than Mahan’s precisely because of his use of Clausewitz, but also because he believed that through close cooperation, armies and navies could produce a synergistic effect. While he should be applauded for his lack of service parochialism, Corbett was reasserting the critical role the navy played in strategy at a time when the British Army was controlling the terms of strategic debate in England.

Corbett defined naval strategy in relation to maritime strategy. Naval strategy was the movement and actions of the fleet which best advanced the maritime strategy. While this might involve attacking the enemy fleet and gaining command of the seas, it might also involve amphibious operations. The strategy adopted would depend on the circumstances of the conflict. Reading the circumstances and taking the proper actions, Corbett believed, were skills enhanced by the study of history and strategic theory. Most commonly, gaining command of the sea was the primary object of naval warfare. Once command was gained, either through battle or blockade, one could then control the all-important lines of communication or trade routes. Command was best gained by battleships, whereas control was best exercised by cruisers which could protect one’s own trade while interdicting the enemy’s.

Corbett’s distinction between gaining command of the sea and exercising that command was crucial to his thinking. His approach to naval strategy was thoughtful and descriptive, rather than prescriptive. He recognized a fleet-in-being could dispute control of local communication lines and prevent a superior fleet from gaining positive results, as the German High Seas fleet did to some extent during World War I. Like Mahan, though, he rejected guerre de course as a viable strategy. Commerce raiders would have limited range, and he thought improvements in technology such as wireless radios favored the defense. He saw submarines working in concert with fleets-in-being to threaten superior fleets, but he overlooked their potential as commerce raiders.

Keeping the German fleet firmly in mind, Corbett cautioned the Royal Navy and the Fisher school against reckless attacks to obtain an immediate decision by fleet action. If the Germans refused to sail, Corbett recommended a blockade, distinguishing between its naval and commercial functions. Through a blockade, which most likely had to be “open” or “loose” because new technologies such as torpedoes made close blockades too risky, the Royal Navy could prevent the Germans from putting to sea, thereby effectively gaining command of the sea. With command won, the navy would mount a commercial blockade to control trade. The ultimate target was Germany’s will and her finances. This is essentially the strategy the Grand Fleet and Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty followed against Germany during the Great War. It was exhausting sea duty lacking in glory, but it worked.

To conclude, Mahan charted the dimensions of naval strategy, while Corbett plumbed its depths. Both of their strategies must be understood in their context. Mahan developed a strategy for a navy adrift and in need of ideas. At a time when strategic naval thought was arguably neglected in England, Corbett forced his navy to think more deeply about their rich tradition and come up with strategies which fit the crisis at hand. Both men repay reading, although Corbett, like his mentor Clausewitz, is more thought-provoking.

The Great War: Why the Germans Lost World War I


W.J. Astore

To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, which began in the summer of 1914, I’m posting this essay, which I wrote as a graduate student in 1992.  I’ve decided not to edit it since I believe my general conclusions remain sound.  Germany may have had the best military during World War I, but that wasn’t enough for the Kaiser and crew to win the war.

Today, the U.S. should learn from Germany’s mistakes, especially since we are as fond in 2014 of boasting about having the world’s greatest military as the Kaiser was of boasting about his a century ago in 1914.

Strategy is the relationship between national means, ends, and will.  Given the results of the Great War, one might question whether any country followed a sound strategy.  As J.F.C. Fuller observed, at war’s end “Britain was bankrupted and France bled white; Russia and Germany were in the throes of revolution; the Austro-Hungarian Empire had vanished; the Ottoman Empire had been dismembered; Italy was distraught; and every other country in Europe was scorched by the fiery blast – an epoch had gone up in flames.”  However, there were – at least in the short term – winners and losers.  The winners prevailed because their strategies were sounder in balancing means and will with ends than those of their opponents.

Strategies at Sea During the Great War

Britain’s strategic ends in 1914 were to maintain the balance of power in Europe and her hold over her Empire.  Her chief means were the ships of the Royal Navy.  A German victory on the continent threatened these ends and means.  A victorious Germany would dominate Europe, and she might build an even larger navy, one which would threaten the Empire or even Britain itself.  With her will fortified by news of Germany’s violation of neutral Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany on 5 August 1914.

At the outset of the war, the Royal Navy gained command of the sea and never lost it.  Enforcing a loose or distant blockade against German merchant shipping, the Royal Navy slowly constricted the economies (the means) of the Central Powers.  Meanwhile, Britain’s command of the sea ensured that supplies, and eventually troops, came safely from her Empire and America.

As elaborated by Admiral Jellicoe, the navy’s strategy was: 1) neutralize any hostile action of the German High Seas Fleet; 2) protect Entente trade, while blockading German trade; 3) protect Great Britain from invasion.  In brief, the navy’s strategic ends were to prevent the German fleet from affecting the war’s course, and through blockade, to erode Germany’s means and will to fight.

The Royal Navy has been criticized for not doing more with its command of the sea, but Jellicoe and Beatty were understandably cautious.  They had the German fleet encircled, and they controlled the choke points to the Atlantic and Mediterranean.  With excellent intelligence of German fleet movements, they stymied German attempts to break-out.  While the Royal Navy might have preferred to fight another Trafalgar, a battle of annihilation between dreadnoughts, they never took risks that threatened naval supremacy in the home waters.  They triumphed by putting political ends first, and by using their means – the superior fleets of the Royal Navy – to erode the economic means of Germany and the will of her people.  Their “indirect approach” contributed significantly to the collapse of the German homefront in October 1918.

In contrast to the British, who balanced naval means with national ends, the Germans wasted their High Seas Fleet.  The wisdom of building such a fleet was questionable to begin with.  Despite Mahan’s warning that it was probably impossible for a land power to divert enough human and material resources to challenge the Royal Navy’s command of the sea, Tirpitz and Kaiser Wilhelm II persisted.  For them, a navy was a way to gain influence and win friends.  They saw their imitation of the Royal Navy as the sincerest form of flattery, but the British were not appreciative.  Germany was living in a fool’s paradise, believing she could have a fleet that rivaled Britain’s without making Britain a rival.

The resulting rivalry polluted German naval strategy.  Expecting the Royal Navy to mount a close blockade or launch a preemptive strike against her bases, the High Seas Fleet sat put and lost the initiative.  Forced to fight with an inferior fleet at Jutland, Scheer tried to steer Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts onto a series of submarine-laid minefields, hoping thereby to destroy the Grand Fleet’s cohesiveness and defeat it in detail.  He failed, and the Germans never broke the blockade which eventually sapped their will.  Surprised that war had been declared, left without a role to play in the Schlieffen Plan due to poor interservice cooperation with the army, the High Seas Fleet was a means whose main end became self-preservation, its only goal being to intimidate Britain during peace negotiations (to be held after the German army won the war on land).

German naval strategy reflected the defects of strategic mirror-imaging.  To challenge the Royal Navy, the German navy believed it had to be just like it. Billions were spent from 1895-1914 on a surface fleet, devouring funding for innovations like the submarine (only 25 seagoing subs were ready for service in August 1914).  In the end, the Germans only drove the British to improve; even worse, by allocating a large percentage of her industrial resources towards naval production, Germany fatally weakened herself on land.  She tried to be a great land and sea power simultaneously, but the only country in history able to afford the exorbitant costs has been the United States during, and perhaps after, World War II.

Another country whose strategic mirror-imaging absorbed scarce resources to little end was the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.  The Soviet naval push only spurred the US Navy to improve, which surged to 600 ships under John Lehman.  A bankrupt strategic policy led to a bankrupt Soviet economy.  Today, the Soviet aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov sits in drydock, a second big carrier is up for sale, apparently to China or Iran, and a third was scrapped before completion.  According to the London Times (Oct 1992), there are no Russian naval ships presently in the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean.  Strategy is the art of the possible, not the striving for the impossible.  Before one embarks on an end, one must be able to afford the resources or means to achieve it.  Germany in the 1900s and 1910s, and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, embarked on an end they did not need and could not afford.

The bankruptcy of German naval strategy was best shown in 1917 with the decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.  The Germans gambled they could wear down the will of Britain before American troops reached the continent.  What they apparently failed to realize, however, was that the very entry of the US into the war would reinforce the will of the Entente Powers.  Meanwhile, Britain muddled through the U-boat crisis and reformed her naval strategy, learning that the defensive was a more effective means of destroying submarines than the offensive, and that destroyers were better used guarding convoys than the Grand Fleet.  The Germans had expected a short war in which navies would scarcely matter.  Caught in the stalemate of the Western Front, she found she couldn’t improvise an effective maritime strategy.

Strategies on Land on the Western Front

Turning to land warfare on the Western Front, and keeping in mind the definition of strategy as relating means, ends, and will, one must first recognize the changing nature of warfare.  The American Civil War marked a revolution in warfare.  Militaries no longer fought solely against other militaries but also waged war against an enemy’s economy and will.  In hindsight, the stalemate on the Western Front owed everything to modern industrialism.  Ironically, in 1914 most Europeans had believed a long war of attrition was impossible because of modern industry.  In Schlieffen’s words:

A nation’s existence depends upon the uninterrupted continuation of trade and industry, and a quick decision is necessary to start the wheels of industry turning again.  A strategy of attrition is impossible when the maintenance of armies of millions requires the expenditure of billions.

What people failed to foresee was, once hundreds of thousands of men were killed in 1914, nations were willing to pay billions and gear their economies for war rather than negotiate from a weak position.  Since the war was one of economic mobilization, those countries with underdeveloped economies, e.g.  Austria-Hungary, had the most trouble fighting it.  Here the alliance system was crucial.  As Paul Kennedy has observed, Britain kept France fighting, France and Britain kept Italy fighting after Caporetto, and Germany kept Austria-Hungary fighting.  Ivan Bloch, the self-made Warsaw banker, turned out to be right: the ultimate decision was in the hands of starvation of home populations.  The Central Powers starved first.

This fate was by no means obvious, however.  Until the middle of 1918, the Central Powers appeared to be winning the war.  Despite fundamental strategic flaws, Germany, with Austria-Hungary marching reluctantly behind, broke Russia, threw the French army into mutiny, and sowed despair in England.  Germany’s tactical and operational brilliance, however, could not conceal, and in fact contributed to, an underlying strategic rot.

This rot was revealed in the words of the Kaiser.  “The soldiers and the army, not parliamentary majorities and decisions, have welded the German Empire together,” Wilhelm declared. “I put my trust in the army.” But the army, beginning with von Moltke the Elder, had subordinated grand strategy to operational art.  Reinforced by Schlieffen, this trend reached the height of military absurdity under Ludendorff in 1918, when victory on the battlefield became the means and end of Germany’s strategy, as well as the balm which would restore the flagging will of Germany, Austria-Hungary, even Turkey!  In the Great War, Germany experienced a fundamental breakdown in civil-military relationships.  With the military determining policy, Clausewitz’s dictum that war as a form of politics became tragically twisted to war as the only form of politics.

This debasement of politics was not complete until 1917.  By Christmas 1914, Germany realized her strategic nightmare had come true: a two-front war of attrition loomed.  Adopting a defensive stance in the West, Falkenhayn sought victory in the East, nearly achieving a knockout blow against Russia at Gorlice-Tarnow in May 1915.  With Bethmann-Hollweg, Falkenhayn hoped to translate a limited military victory in the East into a political settlement with Russia.  Frederick the Great had institutionalized this concept of fighting limited wars for definite political ends.  However, despite her losses on the battlefield, Russia failed to see the wisdom of negotiations.  Despite criticism by Hindenburg and Ludendorff that he had failed to grasp the total military victory in the East that was still within reach, Falkenhayn turned to the West and Verdun in 1916.

Falkenhayn’s strategic concept for Verdun was simple: by attacking French national pride at Verdun, he would force them to bleed themselves dry in counterattacks.  Britain would then be compelled, before her new armies were ready, to come to the aid of France, exposing herself to decisive German counterattacks.  Falkenhayn made two errors here.  First, and most importantly, he did not coordinate his strategy with Hotzendorff’s in Austria-Hungary.  As a result, the Central Powers lost their advantage of interior lines and their chance to defeat Russia in 1916.  Second, Falkenhayn failed to explain his strategy to his subordinates.  His desire to avoid casualties and unnecessary sacrifice was subverted once Germany’s national pride was inflamed.  Expecting a loss ratio of 2.5:1 in his favor, the actual ratio was a grim 1.075:1.

Verdun was the Great War’s equivalent to Kursk in World War II.  While the Germans gave better than they got, it was they who could least afford the price.  Like the Soviets in 1943, the French had learned.  Petain refused to waste his troops in poorly planned attacks, preferring to rely on artillery and firepower rather than elan to retake ground.  In the end, Falkenhayn failed to enforce his will on the Entente.  He did not force Britain to launch an offensive prematurely, and Russia surprised him by launching the Brusilov offensive in Galicia.  For his failure, Falkenhayn was sacked and Ludendorff effectively assumed command of the German war effort.

1917 was a banner year for the German war effort.  In the West, the Germans wisely retreated to the Siegfried Line, shortening their front and creating a defensive barrier which withstood Nivelle’s disastrous offensives and Haig’s bullheaded assaults at Third Ypres.  With Russia in chaos, Ludendorff could finally concentrate all his resources on the Western Front for the “Victory Offensive” in 1918.

Here again, however, German strategy failed to relate means to ends.  Ludendorff simply didn’t have the means in 1918 to conduct a decisive offensive in the West, and his end was unclear even to himself.  All will be solved once we pierce a hole, he stated.  Attacking along the seam separating the British and French armies, the Germans failed to exploit their initial successes due to Ludendorff’s vague and shifting strategic aims and shortages of manpower and transport.  Like Napoleon in 1815, Ludendorff desperately committed his superbly trained troops one last time.   But like Napoleon, the coalition arrayed against him was too powerful.  Primacy in operational art was not enough to overcome economic blockade and the bigger battalions of fresh troops arriving daily from the Empire and the US.  Shattered by the Entente’s counteroffensive at Amiens on 8 August 1918, and faced with national starvation, the German homefront collapsed.

Why the Entente Won — And Germany Lost

The Entente had won.  But was this due to superior strategy?  Clearly, the Entente suffered some of the same strategic shortcomings as the Central Powers: a breakdown in military-civil relations, with the military reigning supreme; a cult of the offensive as the ultimate arbiter of war; and a lack of contingency planning.  Moreover, the Entente achieved a level of tactical proficiency approaching Germany’s only in mid-1918, if then.  But while it’s been fashionable to attack the “donkeys” and “British butchers and bunglers of World War One,” on the whole Britain and France properly balanced means and ends with will.

Developing a strategy wasn’t easy, though.  Kitchener caught the confusion of his colleagues when he exclaimed: “I don’t know what is to be done – this isn’t war!”.  He came to realize, as Michael Howard has pointed out, that Britain had to “make war as we must; not as we should like.” Like Sherman during the American Civil War, Kitchener knew it would be a long war, and he oversaw the expansion of the British Army from Haldane’s six divisions in 1914 to seventy divisions in 1918.  Pursuing a strategy remarkably similar to the Union’s in the Civil War, the Entente wore down the tactically superior German army on the battlefield as Grant had worn down Lee’s army in 1864.  Through economic blockade, the Entente strangled the German economy as Scott’s Anaconda Plan had suffocated the Confederacy.

The Entente strategy was hardly this clear-cut, however.  Many in Britain preferred an indirect approach, but this seemed to fail at Salonika and Gallipoli.  And while Kitchener may have seen the need for waging a costly war of attrition, most Entente leaders still placed their faith in the offensive.  The Somme, Third Ypres, the Nivelle Offensives: these and other offensives forced the Germans to use up men and materiel, but their primary end was not attrition but breakthrough and decisive victory.  Haig for one pursued offensives long after they were feasible, and wore down his own army in the effort.  Nivelle did the same.  That their costly offensives bore fruit was more by accident than design.  The strain they put on Germany forced her to take desperate measures, the deadliest being her decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917.

Besides blundering into the bloody, tedious, but effective combination of attrition warfare on land, economic warfare at sea, the Entente demonstrated other strategic edges versus their opponents.  With the rise of Lloyd George and Clemenceau, the Entente gradually reasserted civilian control over policy and the war’s course, obeying Clausewitz far better than their German counterparts.  The Entente also waged coalition warfare more effectively than the Central Powers.  While distrust and stubbornness existed within the Entente, France and Britain tended to work towards the same end, unlike Germany and Austria-Hungary, who were usually fighting uncoordinated battles on different fronts against different enemies.

Finally, the Entente used a wider array of strategic means in pursuit of their ends.  The British were especially clever in their use of propaganda to strengthen public will at home and to convince the US to enter the war.  In short, the Entente recognized more clearly than the Central Powers the widening dimensions of strategy.  Battles were only one means to victory, and not always the most important when compared with political, economic, intellectual, and psychological means.  The “genius” of the German military was evident but restricted to operations; the Entente bumbled about on the battlefield but used a wider array of means, under firmer political control, to wear down the will of Germany.

Yet despite her defeats in the First and Second World Wars, too much has been made, at least in the American military, of German battle skill.  In Vietnam, one might argue that like Germany, American grand strategy was irredeemably flawed no matter how many victories we won on the battlefield.  And while the operational brilliance of our victory in Desert Storm is clear, we must not let it blind us to our need to balance needs, ends and will in strategy.