Friday, December 25, 2020

Brusilov and the question of Lessons Learned


My Bride (who is a terrific person for lots of other reasons, too...) was wonderful enough to gift me Tim Dowling's 2008 The Brusilov Offensive and I wasted no time curling up amid the wrapping debris to begin reading. 

In the opening chapter I came across something that intrigued me a bit, and thought I'd throw it out here for the patrons to swill along with their Christmas nog.

On page nine, Dowling recounts a general consensus among what he describes as "...a great many people - most notably the Russian general staff - that technological advances would play a minimal role." in the coming war of 1914. 

He then goes on to say that this "cult of the offensive" dominated most of the tactical to grand tactical thinking of the European powers. The paragraph concludes with a summary of the work of Austro-Hungarian GEN von Hötzendorf, as concluding that "Firepower was certainly beneficial, but its effectiveness was limited..."

I won't argue too hard against this; certainly there was a hell of an influential clique for the attaque à outrance idea in the French Army, and most of the other combatant army planners of WW1 seemed unwilling to abandon the notion that you could figure out some way to outrun a bullet or a shell and gain that elusive decisive victory if you just tried hard enough.

I get that part of that had to have been the lack of actual Great Power combat in the forty-odd years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and 1914.

But, still...

You'd had the Russo-Japanese War just ten years earlier, and that had featured all the things that would kill all that "offensiveness" deader'n a Japanese rifleman hanging on the wire outside Port Arthur; deep entrenchment and obstacles behind machinegun beaten zones and heavy artillery. 

Pretty much every other European power had observers with the combatants, and it sounds like a ton of them reported all the same problems for the attackers facing these defensive measures, it sounds like none of them - particularly the Russians themselves, if Dowling is correct - learned anything from the lessons of others.

That, in turn, makes me wonder; how often in history have we soldiers (or the civilian leadership that directs us...) done that - learned from the experiences either of our predecessors or others - versus how many times we've failed to learn those lessons? It seems off the top of my head that the failures seem more common than the successes, that it seems more likely that military organizations will fail to recognize critical changes in technical or tactical conditions rather than anticipate or adjust to them.

Is that really the case, though? Or am I just being influenced by a sort of military "recency factor" that occurs because those failures tend to be more spectacular than the less catastrophic effects when an organization does react and adjust appropriately?

And is this something that tends to happen to all large military organizations at some point? Is there an example of an army (or navy, or air force...) tending to be uniformly decent at learning from the lessons around them rather than having to learn the hard way?


  1. FDC,

    No, I don’t think large military organizations, or the intel community, or the USG as a whole, is designed to adapt to major changes in the world. We tend to go with what we got until there is a large, public failure, and then we take a generation to reform to meet the challenge. Unfortunately, we are just built that way.

    Yes, as you stated, there is probably some recency bias and vividness bias in this, we don’t notice the small, routine, and successful adaptations made, we only notice the failures. So let’s focus on that, why do we see something coming, and fail to act. A great case study is Kodak. They invented the digital camera in 1975, and then went bankrupt in 2011 because of the digital camera.

    Let’s apply the 4 “lessons learned” from the article. (Note: These are actually lessons observed. We often use the misnomer of lessons learned for things that were observed when reviewing actions, but they aren’t actually lessons learned until action is taken based on the observations).

    1. Have an enterprising mindset open to change: In the military? Senior leaders are biased towards thinking what got them there will get you there. This is partly why they hire/select/promote people that look like them, have their same background/experiences/jobs, because it worked for them. But this is the worst way to create innovation and diversity of thought, by hiring little clones of you. But this is what the military does.

    This has been called the Storm Trooper Problem:

    2. Thinking and acting holistically: We are culturally biased in Western Civilization to be reductionists. This is unfortunate because the world is a complex system, and the belief that you can understand the whole by reducing it to its parts works great for complicated problems (like machines), but does not work fo complex, interconnected bio systems. Military academies are engineering school and teach linear thinking because they believe war is a linear problem. Of course, it is not, and anyone who truly understands Clausewitz gets this.

    3. Being able to adapt to changing conditions: This month the Army proudly announced it only took them 12 months to design, select, source, produce and begin fielding of the Combat Face Covering. A cloth mask. 12 months.

    4. Make decisions interactively with a variety of methods: MDMP is great at picking the best of the worst options. It fails to recognize and incorporate integrative thinking and leads to binary thinking, and binary choices. This is not ideal to innovation or to adapting to changing conditions.

    Ultimately, most large organizations, not just the military, suffer from these problems. It would take a cultural and multi-generational shift for the military to change, and I just don’t think it’s possible. Instead, we rely on failures to force failure. Use it until it breaks, and then when it breaks, rebuild it.


    1. Points taken, and, yes, large hierarchical organizations (i.e. militaries) tend to be "static" rather than "dynamic" in their approach to big picture things like strategy and grand tactics.

      My thought was that in this particular case the evidence seems so blatantly clear; the effect of modern weaponry and the defensive tactics was so punitive that you'd think it would have been inescapable to any industrial army - when we encounter these in the future (which we will) it will gut our infantry so badly that we're going to have a hell of a hard time getting any sort of offensive traction. Attacks will - as they did - bog down, our logistical systems will fail once we cross the LD, and the combination of massive casualties and the inability to push fresh troops and material forward will murder us.

      But...nobody seems to have concluded that. Everyone went forward in August 1914 with the idea that war was going to be just like 1866 or 1870.

      That seems like a really big "miss", even for a non-nimble organization...

  2. I agree with Brian on all points except for one, "and then we take a generation to reform to meet the challenge. Unfortunately, we are just built that way."

    In general, he's correct, but occasionally there are leaders who short-circuit the process and get results in vastly shorter time.
    The two classic examples of this are:
    1. The German General Staff between WWI and WWII combined ideas about tank warfare that had mostly been proposed and rejected in other countries in ways that revolutionized warfare and briefly made it seem possible that Germany could militarily unify most of Europe.

    2. The meteoric rise of SpaceX by embracing rather than ignoring the cold hard truths of the Rocket Equation and finding the best possible answers to questions that everybody else had been doing their best to ignore for decades.

    Elon Musk is not a great human being but he found the right people, put them in the right places, and relentlessly pushed them and their ideas to fruition.


    1. Pluto,

      Elon Musk would NEVER make it to a position in the military or the USG where he could have the power to affect change. That's the problem. For German staff.. they made change after an epic failure (losing WWI). Plus.. Just guessing, but maybe all of the old German officers were killed or purged after WWI, and the young leaders took over.

      The military just isn't built or designed to have young, innovative leaders. It stymies them until they conform or get out.


    2. I'll second the "that was learning from failure" thing about the German armed forces in the interwar period. Catastrophic failures DO tend to have that effect, and it did; the old hierarchy was implicated in the failures of the first war and that opened things up for the youngsters to innovate. It's worth noting that the Soviets were going through something similar based on THEIR imperial predecessors' failures but were decapitated by Stalin's purges.

      And I don't get how Musk and SpaceX are innovation. ISTM that, instead, they're lateral transfers, moving into a technological field that the USG has voluntarily abandoned. Einstein's wall makes anything beyond Earth orbit functionally useless; fun, but a luxury, and since the great Soviet-US Cold War space competition is as dead as the Soviet Union that luxury has been handed over to a rich guy with the cash to indulge his hobby.

      I there anything about SpaceX that isn't "a ballistic missile"?

  3. Au contraire, World War I was set up and run by a lot of forward thinking people and institutions. Look at the incredible start: National mobilization! Go from a standing start to having millions, fully equipped, in the field and ready to start shooting in just a few days. Transitioning from ox cart to railway carriage logistics in a single generation is unprecedented and it worked! A truly impressive feat of innovation. Next, look at how air warfare evolved during WWI.

    Obviously, they didn't get it all "correct" and millions died horribly, but expecting perfect foresight is unreasonable. As Max Planck noted "Science advances one funeral at a time". Why would anyone think that the military would be more innovative than the smartest scientists on the planet?

    1. See my first reply to bg above. It's the apparent unwillingness or incapability to see that set of particular tactical/technical changes that seems so odd. There were all sorts of technological innovators who were working on things like mobilization and militarizing aviation in 1914. How could all those smart people have missed the collective effect of the trench, the wire, and the machinegun, especially when they'd actually SEEN it in action?

    2. Is there any evidence that they understood what they had seen? I have seen many things that I only understood later, both in school and in the outside world.

      Knowing the limits are of men under fire is not tangible. Generalship is all about knowing what is "possible", but what is possible varies in time and space. The difference between Missionary Ridge and Vicksburg's ditches is slight. The same combatants, same technology but wildly different outcomes. Vicksburg's ditches, however, clearly foreshadowed WWI.

      Many soldiers saw what the Tank would become, but as far as I know only anti-war activists such as Jan Bloch saw how WWI would become. I don't think any in the military took them seriously. Perhaps because their salaries depended on them not understanding.

  4. Generally I agree with the comments so far.

    As individuals and socially I think we humans have a strong status-quo bias. This has been measured in numerous cognitive studies and the anecdotal evidence is pretty overwhelming. We tend to do what's worked until forced to change is most aspects of our lives and war is really no different. Add in bureaucracy and the problem only gets worse (especially a bureaucracy with foundations and a mindset still rooted in the 1940's).

    I think the US is probably been better than most at combating this tendency - at least by historical standards. A big part of that is technology, which can do some of the work to force us out of mindsets, but also 25+ years of near continuous combat experience, albeit limited and narrow experience. I can say first-hand that we've changed and developed lessons-learned from all of them, but I'm not sure the lessons have prepared us for a major conflict against a peer or near-peer power.

    We've become too accustomed to dominance in certain areas. The Chinese, for example, lack any real combat experience beyond putting the boot on the necks of their own Kulaks, but that can also be an advantage as they aren't cognitively hindered in their thinking about how fight external enemies. It also helps they tend to take a long view, have consistent strategic priorities, and focus their efforts towards those priorities. Completely unlike the US. The Chinese also understand our dependencies and where we've gone unchallenged. It's no surprise they are specifically developing capabilities to put those unchallenged areas at risk (space/satellites, cyber, comms, interdiction, etc.).

    We've known for a long time our vulnerability and dependence on space assets, we haven't had our ground forces subject to air attack from an enemy for half-a-century, we have grown too accustomed to having a decisive C4SIR advantage. All these advantages haven't been enough for us to win in the third-world insurgent-dominated shithole conflicts we're stupidly still engaged in, but they've been enough to also keep us from losing, which is why the conflict in Afghanistan is endless.

    Against a second or third-tier nation-state we're still unchallenged, but a country like China would be something different and new. For all our talk and focus on that direction over literally several decades, I think we are still mired in groupthink - acknowledging some problems while not doing what is necessary to address them. If we really think we might need to fight China we should quit dicking around about it and organize and train or forces to that end.

    It's one of the reasons I fear a war with China will lead to a nuclear exchange. There's really no chance of a decisive outcome for either side at present so the opportunity for escalation will always be there. And I think China may be falling into the trap that so many have fallen into before - misinterpreting the chaos and internal division that defines America as weakness. Saddam, UBL and others all though we were a paper tiger and that all that was needed was to bloody our nose and we'd skulk away. Yet twenty fucking years later we are still in fucking Afghanistan.

    1. Andy,

      But why we would go to war with China? I mean, why with weapons and nukes? My concern is that is exactly the war we’ve been preparing for, something akin to WWII with ships and planes and bombs. But China would never agree to those terms and has no reason to engage with us in open warfare when they have so many other options at their disposal. Cyber, Lawfare, Belt and Road Alliances, Low Earth Orbit, Currency.

      China’s biggest need is energy coming from the ME. We could deny them that in the Straits, and it would be game over for them (this military scenario should still be valid for another decade or so). But it still comes down to, why? What possible need could arise for either side to sling nukes? Why would both sides destroy their economies for a hot war?

    2. I think that any war between nuclear-armed Great Powers risks going nuclear, regardless of how well prepared either side is in the non-nuclear fields of battle. One of the best arguments for NOT going to war with the PRC, IMO; the possibility that one of the combatants will prefer to sling a nuke rather than face defeat.

      I think the problems with several of those fields you mention - low Earth orbital combat and electronic/cyber war, is the opposite of the one I started with. In 1914 the defensive power of land war had grown too large relative to the human body for offensive tactics to overcome without another set of technical (tanks, aircraft) and tactical (infiltration/"stormtroop" tactics) innovations.

      With LEO and cyber it seems the opposite; it's damn difficult to figure out a way to "defend" those systems relative to means and methods to attack them. In a sense it's MAD all over again...only the US is much more dependent on those systems than the PRC, so there's a pretty brutal level of asymmetry there. Not sure how the US can change that.

      And I think it's impossible to UNDERestimate the current level of "chaos and internal division" within the US right now. You've got damn near half the population that is not unable but actually UNWILLING to take simple, sensible public health measures that have proven effective elsewhere in the world.

      That's pretty fucking weak. That's a "charging interlocking fields of machinegun fire" levels of stupid. If I was the PRC I'd be licking my chops looking at that. That's "an enemy that will defeat itself" level of incompetence.

  5. War on the Rocks had an article on innovation back in June by former SecNav Paul Ignatius. But except for just one example (Maxwell Taylor) he focuses more on tech change rather than remaking strategy.

    Most military doctrine at the macro level IMO are learned from lessons of blood. those kind of lessons will face extreme pressure to be overturned. Unfortunately they are sometimes overturned by disaster. Although I believe that there are many thousands of examples of junior officers and NCOs have been able to "recognize critical changes in technical or tactical conditions" and have taken appropriate measures to respond.

    For an entire army or navy or air force to be able to learn from the lessons around them it takes a skunkworks. NOT a technological one like Lockheed's Advanced Development Projects that came up with the P-38, the F-22, and others in between. Instead they need a doctrinal skunkworks, a place to put forward-looking thinkers who are not satisfied with the status quo and let them reinvent strategy and tactics. Those kind of unorthodox thinkers though are typically looked on as outlanders or square pegs that don't fit within the military hierarchy. So they need strong cover from someone in the highest echelons which in many cases is lacking. I've heard the US Army has a skunkworks but don't know where. Probably buried within TRADOC or at Leavenworth? The Army Futures Command in Austin seems to be more involved with technology. I would hope they have some bright young men thinking about radical new strategies and tactics to go along with the new tech toys. When you think about the tank, the Brits developed it to get through the Kaiser's trenches and wire, but it was young Turks like Guderian and others that turned the tank into an instrument of Bewegungskrieg. Some claim the Soviet concept of Deep Battle Operations was the pinnacle or apex of tank warfare. But wasn't that just a carry-on and enhancement of longstanding Cossack tactics?

    1. Again, agree...but how do you miss something as obvious as the defensive power revealed by the Russo-Japanese War? That seems like a REALLY obvious miss that you don't need a deep think-tank level of cognition to see...

    2. "doctrinal skunkworks"

      Look at TRADOC and how it's being dragged down by the average intellect of average humans.

    3. "...but how do you miss something as obvious as the defensive power revealed by the Russo-Japanese War?"

      Baron Stoessel was court-martialed after surrendering Port Arthur. He was sentenced to death but later pardoned. That battle and that war was something the Tsar, the Imperial Council and the Stavka wanted desperately to forget. They were too busy covering up to learn any lessons.

      Also Russia has always embraced maneuver warfare over sieges and/or fortifications & trenches. That is based on their huge landmass and geography. Siege warfare is more of a Western development. Up until Brusilov's offensive in the great majority of operations against fortifications it turns out that Russian forces were the besieged and not the besiegers. There are some exceptions: Dorogobusch in 1632 and Smolensk in 1654 but in both of those the Russian troops were led by a Scot (General Alexander Leslie) - Noteborg in 1702 when Peter the Great, a great admirer of the West was Tsar - Perekop Isthmus in 1736 where Russian troops were led by a German (Field Marshal von Muennich) - Kars in 1855 - and Przemyśl in 1914/15.

      Also the Eastern Front was much longer than that in the west. Trench lines were fewer and the troops manning trenches were much thinner. That allowed more and deeper breakthroughs, which all WW1 brass (French & British also) coveted. Why would the Russian brass think differently?

      Furthermore why focus on Brusilov's casualties? Similar bloodlettings happened under John French, Dougie Haig, and Joey Joffre. Although Russian deaths in WW1 were enormous, as a percent of population they were less than 60% of Germany, less than 55% of Austria-Hungary, and less than one seventh of the Ottoman Empire. And on the Entente side percentage wise they were less than the UK, France, Belgium, Italy, Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania.

    4. The reason for the focus on casualties is that the decimation of the attack formations was - along with the piss-poor logistical setups that completely broke down once the Russian attack crossed the FLOT - the main reason that the breakthroughs bogged down.

      The Brusilov attacks broke through the Austro-Hungarian defense lines several times. But the costs were punative, and typically the follow-on attacks - since they lacked the "sapping" and arty prep that had made the initial attacks successful - resulted in more casualties and fewer successes despite the ad-hoc nature of the defense. Eventually either the attacks ground to a halt or the Russian division/corps/army commanders stopped pushing (which amounted to the same thing).

      So in the big picture, no; the Russian casualties weren't that much worse than their counterparts. But in the local effect, of putting the kibosh on Brusilov's attacks, they were fairly critical.

  6. I once read (most of it) a wonderful book about British lessons learned in the Boer wars, especially the conventional early conflict. It's too bad I can't find it any more (one of two books I'm looking for), as it already spelled out all lessons needed for 1914 even though it was from a very different conflict. The need to find an open flank as firepower made frontal attacks too costly was spelled out and the book thus basically predicted the 1914 race to the English channel that developed during and after the Marne battle.
    Add the sci fi short novel about "land battleships" and the writings of Jean de Bloch and you would have been prepared for WWI.

    The art of preparing for war is about finding the nuggets and to apply their lessons, despite all the noise around them and the conservative establishment & path dependencies.

    1. I thought about mentioning the South African wars but chose to limit my example for brevity, but you're right - all the same lessons were writ small in the veldt. The British Army took one - rifle marksmanship; apparently the British troops were unpleasantly surprised at the effectiveness of the Mauser m/1895 at ranges beyond the RA issue Lee-Metford - and seems to have elided the rest.

      Again, I "get" that big bureaucracies are not inclined to be innovative or reward original thinking. But these seem to have been such simple, obvious lessons. Standing up and tromping forward in lines, even "open order" lines, was going to get you butchered. Not exactly a "skunkworks" kind of epiphany.

    2. Jan Bloch wrote a book entitled "Is War Now Impossible". This book clearly has no lessons for professional soldiers.

      This is the same kind of dynamic that gives us forever wars in Afghanistan and the rest of the middle east despite historical writings on Afghanistan and the middle east being mandatory in every staff college in NATO.

    3. "Standing up and tromping forward in lines, even "open order" lines, was going to get you butchered."

      It is my understanding that Brusilov used small, specialized assault troops to attack weak points in the Austro-Hungarian lines and open holes for the rest of the army to advance. This was done about the same time or not long after similar stormer trooper tactics were developed in the German Army. What does Dowling's book say of that?

      You have to wonder if the German reinforcement to shore up the Austro-Hungarian lines included specialized Eingreifdivision counterattack units. Is that why Brusilov finally stalled and had so many casualties? Or did his armies overextend themselves? Or was it the lack of supporting offensives on his flanks? All of the above?

      Brusilov also supposedly used just a brief artillery barrage prior to the attack instead of a week-long bombardment that tipped defenders to an impending attack and tore up the ground . His use of that predated Allenby's use at Arras in April 1917.

    4. I had read that Brussilov used innovative small unit tactics at first, but he had very few heavy artillery pieces at his disposal, so bunkers were difficult to defeat. His innovative approach quickly broke down and then he simply fed bodies into the meatgrinder.

    5. Dowling does a pretty decent job of conveying the shitshow that was the imperial Russian STAVKA and how it affected operations. Brusilov had a set of tactical ideas he wanted his subordinate commanders to implement, including the use of small-unit infiltration/storming parties (apparently he couldn't completely get away from the trench-fixation that the Heer was able to with the stosstruppen tactic - the Russian storming parties are described as "sapping" ahead of their frontline trenches prior to the attack. You'd think this would be immediately obvious (and it was) so Brusilov's solution was to have EVERYone "sap" and then make the actual attack on a narrow axis somewhere in the middle of all this maskirovka.

      There was also an attempt to make the coordination between Russian arty and infantry closer, with shorter, more intense stonks on the Central Powers' trenchlines and then a lift-and-shift rolling barrage sort of movement. Dowling also constantly points out how ridiculously inadequate the Russian industrial base was; shells are constantly short, and even basic stuff like rifles for the infantry units were difficult to get into the hands of the grunts.

      But the real problem were the subordinate officers at the army, corps, and division levels. Many of them just weren't worth a lick. They wouldn't follow direction, wouldn't implement many of the tactical reforms, and, often, just flat-out wouldn't attack even when they had massive tactical advantage.

      That, and even Brusilov couldn't overcome the tactical geometry of the WW1 battlefield. Once past the original LD the CS/CSS and C3I just plain broke down, and even with the innovative tactics losses were punitive. Units that had been in contact for more than several days would be mauled, and getting follow-on forces through into contact without giving the CP defenders enough time to reconstruct a defense was hellishly difficult. The result was that Russian units WOULD revert to the old "throw lines of grunts at machineguns" waves and get butchered, making things worse.

    6. The really consistent part of the story, though, is that the whole thing worked as well as it did because the Austro-Hungarians were a BIGGER shitshow than the Russians, if you can believe that's possible. Conrad, the KUK CIGS was 1) completely worthless, while being 2) utterly obsessed with gaining ground in the Italian Tyrol at the expense of the Eastern Front. He was constantly being jacked up by the German GHQ for yanking his better units off to farkle about in the Alps and leaving the dross to get hammered by the "Russian steamroller".

      And, meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarian units themselves were pretty worthless, in particular because the unit officers seem to have been infested with a peculiar schlamperei that makes it sound like they just flat-out didn't want to be there or, once there, do any actual military work. Dowling does put the lie to the popular fiction that it was the "Slavic" units failure that was the problem - "German" units were just as bad - but that overall the KUK forces were just really, really shit. Whenever the Russian attacks went in against a German defense, or even a defense manned by a mixture of German and Austro-Hungarian units (or Austro-Hungarian units stiffened with German officers and NCOs...) the Russians had to really slug it out, even if they succeeded. Against purely Austro-Hungarian (and, BTW, Dowling routinely uses the term "Hapsburg" to describe the Austro-Hungarians which, after typing "Austro-Hungarian" several times in the sentence above I completely understand...) defenses the Russians often go through the enemy lines like a dose of salts.

    7. The A-H army only had a peace-time strength of 450k soldiers, was more lightly armed than the Russian army, had a smaller arms industry than the Russian Empire and suffered catastrophic causalities in the first 12 months of the war. Mobilizing 3mio men at the start of the war was hard enough. But after the offensives in Galicia (+320.000 killed and wounded plus +100.000 captured) and in the Carpathians (another 320.000 killed, wounded and captured) most A-H units were second or third rate by their own standards. The A-H high commands numbers from summer 1915 say that about 55%, 50% and 45% of all soldiers that had been trained in 1913, 1914 and 1915 up to that point had become casualties. The successful German A-H Summer Offensive cost the A-H another 200.000 casualties. The well trained Lts and Cpts that spoke multiple languages were mostly gone from combat units. Artillery had to be shifted between Italy, Russia and the Balkans. Munitions shortages were even more of a problem than for the Russians. And manpower was so short that even manning the first trench line with trained and armed men was a challenge. So yeah, shitshow is an apt description. And thing continued to get worse.

    8. Even when they had multilingual officers it must have been a huge endeavor to control troops speaking all those different languages. How many different languages were there not counting dialects? At least ten perhaps?

      And the command structure seems somewhat divided. Was that true? Did the General Staff in Vienna have to work though Budapest to move Honved units or was that just a peacetime thing?

    9. There were 11 regimental languages and as the one empire wide institution that used german as it's main language a lot of the NCOs and Officers (Reserve and Career) would have had basic german language skills. Speaking more than one language was not uncommon (it's not like you needed to be able to write a grammatically correct book report to communicate) and either hungarian or german language skills were required if you wanted to pursue a higher education or career working for the government. So it's not like the people trained to lead men during wartime were completely unfamiliar with german or other languages spoken in the monarchy. Nationalism and the different languages (german was the main language of only 24-25% of the population with many of them living in hungary) was a big problem. But the A-H empire was in no way prepared for a war like WW1 and the different languages and nationalism soon became one of many, many problems.

      And no, the A-H armed forces (Bewaffnete Macht or Wehrmacht) were under a single command. In peace time the different branches of the A-H armed forces had their own bureaucracies and budgets. The A-H common army (Gemeinsame Armee) + navy (k.u.k. Kriegsmarine) were under the k.u.k Kriegsministerium (A+H war ministry), the Landwehr under the k.k. Ministerium für Landesverteidigung (A ministry of defence) and the Honvedseg under the k.u. Honvedministerium (H ministry for the Honvedseg). But the commander in chief (Oberkommandierender) was always the Emperor with the Chief of the General Staff responsible for military planning. When the war was about to start the Emperor created the Army High Command (Armeeoberkommando) to lead the Bewaffnete Macht (with the 4 branches Gemeinsame Armee, Landwehr, Honvedseg and Kriegsmarine) for him.

    10. "I had read that Brussilov used innovative small unit tactics at first, but he had very few heavy artillery pieces at his disposal, so bunkers were difficult to defeat. His innovative approach quickly broke down and then he simply fed bodies into the meatgrinder."

      The approach only worked against the Austrians who still had a main trench line and no good coordination between infantry and artillery. The bad performance was actually predicted by v. Seeckt in his assessment from spring 1916.

      "You have to wonder if the German reinforcement to shore up the Austro-Hungarian lines included specialized Eingreifdivision counterattack units."

      No, most German units were second or third rate in the east, however, these units had in contrast to Austrian divisons no problems to defeat against attacking Russians in 1916.


    11. Austrian pretty much sums up the problems the KuK "Common Army" had because of the horrific casualties in 1914-1915. The units were pretty fragile to begin with, and the critical link was the bond between the pre-war officers and senior sergeants who had deep familiarity with their soldiers and linguistic and cultural skills to make the units work.

      The German Landwehr and Honved didn't have anything like those issues, but to give you a sense of scale the "national" armies were something along the line of 40-50,000 all ranks in 1914 while the Heer, the "Common Army" ("Royal and Imperial, "konigliche und kaiserliche" or Kuk) was something like 300,000.

      So once the experienced leadership was dead, maimed, or shellshocked the KuK was in a bad, bad way...

    12. @FDChief: But the kk Landwehr wasn't german speaking either! There were czech, polish, serbo-croat and ruthenian regiments. A lot of mixed regiments with a majority language. And some mixed ones without a clear majority. Both the Honvedseg and the kk Landwehr were multilingual and were supposed to follow the same regulations the k.u.k Common Army followed. The Honvedseg used Hungarian and not german as it's main language and used it more often than it was supposed to do. But even after more than half a century of Magyarization only 55% of the population spoke hungarian. The romanian, slovak and german speaking population made up another 35% so it was a bit easier to fill formations with soldiers that understood each other. But the Honvedseg as a whole did not ethnic hungarian.

    13. "Austrian pretty much sums up the problems the KuK "Common Army" had because of the horrific casualties in 1914-1915."

      No. The assessment of the German military attache in 1904 was the same as von Seeckt's in 1916, the issue of the Austrians was always the low quality of their officers.

      The high losses did of course not help, but do not explain the less than stellar performance of 1914 and does not explain the good performance of second rate German divisions at the same time in the east.



    14. @Ulenspiegel: What do you mean with "No"? WW1 was an industrial war of mass mobilization. The AH empire had a much smaller industrial base and trained reserves than Germany. They not only had a smaller, more poorly and lighter armed force when they started. They had to replace a large chunk of their losses in men, equipment and weapons with barely trained recruits and whatever junk they could find to keep a multi-million man army in the field. They had to first build factories before they could even start replacing the crap-tastic bronze-steel field guns they started out with with proper (and newly developed) steel guns. A "second rate" division from the German Empire was a much better armed and trained unit than what the AHs had for most of the war. And to make things worse when Brusilov's Offensive started a decent number of the A-H men and guns had been sent from the Russian front to help out in Italy. Of course poor leadership was a huge problem. But I never said it wasn't. And good leadership can't fix a lack of guns, munitions and proper training or help your men dodge bullets, shrapnel and barbed wire.

  7. "It is my understanding that Brusilov used small, specialized assault troops to attack weak points in the Austro-Hungarian lines and open holes for the rest of the army to advance. This was done about the same time or not long after similar stormer trooper tactics were developed in the German Army. What does Dowling's book say of that?"

    See my reply above, but tl:dr, no. The idea was that the regular frontline infantry units would "sap" forward prior to H-Hour. This would happen all along the stretch of front so as to mask the actual axis of attack, since the "sapping" was impossible to miss. A short, sharp prep fire, and the companies or battalions in the advanced trenched would run as quickly as possible across no-mans-land to be on top of the Austro-Hungarian bunkers as soon as the fire lifted...

    1. Is Dowling's book footnoted? What were his sources?

    2. It is, and I'll have to look at his courses for that. But overall he notes the change in tactics that the German Army pioneered in 1917-1918 without connecting it to the Brusilov attacks, so he seems pretty sure that they weren't doing the same thing.

  8. Sven - You are probably right about TRADOC. Maybe it is Carlyle's Army War College? I have no clue.

    Interesting article on young mil innovators at:

    The Marines used to send bright young officers to Quantico where they were given a free hand to brainstorm and conceive or conjure up how to contend with emerging threats. I've been out for forty years so am unaware if they still do.

    1. There seems to be an inherent problem with outside the box thinking in regard to the military. Many of the few who do it in a notable way are partially nuts. Maybe it makes sense for a military to mostly suppress this category of officers. Military bureaucracies can certainly go too far in suppressing original thought, but it appears there's also a "too little".

      Sadly, there are also nutjobs who make a big career (see Flynn and several USAF bible humpers), while original thought types usually don't make it beyond Colonel.

      Another category of potential reformers are generals who develop an obsessive fascination with certain foreign theorists or foreign theories.

    2. Sven - One of the most brilliant young planners and innovators in the Marines during the first two decades of the 20th Century, Pete Ellis, had severe bouts of depression. He treated those bouts with alcohol and probably died from excessive drink in 1923. He had predicted a dozen years earlier that Japan would initiate hostilities with the US.

      He never went to college himself but became an instructor at the Naval War college and developed curricula that were later studied by Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance, and King. While there he also contributed significantly to war plan Orange. He worked around the clock in France during WW1 as a principal plans officer for the Château-Thierry, Soissons, and Blanc Mont campaigns and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Later in 1921, he wrote Op Plan 712, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, which during World War II, became the actual American campaign only diverging in areas affected by technological advances. He was under medical supervision and treatment for some of the time he worked on that op plan.

      But we've had our share of 'nutjobs' also. General Rupertus whose tactics at Pelelieu turned it into a blood bath. Former Commandant Archibald Henderson who tried to give his government provided quarters to his heirs in a will. And we had a few bible thumpers, but as I recollect they never advanced to flag rank like the AF generals you mentioned or like the Army's General Boykin.

  9. Forgot to add we jarheads also had a three star who was a bit nutso, either that or a visionary into the 22nd or 23rd century. I forget his name. He was highly decorated in both world wars. But in the early 1950s he proposed a new form of deep vertical envelopment by putting rifle platoons in ballistic missile re-entry vehicles. I surmise he did not do the math as it would have taken 108 launches to insert a division not counting supporting arms, not even those organic to regiment or battalion.

  10. I found the book about the Boer War lessons learned.
    It turned out that my favourite blog actually linked to it many years ago.

  11. I also found that I actually wrote about a similar topic in my earliest months of blogging.

    I've tried to make conclusions based on theoretical considerations and found them tested (in a wide range of topics) by practice over the past decades. There were some embarrassing failures, but mostly I found the reasoning decent, albeit not really accurate. There may be a lot of bias involved in this judgment, but if true, it might indicate that it's not so much the insight that's the problem, but to act on it.

    What good are a few individuals with the correct ideas if they swim in a lake of people with wrong ideas or inability/unwillingness to adapt?

  12. "You'd had the Russo-Japanese War just ten years earlier, and that had featured all the things that would kill all that "offensiveness" deader'n a Japanese rifleman hanging on the wire outside Port Arthur; deep entrenchment and obstacles behind machinegun beaten zones and heavy artillery."

    But interestingly the artillery share of losses was quite low in the 1904/5 war (IIRC <30%), therefore, many officers got it wrong BECAUSE they had studied this war. In 1913 good German officers assumed that rifle fire and MGs would be the main contributions to losses, it came as ugly surprise that more than 50% of the WIA came from artillery, this increased even in 1916/17.

    In my opionion a very good discussion of tactics and development of pre-WW1 doctrin is found in T. Zuber's book on Mons/Le Cateau.


    1. The rapid increase in average gun caliber was a surprise to everyone, I think. All the combatants started with some variation of a 3-inch gun; the French 75, the German 77, the British 18-pounder. Once everybody started digging in deep - really deep, that is - those light field guns weren't really effective. But as opposed to the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars the WW1 combatants began to "up-gun" pretty quickly. Throw in the "trench mortars" (new version of an old solution) some of which were ridiculously huge - 240mm? Yike! - and pretty soon you had a weight of metal that the earlier wars utterly lacked.

      But that was after the trench lines stabilized. The initial stalemate, the original conditions that stymied the attacks, were the combination of small arms and machinegune, wire, and field artillery, much the same as the Western observers saw at Port Arthur. It just seems weird that it's like NObody saw that coming in large scale in August/September 1914...

    2. The German army had 1,200+ 105 mm light field howitzers when the war began. Its 77 mm gun was underwhelming and didn't cause so much enthusiasm as the soixante-quinze with the French.

      All that siege-like trench warfare wasn't so extremely special historically anyway. There had been several wars which were almost all about sieges, with plenty trenches dug by at least the besieging armies.
      The English conquest of Wales was a series of dozens of castle sieges and the 17th century land wars against the Dutch were very largely about siege warfare.
      The inability to turn the enemy's flank was hardly a novelty, either. The vast majority of historical land battles were frontal battles. At the latest by the 19th century the classic "cavalry at the wings, win the cavalry fight, then threaten the flanks and backs" of Cannae, Zama and so on was close to non-existent. Ordre de batailles of the 18th century saw cavalry ratehr mixed with infantry, able to threaten the enemy lines into forming less efficient squares.
      The pike & shot era had little use for cavalry on the flanks as well.

      BTW, FDChief, the desperate Western Entente powers even re-used bronze Coehorn mortars in WWI.

    3. "The rapid increase in average gun caliber was a surprise to everyone, I think."

      Schlieffen converted the siege artillery (Festungsartillerie, Fußartillerie) into heavy artillery that could be used in mobile warfare, this happened BEFORE the war in 1904/5. And Germany was the only power with a modern heavy artillery in 1914, both hardware and tactics.

      The advantage was, that officers were available who could train the officers of the field artillery with useful tactics for trench warfare.

      The war of 1904/5 led to the development of trench mortar systems, first as weapon of the engineers (Pioniere), later as support weapon of the infantry.


    4. "The German army had 1,200+ 105 mm light field howitzers when the war began."

      The more important number were the 400 heavy howitzers in the Fußartillery bats of the army corps. These guns were real killers and provided well trained officers for trench warfare.


  13. Speaking of mortars, the German Army apparently had studied the siege at Port Arthur and decided much of the heavy artillery there was ineffective against bunkers and barbed wire fortifications. So they along with engineers from Rheinmetall developed the 'minenwerfer' or 'mine launcher' to destroy barbed wire and bunkers. About 16,000 of them of different sizes had been fielded by the end of the war. Most of those were the light version 7.58 cm. They were effective enough so that the Brits copied them and made their own.