[‘Friction’ is Murphy’s Law in uniform. Contributor Dan McEwen explains why it caused bad things to happen to good military plans in The Great War.]
“The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry and leave us nothing but grief and pain for promised joy,” observed Scottish poet Robert Burns. German Field Marshal, Helmut von Moltke [1800–1891] militarized Burn’s wisdom as; “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” and his warning has haunted military strategists ever since. WW2 Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower lamented that; “plans are worthless, but [military] planning is everything.”
What Moltke and Eisenhower are complaining about is “friction’, the “interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad”, that ensure “…mathematical factors never find a firm basis in military calculations.” The man who invented the term ‘Friktion’, the crown prince of military strategists, Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), refined his definition over the years as he observed it tripping up generals during the Napoleonic wars.
Military analyst Barry Watts distilled the Prussian general’s writings on friction down to just five broad causes, summarized as:
1] The impact of danger on the ability to think clearly and act effectively under fire;
2] The impact of the physical exertions of combat on soldiers’ thought and action;
3] Gaps or flaws in the information on which command decisions are based;
4] Resistance to effective action inherent in the operations of a large army; and
5] Luck, good and bad, whose consequences combatants can never fully foresee.
Over a century later, combinations of these five sources acted as the proverbial bag of sugar in the gas tanks of the war machines fielded by the major combatants of WW1. In its first year alone, friction extracted an unprecedented price in blood and treasure from the armies of France, her ally Russia and their mutual enemy Germany as they tried to implement their plans.
France: PLAN XVII – Napoleon Bonaparte’s many victories had converted the French military to the orthodoxy of offensive warfare. “Of all faults, inaction is the worst!” was the mantra of venerable Field Marshal Philip Petain. But his mindset was motivated at least as much by the defeats suffered in the Franco-Prussian war .under Napoleon 3rd, a dollar-store version of his uncle.
“The French drew the conclusion that they’d lost because they’d fought a defensive war, and that in future they should plan for an attacking war,” explains British soldier/historian Gordon Corrigan.
Still, after nearly 40 years of continuous evolution, Plan 17 was finally issued to field commanders just six months before WW1 broke out. Essentially a contingency plan for troop movements to counter anticipated German advances, Plan 17 never imagined the scenario of an attack through Belgium. Thus confident their northern army would hold off the German army there, the French generals chose to make their first attack against, where else, but Alsace Lorraine, the industrial provinces taken by Germany at gunpoint as a prize of the Franco-Prussian war.
French civilians had zero interest in a 40-year-old grudge but the wounded pride of their military leaders demanded revenge. With the ink was still drying on their Declaration of War, French forces launched their assault into the twin provinces on August 6th and succeeded in pushing the Germans back into the craggy peaks of the Vosage mountains. But no further.
The northern armies were being mauled by the 600,00 Germans charging towards Paris through Belgium. Alsace Lorraine would have to wait. The troops were shipped north as fast as trains could bring them. There, in a series of bloody firefights known as The Battle of the Frontiers, 329,000 French soldiers were made casualties before the German juggernaut was halted by the “Miracle On The Marne”. When the offensive in Alsace-Lorraine was eventually resumed, the Germans had dug in and could not be pried out of their mountaintop aeries. ‘Little Verdun’ would claim 30,000 casualties yet Alsace Lorraine would still be in German hands at the war’s end. The French would re-claim it through the Versailles Treaty.
Russia: Plan 19 – The Russian army was defeated before its soldiers had fired a single shot. In his 1976 book on the war’s Eastern Front, Bilkent University professor Norman Stone lay the blame for that defeat squarely at the feet of the army’s inept and often corrupt generals. “Faulty planning had much more to do with the initial Russian disasters than material weakness.”
That faulty military planning began at the “intellectually impoverished” Imperial War College. Russian literature of the period [most notably Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters] depicted the typical military officer as an empty ignoramus. Also autocratic, antisemitic, and antiquated, the officers of its three branches, the infantry, cavalry, and artillery, endlessly squabbled over their respective roles.
Artillery officers considered supporting their infantry’s offensive’s a waste of shells. Moreover, their insistence on mounting nearly three thousand modern artillery pieces atop medieval stone fortresses [which were all handily pulverized by enemy howitzers], robbed the army’s field artillery of the massed mobile firepower they needed to punch through enemy lines – or repel enemy punches!
The colossal Russian army that allegedly gave the generals in Berlin and Vienna nightmares was comprised entirely of peasants who could neither read nor tell time. This precluded any kind of battle plan beyond moving them straight forward or straight backward. Accomplishing even this was still difficult, a source of friction created by the chronic shortage of educated, trained, junior officers, a talent gap fostered by the snobbery of the anti-intellectual senior officers. Thus attacks were merely huge mobs of loosely supervised men charging enemy positions – with the predictable result that even the victories brought a dreadful winnowing of the ranks. Over two million Russian soldiers would be killed by 1917.
For its part, the one million-strong horsed cavalry served as the eyes and ears of the army and therefore insisted its needs take priority. “The continuing belief in cavalry’s efficacy meant that railways that might have sent infantrymen speedily to the front were loaded instead, with horses and fodder,” reveals Norman Stone. [Note: 40 trains could transport an infantry division of 16,000 men versus a cavalry division of 4,000 horses]. This was a problem endemic to all the armies of WW1.
One estimate puts the number of horses that served in WW1 at around six million. Horses ate ten times as much food by weight as a human, making fodder the single largest commodity shipped to the fronts by several countries including Britain and Germany. When forced to make a choice between feeding their horses and feeding their troops, both the German and Russian generals fed the horses. In 1914, that choice would starve German soldiers into living off the land and their wide-ranging foraging slowed their momentum in those critical first weeks.
But the friction that doomed the Russian army was the bitter personal enmity between its two field commanders that allowed their armies to be divided and conquered.
“The story of 1914 for the Russians is more about Clausewitzian fog than friction,” explains David Stone, Professor of Russian Studies at the US Naval War College. “The Russian invasions of East Prussia went off more or less on schedule. The problems came with lack of knowledge and lack of communication. The Russian 1st Army under General Rennenkampf lost track of the German 8th Army, and didn’t know what it was doing, while General Samsonov commanding the 2nd Army, moving into East Prussia…had no idea that he was walking into a trap.” The stunning turn-about victory for the Kaiser’s army at Tannenburg precipitated the Russian army’s ‘Great Retreat of 1915’, a military disaster that ranks among the greatest in history, according to Stone.
Germany: The Schlieffen Plan – “The most ambitious offensive plan ever devised,” according to Spencer Jones, author of Courage Without Glory, the Schlieffen Plan reflected the German military’s instinctive fear of having to fight a two-front war with Russia and France. Their solution was to knock one of them out quickly so all their forces could then be concentrated on the other, bigger threat. But which one to attack first?
“Since the turn of the century, the negative perception of France’s [military] capabilities crept into the minds of German generals and officers,” notes Benjamin Ziemann in Violence & The German Soldier in the Great War.
Perhaps this explains why, despite its dismal defeats in the Crimean War [1853-56] and the Russo-Japanese war [1904-05], Russia was judged the greater threat by Schlieffen and his colleagues rather than the poorly-led French whom they’d soundly thrashed in 1870. Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1905, devised a masterstroke plan to quickly eliminate France from the war before the lumbering bear of the Russian army could even mobilize. Last, of the classic Napoleonic strategists, Schlieffen’s plan envisioned large masses of men rapidly encircling the right flank of the French army to circumvent the line of fortresses it had built along its eastern borders after losing so badly in 1871. There was just one catch. This maneuver could only be achieved by invading France through Belgium, a clear violation of international law. Few if any at German army HQ worried that this would make them even more enemies. The 160,000-man British Expeditionary Force was dismissed as “a contemptible little army”.
The valiant Belgian army delayed the German advance for three days. Infuriated, German soldiers lashed out at civilians as well soldiers. The ensuing “Rape of Belgium” pushed an outraged Britain into the war. By stiffening the resistance being put up by their beleaguered French ally, that “contemptible little army” knocked the stuffing out of the German offensive.
“Ultimately, the Plan asks more of its soldiers than flesh and blood can deliver,” concludes Spencer Jones.
Gordon Corrigan concurs. “Magnificent war machine that it was, I do not think the German soldier could have marched fast enough nor could the logistic tail have kept up.”
Legendary for their organizational genius, German war planners had delivered two million soldiers, 118,000 horses, and 400,000 tons of supplies to the Western Front aboard 20,000 trains in just 20 days and still, it was not enough. “The single decisive battle…that the German General Staff had envisioned before 1914 was no longer possible,” observes military history professor Peter Lieb. “Clausewitz’s concept of a strategic annihilation battle faded when it met the reality of an industrialized war.”
That didn’t stop a number of German generals from claiming in their memoirs that Schlieffen’s plan would have worked if only X or Y had happened. “Of course, they’d say that,” scoffs independent historian Ross Beadle. “They had to explain to the German people how 44 years of war planning had gone belly up! The plan may have looked good in war games but they thought they were Masters of the Universe and overrated their ability enormously.”
And finally, what about #5, “luck, good and bad, whose consequences combatants can never fully foresee”? For all the military miscalculations, all the individual incompetence, all the Machiavellian maneuvering, all the jingoist madness that drove the events of 1914, it still took an act as unpredictable as a lightning strike, a stroke of dumb, blind, bullsh*t luck to embolden opportunist politicians into “slithering over the edge” into the abyss of war. That act, a chauffeur missing a turn and stopping to back up, thus presenting a scrawny, disaffected young man with a gun a few precious seconds to fire the two shots that would change history.
“I think one could make a credible case that if Gavrillo Princep had stood quietly in that crowd we would have no WWI, no WWII, and no Cold War, opines US War College professor Michael Neiberg.
The true legacy of friction’s ruinous impact on 1914’s infamous ‘March of Folly’, is echoed in the opinion of another history professor, Robert Doughty, who warns that. “Those who believe that wars can be surgical, that they can be won with ‘shock and awe,’ or that they can be directed toward a precise endgame or end state know little about The Great War,”
Dan McEwen is a former corporate wordsmith who writes about military history. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On War Without The Fog, Eugenia C. Kiesling, United States Military Academy
Clausewitzian Friction and Future War Barry D. Watts, Institute for National Strategic Studies,
The French Army & The First World War, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Cambridge University
Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy & Operations in The Great War, Robert Doughty, Harvard University Press
Russian Officer Corps Before The Revolution, Peter Kenez, JSTOR
The Origins of The Schlieffen Plan, Ross Beadle, WFA webinar
Europe and the Outbreak of War, 1914, Michael Neiberg, WW1 Museum online lecture
The Russian Disasters of 1915, David Stone, WW1 Museum online lecture
Violence & The German Soldier in the Great War, Benjamin Ziemann, online essay
WW1 in Numbers, TV series
The True Cost of Peace After WW1, TV series
The Eastern Front 1914, Peter Lieb, WFA lecture
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