World War I ended over 100 years ago, but it may be one of the most important conflicts to study in preparation for America’s next major war. There are key parallels between the situation in 1914 and today, namely, U.S. Army and American political leaders’ attitudes regarding the next war, development of new weapons and emergent domains of warfare.
These parallels should make military professionals consider what the history of World War I means for the future of the U.S. Army and the next global war.
Leaders in 1914 believed a major war in their time would resemble wars of the 19th century. The 1813 Battle of Leipzig, Saxony, during the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, of the American Civil War in 1863 each lasted three days.
Contrast these with the 1916 Battle of Verdun, France, which lasted 10 months, one of the longest battles of World War I. No political leaders or senior military officials predicted they would fight for that long.
The entire German strategy demanded rapid successive victories, not prolonged trench warfare. The French believed so firmly in the concept of elan (the offensive spirit) that in the beginning of the war, they charged hardened German positions despite sustaining heavy casualties. The British at the 1916 Battle of the Somme in France sustained nearly 60,000 killed, wounded or missing on the first day of the battle.
These examples demonstrate that senior military and political leadership did not understand or could not adjust to the new nature of warfare. French Gen. Joseph Joffre, British Field Marshal Sir John French, U.S. Gen. John Pershing and Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke did not understand the full nature of the great task they were about to undertake in the early years of the 20th century.
Likewise, the U.S. Army and its allies today may not fully understand the true nature of 21st century warfare. Military leaders know and frequently remark, “We always fight the last war.” Are leaders prepared to rapidly adjust when assumptions prove incorrect within the first few days of combat?
In 1914, the world witnessed what happens when plans built on false assumptions fail. Understanding how leaders in 1914 made these assumptions may prevent similar losses today.
Before World War I, advances in field gun and machine-gun technology created deadlier weapons than previously constructed. Field artillery during World War I produced more casualties than any other weapon. Combatant nations utilized weapons such as tanks and modernized flamethrowers and hand grenades, to lethal effect.
These weapons forced the development of new tactics, including techniques like the rolling barrage, where slow-moving artillery fire created a defensive wall behind which infantry troops advanced.
Integration of new technologies and tactics contributed greatly to Germany’s initial battlefield success. The large 420 mm siege cannons used to destroy fortifications throughout Belgium during the first month of the war are a good example. However, the use of novel weapons that exceeded expectations sometimes outpaced the development of tactics for their employment.
The ability of the state to develop and employ new weapons and tactics, as well as identify current technology with military applications, is critical to success during large-scale combat operations. Military leaders today should study the relationships between French, British and German military and industrial leaders during World War I. These relationships will provide insights into how engineers developed new technologies and implemented them during a time of war.
World War I also demonstrated how emergent battlefield domains affect large-scale, next-century warfare. Both airplanes and submarines took advantage of domains that previously had been inaccessible to humans.
After their first flight in 1903, in 1909, the Wright brothers sold their first aircraft to the U.S. Army and personally trained many of the pilots who would fly during World War I. Armies initially used aircraft for observation and reconnaissance, but innovations allowed aircraft to serve in an attack capacity. The Germans used a fleet of zeppelins in addition to aircraft for bombing and reconnaissance.
These technological developments signaled an important shift in strategy. Armies could launch aerial raids against civilian populations to cause psychological and political effects. Similarly, submarines terrified many people during World War I. The thought that an underwater craft could sink a vessel without detection caused disruptions to trade during the war. Submarine warfare initiated by the Germans against military and civilian ships brought the U.S. into the war.
The next global war will incorporate two new domains: space and cyberspace. While every new domain of warfare adds a level of complexity and its own unique challenges, each have predictable impacts. For example, cyberattacks, like submarines, have the potential to affect international trade and the civilian populations of every country on the planet. There is a possibility that the U.S. will enter the next major war as the result of unrestricted cyberwarfare.
Militaries initially used both air and space for observation and reconnaissance purposes with early aircraft and satellites, respectively. As technology continued to develop, states quickly militarized both domains while engaging in weighty ethical debates regarding such actions. The aerial bombing of cities has become central to every major military campaign since World War I. The strategy and tactics surrounding morale bombing, initially developed during World War I, led to the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany, and Tokyo and ultimately to the U.S. using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both in Japan.
The correlation between conflict longevity and intensity of aerial bombardment will likely hold true for great-power warfare in the space domain, despite the moral and ethical arguments made against the use of space-based weapons.
By examining how political and military leaders used new domains in the pursuit of military objectives during World War I, today’s leaders might better understand how a modern adversary may employ weapons in emergent domains of warfare.
U.S. leaders and soldiers must consider studying the attitudes and perspectives of leaders during World War I and the weapons and domains that armies used to decide its outcome. In studying the impact World War I had on the nations of Europe, and many other nations around the world, today’s leaders will gain insights into how the world might respond to the first global war of the 21st century.
Leaders also must critically examine their assumptions about the nature of the next global war. Otherwise, they will make the same kinds of mistakes leaders made at the onset of the first global war, in the 20th century.
U.S. leaders must be prepared to produce and employ technology on the leading edge of human innovative capability both before and during war. They must understand and be able to use emerging domains of warfare more effectively than our adversaries do.
When imagining the future of large-scale combat operations, military planners should include the events of World War I, or the U.S. Army will lose sight of these lessons.
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Capt. David Weinmann is an assistant operations officer for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Fort Meade, Maryland. Previously, he was a student in the Military Intelligence Captains Career Course, Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 2018.