World War I: Not just trench warfare

One of the conventional ideas about World War I (especially the Western Front), is that technology outpaced tactics. We wrap up the war’s problems this way: Commanders had a pre-machine-gun idea of how battles worked, and they were now living in a post-machine-gun world.

In Andrew Weist’s Haig: The Evolution of a Commander, one paragraph stands out in particular:

Civil War and Napoleonic generals had a weapon upon which to rely that afforded the chance to convert victory into a route: Haig’s beloved cavalry. On the western front, though, cavalry would prove to be of limited use, even more vulnerable than infantry when caught in the open. After World War I generals could rely on the speed of armor to win lightening-quick victories over defending forces. Thus the Great War was the single modern war that lacked a weapon of exploitation, that could use speed to transform a tactical victory into a strategic advance – the very goal taught so well in staff colleges across Europe.

In general, Weist is perpetuating the standard interpretationĀ  of the World War I Problem here, but there is a specific time and place in the opening phase of the war that needs to be examined, in light of his pin-pointing the inadequacy of horse cavalry. I am curious about the Battle of Mons in late August of 1914, and the subsequent “Great Retreat.” At this point in the war, the trenches had not yet been dug, and the Germans and the Allies were still maneuvering across Belgium and France.

To this point, post-Napoleonic concepts of strategic phases still held up, and senior leaders’ (on both sides) were in familiar territory, conceptually speaking. During the 1914 engagements at Mons and Le Cateau, the Germans obtained a temporary advantage against the British army, which began to retreat.

Here’s the key question: Why didn’t the Germans exploit that advantage with cavalry?

The strategic situation on August 23, when the Battle of Mons began, was that the French were bringing their armies on line to meet the Germans, who were sweeping through Belgium and France. Meanwhile, the British Expeditionary Force had landed in France and rushed to the front, intending to link up with the French left flank in Belgium. The German 1st Army hit the BEF at Mons before that link could be made, and the British Army began “The Great Retreat,” along with the entire French Army. The French were also falling back because the Germans also hit them around the same time, and the French commander, General Joffre ordered a withdrawal to shorten the allied supply lines (and lengthen the Germans’).

One natural response to the idea that German cavalry could have made difference, is that artillery had already made cavalry obsolete. I find that argument to be inadequate, because the German artillery out-performed the allied batteries at the beginning of the war.

In the days leading up to Mons, the French cavalry had been unable to find the Germans on their left, and the French left-flank commander, General Lanrezac had failed to link up with the British. Additionally, the French had inadequate intelligence of the battlespace – they allowed the Germans to take several bridges over the Sambre river that they had either neglected to guard or had simply no knowledge of. Conversely, the German army was already practicing “auftragstaktik,” a battlefield leadership concept that places emphasis on low-level tactical leaders taking initiative in the absence of detailed orders. (Incidentally, the German army continued to use this concept to great effect in World War II, and the U.S. Army adopted some of its principals after WWII.) This practice of taking initiative led directly to the seizure of the bridges, and the French defeat at Sambre on August 21-22.

The Allied left was collapsing after Mons, and the BEF suffered another defeat at Le Cateau two days later.

The pressing question is: Why did Germany allow the British and French armies to retreat in a semi-orderly fashion to the outskirts of Paris? Could the German army have capitalized on the initial chaos of the withdrawal from Mons and rolled up the entire allied left flank?

My initial theory (this is a work in progress), is that the Germans had not massed sufficient cavalry in reserve to effect a decisive collapse of the allied left. With just some cursory research on the topic, I believe the German armies each had their own cavalry elements, it had been parcelled out along the entire front, and there was no massive reserve. Whether or not it was feasible to mass enough cavalry to make good on a breakthrough before the static trench warfare began, it is a question worth exploring.


Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Mosier, John. The Myth of the Great War. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Weist, Andrew. Haig: The Evolution of a Commander. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *