Storming Back to the Future: Why We Wrestle With The Basics

Gerry Long

Storming Back to the Future: Why We Wrestle With The Basics
To cite this article: Long, Gerry, “‘Storming Back to the Future: Why We Wrestle With The Basics”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 3, Summer 2014, pages 22-25.

‘War is an option of difficulties’
– General James Wolfe

‘… much of modern military tactics is geared toward maneuvering the enemy into a position where they can essentially be massacred from safety’
– Sebastian Junger

‘All armies of the world learn, in peace time, how to write beautifully constructed orders … but we must never lose sight of the fact that, in a war of movement, our orders will be brief and simple’.
– Adolf Von Schell

In his article ‘The Tactics Gap’[i] Wilf Owen started a debate as to why we seek equipment solutions rather than training solutions to the problem of basic tactics. In my view, Wilf is correct in his assumptions that we struggle to have a coherent debate over tactical doctrine. Like most decisions, it’s easier to look to technology for the answer rather than look within ourselves or to the past. Many armies are like teenage boys at heart; looking to a quick fix of technology rather than going through what is perceived as a long, boring study. However, on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, we need look no further than the German application of infiltration tactics to understand how to fill the tactics gap in the training of infantry in the twenty-first century. As always, in order to advance we should understand where we have come from; and how we got here.

The importance training infantrymen in tactics so as to be first rate, highly motivated and competent has never been higher. To paraphrase Clausewitz, everything in war is simple, it’s just that the simplest things become very difficult. This is never truer than for training infantry in tactics in a transforming environment. Tactical innovation is often unruly, spasmodic, and to a certain extent uncontrollable. That is the opposite environment from that which directorates and arms of service schools like to work in. Service schools and headquarters tend to prefer a lull in the battle before embarking on transformational change; especially when budgets are tight and when ‘flexibility’ is liberally used in budget managers’ vocabulary to mean ‘be prepared to do more with less’.

To effectively link doctrine and current in-theatre tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) one must overcome and then combine the dynamism of the ‘modern battlefield’ with the natural caution of conservative military culture. This is not a condemnation of the military mind: soldiers are inherently cautious because the stakes in their profession are usually very high. Success or failure is often measured in human lives. Operational doctrine and organizations must be flexible enough to embrace new TTPs arising from operations in complex terrain. Taking practical battlefield advantage of new ideas is the responsibility of all those involved in the development of doctrine. To do this, the military culture must at times be prepared to take a leap of faith with tactical innovation. They should establish meaningful paradigms for frontline soldiers to employ, from starting points that may appear unreachable at first. At the same time, the prevailing military culture should be discerning enough to reject irrelevant or unnecessary tinkering around the edges, when only bold innovation is required.

In this environment, why turn to the innovation of an army defeated nearly 100 years ago? Firstly, like pornography, good tactics is often hard to define but when you see it you know what it is. The basis of all modern light role infantry doctrine was born out of the hard lessons learned in the Great War. On the British side this led to the development of the combined arms battle of the ‘Hundred Days’. On the German side it led to the development of elastic defense and ‘stormtrooper’ tactics. That involved seeking of gaps in the enemy’s defense and attacking from a flank, fixing the enemy by fire (either direct (machine gun) or indirect (artillery) or then closing with the enemy under that fire. That has been the mainstay of low-level infantry doctrine ever since. The training employed to deliver that doctrine was just as dynamic as the resulting change in tactics. It was built on distributed training, trust at the lowest levels, and (above all) high standards of personal soldering skills.

Germany Tactical and Training Innovation

Like most wartime marriages of doctrine and strategy, German stormtrooper tactics were driven as much by military necessity as by a desire of the military elite to embrace change. Out of the broken strategy of 1914 came the establishment of position warfare, which yielded slowly but inevitably to trench warfare. This strategic stalemate characterized most of the conflict until 1918. Although the battlefield was static it was, paradoxically, a hotbed of innovation and tactical hybrid warfare, where low-level commanders grappled with the necessity of holding ground whilst maintaining offensive spirit. It became obvious that the doctrine the German Army went to war with in 1914 was suicidal when opposed by modern weapons[ii]. A solution was needed that would decrease the vulnerability of the infantry unit whilst increasing its firepower. Accordingly the Germans fielded new weapons, developed new infantry tactics, and emphasized coordination with supporting arms. These new aspects first came to the fore in the Argonne sector of the Western Front. The Argonne was the true crucible of the war: never at peace, always at strife.[iii] The most intense period was in the summer of 1915. This heavily wooded area would, at first sight, seem to negate the Germans’ advantage in artillery and machine guns. Small-unit tactics were the norm, and initially the Germans found it tough going. New tactics took time to develop. At first they were conducted on a small scale, but the tactics developed were simple. A small section of the front was selected as the target. The artillery bombardment was massive but very short in duration. Then a mixed force of engineers and infantry infiltrated into the pulverized position, followed by more infantry and machine gunners. When the new light mortar entered service, mortar crews followed along.[iv] This innovation, largely unnoticed by the Allies, gave the Germans the opportunity to develop new tactics to go with their new weapons.[v]

Having initially stumbled into combined arms tactics as a result of the need to neutralize the French and Belgian fortifications in 1914, the German Army embraced the result. The necessity of invention forced the infantry, for the first time, to be organized around the application of enormous amounts of high explosive delivered by an array of platforms. The Germans were perfectly aware that linking the infantry to the application of high explosives was solving only part of the problem. As long as the infantry were armed with bolt-action rifles there was not much they could do when they ran into small fortified positions or dug-in opposition. And, as any infantryman can attest, at ground level the ‘precision delivery of high explosive’ is an oxymoron. The Germans had already reintroduced hand grenades. German assault troops in the Argonne were scuttling along the ground carrying spades and sacks of grenades early on. The French positions were a great stimulant for innovation because the terrain was too rough to allow easy movement of heavy weapons. The resulting unit was a sort of hybrid of Jaeger and Pionier[vi], consisting of a machine gun detachment, mortar detachment and a flamethrower detachment, as well as a lot of infantry who were increasingly grenadiers rather than riflemen. That is to say, they no longer paid much attention to the rifle as an offensive weapon.

This test-bed infantry unit with its increased firepower led to infantry divisions being decentralized. The resulting ‘storm troops’ or ‘assault troops’ would operate almost independently. Just as revolutionary was the use of these units to disseminate these new tactics. They were promptly rotated and passed on their experience to other units, in effect creating mobile battle schools. In the Vosges, the French lost more than vital territory and their best troops. Conceptually, they lost the war (and the next one) by failing to grasp that the nature of combat had been changed dramatically, and irrevocably.[vii]

At the lowest level, the assault squads modified their personal weapons to meet their unique situation. They also made excellent use of the hand grenade as a close-quarter weapon.[viii] The stormtroopers also conducted live-fire training exercises using the new tactics behind the lines in carefully-constructed copies of the objectives of future operations. Assault squads conducted extensive rehearsals with live-fire, including supporting artillery, prior to any attack. Independent sub-unit movement was demanding, and the NCO in charge was empowered to make battlefield decisions. This harsh, exacting training took a toll on the soldiers, and some could not meet the physical requirement.[ix] Nevertheless, it was precisely that training which gave assault troops confidence in their supporting artillery and their individual weapons. Most importantly, it gave NCOs the confidence to become battlefield leaders. The tactics were totally dependent on initiative at their level. Without a confident NCO leading the assault, the new tactics were doomed to failure.[x]

After World War I, General Hans von Seeckt, commander of Germany’s much-reduced post war army, set out a plan to extend those successful tactical innovations. It resulted in the formalization of ‘stormtrooper’ infiltration tactics. Debate ensued inside the officer corps, which ultimately produced tangible reforms. These reforms reshaped training, modernization, organization and personnel management. This climate of institutional reform was made possible by a military culture that encouraged real innovation and out-of-the-box thinking amongst junior officers.[xi] It led directly to the successes of the German Army in the early stages of the Second World War.

Training the Infantry: Future Battle Drill

In response to Wilf Owen’s article on ‘The Tactics Gap’, what have Great War German infiltration tactics to do with the training of infantry in the twenty-first century? Does their application have any relevance to any army’s current tactical doctrine? Lessons of the past are as relevant as they were nearly a hundred years ago: the essence of tactics is the technique of employing the resources of war in battle. The actual functions performed in war are quite simple. They are the same whether it is one man engaged in mortal combat, or an entire army. The simplest weapons system of all is the man himself. An effective weapons system must locate its target, transmit its characteristics through a communications system, set in motion the force available to destroy the target, follow with an evaluation of the results achieved, and prepare for the next action. In their simplest forms, these functions may be defined as a communications system, firepower and mobility. Their application in battle may become complex,[xii] but training for them is just as simple as it always been:

1. Trust Leaders to Train their Soldiers: The need is to deliver quality training wherever it is required, regardless of where the directorate school or the centralized training facility is located. The answer lies in the combination of demanding, distributed training delivered by experienced soldiers. Any army which fields light role infantry can take the basic tactical template and use it to deliver competent individual soldiers. The key requirement is capable and highly-motivated NCOs who are also competent instructors.

2. Training for War: Explicitly this means you have to train for ‘a war’, not ‘the war.’ Unless combat formations continually and systematically exercise for combat, they will always be found wanting come the day.[xiii] SLA Marshall observed in ‘Men Against Fire’,

‘In the whole of the initial assault on Omaha Beachhead, there were only about five infantry companies which were tactically effective … at their backs was the power of the mightiest sea and land forces ever to support an invading army in the history of the world. But in the hour of crisis for these infantry companies, the metal, guns and bombs of these distant supporters were not worth three squads from that small band of men which had gone to work with grenades and rifles’.

This has been reinforced by recent experience on many battlefields. Warfare in Afghanistan has reoriented soldiers to fight in small, cohesive, self-contained groups that possess all the arms of combat (or can call on them). It demands a high standard of personnel battle drill, and robust tactical discipline. Both war and ‘transformation’ require subordinate initiative which pulls soldiers into the fight, not fighting via detailed plans which mean we miss opportunities to exploit success on the battlefield. Effective action in the confusion of battle requires independent judgment and initiative at the lowest level. Otherwise, army formations will become inert masses: paralyzed, rather than empowered, by new technologies.[xiv]

3. The ‘band of brothers’ approach: The surest way to reduce casualties among close-combat units is to place in harm’s way only soldiers trained through a ‘band of brothers’ approach: groups who, over a period of years, have worked collectively to achieve physical fitness, emotional maturity, technical competence, and confidence in their leaders.[xv] Nothing nurtures confidence more than the sense of belonging to a ‘band of brothers’. That requires the ingraining the habits, built on battle drill, that when conducted day in, day out with the same team builds invisible ties of cohesion. Battle drill, the physical act of responding to a situation, minimizes the randomness of battle and gives the soldier a familiar point of reference in an uncertain environment. As von Seeckt observed: ‘true military discipline extends not from knowledge, but habit.’

Battle drills should be robust, practiced frequently, and above all simple. We don’t see much of any of that today.

Tactics Gap or a Gap of Trust?

New doctrine should be integrated with tactical organization, techniques, and procedures. This is easy to articulate in the lecture hall or classroom but more difficult to accomplish in practice. Prevailing attitudes, service and regimental rivalries along with sheer bloody mindedness go hand in hand with the fog of war, which sometimes undermines common understanding and tactical development. It requires strongly-managed and directed interaction of positive leadership linked to an open tactical forum within an open military culture to deal with the realities of the modern battlefield. Common-sense doctrine is usually driven from the bottom up, based on combat imperatives and lessons learned. Cumulatively, they shape two key expectations. The first is: does the current or planned model for the infantry add value? Does it result in equipping the man for the role, or merely manning the equipment? The second is then: what are the implications for training and education? Can, for example, 90% of a mortar platoon revert to being a rifle platoon, given three weeks’ notice, or one week of in-theatre emergency training? If this cannot be done, what does it tell us about a concept predicated on the need to adapt?[xvi]

Tactics are proven on the ground, but it’s how we got to the current tactical employment of men and equipment that is often forgotten. The innovation in training, the flexible nature of that training, and the ability to adapt that training quickly is often lost in the peace time. Bureaucracy stifles most modern armies, even though the armies involved in the ‘coalition of the willing’ have been at war for over 10 years. A plethora of overlapping HQs which all have a stake in the training of soldiers and exercise centralized control hamper the development of low-level doctrine. The maxim of modern military training should be ‘he who controls everything controls nothing, and produces very little’. The amount of paper and time needed to produce a change to tactics and training negates a basic principle of war: flexibility! The basic tenet lost in the training environment today is trust: trusting subordinates to get on and train soldiers. No leader wants to train bad soldiers nor train them badly. That is the biggest lesson to be learned from the German innovation of stormtrooper tactics. ‘The Tactics Gap’ that Wilf Owen identified at the start of this debate is largely a ‘gap of trust’ between those soldiers with recent tactical experience and those of the Cold War generation of soldier-managers who hold the doctrinal and training purse strings.


Principal References

Samuels, Martin. ‘Doctrine and Dogma: German and British Infantry Tactics in the First World War’, (New York: Greenwood Press) 1992.
Lewis, J. ‘Forgotten Legions: German Army Infantry Policy 1919-1941’, (New York: Prager Publishers) 1985.
Gudmundsson, Bruce, ‘Stormtroop Tactics. Innovation in the German Army 1914-1918’, (New York: Praeger Publishers) 1989.
Lupfer, Timothy T. ‘The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War’, (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute), l981.
Von Schell, Adolf. ‘Battle Leadership’ Marine Corp Assn Bookstore 1987.
Stackpole, Patrick. ‘German Tactics in the ‘Michael Offensive’ 1918’, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY, 1981.
Condell, Bruce & Zabecki, David T (Eds). ‘On the German Art of War: Truppenführung’, Stackpole Books, 2001.

[i] Owen, William F., ‘The Tactics Gap: Why We Wrestle With The Basics’, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 1, Winter 2014, pages 17-19.
[ii] Stackpole (1981) p 17.
[iii] Boucheron, G. (1917) ‘L’Assaut: L’Argonne et Vauquios avec le 10e Division’, Perrin Paris, p 95-6.
[iv] Mosier, J. (2001) The Myth of the Great War, Profile Books, London p155-7.
[v] Ibid p173.
[vi] Literally ‘light infantryman’ and ‘pioneer’ respectively, but ‘pionier’ has overtones of ‘sapper’ (as in combat engineer) as well - Ed.
[vii] Ibid p173-7.
[viii] Ibid. p 48.
[ix] Samuels (1992) p 29
[x] Stackpole (1981) p 23-24.
[xi] Macgregor, D.A., (2003) ‘Transformation Under Fire’, Praeger, Westport, p 93.
[xii] Gavin, J.M., (1958) ‘War and Peace in the Space Age’, Harper & Brothers, New York, p 212.
[xiii] Owen, loc cit.
[xiv] Macgregor, op cit, p 55-6.
[xv] Scales, R, H. (2003) ‘Yellow Smoke’, Rowman, New York, p 162-.3
[xvi] Owen, William F. ‘The Universal Infantry’, Australian Army Journal. Volume VII (2010), Number 3, p143-9.