The Great tragedies of First World War 1914-17

By Lt Gen Harwant Singh (retd), through Hindustan Times Chandigarh,

One hundred years ago, the world saw the start of a great war in which worldwide more than 5 million soldiers and civilians were killed. A war which was started by the Austro- Hungarian empire against Serbia soon engulfed many others in a swirling pool of death and destruction. The principal actors in this war relied on their experience of colonial wars, which in substance were mostly one-sided affairs: where modern technology and weapons had operated against the primitive. Quick-firing rifles and cavalry charges against swords and lance had carried the day. So in 1914, the illusion of a quick and easy outcome of the conflict was expected. Wilhelm 2 of Germany told his troops that they would be back before “the leaves have fallen from the trees”. That France would be knocked out of the war in 42 days. The Allies too figured that the war would end soon and victory would be theirs.The war lasted more than four years with casualties on both sides at an unprecedented scale.

The experience of colonial wars made commanders believe that while they would be shooting at the enemy, the enemy would not be able to shoot back, and in any case, not effectively. That is why most soldiers on either side did not have steel helmets. Austro-Hungarian cavalry wore brilliant red and blue uniforms and so did the French infantry, more suited for ceremonial parades rather than combat. Neither side had visualized the power of machine gun, a new weapon on the battlefield. In a nutshell, military commanders on both sides were hoping to re-fight a colonial one-sided war.

Suicidal advances
Thus infantry on both sides walked over open ground making suicidal advances. Such misgiving of the battlefield was the result of cherry-picking of lessons by the opposing generals from the previous wars. They never learnt what havoc even the ancestor of machine gun, the Gatling gun, could bring to bear on the battlefield. The lessons of American civil war, the siege of Port Arthur and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 were never imbibed by commanders on either side. Nor were the military commanders able to quickly readjust to the changed battlefield environments but continued to subject the troops to appalling casualty figures.

The other illusion was again born out of past experience of over 2,000 years that cavalry would chart the path to glory. Such were the convictions among the cavalry club of London and its counterparts in the opposing camp, that Germany marshaled four cavalry divisions with 40,000 horses. The Allies too collected horses from the Middle East, India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and France. Little did the two sides realize that the machine gun had dramatically changed the battle scene and made horse and the old cavalry obsolete. At the battle of Somme, on the opening day, machine gun killed 60,000 British troops. So devastating was the outcome of thoughtless infantry assaults against the power of the machine gun that the French offensive in 1917 left 1.2 lakh of its soldiers dead and wounded and this carnage led to large-scale mutinies in the French army.

Notoriously conservative
Armies are notoriously conservative and reluctant to change, and military commanders, by and large, try to fight the last war. Thus, prior to the Second World War, only a few generals on the German side realized the potential of tank and its ability to overcome the power of machine gun and get troops out of trench warfare and restore mobility on the battlefield. Generals, on the opposing side, were slow to realize the change this new weapon had brought about and paid the price for their reluctance to grasp, quickly enough, the potential of this new weapon and emergence of aircraft as another game changer.

Today, when technology in general has made great strides and its application to military weapons is bringing about a sea change on the battlefield, some armies are slow to grasp the changing scenario.
Missiles, laser and rail guns, electronics, drones and a wide range of other systems will impart a new thrust to warfare. Survival on the battlefield will require not only shedding of old mindsets, techniques and weapons, but developing new technologies to counter these set of weapons. Armies will have to shed the ‘last war’ syndrome and adopt innovation and emerging technologies, and be futuristic in thought and concept.
The deep inroads that technology is making into warfare and its instruments will dramatically change the contours of future battlefield and, therefore, the need for a rethink, adoption of new weaponry, techniques and tactics on the part of commanders. Equally, their education and understanding of these and possible future developments in technologies have become imperative. At the same time, there is definite need to redraw the intake standards, both for officers and men, and thus draw on the right manpower: educated in science and emerging weapon technologies.

(The writer, former deputy chief of army staff, is a commentator on security and defense issues. Views expressed are his personal ones )