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Friday, June 13, 2014

Gaming the Great War, Part 1

By Mitch Reed

As a veteran gamer and someone with a big interest in the “Great War” (purists never call it World War One), I have gotten used to the fact that my two passions would seldom be combined.  However, 2014 being the centennial anniversary of the start of the Great War, many games are coming out and are filling this void including Battlefront which has plans to add another era to its line by introducing us to a system that covers the last stages of the war in 1918. 

While many have commented on the choice of 1918 as the choice for the new line, I think it is a much overlooked period in the Great War and has a unique flavor that sets it apart from the rest of the conflict.

Part One: The Great War on the Western Front
When you mention the Great War to many gamers, the thoughts of the two sides in static trenches throwing themselves against wire and machine guns in futile attacks immediately comes to mind.  While this is very true when thinking of the majority of the war (December 1914 to late 1917), the beginning and end of the war were fought much differently and should be thought of that way when gaming. While this series will focus on the latter stages of the Great War, I want to discuss the earlier stages of the conflict on the Western Front in order to give 1918 a better context to gamers.

When the war started in August of 1914, both the Central Powers (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Great Britain) has plans on the shelf to combat their historic foes.  The Germans had the Schleiffen Plan which called for quickly knocking out France in a sweep through Belgium before turning its attention to Russia.  The French had Plan XVII, which called for an attack on Germany on their common border. As both sides mobilized, they executed these plans blindly believing that they would bring about the victory that was planned for.  What resulted was a very fluid period of the war where the French and Germans attacked in different sectors (French to the south and the Germans to the North) in an attempt to bring about a quick victory on the Western Front. In this beginning period of the war, cavalry played a major role in screening the moves of both armies and some of the last major fights of cavalry took place during this time frame.

If visions of brightly uniformed French Poilu charging into withering machine gun fire comes to mind you are 
French Soldiers "Poilu" in 1914
not very far off.  The beginning of the Great War saw a century of military thinking, planning and training die as it ran headlong into the technology of modern warfare.  Leaders of both sides were slow to react and proved the maxim “Generals are always prepared to fight the last war” to be true.

This war of mobility and maneuver stopped when both forces saw that their plans, developed over many years, would not work and that turning the flank of their opponent was not going to occur.  As the warm summer of 1914 turned into the wet cold winter, both sides dug in and turned the conflict into the stalemate that many think of when picturing the Great War.  

There were many factors that defined the stalemate which encompassed the majority of the war.  First, advances in technology, artillery and machine guns left men in the open vulnerable, so digging in was the only way to protect them.  The second reason was primarily a German one; having conquered a large portion of France and most of Belgium, the Germans felt that they could hold on and force the Western members of the Entente (Now to include Belgium and Italy) to negotiate peace on terms favorable to Germany.  The last reason would be the simple change of seasons; the leadership on both sides, used to calling a halt to their campaigns in the winter, hunkered down to await better conditions to launch another round of attacks.

For the better part of the next two years the war took on a static appearance with both sides trying to win a war of attrition highlighted by massive Entente offenses.  In this period the Germans only launched two major attacks, the Second Battle of Ypres which saw the first use of poison gas on the Western Front and Verdun which was an attempt to bleed out the French army. The offensives of this period, launched mostly by the British, stand out in modern memory, most of all the Somme attack in July 1916, where the British lost 50,000 men in the first day. 

Both sides slowly saw that this war of attrition was one that neither side could win and turned to technology and innovation to break the stalemate.  By the middle of 1917 the Germans shortened their line and retreated back to the previously prepared Hindenburg Line, which they planned to sit out the war and hoped to force the Entente to the peace table.  For the Entente; it was not about winning the war outright any longer, it was about breaking the deadlock with hopes of an exploitation that would render the new German line useless. 

By 1917 new weapons such as the tank along with other new innovations and doctrines gave both sides a faint hope that they were on track to win the Great War. The genesis of what was to become the war in 1918 had its roots in 1917.  Battles such as VimyRidge in April and Cambrai in November of 1917 shows how the nature of the war was changing and new methods were being adopted. 

Part Two: German Offenses of 1918
It is a shame that the nuances seen in the fighting of 1918 did not leave a bigger impression on the minds of
many today when we think of the Great War.  The fighting of 1918 was not a return to the open warfare that was seen in the first months of the war; it is better explained as a return of the successful offense between two punch drunk fighters.

British tank knocked out at Cambrai, 1917
German Attacks of March 1918
A lot changed by 1918; the first was how the war was being fought on a daily basis.  Both sides (starting with the Germans) adopted an elastic defense with overlapping strong points that saw the abandonment of the manned front line trench.  Troops were kept in these strong points or back behind the fighting in order to react to an enemy attack.  This change was brought about for two reasons: first, both sides faced a critical manpower shortage as the war entered its fourth year.  Neither side had the resources to man a miles deep series of trench lines that constituted the front for the previous two and a half years.  The other reason was that after years of applying doctrine and tactics from past wars, leaders on both sides saw that these new defensive methods was the new nature of warfare.

Along with the change in defensive doctrine, the offensive mindset also drastically changed. 

What became later known as Stormtrooper Tactics, or attacking using infiltration techniques, was adopted and changed warfare forever. First developed by German General Oskar von Hutier on the Eastern Front, Hutier Tactics as they were known as called for lightly armed infantry units to attack by-passing and isolating defensive strong points in an attempt to get into the enemies rear area.  Troops following behind would have heavier weapons and would deal with the now isolated strong points and eliminate them.  Hutier Tactics brought great success when used against the Russians before they exited the war and the Italians in the Battle of Caporetto in 1917.  

The best example of the success for these new tactics would be the German offensives of March 1918. 
German Advances in 1918 (In red)
General Erich Ludendorff, who became the First Quartermaster General of the German army, saw that with America’s entry into the war, it was a matter of time before Germany was defeated.  With thousands of fresh US troops arriving in France each week, Ludendorff knew he had a limited time frame to win the war. 

Using troops freed up by Russia’s departure, the Germans launched a series of attacks in March of 1918.  Originally known as the Kaiser's Battle or the Ludendorff Offensive, the first attacks caught the British 5th Army unprepared and drove them back, creating a gap between the French and British armies.  However, the Germans did not exploit the gaps properly and after a few days they ground to a halt.  Not willing to concede defeat, Ludendorff continued the attack using the new Hutier Tactics until August of 1918, when they once more threatened the capture of Paris in what became the Second Battle of the Marne.

By the end of these series of attacks the German army was spent, and was relegated to the defense for the rest of the war. 

In part two of the series we'll conclude the war and start talking about some ways to think about gaming the Great War. 

Mitch Reed is a defense analyst and an officer in the US Air Force Reserve.  Besides being an avid gamer and historian he is also a play tester and designer for board and computer war games and has recently finished a board war game that covers the fighting in 1914 which is due out later this year. 

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