Americans had had experience with trench warfare before WWI...the Siege of Vicksburg (Mississippi) and the Siege of Petersburg (Virginia) during our Civil War. Especially at Petersburg, where the trenches could well have been in France fifty years later, Union Army generals faced the same dilemma that British, French and German generals faced: How do you overcome the firepower that the enemy has? In the Civil War it was the rifle musket (range: 1000 yards), in WWI, it was the machine gun...and both slaughtered men like livestock.
U.S. Grant's solution was to hit the enemy on the flanks...nail him on his left, force him out of the trenches and use cavalry to disrupt his supplies. R.E.Lee had no choice but to fall back and attempt to maneuver against Grant. He eventually was defeated (Saylor's Creek and Five Forks, April, 1865).
The U.S. Army had learned that maneuver must be maintained...and the campaigns against the Native Americans in the 1860's, 1870's and 1880's were fought as basically light infantry and cavalry against light cavalry (and against guerillas, in the case of the campaigns against the Apache in New Mexico and Arizona Territories). American Expeditionary Force Commander John Pershing had come of age as an officer fighting the Apache, and he understood the value and the need of maneuver (Pershing had combat experience against the Apache, the Spanish and the Moros), but, to be frank, making a flanking movement against the Germans was just this side of impossible. The German trench line ran from the North Sea to the Swiss border...and how do you flank an ocean or a neutral border? A break through had to be made to create a way to gain maneuvering room. The only thing that could be done was to try to hit the enemy hard at a weak spot and break through.
The British and Commonwealth forces always did it best...when tanks were introduced in 1916, that glimmer of what could be done became apparent. The idea was there, the methods and tactics were worked out, but the technology hadn't yet caught up to those tactics. Eventually, the tanks were, by Cambrai, able to make the break through, and the infantry could consolidate that break through. The US did similar during Meuse-Argonne in 1918...light tanks, artillery and aircraft.
After one hundred years, we can see how pointless those many assaults were...especially in the French sectors of the lines. The French never did seem to learn that what they were doing was wasting men...the British and Commonwealth Forces DID learn what was needed. The sheer aggressiveness of the Aussies, Canadians, Scots and Irish...as well as the aggressiveness of the Americans...made a major difference in defeating the Germans. The French may have had "elan," but being hurled against the enemy line constantly for no gain in territory destroys morale. That destruction of morale led to the French mutiny of 1917. It speaks well of the British that they didn't mutiny. The sheer bravery of the Tommies and Diggers is legendary to this day...and as a veteran of the US Air Force, I still am heartbroken that so many good men died in that war so long ago. I just wish that stupid overgrown family fight (European royalty was more inbred than West Virginia trailer trash) never took place.
"It's a hard country, kid."
10 years ago
Great analysis! The French and their 'Plan 17' offense requiring 'elan' and 'cran' was outdated and only matched by the German's lack of strong military leadership.