“This isn’t a battle, it’s a mass suicide.” – Unnamed British Officer, 3rd Battle of Ypres, part of a mutiny against the British Government
“Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical.” Major General Smedley Butler, 2-time Medal of Honor recipient, War Is A Racket
If World War I occurred today, we would call it The Apocalypse.
Military casualties totaled over 13 million. Civilian casualties, never formally documented, have been estimated to be three to five times that number.
Need an analogy? Take the modern U.S. Army (half a million). Kill or wound that number of people 26 times. Repeat with the same number of civilians, 78-130 times. We’ll put aside the material costs, for now.
Why was the death toll so high? Wasn’t it necessary?
The bulk of senior World War I military leadership were veterans of the late 19th Century colonial wars: The Boxer Rebellion, First and Second Boer Wars, And the Spanish-American War, to name a few.
These officers were all experts in classic, 19th century military doctrine:
Against an enemy in the open field, this is exactly what you need. Late 19th Century wars were won by disciplining soldiers to repeat the same movements quickly and efficiently, and exceeding your opponent’s morale and enthusiasm. You need lots of that to make a bayonet charge work, or to run the enemy down on horseback. Unfortunately, you can’t morale and enthuiasm your way through trenches, machine guns, and barbed wire.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Meanwhile, on the home front, politicians and newspapers ensured the public that the war was a success. Fear not, good citizens, victory is just over the horizon… Oh, and be sure to buy plenty of war bonds.
If we can just throw more money at the problem…
1916 – Battle of the Somme:
Tanks were deployed in combat for the first time, the first weapons designed to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Cavalry officers, proud of their horsemanship, hated them. Without any training on tank tactics, they simply replaced horseback saber pursuits with tank pursuits. Hell, they probably even left in the sabers. Just to prove how Gung-Ho they were. Orders for more tanks were cancelled, since reports from the front were unanimous that tanks were ineffective. It hadn’t occurred to the commanders employing them that these big, metal things with treads were never intended to be used as horses. Many commands converted back to horse cavalry. Many soldiers would fall dead from the backs of these horses.
1916 – The Battle of Verdun:
French losses: 350,000. German losses: 300,000. More than the entire U.S. Civil War, in a single battle.
1917 – The Third Battle of Ypres:
Agreed by many to be the single costliest battle in World History. To soften the Germans, The British put downrange over 4.25 million artillery shells, an average of 5 tons per yard along an 11-mile front. Over 400,000 British men fell in bayonet charges against the German lines. An entire Corps of their Army (A 3-Star General and about 35,000 men) mutinied against the government, the largest single unit in world history to ever do so. The British government and media buried this incident, fearing that if the truth ever got out, it would turn public opinion against the war.
1917 – The United States Enters The War
Bringing more tanks and aircraft than the rest of the allies combined was an advantage. One that was not so sorely needed as the fresh leadership and perspective on tactics. Tanks began to be employed with proper tactics, enemy trenches were infiltrated by specially trained teams (the first use of Special Forces), and aircraft were used for strikes on enemy supply lines, rather than as mobile observation platforms. The latter proved most effective, as troops can only remain in the fight as long as their supplies hold out. The development of these tactics quickly turned the tide, accelerating the German defeat.
The Cost of Total War
For the first time, nations employed the strategic objective of Total War, unlimited use of resources, with an objective of completely defeating the enemy nation. This required not only drafting the nation’s youth, but complete mobilization of the nation’s civilian workforce to support the war effort via industry. This kind of national enthusiasm for the war effort would have been impossible without massive, nationalized propaganda efforts between the governments and media. Public approval for the war could not have been sustained any other way. Had the public been privy to the truth, they would have demanded a swift end to it.
Owing to the success of this propaganda, when it came time to end the conflict, both sides had become so entrenched in their own lies about the success of the war that it became impossible to negotiate peace without losing face. When the government has spent the last 5 years committed to the unceasing message of “we’re winning!” peace talks become a tough sell without revealing the ugly truth. Both sides needed several months of propaganda cooldown to slowly sell the idea of a truce to the general public. Politicians are likely grateful for these last minute war deaths, but one has to wonder what the families would think if they knew.
Monetary costs of the war exceeded $400 billion. Without massive central bank debt, it wouldn’t have even been possible, as this exceeded the value of all nations’ gold reserves. A cost that is difficult to justify in light of the fact that the disputed territories were worth around $75 billion. Over the next two decades the interest on these debts would transfer the bulk of each nation’s wealth to the Finance Sector, bringing on the worst depression in world history. The same parties who profited most from this would soon begin the political maneuverings which would eventually bring about the Second World War. Though few are unfamiliar with the major events of World War II, the real story behind the scenes, especially leading up to it, is really quite shocking. But that’s a story for another time.
Any institution will eventually succumb to a stubborn, unmoving leadership. It’s just a matter of time. The modern military has this in spades, as does the corporate world.
Human nature dictates that the more time and effort we invest in an idea, the harder it is for us to let go. Proud of our achievements, we are loathe to admit when their time in the sun is over. The price of our pride can be catastrophic.
When weapons, technology, and economies mature faster than the leadership culture entrusted with them, disaster ensues. No one owes their life to an institution that can’t adapt. Business, military, and national leaders must learn from the mistakes of the past.
We owe it to those who have paid the cost.
As leaders, we can never stop asking ourselves: When the next tank comes along, will I be the one that can’t give up my warhorse?
If you have an interest in further reading and reference on this topic, I recommend Tragedy and Hope by Carroll Quigley and War is a Racket by Major General Smedley Butler.