Tactics in warfare during World War I

 

World War I carries a reputation as a pointless bloodbath. This conjures up images of unimaginative military operations. Mass infantry charging senselessly into machinegun fire. Despite these views, the war sparked a revolution in military tactics and technologies. Pre-war tactics became obsolete with the introduction of automated weapons, tanks and aircraft. Visionary combined arms tactics, as used at the Battle of Hamel, changed warfare forever.

Naval warfare

Naval warfare during World War I depended on the types of vessels engaged. Tactics covered:

  • large-scale engagements, such as the Battle of Jutland between the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and Imperial Germany's High Seas Fleet in 1916
  • single-ship engagements, such as the Battle of Cocos between HMAS Sydney and SMS Emden in 1914

Fleet actions

Before the war, Europe's major nations, especially the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany, had built up massive fleets of capital ships. These were the largest, most heavily armed ships in a fleet, like dreadnoughts, battleships and heavy cruisers.

The expectation was that these ships would meet in a major decisive fleet engagement that would decide the war.

As the world's greatest maritime power, Britain was so dependent on her navy. After World War I, Winston Churchill famously said Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of Britain's Grand Fleet, was 'the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon'. Between 1912 and 1915, Churchill had served as Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the Royal Navy.

Major fleet actions in the North Sea, however, proved indecisive.

For example, while the Royal Navy lost more ships at Jutland, it still maintained its blockade of Germany and as such 'won' the battle. Moreover, Britain's maintenance of the blockade of Germany during World War I played a significant role in Germany's defeat in 1918.

Blockade

As well as a desire to seek decisive battle, Britain's Royal Navy planned to blockade Germany during the war.

Initially, this was to be a close blockade of Germany but changes in technology, such as the use of mines, led to a focus on a distant blockade.

British Fleet ships, primarily cruisers, patrolled:

  • the entrance to the North Sea between Scotland and Norway
  • the English Channel in the Dover Straits

The blockade was linked to the idea of decisive battle because it was expected that Germany would seek to break any blockade with its main battle fleet, as occurred at the Battle of Jutland.

Cruisers and destroyers

A postcard with a ship and portraits of 2 naval officers
Postcard of HMAS Australia stating 'England expects that every man this day will do his duty', about 1916, ANMM 00004035

Major ships, such as HMAS Australia, tended to be grouped in large fleets.

Smaller ship types, such as cruisers and destroyers, were used in several different ways:

  • They operated in support of the larger fleets to provide defensive and reconnaissance screens against enemy ships.
  • They helped enforce blockades both in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, such as the Otranto Barrage, which included ships from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).
  • They could operate alone or as part of small squadron involved in independent operations, such as the amphibious raid on Zeebrugge in 1918.

Destroyers also became involved in escorting merchant ships because the threat from German submarines increased during the war.

Submarine warfare

A submarine surfacing at sea
HMAS AE2 and crew in Portsmouth, 1914. ANMM 00015813

World War I was the first war to see significant action below the waves.

During the war, submarines became an increasingly important instrument of naval warfare.

Submarines were used as an extension of traditional cruiser warfare in the role of commerce raiders. The Germans twice undertook unrestricted warfare against Allied shipping in both 1915 and 1917.

In 1917, Germany's renewed submarine warfare policy:

  • forced the Allies to introduce convoys to protect the vessels plying the Atlantic shipping lanes
  • triggered America's declaration of war against the Central Powers

German submarines were also used in operations against enemy ships and as minelayers.

The Allies also used submarines, but with less effect. British submarines served in the Baltic in support of Russia. They attacked German warships and merchant vessels carrying Swedish ore.

Naval air power

Air power played an increasing role in naval warfare during the war.

Britain's Royal Naval Air Service, which included Australian officers, such as Arthur Longmore, used air power offensively against German targets.

Aircraft were used as a means of reconnaissance and observation, both in support of ship operations and by convoys.

The Royal Navy pioneered in the development of aircraft carriers, which by World War II had replaced battleships as the main capital ships of the world's navies.

Land warfare

The character of warfare changed a great deal between Australia's involvement in the South African (Second Boer) War and World War I. The changes were driven by:

  • advances in technology
  • guerrilla warfare tactics in the South African War
  • large number of countries involved
  • length of the war
  • vast distances between the theatres of war

The first global war had theatres in:

  • Africa
  • Atlantic Ocean
  • the Balkans
  • Europe
  • Middle East
  • the Pacific Ocean
  • the Indian Ocean

The war involved around 40 countries in the main coalitions: the Allies (or Entente Powers) and the Central Powers.

Early land warfare tactics included the use of cover, charges and counterattacks. Land battles quickly led to trench warfare on the Western Front in Belgium and France. Each side occupied fighting lines (fronts) made up of trenches dug into the ground or breastworks constructed above low-lying country. The trenches protected the troops from small arms, machine-guns and artillery.

Forces on both sides had similar weapons and used similar tactics. This is much of the war was a stalemate, particularly on the Western Front. Until 1918, attempts to force a breakthrough proved impossible and sometimes pointless.

Frustrated by inaction on the Western Front, the Allies planned a land campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula. It would help naval operations in the Dardanelles straits aimed at bringing the Ottoman capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), under fire.

Unfortunately, the Gallipoli Campaign also became a stalemate of trench warfare. Allied troops were held on the beaches, cliffs, hills and heathland of the peninsula for 8 months before the campaign ended.

Such stalemates forced the Allies and the Central Powers to develop new technologies. With new aircraft, chemical weapons and tanks came new military strategies and tactics.

Cover

Soldiers in trenches in a wide open space
Australian troops occupying trenches and shell holes won from the enemy at Polygon Wood, 20 September 1917. AWM E00776

Cover refers to any object that provides a person with physical protection from enemy fire. This includes the use of:

  • buildings (destroyed or not)
  • natural cover (eg forest, rock formations)
  • pillboxes
  • shell holes
  • trenches

A foxhole describes any hole in the ground used as a shelter against enemy fire, such as a shell hole. Troops could use a foxhole as a firing point against an advancing enemy.

Charge

Armed soldiers running charging forward with rifles

Australian troops occupying trenches and shell holes won from the enemy at Polygon Wood, 20 September 1917. AWM G00635

Charge describes a manoeuvre where a force advances towards the enemy and tries to engage in close combat. The force could be infantry, cavalry, armour or any mix of these forces.

The charge is a shock attack. It has been the key tactic and the decisive moment of many battles throughout history.

The Australian charge at the Battle of the Nek in the Gallipoli Campaign is an example of when this tactic did not succeed. Australia sustained high casualties, with 372 of the 600 soldiers killed or wounded. The Turks had far fewer casualties.

The Australian Light Horse charge at the Battle of Beersheba in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign is a good example of a successful mounted surprise attack.

Soldiers on horseback charging in an open field
Some of the 3rd Brigade AIF practising a charge with bayonets in hand at Belah, 1918 AWM P12049.007

Counterattack

Counterattacks occur in response to an attack by an enemy force.

The Australians undertook a successful counterattack to defeat the Germans in the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux during the German Spring Offensive of 1918. The counterattack ejected the Germans from Villers-Bretonneux less than 24 hours after they had seized the town from the British.

Creeping barrage

The creeping or rolling barrage tactic was first used by Bulgarian artillery crews before the war, at the siege of Adrianople in 1913.

Creeping barrage consists of slow-moving artillery fire to create a defensive ‘curtain’, behind which infantry (armed soldiers on foot) follow closely.

Both sides used creeping barrage during the war to bypass the problems of trench warfare.

By 1918, Australians at the Battle of Chuignes in the final Hundred Days used a more sophisticated creeping barrage. Artillery delivered a mix of high explosive, shrapnel and smoke shells to maximise protection for the infantry. The Allies' barrage included up to 10% smoke shells to screen their advancing troops from the enemy.

Siege

Siege describes a military process of surrounding and attacking a fortified place, to isolate it from help and supplies. The tactic aims to:

  • lessen the resistance of the fort's defenders
  • enable capture of the place and its people

British forces suffered a catastrophic defeat at the Siege of Kut Al Almara during the Mesopotamian Campaign. Ottoman forces surrounded a British-Indian garrison in the town of Kut. British General Townshend surrendered after 147 days. From a force of 45,000, the Allies suffered 30,000 casualties, including 10,000 taken prisoner. Ottoman losses were also high — 10,000 dead or wounded from a force of 25,000.

The longest siege of the war was the Siege of Przemyśl on the Eastern Front. The Russians finally defeated the Austro-Hungarian defenders of the fortified town after a siege lasting 133 days.

Artillery

Field artillery

A line of cannons and soldiers in a grass field
The 102nd Howitzer Battery, Australian Field Artillery using 4.5 inch QF Howitzers, in action in a wheat field on the morning of the start of the Allied Somme Offensive, 8 August 1918 AWM E02927

Before the war, modernisation of artillery focused on indirect fire. A gunner could fire a projectile at a target using calculations for angle and distance, instead of relying on direct sight between the gun and the target.

Effective indirect fire needed:

  • coordinates for the target's location (from aerial photographs or ground surveys)
  • accurate gun orientation
  • optimal conditions (muzzle velocity, zero wind, air temperature, air density)

Over longer distances, the precision of this artillery technique decreased.

The British Army collected data on actual field conditions throughout the war. By 1918, artillerymen could deliver more precise indirect fire on a target (map-shooting or predictive fire). This approach was more effective than battery ranging (firing and drawing counter-fire to work out the distance to target).

Heavy guns

Soldiers operating a gun
Men of 4th Brigade Australian Field Artillery with an 18-pounder field gun in action near Cléry-sur-Somme, 2 September 1918. AWM C03389

Heavy field guns and naval guns had been developed before the war that could engage balloons and planes at high altitudes. Anti-aircraft artillery fire was used to protect kite balloons, which were easy targets for enemy aircraft.

By the end of the war, deadly planes were used against ground forces. Mounted machine-guns on the ground were effectively used against diving and low-flying aircraft.

Artillery intelligence

A pilot sting in the cockpit of a plane
Lieutenant Adrian Cole of the Australian Flying Corp in a Martinsyde G.100 aircraft equipped with a Williamson aerial camera, Middle East, 1917 AWM P01034.038

Gathering data on the location of enemy targets was critical for effective artillery work on the battlefield. Important sources of intelligence included:

  • aeroplane observation
  • aerial photography
  • balloon observation
  • captured documents
  • flash spotting
  • ground observers (artillery, light horsemen)
  • patrols
  • secret agents
  • sound ranging
  • wireless intercepts

Chemical warfare

Smoke billowing from cannisters in a large open area.
Demonstration of a gas attack, during World War I. AWM J01165

Death rates from gas attacks were quite low compared to other weapons used on the Western Front. But the physical effects of gas on soldiers could be excruciating. The terror of a possible gas attack had a strong psychological effect on the soldiers on both sides.

Chemical warfare in some form had been practised since ancient times. At the outbreak of World War I, international law prohibited the use of 'poison or poisonous weapons'. But both sides used gas as a chemical weapon.

The French Government had developed tear gas grenades for riot control police in 1912. They might have been the first military force to use chemical weapons during the war.

Types of gas used during the war included:

  • chlorine gas - reacts with water in the air to form hypochlorous acid, which destroys moist tissue, such as the eyes and lungs
  • chloroacetone and ethyl bromoacetate - a tear gas that causes severe eye and respiratory pain, skin irritation, bleeding and sometimes blindness
  • mustard gas - a fat-soluble blistering agent that is absorbed by the skin and causes severe eye, mucosal and skin pain and irritation
  • phosgene gas - a choking agent that disrupts the blood-air barrier in the lungs

Phosgene was responsible for most of the 100,000 deaths caused by chemical weapons during the war.

Initially, gas was released in cylinders. After mishaps in windy conditions, gas was delivered in shells to increase the range of the attacks and reduce the risk to the attacking troops.

An early tactic was to send the gas out in two clouds. The first cloud contained smoke and little gas. A second more toxic cloud was released later in the hope that the enemy troops thought the attack was over and had removed their gas masks.

The merest hint of gas forced soldiers to put on gas masks, which restricted their vision and their breathing. This made them more vulnerable to attack.

At the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, the Germans launched a major attack using chlorine gas. The yellow-green clouds drifting towards the Allied trenches smelled like pineapple and pepper. Soldiers complained of chest pains and burning throats. Prolonged exposure caused death. The British Army issued soldiers with urine-soaked face pads to counteract the gas. By the end of the battle, 7000 Allied men were treated as gas casualties, and 350 British men died from gas poisoning.

British and French forces first used chlorine gas against German soldiers during the Battle of Loos in 1915. In some places, the wind blew the cloud of poison gas back into the British lines. Many Allied soldiers removed their cumbersome gas masks and became affected by the gas as they advanced.

As chemical warfare developed during the war, gas masks and respiratory ventilators improved to counteract the gas attacks and treat affected soldiers.

Mobile warfare

Armoured cars

A person watching  through binoculars on the back of a car
An Australian observer in an armoured car used in the 2nd Battle of Gaza, April 1918. AWM J01123

Many countries produced armoured vehicles during the war. Cars were mostly used for reconnaissance, infantry fire support and missions behind enemy lines.

Many cars did not cope well off-road, so they were of limited used on the Western Front battlefields. They were more useful on the Eastern Front.

Poor designs reduced the usefulness of armoured cars in combat. Some open-top vehicles made the crew vulnerable to attack. Some were too small to carry the artillery crew needed to operate the heavy guns on board.

A more successful design was the Rolls Royce Armoured Car. A Silver Ghost body was fitted with armoured bodywork and a Vickers machine-gun mounted on a rotating turret. Colonel Thomas Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) used a squadron of Rolls Royces in his operations against the Ottomans.

One Rolls Royce is on display at the Curragh Military Museum in Ireland — and it's still running.

Bicycles

2 soldiers hold onto bicycles next to them
Private Jack Bambury (left) and Private Terry Davies of 1st Anzac Cyclists Battalion at their Henencourt barracks, France, May 1917. AWM P01802.001

Cyclists were organised like infantry and mainly used as dispatch riders during the war. Sometimes they were used in a role similar to the mounted troops when they did reconnaissance and patrols.

The Australian Cycling Corps was formed in 1916 and served in Egypt, France and Belgium.

The Australian War Memorial holds a detailed account of life in the Cycling Corps, told through the war diaries of Captain Jack Hindhaugh.

Mounted units

Soldiers on house back travel along a dirt track into a city
The Australian Light Horse passing the Great City Wall in Jerusalem, 1918. AWM B01609.

After the South African (Second Boer) War, the British Army reduced its reliance on mounted units in combat.

Cavalry

The traditional role of cavalry (troops fighting on horseback) had become less effective in the new approach to land warfare. Mounted attacks had a limited place on the battlefields of the Western Front.

Mounted infantry

Despite the British move away from horses, Australia's regular army and Citizen Forces kept mounted troops. This is because the defence of Australia relied on the rapid movement of troops across vast distances.

The Australian Light Horse brigades were mounted infantry, not cavalry who fought on horseback. The Light Horsemen used their horses to get to and from the battlefield. The didn't usually fight on horseback. They played a successful role in many Middle East battles during the war.

Tanks

Soldiers and tanks on battle ground area
American soldiers armed with .303 rifles, Australian soldiers of the 11th Brigade and tanks move into battle near Bellicourt, 29 September 1918. AWM K00114

When the Western Front settled into trench warfare, the Allies designed tanks to support their artillery and infantry. These vehicles had heavy firepower and tracks instead of wheels.

Early tanks had issues with engine reliability. Their long guns could also get stuck in the mud when traversing ditches.

Guns were shortened by 1917, and the armour was increased to withstand German armour-piercing bullets. By 1918, fewer men were required to drive the tank and operate the guns.

Tanks were mostly used to support infantry during an attack. They rarely faced each other in combat.

Many tanks were produced during the war by France (over 3800) and the United Kingdom (about 2600). Germany only manufactured 20, but it did develop in anti-tank weapons.

The First Battle of Bullecourt on the Western Front is an example of when using tanks did not succeed. The attack included tanks that were still in an experimental phase. Australia sustained high casualties in a single day. 3000 troops were killed or wounded and 1170 were taken prisoner because the battle plan involved using tanks rather than artillery to protect the troops as they crossed no-man's-land. The Germans captured two of the tanks to study for anti-tank warfare.

The Battle of Hamel on the Western Front in 1918, planned by Australia's General Sir John Monash, is a good example of a successful attack using combined forces, including tanks.

Aerial warfare

Aeroplanes

A group of males sitting and working inside a room with photographs hanging on a line.

Members of the No. 1 Squadron's Photographic Section trim and dry aerial photographs that will be used to create maps of Ottoman territory in Palestine, 1917 AWM B02072

One of the biggest technological advances in the war was the modification of planes for military use.

At first, aeroplanes were not armed. Both sides used planes for observation of enemy positions. Aircrews were trained in artillery spotting and photography.

Troops in photography darkrooms supported the work of the flying squadrons. They processed films and photographs that were used to improve or develop maps of the enemy lines.

Instances of air-to-air combat increased within a few months of the war's beginning. Both sides developed planes that were armed and over time as the means of firing through the propeller without destroying one's own aircraft was perfected it became easier for pilots to manoeuvre into firing positions. Each generation of aeroplanes became more heavily armed and better designed to achieve higher speeds and rapid climbing.

Weaponry on planes during the war included:

  • machine-guns firing rifle bullets (eg Lewis guns, Vickers guns)
  • incendiary ammunition (to attack observation balloons)
  • Pomeroy (explosive) bullets (to attack zeppelins)

By the end of the war, the military planes flown by both sides — bombers and fighters (known in the war as 'scouts') — were the deadliest machines in the war.

Strategic cooperation between aircrews and ground forces, developed throughout the war and reaching a peak of efficiency in 1918 helped to end the war in the Middle East and Europe — and radically changed the nature of future wars.

Airships

British, French and German forces used airships for scouting (spotting artillery) and tactical bombing early in the war. Even though they were vulnerable to attack, the Germans continued to use them until August 1918.

Barrage balloons

Balloons holding up a barrier in the sky
A balloon apron set up with barrage balloons to defend London against bomber planes, 1915 to 1918. IWM Q 61156

Defensive barrage balloons were an effective deterrent to incoming enemy aircraft.

Balloons were flown on long and heavy steel cables above cities and ports in France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Some balloons carried an explosive charge that could destroy a plane.

Towards the end of the war, the British Army set up several apron screens across London to reduce the number of German Gotha bomber attacks on the city. Several balloons could lift up a barrage net to around 4500m (maximum altitude for bomber planes at the time).

Observational balloons

A balloon in the air above building ruins.
Australian soldiers watching the ascent of an observation balloon over Ypres. AWM E01174

Oblong-shaped blimps or dirigibles could assist with surveillance. These balloons were filled with hydrogen and tethered behind the lines. An observer in such a kite balloon could locate possible enemy targets and relay their positions to artillerymen on the ground.

These flexible airships had to be well defended against aerial attacks with anti-aircraft artillery.

Soldiers on the Western Front called the balloons 'sausages'.

A kite balloon could also be tethered from the deck of a ship. An observer in a suspended basket would spot for the shadows that might indicate the presence of submarines and relay their position to a nearby destroyer.

Royal Australian Navy destroyers were fitted with kite balloons for service in the Mediterranean.

Zeppelins

An airship in the sky is lit up by 2 spotlights
A German Zeppelin airship lit up by searchlights over London during World War I. AWM A03991

This German-designed rigid airship was used by both the Imperial German Army and the Imperial German Navy during the war.

Even under ideal flying conditions, navigation and target selection by zeppelin was a difficult operation. The rigid airships were terrifying to look at but very inaccurate, especially in cloudy conditions.

German zeppelins made notable bombing raids on Alsace, Antwerp, Liège, London, Olsztyn, Paris and Warsaw during the war.


Last updated: 6 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Tactics in warfare during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/military-organisation/tactics-in-warfare
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