Maschinengewehr 08

February 3rd, 2015

One of the primary causes of the massive casualty rates on all fronts during the Great War was the fielding of heavy machine guns capable of sustained fire.  The Maschinengewehr 08, developed by Germany from the Maxim design of the 1880s, was one of the best known of these weapons.

Hiram Stevens Maxim was an American inventor who in 1884 developed a reliable, recoil operated machine gun.  The weapon, named after Maxim, was capable of being operated in the field under difficult service conditions, and could fire thousands of rounds between stopages.  When chambered for rifle calibre ammunition it had an effective range of nearly two kilometers, and a practical rate of fire of around 500 rounds a minute (counting the time needed to reload the 250rd belts).  The weapon was first used by the British for colonial service, but many British officers felt that the need for massive amounts of ammunition made it impossible to employ in European conflicts.

At the start of the Great War Germany had 12,000 of these weapons and was buying 200 more per month.  When the machine gun proved itself in battle the rate of manufacture was raised until 1917 when 15,000 new weapons were being made per month. Eventually Germany made over 175,000 of these weapons.

A Failure of German Intelligence

January 29th, 2015

While many histories tell of the quick acting British intelligence service whose efforts at the start of the Great War pulled the teeth of the capable and dangerous German intelligence aparatus, the facts tell a different story.  German intelligence during the Great War was neither well thought out, nor was it particularly sophisticated.  

The main intelligence aparatus of the German military was section III of the intelligence staff.  This organization was not the master den of spies post war accounts make it, but instead was a fairly straight forward office that collated reports.  Most of its actual actions were ham fisted attempts at sabotage that rarely worked, and when they did resulted in more harm to the German cause that good.  

German intelligence did exist, but mostly as paid adjuncts to the foriegn office.  Most German conspiracies, including Black Thom, Roger Castment, Annie Larsen, and the Zimmerman telegraph message all can be traced to the doorsteps of the German diplomatic corps.  Compared to British intelligence with signals intercept, decoding operations, agent operations in hundreds of cities, and a clearing house for intelligence briefs, German foriegn office work was not very sophisticated.  Even intelligence "coups" such as Mata Hari were hardly important wins for section III and the foriegn office: Mata Hari was discovered soon after her recruitment and fed mostly disinformation to the Germans.

The primary area where German intelligence was effective was in Naval and Army intelligence.  These actual combat intelligence services proved to be well operated.  German commanders during the war had good maps, excellent force analysis, and usually had a clear understanding of the battlefields in which they fought.

The Battle of Dogger Bank

January 24th, 2015

The German armoured cruiser SMS Blücher is sunk.

Submarine Warfare

January 20th, 2015

Germany in World War One hit upon a technology that, when employed efficiently, would prove to be one of the most effective of the “strategic” weapons used in warfare.  Strategic warfare is simply combat with the long term erosion of the ability of an opposing nation to conduct fighting operations as its main goal.  

Strategic warfare is not new.  The purpose of using military force to destroy the capacity of an enemy to make war has its roots in organized armies.  Military units in the fertile crescent would often destroy public works as a means of causing hardship on a population that supported an enemy, and in European warfare of the 13th century nearly all fighting was strategic.  The number of clashes between main forces during the so called “hundred years war” can be counted on two hands.  Most military action was to kill peasant laborers, burn crops, and destroy the tools used in agriculture.  

Strategic warfare had entered the handbooks of modern European military thinkers after observing it being used in the American Civil War.  Most European wars of the 18th and 19th century were wars decided by the clash of armies and the occupation of territory.  Except for Napoleonic era conflicts, these wars were decided in the field when one army was decisively defeated leaving an opposing country exposed to occupation.  The wars were short, had a set purpose, and once completed saw the enemies return to a status quo.

The American Civil war was completely different in character because it was existential.  Only the complete and utter collapse of the war fighting capability of one side would result in victory.    Short of this event, the war would continue with huge casualty lists.  In response both sides undertook strategic warfare on a new scale and ferocity not seen since the 13th century.  Entire regional economies were put to the sword and in the end the Southern Confederacy was broken from within while it still fielded a strong military force in contact with the enemy.

The Great War proved to be the first large conflict where the theories of 1861-1865 could be put into play and it was Germany who found the key.  In the Civil War it was the armies themselves who proved the most effective strategic forces.  Broken loose from contact with the enemy they could ravage a country side, destroying agriculture and industry so systematically that no war making capacity would remain to a conventional army.  Only a guerrilla band could survive such strategic losses, and only with the aid of donor nations.

In Europe of 1914 the armies were in continuous contact with each other with no opportunity to break loose to conduct strategic operations.  What was needed was a tool that could avoid the lines of enemy battalions and the sight of patrolling ships.

The submarine, like modern strategic warfare, had its roots in the Americas.  Submarines had been used twice in conflicts by American sailors, once in the war of Independence and once in the Civil War, each time creating minor footnotes in Naval manuals.  By 1900 though submarines were being built by independent companies and by several navies, eventually settling on a similar set of designs: diesel engines for surface employment, electric batteries for submerged service, armed with guns, mines, and torpedoes.  Oddly enough it was the British who had the largest submarine force at the start of the Great War, with nearly 70 boats in the water compared to around 20 German boats.  The Germans discouraged submarine development because they felt that it was not a tool that could easily aid in the clash of large fleets.  They were right.

What the submarine ended up being able to do was raid commerce.  Except for catching warships unprepared on slow patrol or in harbor, submarines were not useful in fighting surface ships in main fleet actions.  They were too slow, too low in the water, and had such limited range of armaments that they were useful at fleet operations.  Instead hunting in small groups they had an excellent ability to ambush lightly armed merchants.  There existence soon cost the British nearly a hundred thousand men and millions of dollars in ship building just to protect merchants, and the protection was a near run thing.  At the height of the German submarine campaigns food stocks in the home islands actually ran so low that general starvation was feared.  

The main issue with the strategic use of submarines was keeping enough boats in the water on enough patrols with a long enough range to win what was essentially a war of attrition.   Prior to the Great War practice was for commerce raiders to board and inspect vessels it wanted to seize or sink, protecting the life of non-combatants, but submarines carried only small crews, and were not capable of even fighting the lightest naval arms of a small frigate.  This was quickly realized by Germany who declared unlimited submarine warfare in early 1915.

The High Seas fleet, in preperation for this action, published the following notice in Deutscher Reichsanzeiger (Imperial German Gazette):

(1) The waters around Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a War Zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel encountered in this zone will be destroyed, nor will it always be possible to avert the danger thereby threatened to the crew and passengers.

(2) Neutral vessels also will run a risk in the War Zone, because in view of the hazards of sea warfare and the British authorization of January 31 of the misuse of neutral flags, it may not always be possible to prevent attacks on enemy ships from harming neutral ships.

This allowed U-Boats to become several times more effective in launching attacks, but at this stage world opinion of Germany had a real effect on the war.  German sinkings of neutrals enrages many countries who otherwise would have been neutral, and would eventually help to bring the United States and Brazil into the war.

In the end it was the United States in World War Two and not the Germans in either world war which perfected the use of strategic submarine attacks on merchant trade.

First Zeppelin raid in Great Britain

January 19th, 2015

In 1914 Paul Behnke, the assistant chief of staff of the German Navy, proposed starting a campaign to bomb major cities in England using lighter than air craft.  Although bombing raids by various air units had been attempted on an ad hoc basis, this would be an actual planned campaign of operation.  The operation was approved on 7 January 1915, and started two weeks later.  

The first successful raid occurred on 19 December.  Successful was a strained term, the bombers planned to bomb the Gothic Works and the switching yards in Norwich - an example of the idealized strategic mission of the raids (later propaganda had the actual target to be Humberside and the mission to be basically terror related).  The mission actually ended up bombing Yarmouth - and causing little strategic damage but spreading terror among the population.