September 2014 Print

The Will of the Offensive: Tactics and Casualties in World War I


by Dr. John Dredger

During the more than five years from August 1914 to November 1918, over 37,000,000 individuals suffered as casualties of World War I according to the official war records of the major powers. Of this immense number, at least 15,000,000 died, with 8-10,000,000 deaths stemming directly from military causes, especially artillery and machine guns, rather than disease and malnutrition.1 These figures comprise a significant departure from statistics of previous wars. For example, the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from 1803 to 1815, over twice as long as the Great War, caused the deaths of approximately 7,000,000 people from all causes, while the American Civil War during a time frame similar to World War I resulted in roughly 1,500,000 total casualties.2 The question easily arises as to what caused the dramatic increase in casualties during the Great War.

The obvious answer for a Catholic comes from Our Lady, who said that war constitutes a punishment for sin, and especially that World War I consisted in a scourge upon mankind for sins of blasphemy, work on Sunday, and the desecration of marriage.3 While this answer provides a reason for the overall cause of the Great War and its ensuing massive casualties on the spiritual level, more delving proves necessary to explain the death toll on the material level. For God does not force nations into war against the will of their political and military leaders. On the contrary, men make their own choices according to free will. What then caused the leaders of the great powers of World War I to engage in such a horrific bloodletting? The answer lies in the choice for offensive tactics that all military high commands made before the Great War. Every nation decided on the strategic and tactical offensive as the primary means of waging war for reasons belonging to each great power. This decision, however, also stemmed from causes common to all the high commands, especially in the overemphasis of the will as the decisive means of victory.

Several examples of the thinking of the high commands in different nations will suffice to show why the great powers chose offensive strategies and tactics. In the years prior to the outbreak of World War I, French military leaders faced a government run by the Liberal party, which saw the traditional French army as a bastion of conservatism and desired to reduce it to an army of the people, or almost a militia. Realizing the need to find a reason for the continued existence of the traditional army, French military leaders looked to offensive strategy and tactics, the offensive outrance, as a means of war that only trained professional soldiers could perform.4

In Germany, no antagonism for the army arose from civilians or politicians, although Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the elder, who originated the German plans for World War I, famously said, “Politicians should fall silent when mobilization begins.”5 The penchant for the offensive stemmed from a desire to maintain the tradition and prestige of the German army by continuing to advocate the attack rather than the defense.6 In the minds of the German commanders as well as the rest of Europe’s military leaders, the great Prussian victories of 1866 against Austria-Hungary and 1870 over France had resulted from a devotion to offensive strategy and tactics. These victories had brought about the formation of the German Empire. How could the German high command during the Great War betray the successful Prussian tradition of Drang nach vorwärts by introducing a defensive mode of warfare?

For Russia political considerations rendered the offensive necessary. Russian military leaders felt that the Tsar’s troops must provide as much help as possible to their beleaguered French allies because the primary German attack would take place against the French. In addition, the Russians desired to establish supremacy over Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, thus necessitating an offensive strategy to drive back Habsburg forces.7

The Austro-Hungarian high command saw the restoration of fallen Habsburg prestige as the main purpose of entering World War I and crushing Serbia to avenge the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.8 Since 1866, when the Habsburg monarchy had suffered defeat at the hands of the Prussian army, Austria-Hungary had started to fall from the ranks of the great European powers. To prove that the Habsburg state still belonged among the first rate military nations, the Dual Monarchy’s high command adopted the following view: the strong only attacked, and as a great power, Austria-Hungary must attack as well. Any other strategy would show weakness, loss of prestige, and the sunken status of a second rate power.9

Although each nation had individual reasons for assuming offensive strategy and tactics for the Great War, certain ideas influenced all the militaries as well. Obviously the high commands of all the European states advocated the supremacy of the attack over the defense. Yet the wars that took place in the decades leading up to World War I proved the defense as a superior method of warfare. At Plevna during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Turkish defenders, though outnumbered almost 3 to 1, repulsed repeated Russian frontal assaults over a period of four months.10 Only the close investment of Plevna by the Russians, resulting in a siege rather than a pitched battle, and the subsequent shortage of supplies on the side of the Turks ended the engagement with a Russian victory.11

The Boer War (1899-1902) between Dutch settlers in South Africa and British forces likewise proved the advantages of the defense when attackers attempted to cross open ground in the face of entrenched troops using repeating rifles and machineguns. Heavy losses forced the British commanders to forbid costly frontal assaults and change their strategy and tactics.12 Similarly the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 showed the superiority of the defense. Japanese soldiers assaulted the Russian positions at Port Arthur six times between August and November 1904 while achieving nothing except excessive casualties for their own troops.13 In order to achieve victory, the Japanese had to resort to methodical siege tactics which brought about the capitulation of Port Arthur because the Russians ran out of ammunition and provisions.14 None of these wars gave proof of the advantages of offensive over defensive tactics. On the contrary, the events of these conflicts provided blatantly obvious examples of the superiority of forces employing the technological benefits of firepower and entrenchments. During the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Great War, the advantages of the defense only increased because of the constant improvements in artillery, machineguns, and rifles that defensive troops in steady positions could use far more easily than moving attackers.

Yet, instead of learning valuable lessons from the martial experiences of the conflicts preceding World War I, the high commands of every great power chose the offensive as the sole means of achieving victory. How could trained military minds rationalize such insanity? The answer lay in the overemphasis on the importance of morale and the will for victory. As the 1909 sketch for infantry tactical regulations of the Austro-Hungarian army stated: “An infantry filled with lust for attack, physically and psychologically persevering, well-trained and well-led will fight successfully against a numerically superior enemy.” Regarding morale the sketch spoke emphatically: “The strength of morale forms in war the most powerful driving force of all performance, it stimulates the use of the means of battle and is often of greater significance for success than the relationship of numbers and the skill of leadership.”15

The regulations of other European powers expressed the same ideas. Colonel Louis de Grandmaison, the author of the 1913 French Regulations for the Conduct of Major Formations, lectured that “it is more important to develop a conquering state of mind than to cavil about tactics.”16 Similarly the 1909 Field Service Regulations of the British army stated that, “Success in war depends more on moral than on physical qualities.”17 The common theme among all the tactical writings of the great powers immediately preceding World War I resided in the idea of forming a stronger will than the enemy. As General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote in 1911, “War is essentially the triumph….of one will over a weaker will.”18

This overemphasis on the will stemmed from the leading philosophies of the decades before the Great War: existentialism, especially the version of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and Social Darwinism. In 1886 Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil that “life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating, and at least, the very least, exploiting… It [a living body] will have to be the embodiment of will to power, it will want to grow, spread, grab, win dominance, —not out of any morality or immorality, but because it is alive, and because life is precisely will to power.”19

Austro-Hungarian military authors began using the phrase Wille zum Siege, “will to victory,” in 1906, the same year that the second edition of Nietzsche’s Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power) came into publication. The concept of the “will to power” in a military sense meant the desire to overpower the enemy by means of superior morale. This idea coincided perfectly with the views of the de facto Habsburg commander-in-chief, Conrad von Hötzendorf.20 The 1909 sketch for infantry regulations used the phrase Wille zu siegen as one of the all-important means of spurring the troops on to self-sacrifice, perseverance, and a spirit of enterprise.21 As one Austro-Hungarian major said, “The attacker’s senses and striving culminate in the strong will: forwards to the enemy, cost what it will.”22

Nietzsche’s existentialist philosophy infected more of Europe than merely the Habsburg Empire. The English-born yet pro-German writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who during the First World War wrote a series of essays entitled Der Wille zum Sieg und andere Aufsätze (The Will to Victory and Other Essays), expressed the same views as the Austro-Hungarian army.23 The French philosopher Henri Bergson diffused Nietzschean concepts while lecturing at the Sorbonne.24 Similarly, the writings of pre-World War I military authors from various European nations echoed the ideas of Nietzsche, as the preceding quotations, especially from the army regulations, affirm.

Likewise, Social Darwinism, the application of Charles Darwin’s concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to politics and sociology, gained much acceptance among military thinkers in the years before the Great War. Conrad von Hötzendorf firmly maintained that the offensive spirit of attack resided in soldiers who had stronger wills than the enemy and thus ensured survival and victory over weaker opponents.25 This same idea resounded throughout the works of leading military and political thinkers preceding World War I.26

Thus, fallacious philosophical concepts of the superiority of willpower and natural selection instilled ideas of offensive superiority in the commanders of the Great War. These false ideas led to millions of casualties as the generals ordered attack after attack even after suffering atrocious losses in early campaigns. The justice of God punished mankind for sin during the First World War, but not without the free decisions of military leaders to adopt erroneous concepts and apply them to combat. Certainly mankind had to atone for working on Sunday, desecrating marriage, and blaspheming, but also for replacing truth with Social Darwinism and the existentialist error of asserting the supremacy of the will over the intellect.



Dr. John A. Dredger currently holds the position of vice-principal at Assumption Academy in Walton, KY, with over 20 years of experience in education from primary school to university. He obtained a BA in Education from St. Mary’s College, an MA in Classical Languages from the University of Kansas, and a PhD in History from Kansas State University.



1 Sources vary concerning exact numbers, with 37,000,000 tending towards the smaller estimates. The major powers included Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia.

2 Again sources vary concerning exact numbers as debates among historians continue. These figures lean towards the higher estimates for the sake of comparison. As this article does not consist primarily in an argument for one source or another, I have taken the liberty of not citing the many sources concerning casualty statistics.

3 Fr. Paul Kramer, “FATIMA: The Impending Great Chastisement Revealed in the Third Secret of Fatima,” The Fatima Crusader, Spring 2003.

4 Jack Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984), 16.

5 Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 261.

6 Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive, 16-17.

7 Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive, 17.

8 Günther Kronenbitter, “Krieg im Frieden.” Die Führung der k.u.k. Armee und die Großmacht politik Österreich-Ungarns 1906-1914 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2003), 9-10.

9 John Dredger, “Offensive Spending: Tactics and Procurement in the Habsburg Military, 1866-1918” (Ph.D. dissertation, Kansas State University, 2013).

10 Thilo von Trotha, “Tactical Studies on the Battles around Plevna,” translated by First Lieutenant Carl Reichmann U.S. Army (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberley Publishing Co., 1896), 210-211.

11 Bruce W. Menning, Bayonets Before Bullets: The Imperial Russian Army, 1861-1914 (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 60-74.

12 Geoffrey Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe, 1792-1914 (New York: Routledge, 2000), 139-144.

13 Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe, 1792-1914, 152-155.

14 Major des Geniestabes Alexander Kuchinka, “Vorträge. Der Kampf um Port Arthur,” Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift 2 (1905): 892; Major des Generalstabscorps Maximilian Ritter von Hoen, “Der russisch-japanische Krieg,” Organ der militärwissenschaftlichen Vereine 70 (1905): 168-169.

15 Entwurf. Taktisches Reglement für die k.u.k. Fusstruppen. II. Heft. Gefecht. (Wien: k.k. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1909), KA Generalstab Operationsbüro, Karton Nr. 743, Exercierreglement und Entwurfe 1907-1911, 1-4, 12-13, 15.

16 Louis de Grandmaison, Deux conférences faites aux officiers de l’État-major de l’armée, février 1911 : La notion de sûreté et l’engagement des grandes unités (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1911).

17 General Staff War Office, Field Service Regulations Part I. Operations (London: Harrison and Sons, 1909), 13.

18 Ian Hamilton, Compulsory Service, 2d ed. (London, 1911), 121.

19 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 153.

20 Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Zum Studium der Taktik. I. Theil: Einleitung und Infanterie (Vienna: L.W. Seidel & Sohn, 1891), 4, 14.

21 Entwurf. Taktisches Reglement für die k.u.k. Fusstruppen. II. Heft. Gefecht. (Wien: k.k. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1909), KA Generalstab Operationsbüro, Karton Nr. 743, Exercierreglement und Entwurfe 1907-1911, 1-4, 12-13, 15.

22 Major Wilde, “Die Technik des Infanterieangriffes auf Grund reglementarischer Bestimmungen,” ÖMZ 2 (1910): 1521.

23 Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Der Wille zum Sieg und andere Aufsätze (München: Hugo Bruckmann, 1918).

24 Michael Howard, “Men against Fire: The Doctrine of the Offensive in 1914,” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 521.

25 Dieter Hackl, “Der Offensivgeist des Conrad von Hötzendorf,” (Mag. Phil. Diplomarbeit, Universität Wien, 2009), 107.

26 Stephen van Evera, “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War,” International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1994), 62-63.