The invention of modern warfare (M. Goya)

A fertile analyst on recent conflicts (we owe him two books on this subject published by Economica), Colonel Michel Goya heads the "Research" office of the Army Force Employment Doctrine Center. He is also the author of Under fire, expansion of an article written about ten years ago and which, thanks to its edition by Tallandier in 2014, brings out the combat studies the restricted circle of specialized or Anglo-Saxon publications. This is the reissue, still by Tallandier, of his previous book Flesh and steel, written ten years ago and renamed for the occasion The invention of modern warfare, from the red pants to the tank, 1871-1918, which concerns us.

A transdisciplinary and structured reflection

Suggested in its subtitle, then posed and clearly delimited from the foreword, the problematic of the work is as follows: how, in the space of barely more than four years, the French army is it passed from a mode of operation more reminiscent of the first XIXth century than the modernity of the industrial age, with the status of the most sophisticated army on the planet? Well positioned in relation to the already existing historiography on the subject, Michel Goya's work immediately announces its transdisciplinarity, with references to the sociology of organizations and, further, to economic theories or those of technical innovation. .

The author begins by evoking the various sources of the doctrinal evolution of the French army at the end of the Franco-German war of 1870-71. These are five in number: the Superior War Council (a sort of combined arms staff created in 1872), the various arms directorates (infantry, cavalry, artillery), the staff of the army proper, the École supérieure de guerre (college for further training intended to train future generals, the French counterpart of the Kriegsakademie German and formed in 1880) and an informal body of publications, often via specialized journals which flourished then, which Mr. Goya called the “Forum” and which reflected intellectual debates on the art of war.

It emerges from this first chapter that the absence of centralized management leads to an erratic and changing doctrine. First marked by the defeat of 1870-71 and the desire to recover from it by applying a scientific and positivist approach, French military doctrine was then marked by a reaction, launched by the development of behavioral sciences, and which drifts to the irrational under the influence of a spiritualist renewal. The result is the mystique of the “all-out offensive” and the deadly idea that moral forces are sufficient to triumph over all obstacles, even when they are induced by modern and deadly weapons. The nationalist dimension of this turnaround is highlighted: it is a question of developing a purely French doctrine, which would be at odds with that, methodical and scientific, of the Germans.

The second chapter details these doctrinal errors, by analyzing the various regulations issued by the French army. This analysis focuses on the three traditional levels of the art of warfare: tactical, operational and strategic. We thus pass from the admission of the preponderance of fire (infantry maneuver regulation of 1875), which imposes the use of a dispersed order, to a return to units in line of battle attacking to the sound of drums from 1884. To hardly attenuated in 1894, this reaction was abandoned in 1904, in light of the fighting in the Boer War (1899-1902), but incompletely because fire management remained rigid for fear of excessive consumption of ammunition. This regulation and the following one (1914) retain formations that are still too dense (one man per meter), but are nonetheless relatively modern and pragmatic, insofar as they emphasize individual initiative and crucial importance of the fire to cover the progression.

The author stands out for his measured and prejudiced description of the ideas of characters who have often been the subject of controversy, such as Joffre, Pétain or Grandmaison. The latter, frequently presented as the person responsible for the unnecessary massacres of August 1914, is far from carrying the fault alone. If he was deliberately excessive in advocating the offensive, he did not conceive of it without maximum use of fire. His major flaw was never to take into account technical innovations, such as machine guns, which he never cited in his writings. Joffre's accession to the vice-presidency of the Supreme War Council (a position which made him, de facto, the commander-in-chief of the army) marks a turning point. Very open to technical experiments, which he encourages, Joffre, on the other hand, lacks interest in questions of doctrine. In this area, he leaves the bridle on the neck to the young officers of his staff, thus leading to the establishment of the dogma of the excessive offensive.

Grandmaison's ideas presupposed that the performers would know how to apply them with intelligence and moderation, through prior reconnaissance and substantial fire support. In practice, doctrinal errors have confused officers and discredited changing regulations. The garrison routine scleroses training and development. On the eve of the First World War, we know that the offensive was in fashion, but the troops and the majority of the officers reduced it to its simplest expression: the massive frontal attack. The units are not fully staffed in peacetime, which limits the scope of training for which means and land are lacking. Shooting training, much to Grandmaison's despair, was completely neglected. Finally, while some troop corps are very dynamic, others are completely apathetic and have fallen into routine. This discrepancy between the doctrine as it is considered in high places, and the way in which the army is able to understand and apply it, is the subject of chapter 3. It will be at the origin of many losses at the start of the Great War - including Grandmaison himself, killed in 1915.

Chapter 4 describes the different weapons, following a pattern that will become recurrent throughout the book. Engineering and fortifications being left aside (a choice explained in the foreword by the author), are approached infantry, cavalry and artillery, but also the very young aviation. The author focuses this short chapter mainly on the difficulty of these weapons in reconciling modern techniques with their traditions and their culture. Particular attention is paid to heavy artillery, the deficiency of which constitutes the most visible difference between the French and German armies in 1914. Colonel Goya explains it above all by the slowness of the military administration in times of war. peace, and especially by a lack of will and means.

A sharp and dense book

If the eleven chapters of the book are not separated into distinct parts, a hyphenation is necessary of itself with chapter 5, since it relates to the first battles of 1914. As the author points out, time takes place differently, in technical and doctrinal matters, as soon as the First World War begins. The conflict being still imagined as short, the need for an evolution is not taken into account immediately, but the pressure of the facts decides otherwise. First improvising unprepared frontal attacks that fail in the blood, the units of the French army show a surprising ability to adapt and implement other methods, sometimes in just a few hours. It follows the recovery which, at the end of 1914, allows the stabilization of the front.

Chapter 6, marked by the transdisciplinarity already mentioned, details how, in such a context, innovation - technical and tactical - is developed and diffused. Compared to peacetime, where regulations and new weapons are drawn up by the upper echelons of the military, war rather requires innovation from below. The projects are shaped by "thinking heads" and individuals able to carry them, the high command often intervening only to formalize and unify what has already been developed and put in place at the intermediate or lower levels. These changes, of course, are bound to encounter various obstacles, such as bureaucratic rigidities, rivalries between services or people, or even the cultural prejudices in vogue.

The role of the GQG (General Headquarters, the emanation of the Superior War Council created at the outbreak of hostilities) is the subject of a separate chapter. The author focuses more particularly on the enormous effort undertaken to train the troops, who must now take advantage of their periods away from the front lines to train themselves for an increasingly modern war. Mr. Goya distinguishes four paradigms which succeeded that, contradicted by the facts in 1914, of the excessive offensive, and that the GQG has set up: the "breakthrough by sudden attack", which is an adaptation and aims the rupture of the front by a single massive assault (1915); the "scientific conduct of the battle", which aims at the same goal, but by a series of carefully planned attacks and carried out with great rigidity (1916); “The Verdun school”, a combination of the two preceding ones which, under the aegis of Nivelle, appears to be the fusion of modern firepower and offensive momentum aimed at the decisive breakthrough (1917); and finally the “combined arms battlefield”, set up under the aegis of Pétain, and which will be the subject of a later chapter.

The eighth chapter, taking up the structure previously employed, describes the evolutions of each weapon in the face of trench warfare: while the infantry goes through several successive crises and the cavalry is reduced to powerlessness, the artillery develops in unprecedented proportions, and aviation quickly proved essential. Chapter 9, on the other hand, does not seem out of place in the book since, descending to the micro-tactical level, it deals with the environment in which position warfare plunges combatants, as well as its physiological and psychological effects. , on them. The author can easily be forgiven for this fascinating little off-topic, prior to the publication of Under fire. All the more so since such writings are rare in French, historians from the “Peronne school” having looked a great deal at the daily life of the “Poilus” but much less on what pertained to studies on combat itself.

It is then time for Colonel Goya to proceed with a case study. Almost naturally, his choice fell on tanks, the “steel fist” of the French army. The various stages and characteristics of the innovation described above are present: creation by "leaders", among whom obviously appears Colonel Estienne; reluctance and brakes, in particular because of the rivalry between the Ministries of War and Armaments; the intervention of benevolent “godfathers”, such as Joffre or Pétain; the first tactical trial and error, limited by the technical characteristics of the available tanks; learning in combat and the integration of innovations of details, then of a new generation of tanks ...

The last chapter discusses in more detail the doctrine of the "combined arms battlefield", which gradually passes from positional warfare to limited offensives but carried out with a profusion of resources, then to the return of warfare. The arrival of Pétain at the head of the GQG, in May 1917, consecrates the victory of the supporters of fire over those of shock, and allows him to develop this new paradigm. As before, the role and evolution of each weapon in the face of this new model is detailed. The French infantry, now armed with a plethora of heavy weapons, are supported by tanks with the decisive support of ubiquitous artillery and air force. The German army, which came close to winning thanks to its infiltration tactics, ended up completely exhausting its assault troops and could no longer cope: the Allied offensive of August 8, 1918, the "day of mourning" de Ludendorff, illustrates the effectiveness of the new doctrine.

The conclusion of the book opens towards the interwar period, where the return to peacetime conditions (administrative slowness, budgetary restrictions, to which are added the conservatism of the victors) will precipitate the return of the gap before 1914 between a more modern doctrine than we wanted to say, and a reality (training, endowment with modern equipment) mediocre - with the consequences that we know in 1940. An observation which highlights the importance of the resources allocated to education and innovation, in line with topical issues raised by the blog The way of the sword hosted by Michel Goya.

The different chapters are particularly dense and rich in information, to the point that the reader, even somewhat familiar with the subject, will sometimes have difficulty following. The addition, at the end of the chapter, of a paragraph summarizing the content, is therefore well thought out. The invention of modern warfare is, in fact, a pointed and well-filled work, with 480 pages including 60 of appendices, including in particular an extensive bibliography and a corpus of sources, printed as archival, well filled. The appendices also include a useful chronological reminder, tables of data and interesting analyzes, in particular that relating to the evolution of the firepower of a French infantry division during its engagements during the First World War.

We will summarize The invention of modern warfare like a dense book, sometimes difficult to follow, but full of information and which masters its subject. If it cannot obviously be considered as "general public", it will enlighten all those who seek to understand how the French army was able to pass from the mystique of the excessive offensive to a technological, methodical, and ultimately victorious war, between 1914 and 1918.

Michel GOYA, The invention of modern warfare, from the red pants to the tank, 1871-1918. Tallandier, Texto collection, 2014.

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