Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home
  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2014

3 - Complex Adaptation

Summary

The First World War has the justified reputation as one of the most brutal wars in history. It also possesses the reputation as a war of stagnation and military incompetence. The fact that the Western Front remained virtually stationary for four years, despite the slaughter at Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele, appears to provide the evidence of general military stupidity. Not surprisingly, historians have tended to depict the war as one in which the “donkeys” of the general staffs drove Europe's youth through the slaughter pens of the Western Front to their death. In the bleak words of the great British war poet Siegfried Sassoon:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath

I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base

And speed glum heroes up the line to death.…

And when the war is done and youth stone dead

I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.

– Siegfried Sassoon, ``Base Details''

Collected Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

Reinforcing such bitter attacks on the war's leadership has been the belief that solutions to the war's tactical problems were obvious and that armies could easily have developed the means to deal with the battlefield stalemate. Since the late 1920s, this has been a prevailing theme in the war's historiography until recently. In his admirable novel on the First World War, The General, C. S. Forester likened the war's tactical difficulties to those confronted by a tribe of South Sea islanders who had come across a board with a large screw embedded and who out of curiosity desired to remove it: “Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort.”

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Clark, AlanThe DonkeysNew York 1965
Tuchman's, BarbaraThe Guns of AugustNew York 1962
Sassoon, SiegfriedBase DetailsSilkin, JohnFirst World War PoetryNew York 1984
Bond, BrianThe First World War and British Military HistoryOxford 1991
Forester, C. S.The GeneralBaltimore, MD 1982 195
Lupfer, TimothyThe Dynamics of Doctrines: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine during the First World WarLeavenworth, KS 1981
Bidwell, ShelfordGraham, DominickFire-power: British Army Weapons and Theories of War, 1904–1945London 1982
Travers, TimothyThe Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front, and the Emergence of Modern War, 1900–1918London 1987
Travers, TimothyHow the War Was Won: Command and Technology in the British Army on the Western Front, 1917–1918London 1992
Harris, J. P.Men, Ideas, and Tanks, British Military Thought and Armoured Forces, 1903–1939Manchester 1995
Prior, RobinWilson, TrevorCommand on the Western Front: The Military Career of Sir Henry Rawlinson, 1914–1918Oxford 1992
Passchendaele: The Untold StoryNew HavenCT 1996
2005
Middlebrook, MartinThe Kaiser's Battle, 21 March 1918: The First Day of the German Spring OffensiveLondon 1978
Herwig, HolgerThe First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungry, 1914–1918London 1997
Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial GermanyIthaca, NY 2005
Zabecki, DavidThe German 1918 Offensive: A Case Study in the Operational Level of WarLondon 2006
Kennedy, PaulMilitary Effectiveness in the First World WarMillett, Allan R.Murray, WilliamsonThe First World WarLondon 1988
Johnson's, Hubert C.Breakthrough! Tactics, Technology, and the Search for Victory on the Western Front in World War INovato, CA 1994
Wynne, G. CIf Germany Attacks: The Battle of Depth in the WestLondon 1940
Knox, MacGregorMurray, WilliamsonThe Dynamics of Military RevolutionCambridge 2000
Ekstein, ModrisRites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern AgeNew York 1989
D’Este, CarloDecision in NormandyLondon 1984
Brose, Eric DornThe Kaiser's Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany during the Machine Age, 1870–1918Oxford 2001
Echevarria, Antulio J.After Clausewitz: German Military Thinkers before the Great WarLawrence, KS 2000
Howard, MichaelThe Doctrine of the OffensiveMakers of Modern StrategyParet, PeterPrinceton 1986
Clausewitz, Carl vonOn WarHoward, MichaelParet, PeterPrinceton 1976
Gilbert, MartinWinston S. Churchill, vol. 3, 1914–1916London 1971 226
Hartcup, GuyThe War of Invention: Scientific Developments, 1914–18London 1988
Millett, Allan R.Murray, WilliamsonMilitary EffectivenessLondon 1988
Horne, AlistairThe Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916London 1963
Farrar-Hockley, A. H.Death of an ArmyLondon 1972
Haig, DouglasDouglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters, 1914–1918Sheffield, GaryBourne, JohnLondon 2005
McPherson, JamesBattle Cry of Freedom: The American Civil WarOxford 1988
Krepinevich, AndrewThe Army in VietnamBaltimore, MD 1986
Doughty, RobertPyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great WarCambridge, MA 2005
Zabecki, David T.Steel Wind: Colonel Georg Bruchmüller and the Birth of Modern ArtilleryWestport, CT 1994
Bailey, J. B. A.Field Artillery and Fire-PowerOxford 1989
Bidwell, ShelfordGraham, DominicFire-Power: British Army Weapons and Theories of War, 1904–1945London 1982
Jünger, ErnstStorm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western FrontLondon 1929
Doughty, RobertSeeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919–1939Hamden, CT 1983
Gudmundsson, Bruce I.Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914–1918New York 1989
Lucas, PascalThe Evolution of Tactical Ideas during the War of 1914–1918Leavenworth, KS 1925
Palazzo, AlbertSeeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War ILincoln, NE 2000
Horne, AlistairThe Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916New York 1962
Reichskriegsministerium, Der Weltkrieg: 1914 bis 1918Berlin 1936
Sheffield, GaryForgotten Victory, The First World War: Myths and RealitiesLondon 2002
Terrain, JohnDouglas Haig: The Educated SoldierLondon 1963
Harris, J. P.Douglas Haig and the First World WarCambridge 2008
Keegan, JohnFace of BattleLondon 1976
Middlebrook, MartinThe First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916New York 1972
Duffy, ChristopherThrough German Eyes: The British & the Somme 1916London 2006
Sheldon, JackThe German Army on the Somme, 1914–1918Barnsley, UK 2005
Lee, JohnSome Lessons of the Somme: The British Infantry in 1917Look to Your Front”: Studies in First World WarBond, BrianLondon 1999
Farrar-Hockley, A. H.The SommeLondon 1964 156
Watt, Richard M.Dare Call It TreasonNew York 1963 148
Spears, Edward L.Prelude to VictoryLondon 1939
Herwig, HolgerStrategic Uncertainties of a Nation State: Prussia-Germany, 1871–1918Murray, WilliamsonKnox, MacGregorBernstein, AlvinThe Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and WarCambridge 1994
Ludendorff, ErichLudendorff's Own Story: August 1914–November 1918New York 1919
Pitt, Barry1918: The Last ActNew York 1962 178
Wolff, LeonIn Flanders Fields: The 1917 CampaignNew York 1958
Reichsarchiv, Der Weltkrieg: 1914–1918Berlin 1944 41
Herwig, HolgerThe Dynamics of Necessity, German Military Policy during the First World WarMillett, Murray, Military EffectivenessLondon 1988 102
Rupprecht, Mein KriegstagebuchMunich 1929
Harris, J. P.1918: Amiens to the ArmisticeLondon 2002
Murray, WilliamsonMillett, Allan R.Military Innovation in the Interwar PeriodCambridge 1996