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The Canon and Four Generations of Warfare – Part 2

The Canon and Four Generations of Warfare – Part 2

The 2016 Land Power Forum paper, The canon and four generations of warfare,[1] notes that in June 2004, the writer William S. Lind published an article titled Two Marine Corps [one the manoeuvre warfare Marine Corps, the second the programs, budgets and policy Marine Corps], which introduced the idea of the canon to military professionals:

…the seven books [that]…take the reader from the first generation of modern war through the second and third generations and into the fourth.[2]

This paper examines the third and fourth books of the canon:

Stormtroop Tactics – Innovation in the German Army1914-1918, examines the German Army’s transition before and during World War I as a third-generation Army.

Command or Control – Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918, compares British second generation and German third generation warfighting.

Stormtroop Tactics – Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918  

Bruce Gudmundsson’s Stormtroop Tactics is the canon’s third volume. Gudmundsson argues that ‘there is no single explanation for the [third generation] transformation of the German infantry that occurred in World War I’. Instead, ‘a large number of personalities, ideas, situations and organisational forces’ accidentally, unintentionally and sometimes deliberately, pushed the German Army toward ‘infiltration’ tactics leading to German victories in late 1917 and in March 1918 when ‘the British Fifth Army collapsed, as much morally as physically’.[3]

Ultimately, the November 1918 armistice in World War I was ‘not a failure of German tactics at the squad, platoon, company, battalion, regimental, division or even Army level, but failure of German operational art, German strategy and German national policy’. At the tactical level, the German approach to war meant:

… at the end of 1917, all pretence that any infantry unit was uniformly armed with rifle and bayonet had been dropped. Every [German] infantry unit down to the platoon was a combined arms force, capable of supporting its manoeuvre with its own fire … the control of the actual fighting had devolved to the lieutenants and sergeants.

For Germany, the failure in August 1914 to break-through French defences at the First Battle of Ypres, meant they were ‘unable to pursue victory at the operational level until the tactical problem of how to pierce a modern defensive position was solved’. This World War I tactical problem is summarised in three parts as:

  1. The ingenuity of the attacker finds itself competing with the diligence of the defender.
  2. Neither weight of metal nor technological innovation, would free the infantry soldier from the dirty job of crossing ‘no man’s land’ and clearing the enemy out of their trenches.
  3. Therefore, squads [or sections] of approximately 10 infantry soldiers as the ‘basic tactical unit’ require:
    a. Non-Commissioned Officer leadership where ‘tactics became more and more individualised’.
    b. Excellence in close combat, through self-motivation, initiative, rapid improvisation and instinctive execution of battle drills.
    c. Moving and fighting as independent tactical entities to pierce (break-in), rupture (break-through) and exploit (break-out) enemy defences               
    d. Operating different weapons, each with its particular virtues and vulnerabilities.
    e. Coordinating heavy weapon, supporting arms and logistic capabilities at the lowest possible level.

By December 1914, elements of the German Army began experimentation with new tactics. These included forming ‘small detachments [to] enter the trench section at each end and work their way toward the centre’. In support, infantry-controlled heavy weapons (Truppwaffen) were developed including the hand grenade, mines, saps, light howitzers, trench mortars, Mauser carbine, flamethrowers, bangalore torpedos, portable steel shields, 7.62cm light machine gun, and lightweight 3.7mm canon.

From March 1915, a month before the allied landings at Gallipoli, the Germans integrated these weapons into Assault Detachments (Sturmabteilung). Their leader, Captain Rohr received brief orders to ‘train his unit according to the lessons that he had learned during his own front line service’. This order, ‘in keeping with the German Army tradition of granting a captain the maximum possible discretion in training his company’ had a ‘profound effect on the future of the Assault Detachment’. Rohr’s development of Stosstruppgedanke (assault-squad concept) ‘was to remain the basis of German infantry tactics for 30 years’.

By February 1917, General Ludendorff, fresh from defeating Russia through employing tactical and operational manoeuvre on the Eastern Front, adopted Rohr’s tactical innovations as ‘the model for the rest of the German infantry’ on the Western Front. Through Stosstruppgedanke Ludendorff sought to ‘rupture … the Allied trench system and thus return to the war of grand manoeuvres’.

Interestingly, Ludendorff’s intent was that ‘once the rest of the German infantry had been created in their image, the Assault Battalions would become redundant’. However, by 1918 Ludendorff realised that ‘the German Army was composed of many men who were simply not capable of becoming proper stormtroopers’. Therefore, Ludendorff ‘designated about a quarter of the German infantry divisions as attack divisions’, with the remainder holding the German defensive line as trench divisions.

Despite German innovations, Gudmundsson notes that following World War I many western militaries embedded second generation warfighting into doctrine, which was:

…mostly the product of the French approach to tactics through seeing tactics as an exercise in engineering … looking for the formulae [such as guns per metre of front] … but missing the intangibles such as social relations between officers, non-commissioned officers and men.

Through misunderstanding the German approach to war, western military thinkers failed to transition their militaries as third generation warfighters. This failure contributed to ‘spectacular [German] victories of 1939 to 1941’.

Command or Control – Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918

Martin Samuels’ Command or Control is the canon’s fourth volume. Samuels examines ‘why and how the German and British armies [of World War I] adopted quite different postures in the face of the new twentieth-century battlefield’. In William Lind’s parlance, this book examines the design, development and violent interaction of British second generation (restrictive control) and German third generation (mission command) warfighting. Samuels notes that ‘in war, it is often the army which is the least ineffective that achieves victory’.

In comparing German and British military effectiveness, Samuels contends that mission command – a system that, since 1806, devolved German command of battle to subordinate leaders – was the difference between the two armies. Samuels succinctly explains the differing warfighting philosophies of Germany and Britain between 1888 and 1918:

…the German philosophy of combat, as inherently chaotic, was better suited to actual fighting than the British philosophy of combat as inherently ordered.

…the ‘structural approach’ employed by the British led them to assume that there must inevitably be competition between the existing arms (infantry and artillery) and the new arms (armour) and that there must therefore be a choice between them. By contrast, the German ‘functional’ approach was more concerned with how problems could best be solved rather than which arm solved them.

British – restrictive control

The British system of ‘restrictive control’ or ‘umpiring’ required that ‘subordinates are given orders laying down their actions in detail to be obeyed regardless of circumstances’. Under restrictive control, local initiative ‘tends to be frowned on by commanders, on the grounds that it disorganises the centralised plan’. British restrictive control developed troops ‘bred to deference and lacking in initiative’, and such troops ‘depended on precise orders’ for mission success. This system meant the British Army ‘required large number of officers and NCOs’ to ‘ensure the constant presence of authority’ which, in turn, increased ‘troops’ dependence on external control’.

The British ‘endeavoured to prevent disorder’ in war creating an ‘essentially structured [and] ordered’, system of command. With communications between commanders and subordinates unreliable once an attack commenced, restrictive control required that ‘orders must be provided in advance’. In effect, British commanders sought to ‘preordain the future’, designing rigid infantry advance and artillery fire timetables, before any attack began.

In attack, British commanders were required to remain at fixed points to achieve constant communication with their superiors. The British ‘sought the keep control in the hands of the brigade commander who was generally too far to the rear to assess whether the fire fight had been won’. This resulted in British soldiers advancing into action ‘virtually leaderless’, while ‘commanders found themselves in communication with their superiors but out of contact with their troops’.

Restrictive control also influenced the development of British tactics. In response to German defensive practice and doctrine, British defence doctrine was modified by the Jeudwine Committee in 1918. Comprising three British Generals, the committee examined ‘only one [German] manual’ which they considered ‘summed up the enemy’s experiences after nearly three years of defensive warfare on the Western Front’. The manual was the German General Principles of the Construction of Field Positions and the Jeudwine Committee’s recommendations included:

…only the layout of the defensive zone, the design and positioning of field works within that zone, and the execution of construction plans. The manual did not discuss such vital factors as the deployment of the garrison, the tactics it was to employ nor the means by which the battle should be directed.

Ultimately, through the Jeudwine Committee and a subsequent General Headquarters Memorandum on Defensive Measures the British:

…converted the free creativity of the German [defensive] system with local initiative conforming actions to circumstances, into a drill, with actions laid down from above and in advance. Little provision was made for response to a sudden unexpected opportunity, a capability central to the German doctrine.

German – mission command

In contrast, the Germans system of mission command emphasised ‘the need for rapid action appropriate to the situation’ aligned to commander’s intent – ‘exploiting each and every opportunity to the full’. Regarding war as ‘essentially chaotic’, mission command is ‘characterised by flexibility [independence, initiative and a fondness of responsibility] and a readiness to listen to creative criticism from relatively junior officers’. Encouraging commanders to serve well forward in the fight, mission command is ‘best achieved through extensive decentralisation, enabling commanders on the spot to react to local circumstances’.

Mission command evolved in the early 19th century as Prussian/German military thinkers contemplated the ‘sheer size and fluidity’ of modern larger and more complex battlefields. It recognises that ‘a commander cannot keep detailed control over all actions of their army …  and therefore [requires] an overall picture in [their] mind to employ their reserves to greatest effect’.

Mission command evolved German defensive tactics under the rubric of ‘elastic defence’, emphasising the ‘mutual interaction of command, training and tactics’. German freedom of thought in developing tactics resulted in ‘fierce debates within the [German] army, which senior commanders actively sought to encourage’. Ultimately, professional German debates on defence developed ‘three interdependent defensive concepts’:

  •  Depth in defence – separating attacking infantry from supporting artillery.
  •  Defence made invisible or difficult to detect – through reverse slope defence, camouflage and dummy positions.
  •  Counterthrusts – characterised by quick reaction and immediate responsiveness, led by junior leaders, in reply to an attack on a defensive position to deny the enemy ‘time to consolidate their gains’ and ‘take advantage of fleeting opportunities’.

The German ‘system of decentralised command allowed for greater flexibility in tactics … [and permitted leaders] to hold views that did not follow existing doctrine’ complete with ‘dissenting opinions and developed ideas'.

British – education

An element enabling contrasting command styles was the differing German and British staff systems.

The British only introduced a staff system in the early twentieth century for fear of creating an ‘elitist system’ that may result in ‘jealously and friction’ among officers. The British had ‘no strict separation between the General Staff and Administrative Staff’, and due to branch rivalries ‘considerable efforts were made to prevent the General Staff attracting the best officers’.  For the British, this system meant that ‘combat at the operational level was not an over-riding priority’.

The British undervalued selection and education at Command and Staff College. Many senior British officers in World War I, such as the non-staff college educated General Sir John French, ‘argued that an experienced regimental officer could be as good a staff officer as a staff college graduate’. In the 1880s, selection for staff college based primarily on examinations was replaced with a ‘system of quotas’ with ‘each arm being guaranteed a certain number of places each year’. This system was not without its flaws:

In 1886…a gunner officer who came seventh with 2,407 marks [in the staff college exam] was excluded [from staff college selection] while a Rifleman who came thirty-second and ‘failed’ with 1,585 marks was admitted [to staff college].

German – education

In contrast, from the early nineteenth century, the Germans trained professional staff officers serving in small headquarter staffs. The Germans stressed that too many staff officers ‘make themselves felt in in every conceivable kind of objectional way’ noting that ‘idleness is the root of all mischief’. In addition, the Germans created the concept of dual command where the ‘chief of staff attached to a commander is a commander’s junior partner and not merely a subordinate in the direction of operations’.

The German War Academy system emphasised the ‘operational level of war [and] produced [operations] officers highly skilled in that area of the military profession’. In contrast, the Adjutantur (personnel) and Intendantur (supply) branches ‘received only those graduates of the War Academy who were considered of insufficient ability to become members of the General Staff’. Unfortunately, this system created a German Army ‘largely ignorant of logistics’ and this ‘deficiency was revealed in the planning and execution of the Schlieffen Plan [in 1914]’.


Stormtroop Tactics – Innovation in the German Army1914-1918 and Command or Control – Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918 are important books for military professionals to read and understand. The ideas in these books reflect today’s continued debate regarding centralisation or decentralisation of military organisations.


1. Stormtrooper Tactics – Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918

Bruce I. Gudmundsson
Praeger: Westport, Connecticut, 1989, 179 pp
ISBN: 0-275-93328-8
ISBN: 0-275-95401-3
US $30.00

2. Command or Control – Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918

Martin Samuels
Frank Cass Publishers, Southgate, London, 1995, 285 pp
ISBN: 0-7146-4570-2
ISBN: 0-7146-4214-2
US $50.00

[1]Chris Field, The canon and four generations of warfare, Land Power Forum, Australian Army, 20 October 2016, <> [Accessed 23 April 2017]

[2] William S. Lind, Two Marine Corps, 04 June 2004

<,13190,Lind_060404,00.html> [accessed 23 April 2017]

[3]  Keagan J., The Face of Battle, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1978, p. 276

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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