War presents many ironies.
Perhaps the greatest of all ironies in the First World War is Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on the obsolescence of non-democratic governments. One of the major planks of this position was the belief that only a democratic system could give proper opportunities to the most talented men in any particular skill or profession. By this logic, the Germans, with their aristocratic ways (the Junkers had an effective monopoly on military commissions), should have never been in any way comparable to French military leadership. As it turned out, the exact opposite was true.
Before the Great War, all military thinkers agreed that only the offensive could win a military conflict. The two extremes within this thinking, however, were the French and the Germans: In the French military hierarchy, a belief in offense à l’outrance (offensive to the extreme) came to be the norm to such a degree that dissenters could not hope to be promoted; For the Germans, they believed that only a offensives could win, but they made it a point encourage their commanders to identify their opponents’ weaknesses.
Thus, the French methodically ordered their men to butchery over and over again, believing that total and unrestrained offensives would gain victory despite whatever resistance their enemies presented. The Germans, on the other hand, were content to dig trenches, break their opponents’ attacks with machine guns, then counter-attack after an artillery barrage.
It was the Germans who understood the great key to fighting a static battle-front: not men, not rifles, not machine guns, but artillery is the key to success. It was the artillery which broke up the enemy, and the infantry merely advanced to occupy the newly vacated area.
The Battle of Flirey was a result of this methodical combination of military thinking: the Germans to formed a re-assessment of the battlefront near Verdun. They reasoned that the river bluffs and ridges near the town of St. Mihiel would be far easier to defend than the open fields which they currently occupied. By building a defense in the new position, they could concentrate their forces elsewhere without worrying too much about the St. Mihiel sector.
Artillery bombardments preceded series of attacks on September 19, and the Germans pushed forward. Too late, the French realized the strength of the German offensive, and rushed reinforcements to the area on the 22nd. By this time, however, the Germans had nearly achieved their limited goals, and captured St. Mihiel on September 24. In their new positions, the Germans successfully beat off French attacks which lasted until October 11.
As the two armies continued to attempt to race around each other’s flank up North, the Western front now looked like this. The area of the Battle of Flirey is highlighted. Click the map to enlarge.