All armies embarked upon a difficult learning curve during the war as soldiers studied past operations for lessons that might be applied to future ones. Despite the similarities of some previous wars to this one, no one had predicted the extent, durability, or cost of the trench war that resulted.
While the war on the Western Front was largely static, with the trench systems rarely moving, it was also a world of constant change. Weapons, tactics, and doctrine developed during the war as soldiers, from the highest general to the lowest private, sought ways to survive on the battlefield and break through the enemy’s trenches.
Innovation and Evolution at the Front
Each arm, from the infantry and artillery to the engineers and medical units, evolved in response to war:
- Infantry tactics incorporated grenades, rifle grenades, and light machine-guns;
- Junior officers assumed greater independence and responsibility for fighting the battle;
- Training and pre-battle preparations emphasized movement and flexibility, using firepower to pin down, or ‘suppress’, enemy strong points while other attacking troops swept around and to the sides, destroying or bypassing them altogether;
- The artillery embraced scientific principles and developed new intelligence-gathering techniques to better target the enemy’s guns;
- Engineer and labour units ensured that roads, bridges, and supplies were available to support the soldiers in battle.
The principal tactical objective was to keep moving and to not allow the enemy time to recover by deploying reserve troops or reinforcing a threatened area.
Combined Arms: The Key to Success
By 1917, the Canadians had learned that the key to success in battle was the close coordination of artillery and infantry, as well as tanks, machine-guns, combat engineers, chemical weapons, the supply system, and aircraft.
This ‘combined arms’ approach helped Canadian troops overcome the inherent advantages of terrain and position enjoyed by Germans fighting for most of the war on the defensive.