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Russia’s War on Ukraine: Lessons from 1918
Firepower, manpower, and victory.
THE REAL NATURE AND THE COURSE of the Russo-Ukraine War continue to elude us. This was true before Vladimir Putin’s renewed campaign of conquest in February 2022 and may be even more so as the Ukrainian “counteroffensive” dominates current headlines.
While every conflict is unique and none ever fits, even in retrospect, the social-science-style structural analyses beloved by theorists, the Ukrainian “way of war” is especially befuddling to outsiders. Perhaps oddest of all, the one paradigm or analogy from past history—World War I—that might have provided a bit of perspective has never really caught on. It’s had its moments, to be sure, but only moments.
This may be because the Great War has an unsavory reputation, particularly in the West. In this imaginary, “the guns of August” seduced outdated empires into a suicidal bloodletting with no good strategic or moral purpose. Fatuous Colonel Blimps and chateau-bound generals faced mustachioed, Pickelhaube-topped Prussians across a barbed-wired, bullet-swept no man’s land that wasted a generation of young European lives. No one won.
Who wants to relive that?
No one would if there were another choice, but for the Ukrainians there isn’t much of one. They either win the war they’ve got or suffer a defeat that threatens national extinction. This truth applies equally to other Europeans and the United States: We do not face as immediate a danger, but the peace, prosperity, and human liberty that have flourished in the world America has made are at risk.
As the Ukrainian summer counteroffensive turns to fall, it is instructive to recall the great Allied offensives of fall 1918 that brought World War I to its termination. Not that history will repeat itself, but in the struggle to grasp the battlefield and the larger war these campaigns—and, for Americans, the experience of the Meuse-Argonne effort of September through early November of that year—provide a better yardstick than, say, Operation Desert Storm. This will be potted history, but so is all lessons-learning analogizing.
Let us begin at the level of national strategy. The collapse of the Russian empire and Lenin’s acceptance of the March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk took the nascent Soviet Union out of the war, which allowed the Germans to move troops to massively reinforce the Western Front. Fear of the longer-term effect of the United States’ entry into the war induced the German high command to attempt a series of assaults, collectively called the “Michael” offensives, in the spring and early summer of 1918. The main axis aimed at Paris, with prongs along both sides of the Oise River, culminating a scant 35 miles from the French capital. The Kaiser and his senior commander, Erich Ludendorff, were propelled by a kind of now-or-never calculus that has characterized Putin’s actions as Kyiv has in recent years turned its eyes more toward the West and away from Russia.
With the failure of the Michael offensives, the World War I pendulum swung toward the Allies. The manpower of Gen. John Joseph Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force—which had paraded through Paris on July 4, announcing “Lafayette, we are here!” at the marquis’s tomb—would soon surpass two million, and the prickly general was determined to demonstrate American power as quickly as possible. After “blooding” his best formations in attacks near St. Mihiel in early September, Pershing was ready to join with French Marshall Ferdinand Foch, the supreme Allied commander, and the British in the coalition Hundred Days Offensive that would prove decisive. In this, one can see useful operational comparisons to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, notwithstanding the vastly larger scale of the 1918 campaign.
The most obvious similarity was that, though ultimately effective, the Allies’ attacks in fall 1918 were painfully slow, averaging approximately one kilometer per day over ten weeks. And Pershing’s inexperienced troops were slowest of all; Foch constantly pressured the Americans to greater efforts, and French Premier Georges Clemenceau threatened to write President Woodrow Wilson to request Pershing’s replacement. Pershing did not hesitate to press his subordinates for results. Recalling the climate, a commander in the 42d Infantry Division, a young Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, claimed his corps commander had told him to “Give me Châtillon, or a list of five thousand casualties.” Even allowing for the likely hyperbole, the quote is illustrative of the realities of an infantry-and-artillery war. As the AEF matured through the campaign, it stepped back from unrealistic objectives—also, Pershing was wise enough to step back from operational command to better run the force as a whole, including improving its logistics—to more realistic objectives. Lt. Gen. Hunter Liggett took over the U.S. First Army from Pershing and planned for relatively shallow advances to keep them under artillery cover.
With patience, and under Liggett’s careful leadership, the Meuse-Argonne attacks gradually began to meet their campaign objectives. The pace was no faster, but the casualties declined. The Germans not only had spent years fortifying their front, but the natural terrain tended to channelize the American offensive and the uplands to the German rear provided an excellent platform for artillery and allowed for efficient employment of reinforcements. Yet in a breakout at the end of October and early November 1918, the First Army penetrated Germany’s storied Hindenburg Line, so named for Paul von Hindenburg, chief of the general staff and victor over the Russian army. The line also was breached by French and British forces. Pershing pushed his troops toward the Meuse and the city of Sedan, where France had surrendered to Germany in 1870, but Foch insisted on French honor. The psychological blow was as important as the operational success. On November 8, Ludendorff went with 39 of his regimental commanders to Kaiser Wilhelm to explain that the war was lost for good and that the kaiser must abdicate. The war had been horrible, the final campaign extremely costly, and the postwar negotiations at Versailles imperfect—to say the least. Yet the victory was clear.
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THE TECHNOLOGICAL AND TACTICAL TRUTHS of World War I—captured in the catchphrase “artillery conquers, infantry occupies”—have shaped the Ukrainian military experience, not only lately but since the 2014 Russian occupation of the Donbas. Indeed, Ukraine’s need to conserve rather than consume manpower exaggerates the importance of long-range fires, and fires where accuracy trumps volume. But, despite their seeming insensitivity to casualties, World War I leaders and their staffs had similar priorities. In the Meuse-Argonne campaign, the U.S. V Corps order stressed that it was “essential that fire superiority rather than sheer manpower be the driving force of the attack.” Maneuver and control of ground mattered only insofar as they contributed to effectiveness of fires.
And as for the Ukrainian (and Russian) army, achieving air supremacy and interdicting the battlefield from afar were near impossibilities. World War I fighters—be they Spads or Fokkers—were cheap, light, and carried minimal payloads; their role was more akin to today’s drones than modern combat aircraft—F-16s or MiGs. Their greatest purpose, even more than air-to-air engagements, was as spotters for artillery. When Liggett took charge of planning for the final set-piece battle and demanded support for the front line, it was gall and wormwood to his flyboys. The chief of the Air Service, Col. Billy Mitchell, who preferred to concentrate on interdiction, was not yet the airpower revolutionary he would become.
ONE FURTHER FACTOR to consider is the morale of the fighting forces. In retrospect, an anomaly of the soldiers’ experience of World War I is that there weren’t more mutinies, and sooner rather than later. The French survived their mutiny in 1917; the Russians did not and the German army imploded in late 1918. Even American commanders, despite their limited experience of operations of such scope and savagery, were sensitive to limits. By mid-October 1918, Liggett concluded that “the condition of the [U.S.] First Army was such that it was imperative to rehabilitate our Divisions, get necessary replacements into condition for action . . . we needed rest and reorganization.” In this dimension, one that may well determine the outcome, the contest appears to be between Ukrainian prudence and patience and Putin’s bloody-mindedness. We shall see which model proves the wiser.
A final measure is to try to compare the attitudes of Americans to a conflict across the Atlantic, and our own sense of prudence and patience. Woodrow Wilson vowed to “keep us out of war,” but then couldn’t. That, too, was what Joe Biden promised, at least in regard to the Middle East, as the tragic-but-determined withdrawal from Afghanistan attests. Now, as the 2024 presidential campaign season gets underway, Republican candidates seem mostly to want to cut off the Ukrainians. At least Biden’s commitment to Kyiv, while it has been overly prudent and too patient (except when it’s impatient toward Kyiv’s conduct of its counteroffensive), has indeed kept the United States from direct combat.
As unfamiliar and unpleasant as we may find Russia’s war in Ukraine, it matters who wins.
As it did in 1918.