German Defensive Strategy and Tactics At Passchendaele I THE GREAT WAR Special
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German Defensive Strategy and Tactics At Passchendaele I THE GREAT WAR Special


We made a special episode about the Hindenburg
Line, Germany’s flexible defense system built in early 1917, and that has led to a
lot of questions from you guys – mostly of the nature of did it work? Did it keep the Allies at bay? Let’s find out. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
special episode about the German flexible defense, and how it fared at Passchendaele. If you’re not sure how that system worked
in general, here’s a quick recap. The system was created by Fritz von Lossberg
under the orders of Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff and was called the Siegfriedstellung
by the Germans. In contrast to the normal way of packing frontline
trenches with soldiers, the Germans used a large area for defense in depth, with layers
of pillboxes, bunkers, and machine gun nests in a checkerboard pattern that mutually supported
each other in a deep killing zone. For the enemy to achieve a breakthrough, he
would have to pass through all of this to reach the main defensive lines, and each point
on the way was designed to delay him as much as possible, inflicting constant damage. Artillery and counterattacks would catch anyone
in the open. It was a formidable system. It had been effective so far when used properly,
but Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, would be its real testing
grounds. Now, the advance German positions were pretty
much entirely destroyed by the preliminary artillery barrage, but the bunkers and pillboxes
scattered around the field stood and their occupants defended themselves against the
Allied infantry. Many strongpoints fell, but they inflicted
terrible casualties before doing so, and the Allies could only move at a crawl through
the boggy, muddy ground, and the defenders stood their ground. But the German defense system wasn’t merely
passive; it had an active counterattack element. Ludendorff used stormtroop doctrine in his
reserves, the Eingreiftruppen. These were highly mobile, heavily armed infantry
platoons that were kept out of range of enemy artillery and used as rapid response teams. Unlike storm troops, though, they were not
intended to pierce an enemy’s defensive positions, but were to crash into an enemy
advance, preferably from the flanks, while that enemy was engaged with the pillboxes,
and with light machine guns and grenades would create a mobile defense belt that would ideally
strangle the attack or rout the enemy. They were kept in a state of constant readiness
and the real trick was to send them out at just the right moment, when the enemy was
most vulnerable, for poor timing could doom the counter attack, so an experienced Hauptman
or Leutnant could even overrule a general’s decision in order to get it right. The Eingreif troops also had anti-tank units
who used iron core bullets and light artillery to penetrate the machines, and the counter
assault groups were very effective in the first few weeks of the battle, catching the
plodding Allied troops off guard time and again, and sabotaging their morale. There were problems, though. Mist and smoke favored an attacker, sure,
but rain was a defender’s friend, so the counter attacks certainly had no weather advantage. German artillery was way outgunned by the
British and the batteries couldn’t remain in one place for too long without being destroyed,
and the terrain was terrible for moving them around. Also, the super-heavy British artillery was
out of their range. And the Allies were learning. By mid-September the British began concentrating
their artillery fire on the German strongpoints, their main obstacles, and they began to crack
under the shelling. They also stopped trying to breakthrough the
whole system, and began using small bite and hold tactics that ran counter to the defense
doctrine. Rather than get caught in the killing zone,
the British would launch limited attacks that didn’t trigger counterattacks and then simply
stop and consolidate their positions. Another flaw grew for the Germans – they could
not retake captured positions in a consistent line, especially under fire and in bad weather,
so there were now always weak spots in their lines for the enemy to exploit. Communications were very difficult and sometimes
non-existent; signal flares for counterattacks got lost in the weather, telephone lines were
cut, and runners could take hours to get a message through, assuming that they even made
it in one piece. So the Eingreiftroops were now often sent
out too late, and the British knew to expect them now anyhow and had begun shelling rear
areas to harass them and prevent them from arriving. By the end of September, Ludendorff was nervous. These tactics would inexorably throw the Germans
out of their positions. He called for the German artillery to aid
the Eingreifs in pre-emptive attacks, but this proved impossible with the condition
of the battlefield. Advancing through the mud, gas, and shelling
of the broken land, the men would reach the front exhausted and under strength. The system was failing. But did it fail completely? Well, not really, it never collapsed. Mainly, by all written accounts, because of
the German soldiers. Months long shelling, gas attacks, endless
bad weather, sickness and exhaustion – by October sometimes the German defense would
be two soldiers sharing a water filled shell hole or what remained of a trench, fighting
off the attackers again and again. This is what Oberleutnant Süßenberger had
to say about these soldiers: “If I live to be one hundred, the memories of the days
on the Steenbeek will never be extinguished. Here the true greatness of the defensive battle
revealed itself in full.. It requires enormous reserves of morale and
courage to hold out in muddy shell holes for seven long days on end despite bad weather
and ceaseless concentrated artillery fire. What each man in his lonely shell hole achieved
deserves to be set down in letters of gold in the history of war.” The junior officers maintained the cohesion
of their troops, forming them into defensive clusters against the sheer endless attacks. It was a struggle of attrition by then, and
neither side could keep it up forever. The German High Command changed its strategy,
and instead of using soldiers to man equipment, it would use equipment to man its soldiers. Huge amounts of machine guns, grenades, and
ammunition were given to the remaining strongpoints, to turn each soldier into a personal strongpoint. German High Command simply wanted to hold
out until winter would end the fighting. The flexible defense system was indeed formidable,
but it was flawed, and though it didn’t collapse at Passchendaele, it failed to hold
in the end to the minor gains of bite and hold tactics. Eventually, a counter to that counter was
impossible to find, because of the Allied superiority in artillery and aircraft, and
as winter rolled in, the Germans would need to find a new defense for the spring. Well, we’ve all heard again and again the
old saying, “the best defense is a good offense”, and it looked like Ludendorff
was going to put that saying into practice. If you want to learn more about the original
design of the Hindenburg Line, you can check out our special episode right here. We also turned our illustration of that defense
system into a great infographic poster which you can get in our merchandise store. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and
follow us on Instagram for more background information on the Great War.

About Ralph Robinson

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100 thoughts on “German Defensive Strategy and Tactics At Passchendaele I THE GREAT WAR Special

  1. At 6:55 the guy in the fur hat with the big skull/crossbones emblem, I've never seen a hat like that. Anyone have more info about it?

  2. The whole point of this defensive system was to free up divisions for offensive operations, so this wasn't just a response to Passchendaele. Didn't it simply take them a considerable time to retrain the army for maneuver warfare?

  3. Just spent an hour trying to translate the video's description and create CC. Finished it and YouTube said it was too long. Godamnit… Oh, well… I can only say this was a great episode.

  4. I think it was at Passchendaele that the RFC first began to use Sopwith Camels for ground attack aircraft. Pilots hated it. A G Lee was shot down 3 times doing ground attack. It was a miracle that he survived.

  5. great vid, documentaries always hold defense in depth tactics to be the most advanced of the war but everything ha a counter measure

  6. So the German soldiers were so badass, the commanders just dumped loads of rifles, grenades and several machine guns on just one or two men to hold a spot in a ruined field? Jesus.
    Just imagine being one of those men; alone, nobody to help you for hours or even days and you have to hold back / pin down 40+ British troops on your own in a shelled out windmill or farmhouse… Pretty terrifying situation if you ask me.

  7. Hi Flo! 😀 and Indy, and everyone else; why not. I have a question for OOTT:

    I know in the second world war they used different kinds of loads for belts in aircraft gunnery (regarding machine-guns and cannons), having a few tracers to aim easily but changing between different kinds of rounds depending on the intended purpose for the aircraft. So please, I would like to know if they used this method at all in the great war, and how they applied it if they did; and who is worth mentioning, if there's anyone at all. I know towards the end they started using incendiary rounds to take down airships and such, but I don't know anything else about the rest of the ammunition used in aircraft. Thanks and keep up the great work! 😀

  8. I hope the coverage of Malmaison this week will do justice to the radical doctrinal changes implemented by Pétain since May-June 1917. I will avoid spoilers, but it is my belief that without the collapse and withdrawal of the Russian Empire allowing Germany to call back numerous divisions and forcing the Allies to "brace" for impact (especially the French), the defense in depth would have indeed collapsed. I don't blame the team because I know the task is very difficult, because good English or German historiography on the subject is quite limited. For those interested in a more complete picture or other Frenchmen unsatisfied by the lack of extensive coverage on French officers and doctrinal evolution, I heavily recommend buying "Le Feu & l'Acier" by ex-Colonel Michel Goya. It will also be translated by Andrew Uffindell and published in the UK for summer 2018, sadly to late to help Indie and the team but it's something: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DJhsMPnXUAEKqlF.jpg:large

  9. 7:00 You can't miss August von Mackensen, that must be the best hat in history of hats, something the Mad Hatter would be proud of,

  10. This is one of your finest episodes. Insightful commentary, great graphics, fine work in the photo archives, and a classic storyteller's flourish. Even a little teaser for what 1918 holds in store! Well done!!!

  11. Boy I really am glad someone decided to look into WW1 in depth. It's a common misconception that it was just a bunch of dudes in trenches shooting machine guns at each other. It has much more depth than that. I guess it just doesn't have the easy bad guy in the form of the Nazis to focus on. The good/bad dichotomy is a little less clear in this one.

  12. Selam
    as a Turk, I wanted to ask if The Great War Team could do a special episode about the Turkic and Muslim countries and regions in the followup to and in the great war.
    If the team does a video about the topic here are some question Indy could answer:
    -How did the different people react to the start of the war?
    -How did the different people react to the entrance of the Ottoman Empire and the Arab revolt?
    -How did the different people react to the ottomans joining the war on the side of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary? (two Christian countries)
    -Where there any volunteers from the different regions?
    -If any volunteers wanted to go did the nations where they lived wanted to stop them?
    -How good were they equiped and would they bring there own equipment?

    thanks for the great content.

  13. "'Did it work?', 'Did it keep the Allies at bay?' – well be bloody patient, there's only two more weeks left to find out…"

  14. 100 years ago on the 24/10/1917 in the italian front, the 12°battle of Isonzo, also known as Battle of Caporetto begun, It resolve in the 27/11/1917 in the Battle of Piave where the Italian army manage to stop the Austria and German soldier, the front won't change untill the 24/10/1918 (an exact year later) where the Italian manage to push back the Austrian fighting in the Mountain​ Grappa and in the River Piave, during the Battle of Vittorio Veneto that lead the Italian in the cities of Trieste and Trento.
    The war stopped in the 4/11/1918 that in Italy is the day of the army.

    I apologise for the mistakes that I make; english is not my frist language and it's passed a while since last time I wrote in it
    (Some mistakes may be due to the autocorrector of my phone that keep changing every Word)

  15. Hello , TheGreatWar team, love you r channel. I don t know if you have the materials to cover the Battle of marasesti or the Battle of mountain Mateiasi, but if you can make a video about those battles and those brave soldiers giving their lives for the country . I know romania was ă poor country during WW1 but the most powerfull weapons of Warfare are still leadership and braverry . If you can do that you Will make you r romanian subscribers very happy

  16. Please do more of these types of videos, Analyzing tactics and battles. This is the stuff that I live for. Now I cannot wait to school my history teacher even more.

  17. From 1914 to 1918 the German Imperial Army inflicted higher combat casualties on their opponents relative to their own, with a tactical discrepancy in effectiveness of approx. 150% (vs French from 1914-1918: 154%
    vs BEF 1915-1918: 145%). This was independent of the fact that they were in the attack, defense, winning or losing. On the EF the disparity even fluctuated between 600-1000% against Imperial Russia. Average Score effectiveness from the early battles of 1917 was 1.96 with a casualty infliction potential of about 4.

  18. Hi indy i have a question for out of the trenches i heard in 1918 that the german got only served turnip stew and or with turnip bread how about the food on the side of allied especially the american that just got to the battlefield last year and i also curious about the alcohol consumption of the army during the war love the show keep going strong

  19. I must admit, I came here because of Battlefield 1. The game made me want to know more about WW1. I've heard a lot about WW2, but WW1 was kinda forgotten. I want to let you know that your videos are of great quality and very informative. Heck, I would even go back behind a class desk to hear you talk about the great war.

  20. Joke question for out of the trenches
    Can you say HANS GET THE FLAMENWAFER in an overly German accent
    Love the show btw

  21. Considering the disproportionate casualties at Passchendaele, I'd say the system worked. By the 1918 Spring Offensives, the Entente position at Passchendaele was so thinly held by any survivors of 1917, that they simply pulled out and handed it back to the Germans without a fight.

  22. Hey Indy can you do a who did what in ww1 of Alvin York and Henry Johnson because I heard about their stories and it's pretty cool I love your vids keep up the good work.

  23. Did you know there is a movie called Passchendaele? …Don't bother watching it if you want a movie about Passchendaele. It's ok as a romance though.

  24. I'm extremely excited for you to start talking about America's involvement and commitment in The Great War. Most people really down play America's role in World War One simply because the Expeditionary Fighting Force had shown up late in late 1917 and wouldn't see major action until 1918 but even for showing up late, the United States Army, Marines and Aero Corps fought in 13 major/minor campaigns as well as numerous battles including but not limited to:

    Cambrai (20 November – 4 December 1917): The Battle of Cambrai was fought at Cambrai, France and was the first use of large numbers of tanks in combat at the Western Front. The 11th, 12th, and 14th American engineer regiments were deployed to help in construction activity behind the British lines at Cambrai. The Battle of Cambrai took a terrible toll on the British and the US engineer regiments were called upon to help the Allies on the last day of the Battle of Cambrai and became the first A.E.F. units to meet the enemy on the front lines of World War One.

    Somme Defensive – Operation Michael (21 March – 6 Apri1 1918): On 25 March 1918 General Pershing provided support to the French consisting of four American divisions of of about 2200 men including the 6th, 12th, and 14th Engineers and the 17th, 22nd, and 148th Aero Squadrons

    Lys (9 – 27 April 1918): The Germans attacked the narrow front along the Lys River in Flanders. Approximately 500 American troops participated in the Battle of Lys including the 69th Infantry Regiment, the 16th Engineers, 28th Aero Squadron and 1st Gas Regiment.

    Aisne-Marne Campaign (27 May – 5 June 1918) and the Battle of Cantigny: The Germans crossed the Aisne River and rapidly advanced westward, coming within 50 miles of Paris. The Battle of Cantigny took place near Montdidier and was the first sustained American offensive of the war fought on 28 May 1918, the second day of the massive German offensive comprising the Third Battle of the Aisne. 4,000 US troops of the American 1st Division, commanded by Major-General Robert Lee Bullard, captured the village of Cantigny, held by the German 18th Army 

    Aisne-Marne Campaign (27 May – 5 June 1918) and the Battle of Chateau-Thierry on Jun 3, 1918. The Americans attacked the Germans at Chateau-Thierry, a battle that extended into the larger Battle of Belleau Wood.

    Aisne-Marne Campaign (27 May – 5 June 1918) and the Battle of Belleau Wood. The Battle of Belleau Wood was fought by U.S. Marine Corps and began on June 6, 1918 and ended on July 1, 1918. The Americans suffered 10,000 casualties but succeeded in the expulsion of the Germans and the capture of Belleau Wood.

    Montdidier-Noyon (9 – 13 June 1918): The Battle of Noyon was fought by French and a small contingent of American troops supported by tanks. The Germans were pushed back from the lines and halted their offensive.

    Champagne-Marne (15 – 18 July 1918): Three German armies and 52 divisions were directed to the Champagne-Marne offensive which was ended on 18 July by a massive French counter-attack launched by four French armies, with American, British and Italian divisions in support.

    Aisne-Marne (18 July – 6 August 1918): The Aisne-Marne campaign was the second phase of the Second Battle of the Marne around Rheims. After 3 weeks of heavy fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne, the Allies scored a decisive victory by stopping the advancing German army. This was a major American battle in WW1 involving American 1st and 2nd Divisions consisting of 250,000 men.

    The Hundred Days Offensive was the final period of the First World War, during which the Allies launched a series of offensives against the Central Powers on the Western Front from 8 August to 11 November 1918. The presence of almost 2 million American troops on the Western Front by the autumn of 1918 gave the Allies a critical edge over Germany. Commencing with the Battle of Amiens, the Hundred Days Offensive ended with the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918.

    Somme Offensive (8 August – 11 November 1918): The Somme Offensive was the drive to breach the main Hindenburg Line. About 54,000 Americans participated in the Second Battle of the Somme.

    Trench warfare was a major strategy of WW1 with troops in the trenches wearing obligatory gas masks in case of attack in which poison gas was used. Chemicals used included tear gas that caused pain, vomiting, and even blindness and devastating mustard gas that caused large blisters on the exposed skin and in the lungs.

    Oise-Aisne (18 August – 11 November 1918):Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd US Infantry Division and 93rd US Infantry Division were involved in the Oise-Aisne campaign. This offensive consisted of a series of drives which extended about 90 miles (140 km) from Reims westward through Soissons to Ribecourt on the Oise River.

    Ypres-Lys (19 August – 11 November 1918): About 108,000 Americans of the American 37th Division participated in the Ypres-Lys Campaign.

    St. Mihiel (12 – 16 September 1918): The Battle of St. Mihiel September 12, 1918 began as 300,000 American troops of the American First Army under the direct command of General Pershing attacked the German lines and cleared the German-held salient south of Verdun.

    Meuse-Argonne aka the Battle of the Argonne Forest (26 September – 11 November 1918):General Pershing stated in his report on the Meuse-Argonne Campaign that "Between 26 September and 11 November, 22 American and 4 French divisions, on the front extending from southeast of Verdun to the Argonne Forest, had engaged and decisively beaten 47 different German divisions, representing 25% of the enemy's entire divisional strength on the western front. 117,000 Americans were killed and wounded during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign

    Vittorio Veneto (24 October – 4 November 1918): About 1,200 American troops took part in the last great offensive against the Austro-Hungarian army in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto.

  25. Hi Indy, could you guys do an OOTT segment about british naval infantry during the war. My great grandfather joined the royal navy when he was 16, we know that he served in france but his war records were destroyed during WW2 when the war records office was bombed during the blitz. When i was a kid i found at my grand parents house an old bayonet and a set of puttees from when he served at the front so it would be interesting to hear about what the naval infantry divisions got up to.

  26. I just came across this reddit post about Passchendaele:

    https://www.reddit.com/r/canada/comments/78v9am/a_man_in_full_wwi_uniform_handed_me_this_card/

    then I googled "The last post" bugle call:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2FKGwZ9oMs

    Very moving – Lest We Forget

    http://theconversation.com/lest-we-forget-binyons-ode-of-remembrance-13642

  27. At the end of 2018, would you consider doing video on the 'Inter-War' years and attitudes to the war that had just finished, from different people? It'd be interesting to hear more of that few years of peace before it all kicked off again.

  28. In short: every strategy has its flaws and the enemy will spot and exploit them over time. Willpower can hold any line as long as there is anyone alive having that willpower. Defence is as costly as offence in the end. And finaly: blasting the enemy to kingdom come by artillery will turn the battlefield against anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck there.

  29. I'll be attending Canadian ceremonies for the 100th Anniversary of the end of the Battle of Passchendaele from the 8th to 12th November. It'll be quite the experience. Thanks for the excellent videos.

  30. You have a great channel! I’m going on a gcse history trip next year to Belgium and going to see Flanders field and more 😃😃

  31. If someone had invented these tactics years ago in the war it would have been over. How many millions died before a German General thought of putting a couple self-supporting layers of defense down?

    How many men died before the Allies realized that small siezures could be built upon easier than grand offensives?

    I have the benifit of hindsight, but these were the first counter-tactics I would have tried. It is an eternal shame on the leadership that it took this long.

  32. Arthur Currie of the Canadian Corps had success in defeating this defence in layers. The Canadians were out front in the 1918 Counteroffensive.

  33. Yeah, but the Germans can't stop the British advances, slow as they may be. So.. winning! We can do this all 1918, Ludendorff. We don't even need the Americans (although they can volunteer for bullet absorption if they like).

  34. You have to respect these guys.
    The British and the Canadians for their tenacity in relentless attacking over horrible terrain. And the Germans for holding and standing their ground, eventhough their experience at Passchedeale must have been simular to the French at Verdun.
    Or even worse.

  35. Six miles of ground has been one
    Half a million men are gone
    And as the night fallse the general calls
    And the killing carried on
    What's the price of a mile?

  36. Defensive lines are often created to thwart attacks and strategies employed months or years before. The French created the massive and insanely expensive Maginto Line in anticipation of another war along the lines of WW1, meaning massed infantry waves and entrenched positions. This time the Germans had learned and rarely ever attacked the Maginot Line directly. Instead they went around it, penetrated weakpoints with concentrated armored thrusts and caused havoc in the Allie's rear.
    Playing defense is a sound strategy, but it also binds ressources and makes counterattacks predictable. If the Germans came to attack from the Hindenburg Line, then the Entente would've know their corridors of attack and shelled those in turn.

  37. Interestingly enough, all of these counter-measurement tactics are quite familiar to anyone who enjoys playing real-time strategies. 🙂

  38. Hi! I am making Russian subs to this video, and, being proficient in German, don't want to translate German quotes twice. Is there by any chance an original text of Süßenberg's memoir?

    UPD: Captions are submitted. I have also created Russian captions to:

    US Soldiers Fighting in Russia – The End of the "Polar Bear Expedition" I THE GREAT WAR May 1919

    and more are on the way. Would be nice if you please check them out.

  39. Well no it didnt. After the battle of Messines. The Ypres salient saw polygon wood as the pivot for most of the battle. Hill 70 preventing massed counter attack early. Arthur Currie gets a lot of stick for the casualties but someone had to do it. The German 4th Army lost 5 divisions and the best artillery observation of the whole salient. Falkynhane admitted it.
    The actual Hindenberg line was further back behind Mont St Quentin on the St Quentin canal. That did get breached by Monash under Rawlinson.
    Hill 70 and Mont St Quentin are examples of taking artillery supremecy from the Germans.

  40. Is the desk damaged or do u just keep the paper as a prop?
    Aslo i always wonder why production uses yellow died paper to show age. The paper wasnt yellow back then.

  41. 6:50 Well ı don’t think Allies was superior in numbers of artillery.İn total gun numbers of the German Army with Eastern Front was certainly more than Britain and France and big as that two combined.They had over 200 divisions at that point(251 formed).More than British-French divisions combined.And during most period of 1917 Germans had air superiority thanks for their new fighters.Also ı remember Germans deployed more troops on Western Front with 192 divisions in March of 1918 compare 110 French and over 60 British Empire divisions.

  42. Ironically, this same defense in depth strategy was used to great effect by the Soviets against the Germans after the initial offensive was halted

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