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Wargaming for the Great War

Although some practices in earlier times presaged the invention of the wargame, the systematic development of the use of game theory to help study military history, to aid officers in learning their trade, and to explore alternative approaches to solving tactical or strategic problems began in Prussia early in the nineteenth century. After Prussia’s spectacular victory over the French in 1870, other armies began adopting various Prussian practices, notably frequent maneuvers and wargaming. By the eve of the Great War all the major European armies were using wargaming to a greater or lesser extent in developing war plans.

Wargames, however, are not predictive. The important part of the game is not who “wins” or who “loses.” The design and playing of wargames allow options to be explored, alternative courses of action to be examined, and, perhaps most importantly, questions to be raised. The “lessons” are about how the ideas and assumptions that went into its design as well as the situations, solutions, and questions that arose during its play can be analyzed and addressed in post-game critiques in order to throw light on the “real world” situation.

German use of wargaming during the mid-1890s was instrumental in convincing Chief-of-the-Great-General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen that a frontal attack into France from Lorraine was probably a bad idea. This ultimately led him to conceive of the right wing sweep into the French rear through Belgium that became the core of the German war plan of 1914. Moreover, as Erich Ludendorff noted in his war memoirs, the sweep through Belgium “was based on the assumption that France would not respect Belgian neutrality or that Belgium would join France. . . . Any other plan of campaign would have been crippled owing to the danger from Belgium to the German right flank, and would have precluded a quick and decisive blow at France, which was essential in order to meet in time the great danger of a Russian invasion into the heart of Germany.”

In 1905 Schlieffen ran his last wargames. Several scenarios were played, in at least one of which the French were only played by a couple of junior staff officers, hardly a fair match against more seasoned and senior officers. The final game in the series presumed a German strategic defensive against simultaneous French and Russian offensives. Schlieffen took advantage of Germany’s central position to use 15 active or reserve corps to crush the Russians, while holding off the French with only eight corps.

In the East, the Germans used their superior rail connections to execute an elaborate envelopment of one of the invading Russian armies and threw back the other, a scenario that had already been played repeatedly, with an outcome remarkably like the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914. Three decades later historian Hajo Holborn would write “Hoffman and Ludendorff executed an oft-posed Schlieffen war game problem in a manner which would have delighted their military teacher.”

While beating the Russians, Schlieffen’s initial deployment in the West kept five corps back, with three corps and miscellaneous forces, including Landwehr, covering Alsace and Lorraine, while screening the Belgian and Dutch frontiers with light forces. Although the French opened with an invasion of Belgium, the British entered the war on their side anyway. The Dutch went to the Belgians’ aid, so that both countries became allies of Germany. As the French advanced through Belgium, they also attacked in Lorraine and Alsace, against both Metz and Strasbourg. While Germany moved some reserves by rail to reinforce the Belgians at Antwerp and Liege, other forces defeated the French in Alsace and Lorraine. As more German troops came into the theatre from the East following the defeat of the Russians, the Germans and their allies began a series of counteroffensives, which in the end led to two massive encirclements and the capture of several French field armies and the entire British Expeditionary Force. While rather improbable in its outcome, wargaming seems to have led Schlieffen to make some revisions to his “Memorandum” on the plan in 1906, to help cope with the presence of a British Army.

In 1906, the first wargame conducted after Moltke the Younger became Chief of the General Staff included more careful attention to logistics. It soon became clear that the First and Second Armies, on the far right of the great wheel, would run out of ammunition days before the campaign ended. As a result Moltke saw to it that Germany organized the two motor truck ammunition supply battalions, among the earliest motorized units in any army.

The Germans were not the only ones to learn from wargames. Italian participation in the Triple Alliance was partially prompted by several wargames that suggested Italy would not be able to win a war with Austria-Hungary, and the Italian commitment of strong forces to support the Germans in Alsace was undertaken partially because wargames demonstrated the virtual impossibility of success in an offensive against France across the Alps. Similarly, in 1905 the British wargamed a “Continental Commitment” which assumed that the Germans would attempt a sweeping movement through Belgium; not exactly a radical idea, since various intelligence services were increasingly aware of German plans. The outcome of the game suggested that the presence of a substantial British Expeditionary Force was essential to prevent the Germans from defeating France.

Wargames do have a down side. Used carelessly or with a priori assumptions wargames can lead to the wrong lessons being learned.

There is a good deal of evidence that, when designing wargames, Schlieffen manipulated the combat outcomes to favor the offensive for the Germans, while downplaying French offensive capabilities. Hermann von Kuhl (1856-1958), one of Schlieffen’s staff officers, who later had a very distinguished career as chief-of-staff to an army group for most of the Great War, wrote “Schlieffen usually altered now and then the General Staff rides and wargames . . . he often deliberately put difficulties before one commander, while he made the situation easier for the other.” Moreover, some lessons from wargames did not receive proper attention. In the 1905 game discussed above, the Germans had used interior lines and their superior rail network to good effect against both the Russians and the French. But no one seems to have considered that in an advance into France through Belgium, the French would be on interior lines, with a superior rail net at their disposal.

Several times during German gaming of an invasion of France, their armies had come up against French forces ensconced in “entrenched camps,” cities – Paris, Toul, Epinal, Verdun, Belfort – surrounded by rings of fortresses that were linked by elaborate earthworks, The largest of these in 1914 was the Camp of Paris, with a perimeter of about 78 miles (c. 125 km), and about 25 miles (c. 40 km) across, covering an area of about 490 square miles (c. 1,270 km2 – about 30 percent larger than New York City). On most of these occasions the German officers playing the French put up a stout defense, but stood pat, rather than attack the forces moving past their positions. Although in a 1911 wargame the “French” player made some spoiling attacks from Paris, all senior German commanders seem to have been convinced that entrenched camps need only be by-passed after being screened, a task for which Schlieffen assigned six Ersatzdivisionen to cover Paris. Neglecting the possibility that an entrenched camp could be used as a base of maneuver contributed to the disaster of 1914; On September 5th the newly formed French Sixth Army attacked out of Paris into the exposed left flank of the German First Army, initiating the Battle of the Marne.

Similarly, the Russians several times wargamed their invasion of East Prussia. Critical to the success of the operation was the need for careful coordination between the First Army, attacking from the East, and the Second Army, coming up from the South. At least one game revealed that, because the terrain through which the Second Army had to move was so difficult, if the First Army moved out too soon, there would be six days during which it would be in close contact with the Germans without the possibility of support from the Second Army. That would permit the Germans to confront the invading armies separately. Despite this, the plan was unaltered, resulting in the catastrophe at Tannenberg.

Wargames are useful only if those playing them are willing to heed their lessons.


HDMS Danmark Joins the U.S. Coast Guard

At the suggestion of the late President John F. Kennedy, in July of 1964 sail training ships from many nations gathered in New York to help celebrate the opening of the Worlds’ Fair of 1964-1965. Since then, from time to time, tall ships from around the world have taken part in “Operation Sail” to help mark some noted event, such as the bicentennial of the American Revolution or the Columbian quincentenary, in the process also commemorating the great age of sail and all who go down to the sea in ships.

Whenever the tall ships enter an American port, the procession is led by the Coast Guard’s own sail training ship, the bark Eagle. The vessel immediately behind Eagle is always the full rigged ship Danmark. This is to commemorate the service of His Danish Majesty’s Ship Danmark with the Coast Guard during the Second World War.

When Hitler overran Denmark, on April 9, 1940, Danmark, then just eight years old, was in the United States to help celebrate the New York Worlds’ Fair of 1939-1940. King Christian X (r. 1912-1947) quietly ordered the ship to remain in America. Her crew of about 120 officers and enlisted men plus 80 or so cadets were looked after by the Danish diplomatic community and Danish-Americans, both alike anti-Nazi. Many of the cadets and some of the crew left the ship to serve in the Danish merchant marine, which generally adhered to the Allies.

With Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States in December of 1941, Captain Knud Hansen offered Danmark as a training vessel. The Coast Guard took up the offer. From then until shortly after the end of the Second World War Danmark was used to train some 5,000 Coast Guard officer cadets in seamanship. Aside from one or two American liaison officers, all training and instruction was done by the remaining Danish personnel.

The Coast Guard returned Danmark to Denmark in 1946, but having found the training she had provided so useful, acquired a tall ship of its own, the Eagle, which had begun life a decade earlier as a training ship for the German Navy.


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