Military Mistakes of World War I – Part 1

Mistakes of World War 1
  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2

by Joshua Horn
based on The Great War by Winston Churchill

World War I began in 1914. It quickly spread throughout all of Europe, and much of Africa and the Middle East. It was one of the bloodiest wars of human history, with 37 million casualties. In Great Britain alone there were over 1 million dead, one third of the British male population were casualties. Until World War II it was called the Great War and the War to End All Wars. The war had a great lasting effect. In England and France the people believed that after that war there would be nothing worth fighting for again. This greatly contributed to World War II. There were many mistakes made on the Central Powers' side which caused the war to be lost and on the Allied side caused it to be greatly prolonged. Today we will look at three of the mistakes: the German navy's failure to attack, the Allies’ destructive frontal assaults and the battle of the Dardanelles.

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The first major mistake of the war was the German navy's failure to attack. Before the war England and Germany had been in a race to attain naval supremacy. At the beginning of the war the German fleet had 16 battleships, and the British had 22 battleships. Therefore, the British had 5-8 more battleships, depending on how many were being repaired. This was the best opportunity that the German navy would have to attack in the entire war, and they should have known it. The British were building 12 battleships, plus 3 more for other nations that they seized as soon as the war began. The Germans were only building 4 battleships. Thus in a year or less the British would have 14 more ships than the Germans, with greater firepower and speed. Also at the beginning of the war, the British navy had the duty to guard all of the transport ships which were taking the infantry to France. Winston Churchill, who was the head of the British navy at that time, said, “If the German Navy was ever to fight at battle, now at the beginning was its best chance.”1 They did not attack, and it was a great mistake for them. If they had defeated the British navy, they would have been able to send out their smaller ships and capture the British supply boats, which brought them necessary food and supplies. It took the British dozens of ships to capture the few German cruisers that were able to attack. Even if the Germans had lost, it might not have even sped their downfall by much. Since the British margin of superiority kept increasing, there was never an all out battle between the two fleets. One of the major reasons that the Germans lost the war was that they were blockaded by the British navy, and that would have changed if they had attacked and won at the beginning of the war.

French Bayonet Charge

When the war first began, the German armies invaded France. The German armies drove the French back through France. One of the main reasons for this was the the French launched massive bayonet charges against the Germans, who resisted them with machine guns and trenches, easily driving them into retreat. The French and British stopped the German advance at the battle of Marne, and the lines quickly spread out to the sea on either side all across France, resulting in a deadlock where the armies were no longer able to flank each other. Since Allied armies could no longer flank the Germans, they just launched large charges, across shell craters and into barbed wire and trenches, all the time taking terrible casualties from artillery and machine guns. This lasted for years, with millions of men being killed and wounded for mere feet of ground. Instead of launching bloody charges, the Allies should have used their superior sea power to land somewhere in the German rear. The answer to the problem was not just to keep charging, which was what they did; this greatly prolonged the war and cost millions of lives.

British Battleship sinking durning the Battle of the Dardanelles

The last mistake was the battle of the Dardanelles. The Dardanelles is a strait of water running through Turkey from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Churchill, who was at that time Lord of the Admiralty, planned a naval attack of the Dardanelles. His goal was to get ships into the Marmara Sea, capture Constantinople, and then move north and attack the Central Powers from the south. If this had been done, several nations north of Turkey probably would have joined the Allies. If the Dardanelles had been forced, the war would have probably been much shorter with millions less casualties. The entire Dardanelles campaign, on both sea and land, is too long to speak of here, but basically the plan was for the navy to bombard the forts and sweep the minefield. They tried, but then when they had a few old battleships sunk, they gave up. Then they refused to attack, and the army landed on the Gallapoli Peninsula, just west of the Dardanelles, and eventually evacuated after having hundreds of thousands of casualties. There were many instances where the Allies almost won. If they had just renewed their naval attack, if the army had landed sooner, if reinforcements for the army had not been delayed, if when the navy was willing to try again the government would have let them, and dozens more possibilities. Perhaps they could have won. Most Turkish and German generals thought they could have. One said, “If the English had only had the courage to rush more ships through the Dardanelles, they could have got to Constantinople; ...”2 They might not have won, but they should have tried. If they had succeeded, tens of millions of lives could have been saved.

These three mistakes, the German fleet not attacking, the massive bayonet charges and the failure of the Dardanelles campaign worked together to prolong World War I to the greatest war in history up to that time. These mistakes cost Europe millions of lives, and changed the course of history. It is important for us to know the mistakes of those who have gone before, so that when we come into similar situations, we will not repeat them. We should learn from these terrible bloody mistakes of the leaders of history.

View part 2 of Military Mistakes of World War 1.

1 Churchill, Winston. The World Crisis (London: Odhams Press Limited) vol. 1 p. 198
2 Ibid, p. 679


Rishabh Didwania said...

hey...i liked ur blog...its so fascinating & informative...keep writing these good things...its good that u have so much varied interests....may success smile at u where ever u go...i think i will bcum ur follower...hope u will like to hav a look at my blogs too...

Joshua Horn said...

Thanks for visiting! I am glad that you enjoyed it. I will certainly look at your blogs.

Anonymous said...


Timothy Bryson said...

Wasn't the biggest mistake of all starting World War I in the first place??

Thanks for posting; I love military history and enjoyed your analysis (Parts I and II). Interesting thoughts!

Tim Mansueto said...

Hi there,

Thanks for the analysis, it's been a good read. However, I think you need to revise a few points you make, in the interests of giving accurate information. Firstly, the idea of French bayonet charges is a myth. They did attack Germans with bayonet-fixed rifles, but they only used the bayonets themselves in the trenches. As you know, bayonet fixed rifles are very long and cumbersome; the Germans, who favoured the use knives and clubs in the trenches, had the upper hand here, especially since regular traverses (kinks in the trenches) were the norm.

The real reason the Germans enjoyed such early and apparently easy success was because they were much better prepared, in terms of armaments, artillery, entrenchments and of course tactics, while the French suffered inadequate artillery and firepower. The French plan of defence, Plan XVII, was poorly considered.

I would also claim that tactically, and in theory, the Battle of the Dardanelles, or Gallipoli, was ingenious. A.J.P. Taylor, John Keegan and other eminent WWI historians would argue this. The reason it was not a success was the prevarication of the British administration, whose dilly-dallying (up to a month of idleness) allowed the Turks the time to set up much needed defences. Characteristic communication breakdowns in the days of the offense led to many unnecessary losses. Finally, once Allied troops did land on Turkish soil, they made the mistake of 'digging in' and consolidating a worthless position, again giving the Turks the time to prepare and call in reinforcements, who were able, at great cost, to repel the Allies.

Gallipoli wasn't a mistake; the way the Allies handled Gallipoli was (unlike the Somme and of Passchendaele, which were simply dumb). I've gone on a little too much, so I won't suggest some other major failures you could mention, but if you are interested, I'd certainly enjoy discussing it.


Joshua Horn said...


Thanks very much for your comment, most of those make sense. I would love to hear any other suggested mistakes you might have.

Thanks again

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