German operational art received a technical window of opportunity when its gunners developed ways of using artillery as a precision instrument of neutralization instead of a blunt tool for blasting ground in the hope of hitting something important. Combined with the storm-troop tactics based on fire and movement by small groups that the infantry had been developing since 1915, they offered the possibility of a tactical breakthrough on a scale that would restore operational mobility and enable strategic objectives. A high command increasingly desperate for an endgame seized the moment.
The system as a whole was focused more on a Vernichtungsschlacht (breaking the enemy’s will by destroying its forces as quick as possible – v Moltke Elder’s approach) than a Gesamtschlacht (total battle that would begin with mobilization move through concentration, deployment and advance to contact, then culminate in a battle of envelopment built around flanking manoeuvres and flank attacks – v Schlieffen’s approach): emphasizing the British army, but neglecting the vulnerabilities in the railway network that kept it fed, supplied, and able to move troops. Once the initial attacks failed, objectives shifted almost at random. So did lines of operation. So did coordination among sectors.
Failure to move the offensives to an operational level was tactical as well as conceptual. The artillery systems, brutally effective in the initial stages, lacked the organizational flexibility and the tactical mobility to keep pace with changing situations. Too many of its heacy guns were horse-drawn, and too many of the artillery teams had been weakened by hunger. The vaunted storm troopers eventually exhausted first their bag of tactical tricks, then themselves. The storm-troop principle of infiltration, bypassing strong points in the way water seeks the easiest path, generated a downward focus in which there were no objectives – just processes, ultimately leading nowhere in particular.