What if World War I had not ended as it did with the Armistice? Greg Allwood tries his hand at military game planning
Picture yourself, transported back a century in time to witness an alternative ending to the First World War.
If fighting had stopped after the armistice came into effect at 11am on November 11, 1919, you may have experienced a kind of cognitive dissonance.
As you emerged from the ground and surveyed the battlefield, you’d have taken in the pummelled, debris-filled cratered moonscape that was the Western Front. The shattered, scarred surroundings - strewn with dead and wounded and other battle detritus - would have testified to the prolonged intensity of the prior five years’ fighting.
On the other hand, the utter silence, the total lack of gunfire now conspicuous by its sudden absence, would have been equally striking. It’s possible you’d have even heard faint birdsong now that the guns had ceased, as some did when the artillery preparation paused briefly on the first day of the Somme.
How Did The First World War End?
For some of those who experienced the actual end of the First World War, one year earlier, this sudden, disorienting peace may very well have been their first impression come 11:01 am.
But the actual cessation of hostilities – that is to say, the 1918 version - had been unexpected by Allied planners for much of that year.
One of those planners was John Frederick Charles “Bonny” Fuller, Chief of Staff of the British Army’s Tank Corps and a lieutenant colonel in early 1918.
In 1918, JFC Fuller was busy sketching out what he hoped would be the final hammer blow against the Germans the following year.
And it’s thanks to Fuller, and his autobiography, ‘Memoires of an Unconventional Soldier’, that we have some sense of what the war might have looked like if it had dragged on.
Having looked over Fuller’s proposal, the Supreme War Council, the body responsible for coordinating Allied strategy (i.e. for Britain, France, the US, Italy and Japan) in the latter part of the war, agreed with him that:
“ … the chances of success in 1919 will be considerably increased if the Allied Armies have at their disposal a large number of tanks.”
What If World War I Had Not Ended In 1918?
His ‘Plan 1919’ was based around projections of Allied material strength for that year (industrial capacity having increased as the war continued) and called for the deployment of around 5,000 tanks, as well as supporting aircraft.
But of course, the cessation of hostilities in 1918 means we have no eyewitness accounts nor documentary footage to help us imagine what this may have looked like.
Wargaming, though, can be used to simulate the campaign.
That’s what Hollandspiele’s board game, ‘Plan 1919’, aims to do.
Designed by John Gorkowski, the game combines Fuller’s ideas with historical data. It allows two players – one Allied (controlling American, British, French and Belgian troops), the other German – to take the steps necessary to either push through to the Rhine, or to maintain the wall of men that was the Western Front.
World War I Wargames
As the rulebook explains, certain pre-game events have been allowed to transpire to set the scene:
“Rather than surrender, Germany repressed its rebellious population”.
(One supposes a literal carrot, as well as stick, might have also helped to calm things down – namely, more food being allocated to the home front, the lack thereof having undermined Germany in the later stage of the war).
As for other pre-game events:
“All other fronts progressed as per history and therefore Austria-Hungary collapsed, and the Allies took the Balkans as well as the Middle East. A German garrison remained in Russia. German resistance continued on the western front where we start with the actual 11 November 1918 order of battle as our baseline modified as follows. The Allies redeployed Italian and Portuguese divisions away from the western front to the Mediterranean. Similarly, the Germans moved their Bavarians and Ersatz (‘replacements’) to deal with the Italians advancing through Austria-Hungary“.
Gorkowski’s counters are designed to represent various large-scale units, including medium and heavy tank formations, as well as anti-tank, infantry, cavalry, aircraft, and German forward command units.
Units vary from battalion sized (around 600 men, or an equivalent-sized force) to brigade (about 3,000 men) or brigade-equivalent units (they being groups of either 150 tanks or aircraft), divisions (representing groups of 9,000 to 18,000 men) and a few corps (up to 27,000 men.)
By far the most numerous counters are those representing infantry divisions.
And this is part of where the game gets really interesting for military history buffs, because, while many divisions have a uniform strength (i.e. a combat, or fighting score, of 3, in the case of British divisions), there is also variance. Elite units, such as Guards divisions, or those with aggressive reputations, such as 4 Canadian Division, have a combat score of 4. (Differing levels of aggression between units was a very real phenomenon, and is explained in Tony Ashworth’s book, ‘Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System’).
Size is also a factor. American divisions were about double the size of other Allied ones, and so have a combat score of 7.
By contrast, most German infantry divisions have combat scores of 3, though some elite units have four, and reserve units only 2. (It gets even lower, in fact. The counter for 2 Landwehr (LW) Division has a combat score of only 1. But then the Landwehr consisted of the very oldest ‘home guard’-type troops).
These relative scores are important because players must deploy their troops carefully to maximise the odds of triggering, or, for the German player, preventing, a breakthrough.
The objective of the game is for the Allied player to push the Germans back to the Rhine, and to have captured two out of three key cities on the river by turn 20 (which represents about two months’ worth of combat.)
Along the way, fighting will ensue across various terrain types, like rivers (which halve a player’s fighting score when they attack across them); forest (which hampers tanks); ‘rough’ (i.e. rocky) ground, and fortress squares, which also both favour the defender.
When we tried out the game here at the Forces Network, as the German player, I knew my job was to make it as difficult as possible for the Allies to advance.
My historical knowledge and common sense being better than my recollection of the game’s rules, I chose to set my forces up along rivers.
I had as my inspiration the withdrawal of German forces to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, an effort to reduce frontage, take advantage of natural defensive positions and man the line with fewer troops.
My version amounted to cramming my divisions, usually three per seven-mile hex (board spaces representing that much space on the ground), along the rivers Demer, Meuse, Semois and Moselle.
From here, I planned to withdraw my forces to a shorter line of rivers as and when they got depleted. These were the Moos, the Our and the Saar.
Failing that, my units would have made a last stand behind and around the Rhine, fighting tooth and claw for the three key cities of Dusseldorf, Cologne and Coblenz - the seizure of any two of which by the Allies constitutes a victory.
As noted, I chose to use rivers as my defensive lines because forcing the Allies to attack me across them reduced their attacking strength by half. In addition, entrenching my own forces – that is, putting them in trenches – reduced my ability to move them but doubled their fighting capacity. (Infantry units can ‘entrench’ by flipping them over to show the zig-zagging trench lines on the back).
Lessons In War As A Board Game
This all brought home some important lessons.
The first was that trenches really were force multipliers, giving an obvious advantage to any unit in defensive positions.
When I realised I’d completely forgotten to create groups of reserves for plugging any gaps that opened in my lines, I planned instead to peel units from my defensive line and reassign them as required. They could march, or, in a small number of cases, be moved by rail, to where they were needed.
But I’d forgotten about the (admittedly, realistic) rule that it costs a unit its movement points in a given turn to convert to or from being entrenched.
This would have slowed down the movement of my units considerably, so a side lesson was that I really should have created reserve pools – like generals on both sides did in real life.
The second lesson was just how effectively terrain like rivers could be incorporated into and used to bolster defences. The poet Wilfred Owen was killed a week before the end of the war. His unit was crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal – a significant obstacle, though in fact, an actual river, being wider than a canal, would have been even more challenging to cross under fire.
The third major lesson myself and my colleagues derived from the game was just why it was so advantageous for the attacking side to assault a salient.
This is a position in which the enemy’s line bulges out and can be attacked from three (or more) sides.
In the game, combat works by summing the combat score of all defending units in a hex and comparing them to the sum of the attackers’ scores.
For me, this often involved three infantry divisions crammed into one hex, each with a score of 3, making 9 in total.
But, because they were all entrenched, this doubled their total score to 18.
Allied units are far more numerous in the game, as per historical reality. And it wasn’t unusual to be attacked from multiple adjacent hexes with forces that had twice the strength – say, a combined combat score of 36. But attacking me across a river halved their combat effectiveness, leaving us with a ratio of 1:1. Dice rolls on these odds frequently resulted in the destruction of more attacking Allied units than defending German ones.
This is why salient offensives worked best for the Allies, because more forces could surround and attack my German units from more sides. And when the Allied player used heavy tanks and aircraft as well – again, far more numerous on the Allied side – these tipped combat dice rolls even more in their favour. (Examples of these attacks can be seen in the video above).
As well as bringing home the truths of these larger phenomena, the game also has features that simulate Fuller’s plan.
His concept was that of Alexander the Great’s victories at Issus and Arbela, where the Macedonian king used his infantry to pin down the enemy’s, then he circumvented them and took out the enemy commander. After this, enemy resistance quickly crumbled without the necessary direction and cohesion conferred by a commander.
In Plan 1919, there are ten German command centres, for instance, and these must remain within five spaces (or hexes) of any German ground unit for supply chains and communication to be functional.
Any unit out of supply is therefore disadvantaged and has penalties imposed on its combat effectiveness.
In reality, of course, both sides needed to ensure the ongoing viability of their supply lines.
But in the game, this is easier for the Allied player because, by 1919, they would have had such an enormous material advantage over the Germans.
A real-life counterpart to this was the German habit of ensuring localised command superseded recent arrivals (i.e. an embedded divisional commander with local knowledge might give orders to a corps commander bringing in reinforcements.)
In the game, these local command centres have become not just a well-deployed asset, but a necessity.
And as per Fuller’s intention, breakthroughs enabled by infantry and heavy tanks can then be exploited by medium tank, cavalry and air units. Thus, command centres can be overrun, and fighting abilities of forward German units impaired, making it easier for them in turn to be destroyed or sent into retreat.
So all in all, Plan 1919 the game is a good simulation of what combat that year and the implementation of Fuller’s plan might have been like.
Yet, as interesting a theoretical exercise as this is, it is also poignant. The difficulties involved in the Allied player breaking through and, effectively, trying to end the war, illustrate just how bloody World War 1 could have continued to be.
In ‘The Complete Illustrated History of World War I’, Ian Westwell breaks down casualty rates for the last year of the conflict (as in, 1918.)
Britain sustained 952,000 casualties, France over a million, Germany one-and-a-half million, the US 280,000, and Belgium 30,000.
Now imagine these figures being replicated if the war had continued into 1919.
Of course, the German Kaiserschlacht offensive of spring, 1918, accounts for many of the casualty figures Westwell lists, and it seems likely the Germans wouldn’t have been able to attack on this scale the following year.
And admittedly, ‘casualty’ and ‘KIA’ are not the same thing. But a significant number of the casualties would certainly have been killed. Westwell cites Allied total war casualties as 16.8 million, with 4.8 million killed; and 11.5 million total casualties with 3.1 million dead for the Central Powers. That puts the dead at roughly 25 to 28 percent of total casualties.
In the case of the UK, almost a million lives were lost fighting the First World War between 1914 and 1918, and that’s without even factoring in lives lost to the influenza epidemic that broke out in 1918.
If the war had continued, and if perhaps Fuller’s plan to break through to German command centres had not come off as hoped, there would almost certainly have been more attritional warfare - and more of the vast casualties seen between 1914 and 1918. In that case, we in Britain could now be commemorating the loss of another 280,000 World War 1 dead every November 11.
Remembrance Day is already a day of appreciation, for those who lost their lives defending the nation. Perhaps that appreciation should include thanks for the fact that the war ended earlier than expected, and that Plan 1919 never came to pass.
For more on Alexander the Great and his victories over the Persians, read ‘Macedonian Phalangite versus Persian Warrior’ by Murray Dahm; and read Alexander Turner’s ‘Cambrai 1917’ for more on Fuller’s real-life tank operation that took place that year. These can be found at Osprey Publishing, along with other military history titles.