Laffargue, Capt. André = French army officer credited with first mention of elite assault troops in his 1916 publication The Attack in Trench Warfare.
Sturmkanone = Light artillery piece, 3.7cm calibre, manufactured by Krupp A.G.,
Sturmabeitlung = Army unit created in 1915 to evaluate the Sturmkanone in the battle zone of the Western Front. (Later known as Sturmabtielung Kaslow after its C.O.).
Stosstruppen = Storm troopers/light infantry. Name favoured by the troops themselves.
Sturmbataillone = Battalion of storm-troopers.
Sturmkompagnien = Company of storm-troopers; often consisted solely of specialists in grenades, mortars, flame-throwers or machine-guns.
Sturmtrupp = Assault troop of storm-troopers.
Jagdkommando = Commando type storm-troopers.
Patrouillentrupp = Raiding party of storm-troopers.
Flammenwerfer Abeitlung = Unit of storm-troopers specialised in the use of flamethrowers.
Flammenwerfertrupp = Platoon of flame-thrower storm-troops.
Der Stosstrupp = German Western Front trench newspaper.
Sturmpanzerwagen = German A7V tank.
From the outset of active service on the Western Front in August 1914, the belligerent armies became actively involved in the development of new weapons and strategies of war.
The French were perhaps first off the mark with their superior technology in the design of aircraft frames and the engines to power them. All of the belligerents used French designed and/or manufactured aircraft and engines, and for much of the early part of the war depended to a greater or less extent French aviation technology; particularly so the Americans.
As the war progressed the British became the prime innovators in the development of the tank, along with the French, as a war winning strategy. The Germans never took the development of a tank as a production priority and only put into the field 15 tanks of a single giant model – the A7V Sturmpanzerwagen
It was also the French (see Legend, Laffargue) who, after their enormous early losses in frontal close-order warfare, first considered the development of elite assault-troops. But it was the Germans who took this – along with toxic gas warfare and the flame-thrower – as their potential winning technology. (General Oscar von Hutier is usually considered as the German originator of their storm-trooper tactics).
As early as March 1915, the German High Command had authorised the creation of what was to become a storm-trooper unit for the development of new weaponry and tactics and the means of its optimal deployment on the Western Front. In the later part of the war the some British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commanders also became deeply interested in these storm-trooper strategies and tactics, but there was some innate resistance by the regimentally orientated officers and their men to break the traditional British Army mould of warfare tactics.
The source of German storm-trooper candidates
Traditionally, since the late 19th Century, the German Army was conscript-based call-up system - using the Jahresklasse (Class Year of 20-year olds) selection procedure – officered by a Prussian elite. Potentially, it had a recruitment base of over ten million young men but, in 1914, due to the only partial take up of conscription lists in the preceding years, only five million eligible men were available for immediate mobilisation.
By November 1915, when the storm-troopers were being more generally recruited, the induction of the Class of 1916 was already completed having been advanced from September 1916, i.e. up to a year in advance.
None-the-less, a system of 'volunteers only' for the storm-trooper cadre remained in place until the end of 1917, despite the much higher standards of physical and mental condition that were demanded. Secondment of the 'better' officers and NCOs from their parent units to the storm-trooper units was common with various periods of attachment being the norm. So there was by no means a one-way leaching off of the better troops from the standard army units; although the casualty rates amongst the storm troopers were always high at 30% or more. So, to a certain extent the secondment process also ultimately led to an up grading of the quality of these donor units.
The training of storm troopers
The German system of command at the local level was always different from that of the other belligerent nations in that the Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) were given and allowed much more personal responsibility and initiative. As part of the storm-trooper philosophy this freedom of action was even further amplified and implemented.
Essentially, every operational storm-trooper unit was also considered to be a training unit with a constant recyclage of the more experienced men, NCOs and officers on secondment to the training cadres from their parent units. Thus, developments in tactics and strategy were quickly taken aboard and deployed by the parent units themselves. This compared very favourably to the British and French practice of continually introducing into the active service battalions new, rapidly trained, 'fresh blood' via the 'draft' system.
Moreover, in the BEF, recycled soldiers were usually retrained at permanent Depot Units located in France, which were largely staffed by long term, base-line, instruction staff (the much dreaded 'canaries' with their distinguishing yellow armbands). These instructors were often out of date with current tactics and strategy on the battlefield and tended to emphasise pre-war traditional disciplines and routines not applicable in active service in the Western Front Battle zone. The Germans, on the other hand, consistently carried out retraining using the soldiers' own officers and NCOs; many of whom had themselves gone through the storm-trooper training procedures. French retraining programmes were usually directly overseen by the Army Staff.
Uniforms and protective-ware of the storm troopers
Initially the storm-trooper uniform was the standard M1910 feldgrau tunic and trousers, Pickelhaube leather helmet (but with a detachable spike), black leather belt, pouches, back pack and jack-boots. A new simplified uniform in dark grey was issued from 1915 onward, but the old feld grau uniform remained in circulation until the end of the war. Paradoxically, as the storm-trooper units increased in number and strength the regulation jack-boots were replaced by the combination of ankle boots and cloth puttees long favoured by the British Army. Although the French were first with the general distribution of their mild steel
Arms used by the storm trooper
Carbines and pistols: As early as 1915 the shorter K.98 carbine was issued to the early storm-trooper units in preference to the longer and more cumbersome Mauser M1898 rifle. Unlike the British and French army, rapid firing pistols of the Luger P08 and Mauser C96 types were routinely issued to NCOs as well as officers.
Hand-grenades: Large quantities of both the stick M1915 Steilhandgranate and, from 1916, the egg-shaped Eierhandgranate hand-grenades were provided to the storm troopers as a prime small-arm to be widely used in the clearance of both strong-points and trenches. Sandbags were frequently modified to allow the individual storm trooper to bodily carry very large quantities of these grenades directly into battle.
Hand-grenade launchers: The storm troopers greatly enhanced the range capabilities of their hand-grenades with a purpose-built 40kg Grenatenwerfer (Grenade-thrower) that was introduced in 1916. Its light and ready portable structure was ideal for the storm-trooper style actions.
Mortars: From the earliest days of the war The German Army heavily relied on the deadly effect of the mortar – Minenwerfer - and found them particularly effective in trench warfare as their high and steep trajectory more readily penetrated the open trenches and their associated dug outs. Accordingly, operational storm-trooper units always had their own specialised mortar teams.
Machine-guns: As was the case with all the belligerents at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the existing heavy and bulky machine-gun was rated as a relatively minor weapon in both offense and defence: the volley from massed infantry rifle-fire was considered as the principal 'shock' infantry weapon. The British in particular relied on the 15 aimed rounds a minute volley – 'The British Mad Minute' - for maximum stopping effect on the battle-field.
Once the extraordinary efficacy of the machine-gun became apparent as trench warfare took hold, the numbers were rapidly increased in all armies. Accordingly, serious thought was given as to how these weapons could be best deployed by the storm-troopers and it quickly became evident a light, ready portable, machine-gun was essential. As early as 1915, the standard heavy machine-gun MG08 had become modified, but it still weighed over 60kg in full operational state. By late 1916, an even lighter version, the MG08/15, was widely introduced in the German Army, but it still was a hefty 20kg, without any ammunition. So it required a strong and fit soldier to carry it far and wide over the shattered battle-field.
The storm trooper clearly required an even lighter and more portable version as already existed in the form of the 10kg Danish Masden light machine-gun, of which the German military had already ordered some numbers, and was to use on the Somme in 1916. The BEF also already had its excellent 15kg Lewis gun and the Germans were not loath to modify and use captured material. The French had a less robust model – the Chauchat –, which was also bought in large numbers by the Americans. The Germans storm troopers eventually got their super-light machine-gun in the form of the Schmeisser MP18 submachine-gun; prototype versions were captured by the British on the Western Front as early as 1916. However, it was not available in large numbers until after the German Spring Offensive in 1918. But at least 3,000 are said to have been used on active service in 1918.
Light artillery: Whilst the specially designed 1915 Krupp Sturmkanone did not meet it operational expectations, other light versions of artillery were utilised by the storm-trooper units. In 1916, a converted 7.62cm calibre field-gun was adopted and over the years became the standard equipment in the storm trooper units. Another 7.7cm calibre gun was specially adapted to be manhandled on the battle-field and using armour-piercing rounds was used in an anti-tank role.
Flame-throwers: Special units were created from 1915 onward to deploy this German initiative on the Western Front. Elements of these specialist flame-thrower teams were integrated into the storm-trooper units using the smaller back-pack based Klief flame-thrower devices.
The pre-eminence and the nemesis of the storm trooper
From the time of his arrival on the Western Front, in late 1916, fresh from his victories in the East, General Erich Ludendorff, firmly embraced the concept of the reorganisation of the German Army. Central to this was its adoption of infiltration by elite storm trooper squad as the basis of its offensive tactics, and the 'push on at all cost' philosophy. In short, the creation of a fast moving steam-rollering effect to stun and confuse the enemy defence, by-pass his strong-points, penetrate his deepest defences, and make a 'Breakthrough' to the key Channel ports bottling up the defeated British Army in Flanders with no avenue of escape.
As always, the grinding static defensive warfare of the trenches would be left to the ordinary German infantry battalions enduring and surviving as best they could.
In December 1917, the collapse of the Russian Empire had freed up almost half-a-million battle-tried German troops (60 divisions). These, Ludendorff promptly moved by train to the West to supplement the men already in training for what was intended to be Germany maximum effort to break the British and French armies before the Americans arrived to irreversibly affect the balance of manpower and material resources.
Aware of the difference in war making between the Western and Eastern Fronts, Ludendorff authorised a massive retraining effort based on the already well-developed storm-trooper tactics. Priority was given to the training of the men for the proposed 1918 offensive on the Western Front and the work began of the marshalling of large quantities of high quality weapons, food and supplies from the increasingly depleted and stretched resources of the German war machine.
After much debate, in late 1917, Ludendorff, with the full backing of the German Third Supreme Command, and Kaiser himself, chose to strike principally against the British in the St. Quentin Sector: it was considered that the French, despite the 1917 mutiny, were still too strong. The principle strategy was to drive a 'hole' in the poorly co-ordinated British and French armies, push on to the sea and the vital Channel ports cutting off the British Army from escape. Ludendorff did not consider that at this point the still training American Army posed any immediate threat to these plans.
The British and French armies observing the huge transfer of German troops from the East anticipated a strong attack, but not such a huge German commitment at that time. On the day, 26 British divisions of the Fourth and Fifth Armies faced the 65 of the German Second, Seventeenth and Nineteen Armies on a 40-mile front. On the other hand, due to the British Prime Minister Lloyd George's parsimony in providing reinforcements for the Western Front, by retaining 600,000 trained troops at home, and extending the BEF's front to the benefit of the French, Haig's defence was clearly too thinly spread to meet the onslaught.
The German 1918 Spring Offensive, named the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's
Ludendorff realising his Michael troops were exhausted, and accepting the unlikelihood of any further strategic gains in this Sector, switched the focus of his forces first to the north to Flanders, with the Lys/Georgette Offensive (9th – 29th April) to be followed by the Blucher-Yorck (27th May –17th June), Gneisenau (9th-13th June), and Marne-Rheims (15th-17th July) Offensives.
It was all to no avail, the Allies, though often much pressed and on occasion badly demoralised, eventually held their lines; there was no German 'break out' and the access to the Channel ports was in safe hands.
The Allied '100 days Offensive
On the 18th July 1918 the Allies, under a unified command, launched their series of offensives on the German Army leading to its collapse and the 11th November 1918 Armistice.
The risks taken by Ludendorff and the German Third Supreme Command with the Spring 1918 Offensive had, initially, paid off handsomely. It had produced an unprecedented rapid and deep penetration of the Allied lines, with the storm-troopers performing as anticipated and inflicting heavy casualties (850,000 from March - July) on the British and French troops. The nub of the German problem was that the Michael offensive was a tactical success but a strategic and logistic failure; their overall casualties were also crippling (690,000) and included a large proportion of the irreplaceable highly trained storm troopers and their vital NCO cadre. Additionally, the German allies were crumbling into defeat, there were food riots at home and, the Navy finally mutinied in October 1918
Some historians even go so far as to maintain that the cult of the prioritisation of the storm-troopers had brought about the general demoralisation the ordinary German infantryman. A situation that they claim the Allies largely avoided by a more balanced training and deployment of their infantry and specialised troops. Evidence of this, they say, is given by the fact that the BEF kept fighting to the bitter end in a quite remarkable and professional way.