My students didn’t understand The Great War. Thank Heaven above that they had seen 300, or I would have had no chance to explain to them the importance of tactics in the early part of World War I.

I boiled down military thinking to three, easy-to-remember principles that guide a war against a roughly equal military force. It was easy from there.

1. Supply your front line.

2. Surround your enemy if possible, consider outflanking.

3. Secure the high ground.

Using the first principle, I could explain why Germany was repelled from Paris, and why their Schlieffen Plan failed.

I could explain why the war included a struggle for naval superiority between the Ottoman, German and British forces, and why Russia had a chronic shortage of food and weaponry as a result. Naturally, this precipitated Russia’s early armistice and withdrawal from the war, as troops revolted. I will be able to explain, in part, why Germany’s monarchy was overthrown — starving soldiers mutiny.

Using the second principle, I could explain the race toward the sea in the early part of the war. I could explain nearly every significant advance by either side. I could, perhaps most importantly, the whole synthesis of the Schlieffen Plan — go through Belgium to flank the French.

Using the third principle, I could explain the overall ineffectiveness of the Italian campaign. I could explain the historical ineffectiveness of a land war against Russia. This will, somewhat, explain the development of aerial bombardment and the subsequent development of anti-aircraft guns.

This will be invaluable throughout World War II, once we get there.

What other military principles should I include? What did I miss? There have to be some armchair generals out there, somewhere.

Moral of the story? The lessons of history are expressed through general principles. In teaching, define them and refer to them often.


  1. dkzody

    World War II is a big part of the CSTs so be sure to pound that knowledge into your students.

  2. worldwar1letters

    Readers will also enjoy Soldier’s Mail: Letters Home from a New England Soldier 1916-1919 which features the writings of U.S. Sgt. Sam Avery during the American involvement in the Great War. A compelling eyewitness narrative from the hot sands along the Rio Grande to the cold mud along the Meuse.

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