Origins of the Blitzkrieg

Die Kaiserschlacht

Essay, 2013

16 Pages, Grade: A


The Origins of Blitzkrieg

“Even now, at the start of the twenty-first century for all our advances we still haven’t eliminated the scourge of war… In fact in the last hundred years [we] have seen war waged on a greater scale than in any other time in history.”[1] Though these words capture a glimpse of warfare in this new modern era, they only scratch the surface of the efforts that were conducted that sparked radical evolution in warfare to take place. An evolution that began about a century ago, the advancements in warfare brought about greater improvement in the effectiveness and efficiency of waging war. Dubbed the war to end all wars, the Great War or the First World War was, at the commencement of the twentieth century, the most destructive war the world had ever seen. Never before in history had such a greater death toll been achieved through the use of millions of troops who adapted newer battle tactics that were the product of the merging of older methods of warfare and fresh technological developments. This war set the stage on the way commanders would utilize technology and weapon systems to dictate how battles would be fought up until this very day. Unfortunately, when one analyses the battles that occurred during this war, it was clear that military personnel were unable to fully comprehend the capabilities of the growing technological advances during the time. Soldiers had to endure endless days and weeks and even months of continuous artillery bombardment from the enemy. Any attempt made by either party to run across the gauntlet of death known as “no man’s land” to wreak havoc on the other side resulted in the catastrophic loss of soldiers and material. Participants of the war became increasingly aware of the fact that the fruits of victory comprised of very little in proportion to the losses suffered. Curiously, it appears that the majority of new strategies that spawned from the First World War seemed to stem from the thinkers of the interwar period before the next war that would show humanity catastrophe on a whole new scale. The fact about it is that it has been widely viewed that the Second World War implemented a new revolutionary strategy that was the result of the interwar thinkers learning from the lessons of the Great War. However this is not the factual truth to the origins of the doctrine of “lightening warfare,” popularly known as blitzkrieg. The strategy of blitzkrieg sprung up from the first year after the beginning of the First World War as a solution to the deadlock. It can also be tied back to an ancient military principal laid out in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War where the General wrote about the need for the adaptation and flexibility of military tactics.[2] Both sides were taking this into consideration when trying to break the stalemate, but by the middle of the war it was predominantly the German Army that extensively pioneered the tactics and principles that have become the foundations and origins of what is viewed as the blitzkrieg doctrine.

This idea of a tactical strategy that offered a quick solution to waging war, incorporating the ideas of the western way of war to produce a decisive victory appears to stem back to what some scholars would argue to be before the First World War. Arguably, such lightening war attributes can be found in the military tactics of the fourteenth century Sultan of Bayazid known as the Yilderim or Thunderbolt –in allusion to the rapidity of his military achievements.[3] Historian Bruce Gudmundsson argues that as far back as the tenth century, there were certain military campaigns that could be likened to blitzkrieg. For example, the infamous campaigns of Genghis Khan or the campaigns of Napoleon as well as the closing campaigns of the American Civil war.[4] Napoleon had once remarked that “It is a principle of war that when you can use lightening, it is better than cannon.” In fact the Prussian General and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, in his discussion on “Boldness,” once used the word Blitzesschnelle to convey lightening quickness in combat.[5] Nonetheless, there are other historians who look to the interwar period to find the true origins of the doctrine. James S. Corum makes an attempt to argue in his book that aside from the commonly debatable theorists of the time that claim credit, the true foundations of blitzkrieg stem from General Hans von Seeckt.[6] S. L. A. Marshall also claimed that it was Seeckt who combined the successful infiltration tactics of the previous war with his own experiences on the Eastern Front, declaring the concept, “lightening war.” Unfortunately a comprehensive biography of Seeckt by Hans Meier-Welcker and even Corum’s works on the General have failed to make a direct connection between Seeckt and the blitzkrieg strategy. Additionally, a Czech soldier by the name of F. O. Miksche wrote in his book that blitzkrieg derived itself from the infiltration pattern of attack that took the path of least resistance in the Great War. He stated that the strategy was further developed during the Spanish Civil War and came to its full potential by World War II.[7] However, this notion lacks any real supporting evidence. Bryan Perrett pointed that notions of blitzkrieg before World War I were not entirely possible due to it being hampered by the “appropriate means.” These appropriate means pertained to an army’s ability to attain greater troop mobility, higher speeds and an increase in effective mobile fire power that would allow for more efficient tactical success.[8] By the time of the Great War, the deadlock and stalemates experienced on major fronts drove both sides more and more to develop these appropriate means in order to shock mobility back into an otherwise deadlock state of warfare. When discussing the exploration of both sides during the war to find a sufficient breakthrough strategy, Jeremy Black mentions that the beginnings of blitzkrieg were in 1916. He ties its origination back to the captured French manuals on General Aleksei Brusilov’s 1916 offensive. Black argues that the tactics in these manuals were later refined and implemented by the Germans.[9]

Bruce Gudmundsson claimed that the German Spring offensive against the West contained the fundamentals of blitzkrieg at both the tactical and operational levels. More importantly by the end of 1915 the German military had already developed the techniques that were the direct precursors of blitzkrieg.[10] He goes on to elaborate why the focus of the origins of the strategy had been shifted away from its origins in Germany. First, Western historians for the most part ignored the great campaigns of “maneuver” in the East between the Germans and Russians, perhaps due to the strong interest readers had for only Western European countries. Also, Western researchers ran into a great deal of difficulty when trying to access the archives about battles in the East. Thirdly, when Western military writers wrote about tactics, they did so with the hope of deciphering German tactics. Therefore, they spent more time trying to estimate tangible factors like the number of guns per yard and the waves of infantry. This resulted in them missing out on the intangible knowledge that could be acquired from the German strategy like the decentralization, social relations of officers, and the acceptance of new tactics and technology that gave way for blitzkrieg. Lastly he highlights that those that have taken notice of the connection, have attributed the strategy as a product of individual genius.[11]

With that being said, what exactly is blitzkrieg and what principles would a stratagem have to satisfy in order to exercise this method of war? Blitzkrieg can be broken down in two levels; at the operational level it is “the concentrated employment of armor and air forces to [i]nfuse the enemy with surprise and speed and to encircle him, after a successful breakthrough, by means of far reaching thrusts. The objective is to defeat the enemy quickly in a decision-seeking operation.” At a strategic level the term has a more macro view incorporating the society and its economy which is focused on “a series of quick, lightening wars as part of a larger program of world-domination.”[12] For this exercise, blitzkrieg will be investigated based primarily on its operational and tactical definition as the objective of this work is to prove the foundations of the doctrine.

The blitzkrieg doctrine is a body of principles that emphasizes deep penetration of enemy lines through speed and surprise, penetrating deep into enemy territory while the pursuing main force mops up pockets of resistance. There are five definitive principles that can be deduced from this strategy which have remained fairly constant from its first implementation to more recent conflicts such as the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The first principle is to deceive the enemy through an indirect approach maintaining the recognition that an enemy position could be made untenable as a result of successful operations elsewhere rather than by direct assault.[13] Secondly, the control of the air is another prime principal that facilitates success. This allows air power to support assault units and eliminate centres of resistance thus inducing fear and demoralizing the enemy. Thirdly, breakthrough is achieved through the overwhelming concentration of force and technology at a central location. This is then followed by the two principles that would deliver the decisive blow to the enemy; striking deep and following up. Exploitation forces must be ready to move in and exploit the opening in the enemy lines, pushing deep with the objective of taking down high value targets such as heavy artillery or formation command centers. Following up with a concentration of a large general force, preferably well with speed. By implementing these principles only then can the doctrine result in a quick and decisive victory. The blitzkrieg principles are very similar to Clausewitz’s six principles of war because through the evolution of Prussian tactics the same ideals have been carried on by significant strategist like Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltk the Elder. The Field Marshall’s teachings were taken into account during the formation of the first Storm Trooper tactics. It was his warnings of the fact that “no plan long survives after contact with the enemy’s main body” that allowed for the growing decentralization of command.[14] This decentralization became vital when the Germans were laying the foundations of shock and infiltration tactics that would yield blitzkrieg. It was also due to the very fact that troops were being implemented in all out assault operations that required initiative, instead of being constrained by upper command who would otherwise be receiving delayed information in accord of the speed of the shifting front.

As argued by historians who see the origins of blitzkrieg as dating back to the First World War, the German infiltration tactics during that war is the most dominant explanation of the doctrine’s origins. These tactics were comprised of surprise and speed where elite units would rush towards the enemy position under the cover of artillery barrages, probing for soft spots in order to create a breakthrough. The elite unit would advance quickly passed the enemy trenches with their general target on heavy artillery and command headquarters as this would severe the enemy’s ability to retaliate. Remaining pockets of the enemy in addition to centers of hard resistance that were simply bypassed by the elite units were then taken care of by the main force of battle units pursuing the forward forces, thus reinforcing the breakthrough.[15] Infiltration tactics similar to the Germans have been claimed to have been first implemented by the Russians, headed by Aleksei Brusilov. Aside from the fact that infiltration tactics were developed through an evolutionary process, Brusilov’s tactics simply incorporated a stronger emphasis on troops and artillery coordination as a way to create a breakthrough.[16] The British Official History 1917 describes German tactics as follows:

“...the Germans had advanced at 7 a.m. in small columns bearing many light machineguns, and, in some cases, flamethrowers. From overhead low flying airplanes, in greater numbers than had hitherto been seen, bombed and machinegunned the British defenders, causing further causalities and, especially, distraction at the critical moment. Nevertheless few posts appear to have been attacked from the assault sweeping in between to envelop them from flanks and rear.”[17]

The German tactics involved the incorporation of a combined arms doctrine like never before. These tactics adapted the use of technology, advanced artillery and ammunition such as gas rounds, airplanes for direct support along with highly trained and supremely equipped fast moving infantry armed with innovative weaponry. Another difference would be on the speed in not only achieving a breakthrough but creating an opening that could be exploited. Also, the Russians favoured the use of traditional tactics which generally appeared to prefer slower, sizeable concentrated levels of troops on the advance of a broad front. Hence, these two tactics, though alike in some respects, were very distinct in implementation.

A significant note about the German strategy is that during the initial stages of implementing its infiltration tactics it faced a number of obstacles. The dependence that these tactics had on speed or rapid movement into the enemy lines made it rather difficult to properly implement them during the First World War. The Germans sometimes lacked the proper cavalry or light armoured vehicles to truly exploit the opening in these breakthroughs in 1917, thus limiting the fate of their victories to the endurance of their infantry. The use of these tactics and the increasing need for more specialized troops to penetrate the enemy lines paved the way for the elite, “Stosstruppen,” special elite battalions who were the crème de la crème of the military, fitted with innovative weapon systems (bags of grenades, machine guns and man pack flame throwers). The tactics also called for the creation of the “Schlachtstaffeln,” special air battalions designed for direct support for the Storm Troopers making strafing and bombs sorties.[18] Ergo at this stage the German military was attempting to fulfil the principles of blitzkrieg based on the technological limitations that constrained them.

On the first of September 1917, the enemy would experience for the first time these infiltration tactics unleashed on the Eastern Front near the Baltic coast where the Germans aimed to take a bridgehead at Riga. The attack began with a five-hour bombardment, that could be seen as a mere disturbance compared to the Western Front standards, comprised of not only high explosive shells but also innovating the use of gas shells upon the Russians. This was succeeded by assault troops racing past the enemy frontlines and bypassing hard centers of resistance, while aircraft would provide direct support strafing the enemy trenches. The effect was the routing of an entire army along with the capture of Russia’s second most important port coupled with Russians withdrawing entirely from the area.[19] These tactics created an astounding victory that could have been widely exploited if the German commander, General Oskar Von Hutier, had taken into more consideration the last two principles of blitzkrieg; strike deep and follow up. General Hutier would learn that a restrictive timetable couldn’t possibly be utilized in this new fast moving type of combat. Better results would be found once the German Army applied the strategy, commanded by General von Below, a month later at Caporetto, Italy. Before battle he sent out a order to his forces stating, “Every column on the heights must move forward without hesitation; by doing so opportunities will be created for helping neighbors who cannot make progress, by swinging round in the rear of the enemy opposing him.”[20] A repeat of this would also see success at the counter attack on Cambrai on November 30th.

Due to the great successes of the strategy in smashing through enemy lines it became highly attractive to Ludendorff leading him to incorporate General Hutier and the infiltration tactics in his next major offensive. The opportunity for such a major offensive came in 1918 when the Germans signed a Russian capitulation agreement known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Russian withdrawal of the Great War provided the Germans on the Western Front a temporary advantage with a surge of manpower and material.[21] Ludendorff, who was the Quartermaster General and joint overall commander of the German forces, planned in 1918, with the fusion of infiltration tactics, a new revolutionary offensive that would bring about a decisive victory coupled with a decisive turn of the war. Ludendorff planned the offensive as a series of attacks all along the lines of the Western Front. The first part of the offensive, Operation Michael, produced some of the most pleasing results with infiltration tactics. Ludendorff assembled upon the enemy 76 divisions of men, 1,070 airplanes, 6,608 artillery guns, 3,534 heavy mortars who in total would fire at least 4.3 million shells by the end of the attack. Ludendorff pretentiously dubbed the offensive Kaiserschlacht or the Emperor’s Battle and is also known as the Spring Offensive.[22] The result was astounding success as Ludendorff was finally able to break through the enemy front lines, using combined arms. Within three days alone the German army was able to drive a massive 80 kilometer gap in the British frontlines plus they had taken tens of thousands of prisoners. Over the following eight weeks four more similar offensives were launched causing astonishing breakthroughs with the last advance taking them within 59 km of Paris.[23] It was the largest tactical breakthrough and advance than any other British or French offensive to date.[24]

In this massive offensive one can see the fundamental principles of blitzkrieg being played out. Deception of the enemy comes from an atypically monstrous but short barrage that mathematically targeted the enemy front lines in order to achieve the maximum amount of surprise. Once the attack was commenced, air support was targeting ground units in direct support while maintaining control of the air. Targeting concentrated areas of the front, overwhelming concentrations of troops probed the lines for weak spots using, revolutionary weapons such as the variety carried by the infantry to the chemical shells of the artillery, compounded by air support facilitated a breakthrough. In an attempt to acknowledge the last principals, storm troopers were given the objective to penetrate as deep as possible meanwhile the general force would be steadily advancing to take on the remaining resistance; a strategy that can only be classified as blitzkrieg. The Spring Offensive offered the most evolved infiltration tactics that took into consideration a combined arms doctrine with infantry squads possessing a variety of weapons to the use of airplanes and the incorporation of numerous types of artillery guns for the most devastating barrage especially on the targeted weak points thus maximizing the overall effectiveness of the strategy.[25]

However, German tacticians were not the sole contributors of the blitzkrieg, as one factor that would spearhead the doctrine to more success in the decades to come would stem from the British. A year earlier at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, September 15, 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, tanks were first implemented. Deployed to not only shield the waves of troops crossing no man’s land but also to punch a hole in the enemy, while using heavy artillery to initially aid in penetration but also target high value targets once penetration was achieved.[26] This was an essential tactical development that would play a role in the later development of the blitz. Lieutenant Colonel J.F.C Fuller, chief of staff in the Tank Corps, immediately saw the potential in tanks believing that massed artillery and cavalry had become obsolete, especially in breaking through the enemy lines. While the Commander, Brigadier General Hugh Elles, believed that tanks could be used to smash through the front lines to the “green” of the enemies rear.[27]

After engaging in combat with the German infiltration tactics the British were not oblivious to the new developing tactics as they took them into account combining them with the use of tanks as the spearhead force regurgitating the revised strategy clearly at the Battle of Amiens. Now by the time of the British counteroffensive in August 8, 1918, the Allies were now prepared to make their own blitzkrieg styled assault. This would involve a combined all arms doctrine like never before with tanks and infantry at the lead, supported directly by aircraft, artillery and cavalry. Thus all arms were working together meticulously and coordinated on a large scale. Artillery was concentrated on the enemy lines while tanks and infantry looked for weak points to push through. Once a breach was made, armored cavalry or whippet tanks and horse cavalry were called in to exploit the breach, making their way deep into enemy lines. Troops would be supported by an artillery barrage that was on a creeping time table while 600 fighters and bombers provided direct support allowing the penetrating units to fulfill their objective of causing havoc.[28]


[1] Twentieth Century Battlefields: 1918 Western Front, Directed by Paul McGuigan, Produced by BBC, Performed by Peter Snow and Dan Snow, 2007.

[2] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (London: Oxford University Press, 1971),171 ;“Just as water adapts itself to the conformation of the ground, so in war one must be flexible; therefore, he must often adapt his military tactics to new evolving situations.”

[3] William J. Fanning (Jnr), "The Origin of the Term "Blitzkrieg": Another View,"The Journal of Military History 60, no.2 (1997): 285.

[4] Twentieth Century Battlefields: 1918 Western Front, Directed by Paul McGuigan, Produced by BBC, Performed by Peter Snow and Dan Snow, 2007.

[5] Ladislas Farago, The Axis Grand Strategy: Blueprints for the Total War (Harrisburg: Military Service Publ. Co, 1942), 81.

[6] James S. Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans Von Seeckt and German Military Reform (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992); The General was the chief organizer of the German Army after the First World War.

The General was the chief organizer of the German Army after the First World War.

[7] William J. Fanning (Jnr), "The Origin of the Term "Blitzkrieg": Another View,"The Journal of Military History 60, no.2 (1997): 285-86.

[8] Bryan Perrett, A History of Blitzkrieg (Briarcliff Manor: Stein and Day Publishers, 1983), 30-31.

[9] Jeremy Black, Warfare in the Western World: 1882-1975 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 55.

[10] Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1989), xii.

[11] Ibid., xiii.

[12] Mark Humphries, “Blitzkrieg—Myth and Reality” (class lecture, St. John’s campus, Memorial University, St. John's, NL, March 1, 2012).

[13] Bryan Perrett, A History of Blitzkrieg (Briarcliff Manor: Stein and Day Publishers, 1983), 28.

[14] Robert M. Citino, Quest for Decisive Victory: from stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe ( Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), xviii.

[15] Barrie Pitt, 1918 The Last Act (Hong Kong: Papermac, 1984), 43.

[16] Robert M. Citino, Quest for Decisive Victory: from stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe ( Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 161.

[17] Timothy T. Lupfer, The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute, 1981), 40; British Official History, 1917, vol. 3, p. 177

[18] Bryan Perrett, A History of Blitzkrieg (Briarcliff Manor: Stein and Day Publishers, 1983), 30-31.

[19] Ibid., 28-29.

[20] Timothy T. Lupfer, The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute, 1981), 37; Österreich - Ungarne Letzter Krieg 1914-18, vol. 6, 501.

[21] Martin Kitchen, The German offensives of 1918 (Charleston: Tempus Publishing Inc., 2001), 16.

[22] Ibid., 62

[23] Barrie Pitt, 1918 The Last Act (Hong Kong: Papermac, 1984), 52-74.

[24] Martin Kitchen, The German offensives of 1918 (Charleston: Tempus Publishing Inc., 2001), 74.

[25] Martin Kitchen, The German offensives of 1918 (Charleston: Tempus Publishing Inc., 2001), 62

[26] Bryan Perrett, A History of Blitzkrieg (Briarcliff Manor: Stein and Day Publishers, 1983), 20-21.

[27] Ibid., 24-25

[28] Barrie Pitt, 1918 The Last Act (Hong Kong: Papermac, 1984), 197-210.

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Origins of the Blitzkrieg
Die Kaiserschlacht
Memorial University of Newfoundland  (Memorial University of Newfoundland)
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war, warfare, blitz, Kaiserschlacht, Blitzkrieg, German, WW1, First World War, history, Ludendorff, General Oskar Von Hutier, The Great War, strategy, tactics, campaign
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Shay Thomas (Author), 2013, Origins of the Blitzkrieg, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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