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War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War
War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War
William Philpott
Abrams Press, 2015
416 pp., 18.95

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Donald A. Yerxa

Attrition: The “Bleak Strategy” of World War I

Terrible, yes; not pointless.

Editor's Note: The multiyear centenary of World War I has generated a huge and still growing number of books, looking at the subject from a dizzying variety of perspectives. Don Yerxa's piece on "the war of attrition" is the first in a series of four essay-reviews in which (over the next couple of years) he will examine some of the salient themes in this scholarship.

For most readers of Books & Culture, I dare say that mention of World War I conjures up images of horrific trench warfare presided over by generals on both sides in the most unimaginative fashion. Wave after wave of soldiers going "over the top" were sacrificed in futile attempts to break the stalemate. The view that the war was a prolonged and senseless bloodbath grew in the interwar years, especially in literary circles. Winston Churchill's wildly popular "memoir-history" The World Crisis (1927) helped to fuel the narrative of a war conducted by incompetent generals who unashamedly accepted shocking casualties as they repeatedly failed to appreciate the nature of modern warfare. This understanding of the war was consolidated in the public mind in the 1960s.[1] More recently, Paul Fussell's extremely influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975); popular films like Gallipoli (1981), starring a young Mel Gibson; and Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong (1993) have reinforced the perception of a futile, unnecessary war. But is this an accurate portrayal of the so-called Great War?

According to a cadre of British military historians it is not. They have advanced a different understanding of the conflict—one that is no less bloody, but certainly far more complex than the common view. The contours of a revisionist approach emerged in various books in the 1990s, but it gained traction in 2001 with Gary Sheffield's iconoclastic Forgotten Victory: The First World War—Myths and Realities. Sheffield confesses that he once shared the view that the war was "a futile tragedy conducted by a gang of incompetents." He argues, however, that focusing on military incompetence misses the mark. Generals faced a fundamental dilemma: it was almost impossible with the technologies available at the time to convert a localized breach in the trenches into a successful breakthrough. Repeated attempts to achieve breakthroughs failed when initially promising attacks invariably bogged down, producing "untenable salient[s], in which the attackers were surrounded on three sides." In the light of these circumstances, the military approach "degenerated into attrition." But that is not to say that the military leaders simply lined soldiers up to go over the top and face inevitable slaughter. Far from it. Generals on both sides experimented and innovated as they adjusted to the new conditions of warfare. By 1918, after considerable trial and error, both sides had forged approaches to battle that combined the new technologies of war with more effective command and control systems. As a result, more mobile warfare returned to the western front, first with the last-ditch German Michael offensives of the spring and summer, followed by the highly successful Allied Hundred Days counteroffensives of the late summer and fall. Exhaustion from years of attritional conflict finally forced Germany to end the conflict in November.

Sheffield makes a key point in Forgotten Victory. Battles of annihilation utilizing maneuver and delivering swift and decisive victory have been "the Holy Grail for generals." But more often than not, modern warfare has been characterized by attrition. Consequently, employment of a strategy of attrition is not in and of itself a sign of strategic bankruptcy or military incompetence. In fact, "in battles fought between evenly matched foes attrition is virtually inevitable."

This is a view shared by William Philpott, the British military historian who has emerged as the foremost advocate of what could be called the attritional view of WWI. In 2009 he gained widespread attention in Britain with his Bloody Victory [titled Three Armies on the Somme in the US], a powerful re-examination of the Battle of the Somme. July 1, 1916, the disastrous first day of the Somme campaign, has haunted thinking about the war in Britain and beyond. A staggering 57,470 casualties—19,240 of which did not survive—made this the bloodiest single day in British military history.[2] Philpott does not soft-pedal the horror of the Somme and the mistakes that were made, but echoing Sheffield he provides essential context for understanding the carnage. "It was not possible to fight war in that era—an age of industrial weapons technology, entrenched ideology, and mass mobilization—without casualties," he argues. "And the Western Front and the Somme especially are the supreme examples of the consummate killing power of the age."

Recently Philpott contributed a noteworthy title to the avalanche of books coming off the presses during the WWI centenary. With War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War, he expands the themes of Bloody Victory chronologically, geographically, and conceptually to make the case that attrition was not limited to the battlefields of the western front. It also included the maritime, home, diplomatic, and coalitional fronts. The result is among the best single-volume treatments of WWI, one that represents the current thinking of military historians. Between 1914 and 1918, Philpott contends, warfare "changed its nature." Early hopes of achieving a quick, decisive victory by breakthough (which were particularly crucial to the German war plan) gave way to the recognition that the war would be a series of protracted campaigns to decide which side could inflict the most damage and remain standing to emerge, as he put it in Bloody Victory, "the final, punch-drunk victor."

No brief essay can provide even a cursory examination of all facets of the war, so the focus here will remain on the notorious western front. In future essays I will explore some of the other important themes of WWI. But before turning to the western front, Philpott's other attritional fronts need to be considered.

The maritime front had profound impact on the land war. Supply of Allied armies and the civilian war effort was sustained by the war at sea. Early on, there were some naval encounters, generally small squadron affairs. And in 1916 at Jutland in the North Sea there was a major though indecisive sea battle. But the mammoth battle fleets built at enormous expense were relatively marginal in World War I. The principal weapons of the maritime front were economic blockade and counter-blockade. This was an "attritional weapon of a different kind" employed to interrupt the flow of trade, undermine financial solvency, and strike at popular morale. The locus of the maritime front was in the North Atlantic, where German submarines in 1915 and more forcefully in 1917 attempted to disrupt Allied commercial shipping. But as the Allies mounted an increasingly effective defense of seaborne commerce (utilizing convoys and relatively small escort vessels), their own economic blockade severely affected the economy and morale of Germany. As crucial as the maritime front was to war on land, Philpott concludes that sea power in and of itself was not decisive. Of course, this is true. As he notes, the "war could not be won on the maritime front alone; navies could never defeat armies or overthrow nations." But Philpott—rightly in my view—asserts that the war could be lost at sea if the public's morale was sufficiently undermined by economic strangulation or if vital resources for feeding and equipping armies, as well as paying for war, were sufficiently degraded. We must appreciate the fact that absent Allied naval-maritime superiority, there was no way that the land campaigns could have been sustained for four years, not to mention that command of the seas was a fundamental prerequisite for maritime powers such as Britain and the United States to project military power landward.

Mobilization of the home front was also crucial to the war effort. The military conduct of the war depended upon financial strength, raw materials, industrial productivity, transport capacity, political cohesion, bureaucratic efficiency, diplomatic reach, and public opinion. By 1916, both coalitions had intensively mobilized their populations and industrial resources, but the Allies had an overwhelming advantage in the capacity of the American economy to support attritional war especially after the United States became a belligerent. As the stalemate wore on, it became more and more apparent that sustaining the will of the people to support the war effort was crucial in modern attritional war. In the last years of the war, the home front even became a legitimate military target, with small-scale strategic bombing. Air power, both tactical and strategic, would, of course, become much more important in World War II.

To his credit, Philpott integrates diplomatic matters into his understanding of WWI as a war of attrition. Save for the story of American neutrality and eventual entry in the war, military historians tend to slight war diplomacy once the guns of August 1914 commenced firing. But Philpott reminds us that diplomacy did not end with the declarations of war in 1914. It remained "a competitive arena, for hearts and minds and commercial opportunities in neutral countries, as well as to expand the war, justify it, or to negotiate peace." In particular, Philpott stresses how war aims and possible peace terms became a "diplomatic battleground." With Woodrow Wilson's liberal agenda, the Allies proved to be more effective on this front than the Central Powers.

Philpott also highlights what he calls the " 'united front': the organization and maintenance of a cohesive, effective alliance." Coalition warfare has never been easy. And as the war dragged on, the "loose alignment of separate national strategies" proved inadequate to fighting a war of attrition successfully. Coordination of military strategy and operations was necessary, and in this the Allies once again proved to be more effective. They formed the Supreme War Council and eventually agreed to a generalissimo, French General Ferdinand Foch. The Central Powers coalition, on the other hand, was dominated by Germany, asserting control over its increasingly unwilling co-belligerents.

WWI, then, was a very complex affair unfolding simultaneously on five fronts: land, sea, home, diplomatic, and united or coalitional. After the German offensive stalled in late 1914, the only way to avoid a negotiated, indecisive "peace of exhaustion" that would render all the effort and sacrifice pointless, Philpott contends, was for one side "to outproduce, outfight and outlast the other … . [T]he alternative outcomes had become victory or collapse." Though it would require "intensive, prolonged and traumatic effort, endurance and sacrifice," the Allies were able to secure advantages on all these fronts, "making their victory only a matter of time."

How did World War I become such a showcase for attrition? After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, military planners throughout Europe anticipated a new way of making war. It would involve thorough war planning, rapid mobilization of mass armies, quick strategic concentration of forces using railways, and fast marching formations with mobile artillery to encircle and smash the enemy's armed forces. Modern warfare so conceived would be swift and decisive. If, however, the enemy could not be annihilated in the first great battles, a prolonged contest would likely ensue. Modern weaponry and the logistical difficulties of fielding and maneuvering mass armies made a war of attrition virtually inevitable. In the face of rapid-firing artillery, machine guns, and magazine rifles, frontal clashes of troops were murderous. Trenches were the practical response. Resort to trench warfare not only contributed to the prolongation of the war but also determined the ugly nature of the fighting. Insufficient space to maneuver huge armies along the entrenched western front, combined with the availability of replacement soldiers, made it possible to sustain prolonged, indecisive fighting. "Men of flesh and blood," Philpott observes, "would struggle in a shattered landscape dominated by war machines designed to kill indiscriminately and in large numbers." Divisions would cycle into battle, fight to exhaustion, and then be replaced by fresh troops. This was attritional war.

By 1915 the war had already assumed "its exhausting, destructive character." Nevertheless, it took a long time for the Allies to adopt an appropriate strategy. Despite the tactical realities, Philpott maintains that ambitions of striking a decisive knockout blow to break the enemy line did not disappear quickly. Not everyone fully accepted that the only way to win a war that pitted coalitions of industrial empires of roughly equal strength against each other was to mobilize all society's resources and grind down the enemy's capacity and will to fight. Only in mid-1916 did the Allies truly embrace a strategy of attrition, but even then some could not abandon the fixation on breaking through the German lines to reintroduce operational maneuver.[3] For their part, the Germans had no realistic hope of a breakthrough and were content to hold their captured ground (except briefly in 1918), hoping to exhaust the Allies before they themselves collapsed. The full realization of the attritional nature of the war fueled the German attempt to grind the French into submission at Verdun in 1916, while the British and French hoped to relieve the pressure at Verdun and in the process "squeeze Germany to death" at the Somme. As Philpott argued in Bloody Victory, the Somme campaign, despite its devastating opening, was in fact a success when viewed from the attritional perspective. In time the Allies improved the art of operational warfare, communication and command methods, and logistical capabilities. The resulting tactical successes of late 1916 and 1917, as well as the infusion of fresh American troops, eventually led to the strategic victory of 1918. In all this, the military commanders should not be written off simply as incompetent donkeys leading lions, to adapt Alan Clark's memorable phrase. Philpott reminds us that in the context of the tactical revolution then underway, there was really no alternative to a war of attrition once the offensives at the start of the war bogged down.

Philpott is right not to limit attrition to the battlefield. It was certainly operative on the other fronts as well. But he is less successful in convincing readers that the diplomatic and coalitional fronts were fundamentally attritional in nature. He stretches his framework a bit too far here. As crucial as those fronts were, they were attritional only to the extent that they affected a war that was obviously attritional. This, however, does not take away from Philpott's larger point. Appreciating that the war necessarily took on an overall attritional nature goes a long way to explain why the war unfolded as it did. And it is Philpott's explanatory scheme that makes War of Attrition such an important book.

That said, the logic of attrition is not easy to accept. The price of attrition may have been inevitable under the circumstances, but it was certainly terrible. The balance sheet is mind-numbing, even in the light of the more ugly tallies of death that were to follow in a few decades. In pursuit of attrition, 2,037,000 German and 1,100,000 Habsburg Empire soldiers died. Estimates are that perhaps another 11 million were captured or wounded. France lost 1,375,000 men; Britain and its empire 908,371; Russia around 1,800,000; Italy, 578,000; and the US, 114,000. Additionally, it is estmated that nearly 17 million Allied soldiers were wounded, missing, or captured. And these depressing numbers do not include civilian deaths from famine, disease, and displacement.

The moral ambiguities of attritional warfare force us to ask whether World War I was worth it.

That this was a colossal tragedy with no real victors cannot be denied. And Philpott is keenly aware that the "bleak strategy of attrition" is morally questionable. Then and now, he admits, attrition seems to be a "cruel, simplistic military strategy predicated merely on killing men." Yet he steadfastly maintains that the slow, systematic destruction of the enemy's military capability was the only way to win when the huge armies of industrialized empires took the field with the tools at hand.

Military considerations aside, it is hard to argue against this as anything other than a morally bankrupt way to fight. Accepting the realities of attritional warfare, Philpott admits, has also become something of a "strategic anathema." As French general Marie émile Fayolle observed in 1916, "The art of war has disappeared." But despite its cost in lives and finances, Philpott points out that attrition is at the heart of modern warfare at the great power level. It was, for example, the basis for the Union's strategy in the Civil War, especially once Lincoln found "his generals." And Nazi Germany was worn down by the relentless attrition of Soviet ground and tactical air forces in the east and Anglo-American armies and airpower in the west.

The moral ambiguities of attritional warfare force us to ask whether World War I was worth it. From today's perspective, even with the benefit of hindsight, Philpott considers it impossible to judge. Not so for Gary Sheffield. He maintains that it was "a just and necessary war fought against a militarist, aggressive autocracy." Niall Ferguson, in The Pity of War (1998), famously argued that given the disastrous cost of the war in lives and wealth, it would have been better had Britain remained neutral. Yes, Germany would surely have won a much shorter war and would have become Europe's hegemonic power. But that would have been better than what actually happened after 1918. Ferguson's counterfactuals, while highly debatable, are by some standards actually modest. Others have gone considerably further to suggest that without WWI, we would have been spared the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the rise of Nazism and fascism, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Unlike most military historians, I have some sympathy for this line of thought, though I would tack on a number of qualifiers. And, of course, I readily acknowledge that counterfactual observations are purchased at the expense of the past's often-complex contingencies. As such they go well beyond the historian's warrant. Moreover, as both Philpott and Sheffield contend, such counterfactual analysis fails to adequately reflect the thinking and ideals of those millions in the early 20th century who were willing to pay such a high price to resolve the conflict.

What we can say with confidence is that WWI was one of the defining events of the 20th century—if not the defining event. The fact that it ended four empires—German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman—substantiates this. As Sir Hew Strachan, the dean of WWI historians, has observed, the war "triggered the Russian Revolution and provided the bedrock for the Soviet Union; it forced a reluctant United States on to the world stage and revivified liberalism." We can debate many things about WWI, but Strachan is adamant that it "was emphatically not a war without meaning or purpose."

Attrition is far from being the only theme to emerge from the steady stream of books coming out during these centenary years. In particular, historians are emphasizing the global aspects of World War I, and in a future installment I will examine a number of recent books that explore some of the war's global dimensions.

1. According to historian Niall Ferguson, we should keep in mind that the poignant verse of the "war poets," which served many readers as their first serious introduction to World War I, was not an established part of the school curriculum in Great Britain until the 1970s.

2. Philpott notes that after the horrific British barrage ended and just before the shrill of whistles signaled the assault, "the world fell strangely and momentarily silent" and birdsong was heard.

3. For example, French general Robert Nivelle promised a breakthrough with the Arras campaign in the spring of 1917. But after initial success against the German front lines, French troops could not penetrate deep into German positions, where reserves and firepower took a very heavy toll.

Donald A. Yerxa is professor of history emeritus at Eastern Nazarene College and editor of Fides et Historia. His latest book, an edited volume, is Religion and Innovation: Antagonists or Partners? (Bloomsbury).

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