The strategy of attrition has rarely been given a good name, associated with a lack of imagination and a too easy propensity to accept heavy casualties for limited results. The antipathy to attrition was strongest as a consequence of World War I, condemned by David Lloyd George during and especially after the war, and subsequently ridiculed by a long line of military writers, ranging from Basil Liddell Hart to Alan Clark. The revulsion against the losses suffered on the Western Front also struck a chord in the popular imagination, with attritional strategies bound up in the idea of ‘lions led by donkeys’ (a phrase fraudulently coined by Clark) that continues to the present.
In this valuable study, William Philpott – Professor of the History of Warfare at King’s College London and author of an acclaimed study of the Battle of the Somme – reconsiders the whole concept and its central importance in the waging of the war, as well as persuasively arguing that a knowledge of the nature of attritional strategy is the surest way for the reader to make sense out of the chaotic fighting of 1914-18.
Philpott quotes the French military theorist Commandant Colin, who got to the heart of the problem in a prophetic comment of 1911: ‘When armies of the same value, commanded by good generals, are facing each other, it is numbers – the material element – which is the deciding factor.’ Germany’s military leaders knew the Materialschlacht would decide the outcome of the war (hence their despondent private musings on the subject) but they still clung to the hope that the German Army’s superior operational skill might somehow tip the balance in their favour. They were proved wrong.
After the bloody encounter battles of 1914, the author considers the subsequent strategic decisions made by the leaders of the great powers. How, for the Western Allies at least, 1915 was a painful learning experience, preparatory to the first application of a co-ordinated attritional strategy during 1916 – ‘the central, crucial year of the war’.
France’s key role in the Allied prosecution of the war is rightly given its due, as is the struggle between the politicians (understandably looking for a swift ‘breakthrough’) and the soldiers (accepting the unpalatable reality of attrition). Thus, when the Western politicians gained a strategic ascendancy over the generals at the end of 1916, Joffre was sacked and replaced by Nivelle who promised a breakthrough victory. But the 1917 Nivelle offensive was a return to 1915 thinking and the French suffered as a result. Once the French Army went back to an attritional strategy – as in the brilliant but largely unknown Malmaison battle of October 1917 – success returned, albeit on a modest scale. The hard wearing-out battles of 1916 and 1917 finally bore fruit in 1918, when, under the overall command of General Foch, the adroitly directed Allied forces defeated the German Army in the field.
Philpott concludes that not only did the Western Allies enjoy superior material resources, but that they ultimately used them more effectively than the Central Powers. It was the civilian-led democracies of France, Britain, Italy and the US that were better able to mobilise their human and material resources and, perhaps surprisingly, proved more durable in the crucible of combat than the military autocracies; it was no co-incidence that Tsarist Russia was the only major Allied power that failed to stay the course.
In this well-written and thoroughly researched book William Philpott has made a signal contribution to our understanding of World War I. The complex and carefully nuanced arguments that are put forward here will hopefully change perceptions of the nature of the war, not least that the military leaders on both sides better understood the grim realities of warfare than the standard accounts have given them credit. Although not recommended for the outright beginner this is essential reading for those with a real interest in World War I, arguably the most important book yet to be published during the centenary of the outbreak of war in 1914.
Little Brown, 416 pages, £25 (h/b)
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