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Attrition


PhilB
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One thing that strikes me in Haig`s Diary is that, having settled on a war of attrition on the Western Front, he still makes attacks with limited objectives and then says that losses were light - only 8000, say, for advancing half a mile. Now, I very much doubt if attrition was taught at the Staff College and I sense that Haig was fighting a war of attrition by offensive means and losing many men in doing it. I assume the object of attrition is simply to kill or wound as many of the enemy as possible at least cost to yourself and ground gain seems to be immaterial. Once It had been decided that the Allies could not fight their way to Berlin, was it necessary to capture ground? What are the rules of attritional warfare? Phil B

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What cost attrition? The answer is not necessarily found in the battle statsistics alone I think (painful though they are).

Example: The German decision to go for unrestricted U boat warfare had its origins in the German unwillingness (inability) to sustain losses such as they had suffered on the Somme. In other words they could not fight another Somme. Add to this the degredation in quality of their army, the U Boat decision (and its eventual consequences for the USA) is tactically founded in the strategy of attrition.

Selective quotes I know but: (both from Ludendorff)

"After 9th Jan (1917) there were no military reasons whatever to cause either the Field Marshal or myself to modify our views as to the urgent need for the unrestricted (U Boat) campaign"

also:

"GHQ had to face the danger that 'Somme fighting' would break out..and that our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely"

Attrition was part of the wider strategic policy, and without it (and the build up of overwhelming material strength and resources. ie total war) the outcome could have been delayed.

Sitting on a defensive line and not expending British lives was I fear, not an option for Haig. Otherwise I can not explain why so many were lost from Loos onwards. (Not wishing to resurect the Haig debate again but....).

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There is no answer ... but you know that.

The idea of the offensive is because you control the initiative ... your attack may "fail" ... but you don't lose the war ... if you're attacked, you could lose and the enemy win ...

You can survive longer if you defend, but you can never win.

The Germans were the invader ... the minute the Allies let the initiative slip, they are now accepting the invasion and staving off social or political defeat.

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Phil,

An interesting question.

I imagine that to kill or wound a well entrenched enemy, you either have to pound his defensive positions or, better still (??) try to manoeuvre him into a more exposed position by capturing sections of his line and forcing him to counter-attack. Wasn't it the counter-attacks where German casulaty rates were highest?

Given the relative superiority of German defensive positions, the first option might not be a very efficient means to achieve attrition.

I'm no expert - so will be as interested to see other replies as you.

David

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Didnt Rawlinson have the best idea for attritional warfare??

A short and intense bombardment followed by "bite and hold" tactics.

The Germans could always be relied upon to quickly counter-attack in a bid to regain lost ground and thus provided the Allies with an opportunity to inflict heavy losses.

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"The idea of the offensive is because you control the initiative ... your attack may "fail" ... but you don't lose the war ... if you're attacked, you could lose and the enemy win ..."

Andy,

Surely the Germans lost the war (earlier than they would have done) by going on the offensive in 1918. War is a fluid business, badly thought out attacks can weaken you to such an extent that you invite the counter attack - the 100 days.

It could be argued that the Germans attacked in 1918 becuase they had lost the initiative ie they had one last throw of the dice. Perhaps if the blockade had been less successful and the domestic scene less revolutionary they might quite happily have sat on the defensive. I'm not sure Britain or the Dominions had the manpower resourses to pursue another year of attrition.

I would further argue that Haig had so bloodied the army at 3rd Ypres and Cambrai that his policy of attrition and offensive operations was a huge gamble. That the Germans so nearly succeded in 1918 is testimony to that.

Ok he won in the end but it was a pretty close call and the "fight to the last man" order meant it came down to the courage of his soldiers rather than any strategic masterplan.

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I have not read this book, but is it literally his diary as written "daily"? If so, an entry referring to casualties may be wildly inaccurate as it often took days for all casualty reports to come in, hence a reference to "slight" may refer to what was thought at the time of the entry.

Andrew

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Do you mean there no rules for attritional warfare? Since it`s a possible state in any conflict, surely the Staff Colleges must teach something on it? Phil B

I doubt there is a course at West Point, Sandhurst or any advanced War College called "Attrition 101" meaning the name has a dirty ring. In all my military training or reading all I've ever heard taught was how to win fast, sweeping victories. One studies Chancellorsville not Petersburg ...

Grant resisted everyone including Lincoln about his losses during the Petersburg "campaign" and fought the war of attrition ... I think it comes from a command decision, we can wear them out and then you think of ways that it hurts them more than you ... and maintain the initiative ...

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[

Andy,

Surely the Germans lost the war (earlier than they would have done) by going on the offensive in 1918. War is a fluid business, badly thought out attacks can weaken you to such an extent that you invite the counter attack - the 100 days.

It could be argued that the Germans attacked in 1918 becuase they had lost the initiative ie they had one last throw of the dice. Perhaps if the blockade had been less successful and the domestic scene less revolutionary they might quite happily have sat on the defensive. I'm not sure Britain or the Dominions had the manpower resourses to pursue another year of attrition.

I would further argue that Haig had so bloodied the army at 3rd Ypres and Cambrai that his policy of attrition and offensive operations was a huge gamble. That the Germans so nearly succeded in 1918 is testimony to that.

Ok he won in the end but it was a pretty close call and the "fight to the last man" order meant it came down to the courage of his soldiers rather than any strategic masterplan.

I think you're right. It was a huge gamble ... but one he thought he could not afford NOT to make. If you let the Germans both prepare and choose the attack, it would be much worse than simply failing in your own ... Plus, Haig always was concerned by keeping the French in the war ...

So, yes, a huge gamble ... part of the deal that comes with the rank, I suppose.

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In all my military training or reading all I've ever heard taught was how to win fast, sweeping victories.  One studies Chancellorsville not Petersburg ...

Sounds like "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you have to look for a nail". Considering that flashy offensive may not be possible, do you consider this a gap in military education or not? Phil B

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Phil, judging by your posts, you and I seem to have read this book"side by side".

One of the things which struck me was that Haig was always desperate to press an advantage. Keep hitting them while they are reeling. He was trying to extract every ounce of advantage from an initial gain and there were many instances when the Allies started off well and then got bogged down. The Somme was the exact opposite of course. Another thing I noticed was the very " hands off " approach to actions. This is evident in every army. The higher commands gave a lot of freedom to the lower echelons as to how an attack would be implemented. If you muffed it too badly you got degommed or limogeed, I don't know the German equivalent.

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Right. And I can`t quite equate that approach with pure attrition, in which all that matters (I assume) is that you lose less men than he does.  Phil B

Yeah well. I have a lot more respect for Haig than before, but I still think there was a lot of second thoughts about. ' Big breakthroughs' turned into battles of attrition when they didn't break through.

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Hello,

One must not forget that Haig had to co-operate with the French and while he was not 'under command' he was not in a position to go his own way. The German army had occupied most of Belgium and a chunk of industrial France and it is not possible to concieve of any allied strategy on the Western Front than a series of attacks. Haig considered that any battle had to have a 'wearing out' phase before a conclusive action could be undertaken.

Old Tom

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  • 7 months later...

I`ve just re-read this thread with interest. A few points occur to me.

1/ Is there such a thing as "pure" attrition?

2/ Would any field commander consider it an honourable option for him?

3/ Can there be huge offensives in a campaign of attrition?

4/ Should it be taught at Staff College?

5/ Is the retrospective claim of attritional warfare a possible pre-planned refuge for the commander of unsuccessful offensives? :( Phil B

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Perhaps part of the problem was predicted by Churchill on March 17 1914 in his Naval Estimate speech :- "The causes which might lead to a general war have not been removed and often remind us of their presence. There has not been the slightest abatement of naval and military preparation. On the contrary, we are witnessing this year increases of expenditure by Continental powers on armaments beyond all previous expenditure. The world is arming as it was never armed before.Every suggestion for arrest or limitation has so far been ineffectual".

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  • 2 weeks later...

In staff college Haig, according to Tim Travers, was taught that battles have three stages. First there is the encounter phase, this is followed by the attritional stage during which the enemy was worn down, finally there was breakthrough. He was, I think, considerably influenced by this throughout the war

I think that Haig was almost certainly aiming for a breakthrough on the Somme and during Third Ypres (although not at Arras), however he also knew that even if breakthrough failed the attritional effects would be costly for the Germans. It certainly was a big gamble but the logic was to wear down the Germans to such an extent that the Allies could sweep them away, just like they did in 1918. Although the huge Geramn Spring Offensives and the huge casualties suffrered in those certainly speeded matters up.

The thing is with attrition is that there is attrition in most wars, it can be seen time and time again, at Waterloo, on the Somme, at Stalingrad. To defeat an enemy army it is neccessary to destroy a large part of it. This took a long time on the Western Front because the German Army was so professional and because attrition is a very blunt tool.

JGM

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The thing is with attrition is that there is attrition in most wars, it can be seen time and time again, at Waterloo, on the Somme, at Stalingrad. To defeat an enemy army it is neccessary to destroy a large part of it. This took a long time on the Western Front because the German Army was so professional and because attrition is a very blunt tool.

Personally speaking I have no problem that battles of attrition were fought but I do think there is much to criticise how the battles were fought under Haig's ultimate command on the Western Front.

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...I have no problem that battles of attrition were fought but I do think there is much to criticise how the battles were fought under Haig's ultimate command on the Western Front.

This is certainly true. A lot of men died in Haig's attempts at grand breakthrough battles on the Somme and at Third Ypres. However Haig and his men had a lot to learn about war and this process proved costly, as indeed it did for all of the armies which fought on the Western Front. Furthermore Haig had little choice other than to fight on the Somme and at Arras. Eventually Haig's attritional tactics did contribute to the wearing down of the German Army to no small extent. He surely deserves credit for the success of 1918 and for the part played by his armies in the defeat of the German Army, as well as criticism for the way certain parts of the Somme and Third Ypres campaigns were conducted.

JGM

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He surely deserves credit for the success of 1918 and for the part played by his armies in the defeat of the German Army, as well as criticism for the way certain parts of the Somme and Third Ypres campaigns were conducted.

That depends on your point of view as to the extent of influence Haig had directly and indirectly over the German advance eventually petering out at Amiens, and the skill and experience of command at Corps down to platoon level in the subsequent advance forward.

If those involved in the advance (and in the previous fighting withdrawal) had learnt from their own past experience in which they had been involved in poorly thought out battle tactics, and they were able to take that experience in to future fighting then I think it is questionable to what extent you can credit the man that was responsible for those previously poor strategies.

I dont think I have made my point very well but what I am trying to say is if others learnt as a result of Haig's mistakes then I have difficulty in crediting Haig because of the skill, ability and aptitude of others. It comes down to whether you think the Allies won because of Haig or despite him., or indeed whether you think it had more to do with Germany losing the war in 1918 rather than the Allies winning it.

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Personally I think that Haig has to have some credit. He certainly survived the blow when the Germans attacked on the 21st March 1918 far better than Ludendorff did the 8th August blow, he never lost his nerve. Although his role was less important during the March Offensives for much of the resistance was organised at a lower level.

Haig must also be credited for driving the Hundred Days Offensive forward, although that was far more decentralised then most previous offensives. He, along with Foch, planned the huge late September assault upon the Hindenburg line which convinced the German high command the war was lost.

It is true that those at a lower level had gained experience enormously but I think Haig had also gained as well, he certainly made sure the offensive was incessant. He had learned from the mistakes of the previous years and helped to drive the Offensive forward, always encouraging his commanders to attack when some such as Horne might have been inclined otherwise.

There is certainly an argument that the Germans lost on their own, but it is surely the case that the losses sustained in the Hundred Days after Amiens, coming on top of those from the March offensive and 1914-17, convinced OHL that it was over.

However it is certainly true to say that Haig's role did diminish during 1918 as more skilled subordinates took over. Haig fought the battle he had always wished to wage, a decentralised one. Trying to fight such battles in the past proved difficult with subordinates like Rawlinson on the Somme and Gough at Third Ypres. However during the Hundred Days it worked rather well.

JGM

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There is certainly an argument that the Germans lost on their own, but it is surely the case that the losses sustained in the Hundred Days after Amiens, coming on top of those from the March offensive and 1914-17, convinced OHL that it was over.

I cant remember Haig's exact words but as late as October 1918 he had not grasped that Germany was on her knees as he was talking about launching a final offensive in 1919.

Thanks for sharing your views.

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