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Attrition


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ilkley remembers
6 hours ago, PhilB said:

because there was no officially taught theory of attrition, who would know how it’s best fought? One thing I am convinced about is that it would have to be planned and directed at the very highest level, not locally.

 

My understanding is that German staff colleges were very familiar with the concept of attrition and its implications and it has been asserted that it would become their default position should the Schlieffen Plan fail in its primary objective. I'm sure that at least at a tactical level British planners and generals would have had an awareness of attrition since nearly all battles seem to incorporate some sort of attritional phase. 

 

Perhaps it is reasonable to assume that British planners were aware of the ability of the Royal Navy to project its power obliquely against an enemy reliant on coastal trade given that they had made extensive and successful use of the ploy during the Napoleonic Wars and against the US in 1812. However, it is less clear, to me at least, that the lessons of the American Civil War or indeed the Russo-Japanese War had made their way onto the syllabus at staff college level.

5 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Apologies if this has already been mentioned ; ground gained was an essential aspect of attrition in terms of battlefield killing.  The value of the ground was the facility it lent to observation and firepower.  A small eminence in France or Flanders might afford the enemy an immense advantage for the siting of artillery.  Capturing a  tiny piece of ground might be worth ten thousand lives if one hundred thousand are saved from the ravages of enemy fire.  Think of Messines,  Vimy, Chemin des Dames etc.

 

Yes Phil I would tend to agree with you but would aver that not all ground is of equal value on the battlefield. Ground that provides tactical advantage is no doubt important but is the accumulation of less valuable real estate an essential element of attritional warfare since the primary objective is surely is to degrade the enemy's resources faster than ones own. 

 

Edward

 

NB

Phil, just seen your last comment. Off out now but will answer later this evening. Hopefully

 

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ilkley remembers
21 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Petain was a good attritionist ; Haig was not.

 

Phil,

 

Petain is quoted as saying " Success will come eventually to the side that has the last man. The only objective we should seek is to kill as many Germans as we can while suffering a minimum of losses", which doesn't seem to leave many grey areas as far as his personal strategy was concerned. To that end he certainly had a large degree of self belief in his ability to master the logistics of an attritional battle, Douglas Haig's natural mien in contrast was a belief in a war of manoeuvre and movement. The problem for Haig was that his natural instincts became subsumed by a battlefield where such opportunities where limited and was forced to engage with a strategy of attrition for which he appears ill suited.

 

I think that for the British and the French these 'wearing out' battles required access to accurate intelligence about the state of the German Army and its access  to reserves which they found difficult to obtain. It seems logical to suggest that there is little point in engaging in an attritional battle when you have little idea when the enemy will reach the desired point when it can no longer carry on the fight. On the Somme based on evidence provided by Charteris his head of intelligence, the accuracy of which was suspect, along with unsustainable assumptions about the state of German morale, Haig kept banging away despite the clear indications that the policy wasn't resulting in a decisive result.

 

22 hours ago, phil andrade said:

I allude specifically to the retaking of the Mort Homme sector at Verdun in the summer of 1917, and the Malmaison attack in the autumn.  These were undoubtedly local but significant triumphs that caused disproportionately high casualties for the Germans.

The same might be said of the Canadian attack at Hill 70 in August.

 

I have to admit that my knowledge of some of the engagements that you mention here is sketchy to say the least but happy non the less to accept the veracity of your position. However, I don't think that it is inconsistent to see over a long campaign that some attrition battles will bear fruit whilst at the same time questioning the strategic vision of the Entente on the Western Front. 

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phil andrade

Edward,

 

Thanks for getting back to me .

 

You put things really well, I think.

 

My only reservation about your observations is that I feel more might be made of how the attritional fighting was , to a large degree, imposed by the Germans.

 

I think that the Allies were dancing to the German tune.

 

It was incumbent upon the Entente, for obvious reasons, to expel the invaders from Franco Belgian soil.

 

Those invaders possessed the advantage in terms of terrain and exploited those advantages relentlessly. Far from sitting still and waiting for the Allies to attack, they adopted a very aggressive form of defence and mounted a significant number of local offensives that were conducted in circumstances that favoured the Germans and allowed them to inflict disproportionate loss.  The Argonne fighting of early summer 1915 is a good example of this, as is, of course, Second Ypres.  Holding strong positions on enemy soil, and virtually provoking that enemy to conduct  large offensives against those positions, was a form of attrition that worked well for the Germans.  From July 1916 onwards, that advantage began to diminish, although this was attributable to French successes rather than British.  The German edge was to diminish still further in 1917, especially in those actions that I mentioned earlier.

 

Phil

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2 hours ago, phil andrade said:

 

I think that the Allies were dancing to the German tune.

 

It was incumbent upon the Entente, for obvious reasons, to expel the invaders from Franco Belgian soil.

 

Phil

Certainly the German seemed happy to allow the Allies to do all the major attacking, knowing that that should involve higher losses for them, particularly after the Germans had established the most extensive defensive lines ever devised. 
On the second point, it’s not obvious, is it, that occupied Allied soil must necessarily be regained if it has no strategic value?

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phil andrade
1 hour ago, PhilB said:

Certainly the German seemed happy to allow the Allies to do all the major attacking, knowing that that should involve higher losses for them, particularly after the Germans had established the most extensive defensive lines ever devised. 
On the second point, it’s not obvious, is it, that occupied Allied soil must necessarily be regained if it has no strategic value?

 

 

You're right about the retention - or regaining - of Allied soil that was of no strategic value.  This has been recognised in hindsight ; it was even acknowledged at the time : Smith Dorrien was sacked for advocating withdrawal from parts of the Ypres Salient ;  Churchill suggested that the French determination to hold ground at Verdun was inflating the cost of the defence.

The Germans proved the point by withdrawing to their Hindenburg Line defences in the spring of 1917, and, most poignantly, the British abandoned their hard won gains at Passchendaele the following spring.

 

That said, there was a very real and understandable determination to push the Germans out of home soil, especially when they were so close to Paris and the Channel Ports.  To acquiesce in such a situation was intolerable.  

 

The pressure of coalition warfare was a major determinant in the Entente plans for offensives, especially when the Russians were in desperate straits.

 

My principal point is that the Germans were much more aggressive than is generally acknowledged.  To depict the fighting of 1915-17 in France and Flanders as the  Franco British generals being too readily disposed to making profligate attacks - with the Germans sitting back and waiting to repulse them -  is to overlook the horrific conundrum that the Allies faced.

 

The Germans were imposing attrition and winning the exchange rate, even when they were attacking in the first half of the year 1916. 

 

If we allow for irreplaceable casualties, based on killed and prisoners only, the figures show how the war on the Western Front developed over the three years of" static " conditions.

 

From February 1915 until June 1916, the Allies lost twice as many killed and missing as the Germans.  From July to December 1916, the ratio changed to 1.2 to one, and from April to December 1917 the exchange actually went slightly in the Allies' favour.  This reflects the ability to take large numbers of German prisoners from the Somme onwards.

 

At no phase in this period did the British succeed in inflicting heavier loss than they suffered : it was the French who achieved that.

 

Phil

 

 

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ilkley remembers
22 hours ago, phil andrade said:

hanks for getting back to me .

 

You put things really well, I think.

 

My only reservation about your observations is that I feel more might be made of how the attritional fighting was , to a large degree, imposed by the Germans.

 

I think that the Allies were dancing to the German tune.

 

It was incumbent upon the Entente, for obvious reasons, to expel the invaders from Franco Belgian soil.

 

Thank you Phil for the kind words. Your point about Germany effectively controlling the agenda on the Western Front is well made and I would entirely concur. They do seem to have a more nuanced approach to the notion of attrition and clearly an ability to incorporate elements of attack into their into a defensive strategy. My understanding is that in spite of the best effort of the British and French in 1916 for example there was no real decline in Germany's available manpower resources.

 

I do agree that there is a tendency to underestimate, at least on this side of The Channel, the 'hard yards' which the French made against German armies in the first half of the war. It was unfortunate to say the least that the hubris following their successful defence of the Verdun turned to nemesis on the slopes of the Chemin de Dames.

 

19 hours ago, phil andrade said:

From February 1915 until June 1916, the Allies lost twice as many killed and missing as the Germans.  From July to December 1916, the ratio changed to 1.2 to one, and from April to December 1917 the exchange actually went slightly in the Allies' favour.  This reflects the ability to take large numbers of German prisoners from the Somme onwards.

 

At no phase in this period did the British succeed in inflicting heavier loss than they suffered : it was the French who achieved that.

 

 

To me this really is a reflection of the inadequacies of British Intelligence and particularly the unrealistic assessments of the effectiveness of their attacks, a failure which continued until 1918. It really is a testament to the astonishing ability to of British and Empire volunteers and conscripts to endure the grimmest of ordeals and retain cohesion 

 

 

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Robert Dunlop

Whilst attrition can be thought of in 'local' terms, such as a specific battle or the occupation of a piece of terrain, the concept is fundamental to the war as a whole. It isn't about one side losing more men than the other, in the context of total war. Attrition is about the fact that wars are won by systematically grinding down the enemy to the point where the enemy gives up. This process can involve the loss of more men than the enemy; the relative numbers do not matter in the end. From a pure numbers perspective, the huge campaign of Third Ypres in late 1917, for example, was driven in part by the knowledge that the USA was involved the war directly. At the same time, the awareness of US manpower drove Pétain's strategy to stay quiet in late 1917, by comparison to the British efforts (but bearing in mind that the French contributed directly to Third Ypres). This fact also drove the German strategy of early 1918 as well, as Ludendorff strove to destroy the British and French forces in decisive battle before the US forces were able to participate in the fighting. His strategy could not work because, as was shown repeatedly during the war, the field of battle was never going to be decisive if the enemy was able to continue resisting. If we look at the numbers then it must be remembered that, in the end, the German army was 'lost' completely. Small remnants remained of course but the combined attritional effects of manpower losses, loss of morale, inability to keep pace with the ever increasing production capacity of the Entente, loss of social cohesion, the effects of blockade, etc, etc, meant that Germany could not longer continue. Attrition was not just a numbers thing...

 

Robert

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phil andrade

Robert,

 

You’re right.

 

Attrition was multi dimensional, and the casualty figures must be  interpreted with this in mind.

 

The exchange rate on the Western Front  does suggest a very marked improvement for the Entente between 1915 and 1917, with even the British getting close to parity in 1917.

Six thousand Germans were taken prisoner by the BEF in 1915, seventy three thousand in 1917.  It took nearly fifty British casualties to capture one german in 1915, compared with fewer than eleven in 1917. There is a distinct attritional momentum apparent here, which surely impinged on Ludendorff’s decision to try conclusions in his profligate offensive in 1918.

 

Phil

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ilkley remembers
31 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

 It took nearly fifty British casualties to capture one german in 1915, compared with fewer than eleven in 1917.

 

Phil that is an absolutely astonishing figure just wondering where it is from?

 

Edward

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So the attritional grand plan would involve a panoramic view of all aspects of the conflict.  Quite a task! And who would, in theory, be responsible for this, possibly the most important job of all - presumably the War Cabinet? And the plan would need to be constantly updated as the global influences changed. Is there any evidence that such a formal plan ever actually existed? 

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phil andrade

SMEBE offers us an immense array of figures : they're all quite bewildering, so it's best to seek rough and ready trends rather than to rely on precision.

 

Here are the officially tabulated counts of German prisoners captured by the British on the Western Front, according to the records maintained by the BEF :

 

1914 : 6,367      (British casualties approx : 100,000)

 

1915 : 6,372      (British casualties approx : 300,000)

 

1916 : 41,308    (British casualties approx : 650,000)

 

1917 : 73,131    (British casualties approx : 750,000)

 

1918 : 201,633  (British casualties approx : 850,000)

 

It's important to remember that the prisoners were a relatively small proportion of the total casualties throughout much of the war.  Things changed in the more mobile phases, when things opened up and battles of breakthrough and   encirclement entailed large scale surrender.  Static battles tended to yield small hauls of prisoners, but immense loss of life.

 

For example, during the 1915-16-17 fighting, the Germans suffered about  one million total casualties at the hands of the British, of whom  only about one one in eight  were POWs.

 

My presentation is of necessity rough and ready, but I will gladly elaborate if requested.

 

Phil

 

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phil andrade
10 minutes ago, PhilB said:

So the attritional grand plan would involve a panoramic view of all aspects of the conflict.  Quite a task! And who would, in theory, be responsible for this, possibly the most important job of all - presumably the War Cabinet? And the plan would need to be constantly updated as the global influences changed. Is there any evidence that such a formal plan ever actually existed? 

 

 

What plan survives first contact with the enemy ?  The Plan is the first casualty.

 

It was a mess, lurching from crisis to crisis with things being made up as they went along.

 

Armchair commentators like myself can seek to impose an attritional narrative on the chaos, and enjoy  a century of hindsight to bestow wisdom.

 

Things don't change, do they ?

 

Phil

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ilkley remembers
20 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

My presentation is of necessity rough and ready, but I will gladly elaborate if requested.

Thanks Phil. I think that this is the first time that I have ever seen the casualty figures tabulated by year and it makes grim reading.

 

Edward

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phil andrade

Edward,

 

The balance sheet does indeed look grim for the BEF, especially when set against Haig's confident assertions about imminent German collapse in 1916 and 1917.  He was being told what he wanted to hear by Charteris.  His post war dispatch makes the case for the attritional efficacy of the fighting that commenced on 1 July 1916 and ended with the Armistice.  Trying to assess the claims is rather like dealing with Dr Dolittle's Push me Pull You.....there's always a feeling that it's too easy to criticise and the reminder  that the BEF, under Haig's command, won the biggest and hardest fought contest in British military annals.

 

Your concluding comment in a post above   :       It really is a testament to the astonishing ability of British and Empire volunteers and conscripts to endure the grimmest of ordeals and retain cohesion  wins my wholehearted endorsement.

 

Attrition usually conjures up an image of a protagonist using superior resources to grind down the weaker foe.  

 

Sometimes it's the weaker side that can exercise an attritional strategy to reduce the preponderance arrayed against it.

 

Right now I'm reading a superb book TIP & RUN,  The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa, by Edward Paice.  It's been on my shelves for ten years and, until now, I'd been too lazy and distracted to read it.  Inspired by the realisation that I've got family " skin in the game", I decided to give it a go, and I've been captivated by the story.

 

A footnote on page 280 cites an example of the kind of attrition that I allude to :

 

Between September and November 1916 10,000 horses, 11,000 oxen and 2,500 donkeys expired in the field, and livestock wastage rates for the year were running at nearly 300 per cent  ( as against sixteen per cent in 1914 and thirty-seven per cent in 1915).  One Australian with the South African Veterinary Corps, C.C. Doak, was so distressed by this that he took his own life with an overdose of morphia......... Von Lettow- Vorbeck tried to maximise the difficulties of using animal transport.  He frequently sent his veterinary officer, Dr Freidrich Huber, to survey possible lines  of retreat with a view to choosing one that would be most deadly for Allied livestock.

 

The East African Campaign does not stand out in the folklore of the Great War, let alone as an example of a war of attrition, but the things I'm reading about in this book have rather changed my mind.  The impact on the population of black Africans was deadly, as tens of thousands of them were deployed as carriers and suffered the same fate as those poor animals.

 

Phil

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Foresterab

I've been thinking of this concept of attrition from a Central Powers perspective and may be the best illustration of it is the East African campaign.   I knew it was a massive Entente effort but I didn't realize how big until I started looking at it:

For the cost of ~36,000 German (regular and askari enlisted) troops over 250,000 Entente troops were involved plus up to 600,000 porters at a time.   Mind boggling return on investment to 1) force Entente British and Portuguese forces to even have to fight in the area and 2) require a huge diversion of the total manpower to this front and 3) Due to the increased focus of using more and more African troops removed many of these areas from supporting efforts on other fronts.   

Now the issue of being an isolated force unable to be reinforced or supplied meant that this effort was most successful for Germany in 1914/1915/1916 by which time the remaining force had been whittled down to a much less serious and no longer strategic threat but they were still engaged until end of the war and still played a role.

 

In regards to the comment on porters:

Apparently so many men were conscripted to porters in Kenya that when the casualties started to occur it was of such a scale that 13% of the male population died (45,000 men).   Overall casualties were in the 9-10% range for porters alone so adds to another grim statistic of the challenges of hostile terrain when scaled against the better known Western Front.  

 

I've pulled all the stats off of wikipedia...yes I know it's not the best but do not have access to better libraries or source books here.

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Robert Dunlop

I would urge caution about the interpretation that the German command 'exercise[d] an attritional strategy..' The predominant strategic intent on the Western Front was 'defensive' not 'attritional', until such time as the Eastern Front was destroyed. There was a huge, shared concern about an attritional war, dating from the experiences of the Franco-Prussian War post-Sedan. The concern before the Great War was not just about the loss of lives but more about the enormous economic drain alongside the potential destruction of Germany, both economic and as a geo-political entity. The one major and deliberate attempt at attritional operations (not strategy) was the Battle of Verdun. It required a massive (for the time) attack in order to draw the French into the hoped-for attritional follow-up. It is not surprising that the replacements for Von Falkenhayn were the perceived Masters of the Annihilation Battle, Ludendorf and von Hindenburg. By the time they came into post, the effects of attrition were already making inroads into German morale for example. German censors began picking up the trend in letters from frontline troops on the Western Front during 1916, as the massive impact of the ever-growing industrial capacity of the Entente made itself felt in the seemingly inhuman 'Materialschlacht'. The German war effort relied heavily on frontline soldiers remaining loyal to each other and to protecting their loved ones back home from the threat of invasion. The attrition of morale, as well as lives and expertise, continued to escalate as the effects of industrial warfare increased. The ever-increasing losses, though less than the British and French, mean that veterans distanced themselves from the reinforcements. Greater expertise at all levels in command and control than the enemy was seen as a force multiplier, capable of overcoming the manpower disadvantage. The skills and expertise were eroded. Arguably, the greatest effect of attrition was to crumble the desire to protect the Homeland. As word and experience of the deprivations back in Germany grew, combined with the relentless increase in Entente firepower, the censors detected the increasing distress at having to fight on that subsequently became manifest in the large-scale surrenders during the Battle of Amiens, etc. What von Moltke the Younger had most feared if France was not knocked out quickly had finally come to pass. Little wonder that he became very ill when it was clear that the Battle of the Marne had destroyed all hope of decisive annihilation. He died in 1916, a broken man - broken by the realisation that war is total, 'Der Volkskrieg' as it was called after the Franco-Prussian War, and that he had been unable to turn back the inevitable tide of war.

 

Otto Dix captured the impacts of attrition in his powerful painting based on his experiences during the war:

 

https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-war/CwHM2HdTO3l2vg?hl=en-GB

 

Robert

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ilkley remembers
22 hours ago, phil andrade said:

The balance sheet does indeed look grim for the BEF, especially when set against Haig's confident assertions about imminent German collapse in 1916 and 1917.  He was being told what he wanted to hear by Charteris. 

 

A fair comment, Phil, although perhaps a better general might have questioned Charteris a little more vigorously given that the intelligence he was providing didn't seem to produce the required results. 

 

The Paice book is excellent although it is some years since I read it. The shocking disregard for black lives makes for difficult reading. 

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phil andrade

Robert,

 

Your allusion to the Franco Prussian War troubles me, because I’m abysmally ignorant about it.  The names of several battles come to mind, the Siege of Paris, the francs tireurs, the Paris Commune and Bismarck declaring the new Reich in the Hall of Mirrors, a humiliating peace and the loss of Alsace Lorraine, along with harsh indemnities.

 

I think that the Prussians won that crushing victory with fewer casualties than Germany was to suffer in the First Battle of Ypres in one month in 1914.

 

That such a singular triumph should have imparted a dread of attrition to German minds is quite a stretch of mind for me, and it’s all too clear that I need to learn more about the war of 1870-71.

 

I can bunny on endlessly about the American Civil War, and yet I know next to nothing about the Franco Prussian War.

 

Time for me to smell the coffee !

 

Phil

 

 

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ilkley remembers
7 hours ago, Robert Dunlop said:

I would urge caution about the interpretation that the German command 'exercise[d] an attritional strategy..' The predominant strategic intent on the Western Front was 'defensive' not 'attritional', until such time as the Eastern Front was destroyed.

 

I suspect that in the years leading up to 1914 the German General Staff (GGS) were aware the the balance sheet of debits and credits was beginning to stack up against them as the Entente was not only outspending them militarily but also investing in the necessary infrastructure to enable a more rapid response to possible  aggression.

 

My understanding is that there was considerable debate at staff college level before the commencement of hostilities about the need to engage in an attritional war should the Schlieffen Plan fail in its primary aim. A policy of meeting attack with counterattack tends to suggest that attrition was for Falkenhayn at least a justifiable defensive strategy

 

7 hours ago, Robert Dunlop said:

the effects of attrition were already making inroads into German morale for example. German censors began picking up the trend in letters from frontline troops on the Western Front during 1916, as the massive impact of the ever-growing industrial capacity of the Entente made itself felt in the seemingly inhuman 'Materialschlacht'. The German war effort relied heavily on frontline soldiers remaining loyal to each other and to protecting their loved ones back home from the threat of invasion. The attrition of morale, as well as lives and expertise, continued to escalate as the effects of industrial warfare increased.

 

An interesting comment as it begins to get to the crux of the question why the Germany succumbed on the Western Front in the second half of 1918. German casualties alone do not seem to offer a full explanation of relatively sudden collapse. Both France and Britain suffered huge casualties but morale didn't falter. France had successfully nursed its army back from catastrophe in 1917 which showed that with the right leadership recovery was possible. Clearly, the German soldiers would be aware of the state of the home front and restricted food supplies. But the army itself remained relatively well fed and resourced. To some extent low morale may offer an explanation, but is it more than that and was it a reflection on internal structures within the German Army which was unable to counter what seems to have become a collective apathy. It has been argued that the German command and officer system was simply unable to control or motivate men who had reached a state of psychological torpor.

 

The Dix of course is now regarded as a masterpiece but in the years immediately after 1918 his works probably missed connecting with the revisionist view of the war that was being encouraged by the German state. It is interesting that he didn't receive the international recognition that Kathe Kollwitz achieved in the 20s and 30s.

 

 

 

 

 

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phil andrade

Edward,

 

Your point that German casualties alone do not account for the sudden collapse prompts me to make a few comments .

 

There was a colossal casualty list for Germany in the period March to June 1918, in March and April especially, transcending everything in previous experience.  The best part of one million battle casualties were sustained by the Kaiser’s armies on the Western Front in those four months.  Included amongst these was a grotesquely high proportion of officers, implying a qualitative loss that compounded the numerical magnitude.

 

There was also the emergence of influenza to contend with.

 

Undoubtedly there were other factors apart from those casualties, but they were surely the preponderant feature of the damage, which was accompanied by realisation that the all out efforts had failed, the Americans were engaged in battle and the home front was starving and demoralised.

 

Phil

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Robert Dunlop
16 hours ago, phil andrade said:

That such a singular triumph should have imparted a dread of attrition to German minds is quite a stretch of mind for me...

Phil, the key to understanding the impact of the Franco-Prussian War does not lie the victories on the field of battle. As you say, the battles up to and including the Battle of Sedan were pretty decisive from a tactical and operational perspective. It was the Siege of Paris that had the bigger impact. The siege proved costly from an economic perspective. But there was also the realisation that a motivated population could prolong a war beyond the seemingly straightforward operational victories on the battlefield. The idea of a People's War, akin to Total War, was debated in German military publications and within the public arena as well. Many books on the subject were even translated into English as well.

 

Robert

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phil andrade

Tremendously helpful, Robert, thank you.

 

Phil

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ilkley remembers
22 hours ago, phil andrade said:

There was a colossal casualty list for Germany in the period March to June 1918, in March and April especially, transcending everything in previous experience.  The best part of one million battle casualties were sustained by the Kaiser’s armies on the Western Front in those four months.  Included amongst these was a grotesquely high proportion of officers, implying a qualitative loss that compounded the numerical magnitude.

 

 

Undoubtedly, this is the case Phil but what I am trying to suggest is that there seems to be a tendency particularly in the UK to overly rely on a quantitive analysis at the expense of any understanding of the complexities of the parlous state of German morale in 1918.  

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phil andrade

Edward,

 

Writing a couple of decades or more ago- could it be three ? - John Keegan ventured a rather controversial argument about the loss of life and its effect on morale in the Great War.

 

He suggested that, in the case of the French, Italian and British armies, there was a collapse in morale when the number of battle deaths reached a total equivalent to the number of men that were currently deployed in front line combat units.

 

For the French, that crisis came in the early summer of 1917, after the failure of the Nivelle Offensive.  For the Italians , it came with Caporetto , after successive battles along the Isonzo front had produced appalling casualties for minimal gains.  For the British, he reckoned, the collapse came in March 1918, with the breaking of the Fifth Army.  It’s a controversial assessment, and requires a lot of circumspection.  I’ll try and find the source and see if I’ve remembered it correctly.

 

What he did stress, though, is that the German army bucked the trend, and fought on for a longer time, and with commensurately greater loss of life, before this collapse occurred .

 

This does certainly add weight to your assertion that we must look beyond the numbers when we seek attribution for the German collapse.  I adhere to the view that the monstrous casualty list of March and April 1918 was the principal reason, but I acknowledge that there were complexities that go beyond “ mere ciphering”.

 

Phil

 

 

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phil andrade

John Keegan's THE FACE OF BATTLE, published 1976.  Forty five years ago : good grief, where do the years go ?

 

Page 271 :

 

However, it is probably not the lapse of time  which is significant, but the relationship of total casualties to the number of fighting troops engaged ; a rough calculation , and anything better than a rough calculation  is difficult with such notoriously unreliable  statistics as casualty figures, suggests that the break came soon after the the total number of deaths suffered equalled the number of fighting infantry in the divisions.  Counting the fighting infantry of a division at 10,000, and the number of British, French, Italian and Russian divisions, we get figures of 600,000, 1,100,000, 450,000 and 1,200,000 which are more or less the totals of deaths suffered by each combatant power at the moment its army underwent collapse or crisis.  The German army, which certainly suffered a great many more deaths before cracking, escapes from the pattern; but it is important to recall that, almost to the end of the war, it had been fed on a diet of victory; in 1914, Tannenberg, in 1915 Gorlice-Tarnov, in 1916 the defeat of Rumania, in 1917 Caporetto and the Russian armistice, in 1918 a succession of breakthroughs on the British and French fronts.

 

This is certainly an intriguing idea : to apply an algorithm to the arithmetic of manpower attrition  and to suggest that there was such a correlation between aggregate numbers of deaths and moments of crisis.  Note that Keegan alluded to deaths, not total casualties.  

 

Phil

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