Jump to content
Great War Forum

Remembered Today:

Attrition


Recommended Posts

phil andrade
16 hours ago, ilkley remembers said:
16 hours ago, ilkley remembers said:

 

 

 

If memory serves me right France only endured one 'continental war' between 1815 and 1914 and that lasted only 6 months. Technically Germany hadn't been through any since it only came into being in 1871. Prussia it has to be said suffered 3 although none on the scale of either WW1 or the Napoleonic Wars. Europe had been remarkably war free for 100 years so I suspect any comment that Germany, France, Italy etc were more used to wars than Britain is a bit off the mark

 

 

 

Edward,

 

French involvement in the Crimean War was conducted on a large scale :  300,000 + troops engaged, nearly one hundred thousand dying, the majority from disease, but some very bloody battles which cost the French sixty thousand killed or wounded.  A few years later came Solferino, in which twelve thousand French soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in a single day.

Not as traumatic as the Franco Prussian war, but rather too large to be overlooked,

 

Phil

Link to post
Share on other sites
ilkley remembers
On 28/05/2021 at 09:34, phil andrade said:

French involvement in the Crimean War was conducted on a large scale :  300,000 + troops engaged, nearly one hundred thousand dying, the majority from disease, but some very bloody battles which cost the French sixty thousand killed or wounded.  A few years later came Solferino, in which twelve thousand French soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in a single day.

Not as traumatic as the Franco Prussian war, but rather too large to be overlooked,

 

Yes, Phil, Solferino certainly a major and important battle post Napoleonic period and one I have to admit to have completely forgotten about. The Crimean War I did consider but not entirely sure how it fits in with the pattern of European wars that we were considering. Certainly it involved European powers and Sardinia and as you relate Britain was heavily involved but in the long term had rather more effect on Russia than either of the Western Allies. I suppose if we are looking at wars during the 19th Century then the Indian Rebellion and the Boer Wars amounted to major conflicts and ones which had a considerable impact on the British Empire. However, I remain largely unmoved by Terraine’s assertion that in Britain reaction to the war was exceptional, or at least in the way in which I think he was suggesting.

 

. As you say, Phil, the First World War seems to have suffered in comparison to WW2 which was perceived as a more clear cut and moral victory by a country which was fortunate enough to be on the winning side. As far as Terraine’s contribution to the historiography of WW1 it would certainly be churlish not to credit for his contribution in successfully broadening the dialogue at a time when re-evaluation of that war in comparison with the events of 1939-45. But I can’t help feeling that Terraine’s almost hagiographic treatment of Haig tends to limit his ability to realistically assess his achievements and would I would whole heartedly agree that his attempts at the vindication of Haig have weakened the tenet of his argument.

 

In the 1990s, during a brief dalliance with the WFA, I attended a branch meeting at York to hear a talk by the military historian Corelli Barnett who was a ‘fellow traveler’ of Terraine and who also contributed the Great War series. His line about Haig’s legacy was that it had been much traduced by the writings of middle and upper class war poets who had in effect highjacked our understanding of the war. Rather bizarrely Barnett also suggested that the disenchantment  narrative had directly contributed to the policy of appeasement in the 1930s.  There are certainly parallels here with Terraine’s view that the shadow cast over Britain by the Great War led to an exceptional response out of kilter with the other major combatants.  

 

Edward

 

  

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
phil andrade

Edward,

 

That word “exceptional “ , and it’s concomitant “exceptionalism” is , I think, germinal to Terraine’s depiction of the Great War.

 

He wants to demolish that perception that 1914-18 was exceptional. He argues that it accords with the experience of other wars : the American Civil War, before it, and the Second World War, after it, serve to demonstrate the continuum of attritional warfare between evenly matched protagonists in intense and prolonged conflict.

 

He seeks to remind us that the cost of victory in such warfare is bound to be high ; more than that, he wants us to see the toll of a Somme or a Passchendaele to be par for the course.  The British people dwell on these horrors without being aware that their losses pale besides those of other belligerents : more than that, the notorious battles of the Great War itself are eclipsed by the  Eastern Front 1941-45.

 

We should put the Somme in perspective and get over it.

 

I part company with him here.

 

Phil

Link to post
Share on other sites

7.30 tonight Freeview Ch 84. “spring 1918 when tens of thousands of 18 year old British conscripts were sent to France to make up the numbers”

Link to post
Share on other sites
ilkley remembers
1 hour ago, phil andrade said:

That word “exceptional “ , and it’s concomitant “exceptionalism” is , I think, germinal to Terraine’s depiction of the Great War.

 

He wants to demolish that perception that 1914-18 was exceptional. He argues that it accords with the experience of other wars : the American Civil War, before it, and the Second World War, after it, serve to demonstrate the continuum of attritional warfare between evenly matched protagonists in intense and prolonged conflict.

 

 

Yes interesting, Phil, the idea of the American Civil War as a sort of predicate for both world wars with the notion of attrition as determinate. Not wholly taken by the continuum view but it certainly has merit I think

Link to post
Share on other sites
phil andrade

Thanks Edward : my post written in haste in difficult circumstances.

 

I haven’t done justice to what I’m trying to say.

 

Anxious not to denigrate Terraine : he deserves immense credit and he’s certainly influenced me profoundly.

 

His tendency to play down the stupefying casualty figures of the Somme by suggesting that they are not exceptional by the standards of the Eastern Front a generation later, or even by those of the Brusilov battles at the same time, gets me a bit agitated.

 

Phil

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
ilkley remembers
17 hours ago, phil andrade said:

His tendency to play down the stupefying casualty figures of the Somme by suggesting that they are not exceptional by the standards of the Eastern Front a generation later, or even by those of the Brusilov battles at the same time, gets me a bit agitated.

 

Reminiscent of Jay Winters argument reprised by David Reynolds in the Long Shadow which was based on a TV documentary (BBC I think) broadcast in 2014 (ish) Think John Terraine got rather worked up about Winters analysis.

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
phil andrade

Yes, Edward, why is it that getting “worked up “ is such an attribute of the legacy of the Great War  ?

 

I find myself all too susceptible.

 

The Second World War doesn’t hold the same grip on me, although it was quite recent in respect of my birth.

 

Phil 

Link to post
Share on other sites
ilkley remembers
15 hours ago, phil andrade said:

why is it that getting “worked up “ is such an attribute of the legacy of the Great War  ?

 

Deserves a thread of its own I suspect.

 

Comparing perceptions  of WW1 and WW2 particularly the way in which the latter was presented to the post 1945 generations as a glorious episode in the nations history whilst the former seen all most as an event from the distant past, despite the fact that it was within the living memory of many people. WW2 for the British seems to have been a 'clean' war with clear cut objectives and outcomes and one in which we could justifiably be proud of our role. WW1 on the other hand was a 'difficult' war with causes and a conclusion not easy to understood or comprehend  and defined largely in simple terms by the horrors of the Western Front. In some ways the study of WW1 is therefore, more nuanced, and offers opportunities to become involved in a historical process where interpretation of its events is very much still ongoing. Something which I am not sure is evident in the way WW2 is analysed. That certainly is part of my preferred interest in WW1 and the subsequent events of the 20s and 30s.

 

Edward 

Link to post
Share on other sites
phil andrade

Yes, Edward, it does deserve a thread of its own.

 

I’m hoping to conflate the grim reputation of the Great War with the question of attrition.

 

Has there ever been a war so synonymous with relentless mass killing on a fixed front for such a long time ?

 

Therein lies the attributes that so appall us , especially when we know that the Germans were getting the better of it for most of the time.

 

Phil

Link to post
Share on other sites
ilkley remembers
15 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Has there ever been a war so synonymous with relentless mass killing on a fixed front for such a long time ?

 

Possibly the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s

 

Interesting quotation in the Times Obituary column this morning from Bill Slim (defeat into Victory) "Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units."

Link to post
Share on other sites
phil andrade

 Edward,

 

That review reached out and grabbed me, too.

 

The standard units of the German army must have felt pretty desperate in the autumn of 1918.

 

When I read about the feats of the Canadians in the Hundred Days, I try and imagine the desperate fear felt by the Germans who faced them at places such as Valenciennes in the final days.

 

A quick glance at the narrative of that battle suggests something of a massacre.

 

There were other such episodes, and they were replicated by other Dominion contingents and by Tommy Atkins himself.

 

Other allied contingents were wreaking havoc, too.

 

Phil

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
ilkley remembers
13 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

When I read about the feats of the Canadians in the Hundred Days, I try and imagine the desperate fear felt by the Germans who faced them at places such as Valenciennes in the final days.

 

Phil,

 

Reda a Ph.D thesis a few years ago from a student at I think from memory Calgary University which compared the fighting capabilities of of a Canadian and British Division on the Western Front. From memory the Canadian was the 4th and the British the 62nd (2nd West Riding). The 62nd which arrived in France at the same time as the Canadian 4th(?) and as a 2nd line territorial unit was not highly regarded yet ultimately the author concluded that there was little to separate them in terms of battlefield achievements particularly in the final stages of the war. His view was that there was a significant difference in the way in which Canadian and British Divisions were used with the former more used to well planned and staged set piece attacks whilst the 62nd more adept at adapting tactics to rapidly changing circumstances. Different approaches yet equally effective.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Way back on page 1 of this thread, I asked:-

"Do you mean there are 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`m still not clear whether rules exist, what they might be, who formulated them in WW1 or if they were taught.:unsure:

Link to post
Share on other sites
phil andrade
11 hours ago, ilkley remembers said:

 

Phil,

 

Reda a Ph.D thesis a few years ago from a student at I think from memory Calgary University which compared the fighting capabilities of of a Canadian and British Division on the Western Front. From memory the Canadian was the 4th and the British the 62nd (2nd West Riding). The 62nd which arrived in France at the same time as the Canadian 4th(?) and as a 2nd line territorial unit was not highly regarded yet ultimately the author concluded that there was little to separate them in terms of battlefield achievements particularly in the final stages of the war. His view was that there was a significant difference in the way in which Canadian and British Divisions were used with the former more used to well planned and staged set piece attacks whilst the 62nd more adept at adapting tactics to rapidly changing circumstances. Different approaches yet equally effective.

 

Edward,

 

Canadian troops had been spared the terrible battles of March and April, although there were some isolated epics : a dramatic cavalry action at Moreuil Wood and some effective motorised MG detachments that gave a good account of themselves.

 

Currie was surely a successful attritionist , and a teacher, too.  He knew when to hold back, and when to go all out.  He was loathed by some Canadians who blamed him for insisting on attacks right up to the eleventh hour, literally. 

 

PhilB might find answers to his questions if he surveys what Currie wrote about the war.  I wonder if he developed as an attritionist as the war went on, or whether he started out with precepts that defined his command.

 

Phil

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
MikeMeech

Hi

Reference what 'Staff College' was teaching in pre-war in Britain, here are some extracts from Sir William Robertson's 'From Private to Field Marshal' that may help:

WW1acdpec032.jpg.7c53924a8c2552f294c5ae15a7b51f46.jpg

WW1acdpec033.jpg.db48c6644b6861134486e28138a3ec1f.jpg

WW1acdpec034.jpg.5be6b01a90cc303046e966b7cac48b9d.jpg

WW1acdpec035.jpg.134a65e5ec49bf02aff3c2a18265231c.jpg

 

Mike

 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks, Mike. I note that Robertson mentions a "determination to close with your enemy" as being a necessary qualification for staff. That sounds like a phrase for use in the small wars of Victorian days but not for a highly industrialized and extensive war of attrition as WW1 was seen to be almost from the start? I also see no evidence that, in 1912, Robertson foresaw any of the problems of a static battleground dominated by MGs and artillery or of the effects on the homefronts of sustained warfare and blockades. Which is worrying as he was seen as one of the smartest of the generals!

Link to post
Share on other sites
phil andrade

Just a decade before the Great War, an intense and industrialised war between Russia and Japan had demonstrated all the attributes of modern war, with trenches and wire, rapid firing artillery and machine guns, and a significant deployment of naval power.

 

There was static warfare at Port Arthur and the fighting was fierce and bloody.

 

Yet it witnessed triumph of bold offensive tactics in which morale and resolve won the day against formidable defensive firepower.

 

It must have been incumbent upon professional soldiers to heed the lessons and seek to emulate the feats of the victors.

 

Phil

 

 

 

Edited by phil andrade
Link to post
Share on other sites
MikeMeech
On 07/06/2021 at 13:40, PhilB said:

Thanks, Mike. I note that Robertson mentions a "determination to close with your enemy" as being a necessary qualification for staff. That sounds like a phrase for use in the small wars of Victorian days but not for a highly industrialized and extensive war of attrition as WW1 was seen to be almost from the start? I also see no evidence that, in 1912, Robertson foresaw any of the problems of a static battleground dominated by MGs and artillery or of the effects on the homefronts of sustained warfare and blockades. Which is worrying as he was seen as one of the smartest of the generals!

 

10 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Just a decade before the Great War, an intense and industrialised war between Russia and Japan had demonstrated all the attributes of modern war, with trenches and wire, rapid firing artillery and machine guns, and a significant deployment of naval power.

 

There was static warfare at Port Arthur and the fighting was fierce and bloody.

 

Yet it witnessed triumph of bold offensive tactics in which morale and resolve won the day against formidable defensive firepower.

 

It must have been incumbent upon professional soldiers to heed the lessons and seek to emulate the feats of the victors.

 

Phil

 

 

 

Hi

No General Staff thought that the Great War would turn out as it did, the German General Staff planned to rapidly defeat the French then turn East, not have trenches from the Channel to Switzerland.  They had stockpiled food, fodder and other materials for this 'rapid war', not least because the main outside suppliers to Germany of food and fodder were France and Russia so unlikely be willing to keep supplying the German population (indeed nearly every decision made by the military on the German home front appears to have made the food supply situation worse).  The French Staff was also not planning to have a long war of attrition so I am not sure why the British not seeing the problem arising is somehow 'unique'? 

The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1915 did not have continuous defence lines that prevented movement totally, there were sieges but that is not the same as the trench lines formed by the end of 1914 and after on the Western Front.   Other wars studied at Staff Colleges prior to WW1 such as the ACW and Franco-Prussian War also did not have WW1 type trench systems that were continuous.  Indeed there was much discussion in Staff Colleges on the use of Cavalry and other mounted troops in these conflicts.  Even the Boer War had sieges, trenches and lines of wire with early 'pill boxes' but it did not mean the war became static.

Presumably then the two most 'stupid' General Staffs in Europe were the Germans and the French, who were fighting (or rather re-fighting) on their home turf and did nor foresee the problems created by a battlefield dominated by MGs and artillery, they certainly did not plan for that eventuality.

 

Mike

Link to post
Share on other sites
David Filsell

This has been a fascinating thread. My own very simple view of attrition must be the military objective of wearing down the enemy by creating casualties and fatalities sufficiently to destroy the opponents will and ability to fight and win. Surely this has been the primary objective of wars throughout history. The wars just got bigger and the weapons more effective. 

Link to post
Share on other sites
11 minutes ago, David Filsell said:

This has been a fascinating thread. My own very simple view of attrition must be the military objective of wearing down the enemy by creating casualties and fatalities sufficiently to destroy the opponents will and ability to fight and win. Surely this has been the primary objective of wars throughout history. The wars just got bigger and the weapons more effective. 

Hi

 

Yes.  Or at the tactical level when you have a 'contact' you were to 'win the fire fight', causing the 'attrition' and then 'advance'.

 

Mike

Link to post
Share on other sites
phil andrade

Are we in danger of falling into the trap of attributing the attritional fighting on the Western Front, with its attendant impasse and horrific casualties, to poor generalship....when it might be a case of the reverse ?   Evenly matched protagonists, with high standards of professionalism and resolve, and supported by millions of able and willing people, will end up in a contest of " hard pounding" , whether it be for four days, as  in June 1815,  or for four years between 1914 and 1918. 

 

Phil

Link to post
Share on other sites

Let's not forget that at decision or hesitance on the part of a General a Private soldier and any rank in between can result in onforeseen or unncecesary casualties.

Link to post
Share on other sites

So, once the war became clearly one of attrition (quite early on), did the idea of big breakthroughs become obsolete? And, in the planning and running of a battle, was it desirable to simply incur fewer casualties numerically than the enemy or just a number that might be higher but was more affordable than that incurred by the enemy?

Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, PhilB said:

So, once the war became clearly one of attrition (quite early on), did the idea of big breakthroughs become obsolete? And, in the planning and running of a battle, was it desirable to simply incur fewer casualties numerically than the enemy or just a number that might be higher but was more affordable than that incurred by the enemy?

 

Obviously the desirable outcome was to inflict more casualties than those one sustained in absolute terms.  For the Entente, this outcome was denied for the greater part of the fighting, although there were some significant exceptions.  I doubt that the Allied High Command ever sought to justify their efforts by claiming that the exchange rate was more affordable in relative terms. There was, I reckon, some delusion/ denial syndrome at work , when people in charge were told what they wanted to hear.  The evidence of official statistics is stark, but there is a multiplicity of differences in the way they might be interpreted.  At the risk of telling pals what they already know, I cannot overstate the importance of surveying Churchill’s analysis in his chapter The Blood Test, especially if reference is made to the appendix at the back of his final volume of The World Crisis/The Great War.  Anyone who seeks to get a grip on the question we’re discussing here really must take a look. To do otherwise would be like studying Hamlet without The Prince.  This is not to say that one must agree with Churchill : but please, if you haven’t already done so, give his chapter a look.

 

Phil

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...