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Remembered Today:

Attrition


PhilB
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Senior British military personnel, such as Kitchener and Haig, were involved in early discussions with politicians about the potential outcomes of a declaration of war. Both advised that the war would be prolonged over several years. Once war was declared, the desirable outcome was to defeat the enemy irrespective of how long it took. And how many casualties it took, regardless of how many casualties the enemy took. The process of attrition was all-encompassing: blockades, alliances, multiple fronts, espionage, etc, etc. The process grew in scope to include long-range bombing for example, as a forerunner to the Allied strategic bombing programme in WW2. 

 

The planning of battles was based on the resources available (both to the attacker and to the defender) and the objectives. Where possible, the maximum number and range of resources were requested for each battle but supply issues (eg shell production in the first half of the war), infrastructure constraints (eg lack of effective road and rail systems behind the Somme front before July 1916), manpower constraints, etc, all conspired to affect battle plans, in combination with the inevitable political constraints or drivers as well. No battle or operational plan that I have studied, on any side, included mention of losing less casualties than the enemy.

 

The idea of 'big breakthroughs' was never obsolete. Who knew in advance that the limit of the enemy had been reached, either locally or generally? As I have mentioned before, the planning process typically revolved around multiple scenarios: no success whatsoever; attainment of some objectives, either partial or complete; and what to do if the enemy collapsed and began to withdraw or retreat. The level of planning around the latter was often incomplete with respect to precise details but could lead to the positioning of resources for exploitation that were often not used (as in the case of the Somme for example) but could go on to have a huge impact if the enemy did collapse locally (as in the case of Megiddo for example, or Mackensen's offensives in Russia and Romania).

 

As the war progressed, the effects of heavy losses became clearer to each side. This never involved toting up and comparing losses for individual battles over the years, at least not to my knowledge. The cumulative effects were the key focus. All manner of mitigations were considered. There were huge increases in firepower, though the technological developments were not driven by the cumulative losses but were evident from the beginning of the war. There were, however, more deliberate and explicit considerations of how technology could compensate for losses, facilitating wider frontages for units and smaller numbers of men committed to an offensive as two examples where the huge increase in artillery firepower was used as a force multiplier. For the British and French, mitigations included getting the USA to put troops in the field. This was especially important after Russia dropped out, withdrawing the numbers of Russian effectives from the manpower equation. 

 

Robert

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I mentioned earlier about the psychological impacts of European continental wars in general on the relative perceptions of the Great War in particular. The relative size and scale of these wars has been touched on in subsequent posts. It is very important to understand that the psychological impact on modern-day perceptions, purely from my experience, relates to much much more than the casualty rates. A more significant consideration, especially for the French post-WW2 for example where losses during the war itself were less, was the occupation of some or all of the territory of the 'country' following a war. When viewed from this context, the impact of the Great War has lesser significance compared with the UK perspective. For German friends and colleagues, the losses of WW2 are much more significant, both in terms of the historical proximity, the direct impact on civilians. as well as the wider geo-political consequences.

 

Robert

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Robert,

 

A lot of inventories were made during the war, in which  manpower losses were analysed and compared, in specific battles and in the aggregate.

 

Look no further than Churchill’s August 1916 Memorandum to the War Cabinet, in which he scrutinised and discredited the claims of GHQ regarding the losses suffered by the Germans against the British in the first month of the Somme.

 

Phil

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Thank you for that extra information, Phil. Apologies that my point wasn't more clear. I was referring specifically to the impact that losses were having on military planning, rather than the analysis of specific details of losses in each battle per se. Individual battles and operations were often analysed in great detail through after action reports, staff conferences, etc. The common theme was to learn lessons for future battles. I don't recall any such reports or analyses focusing on having taken more casualties consistently than the Germans over preceding battles, as well as in the battle under scrutiny. There were numerous debates at the level of the War Cabinet and the likes, representing in part the tension between the 'military' perspective and the 'political' perspective. 

 

Robert

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Posted (edited)

“I don't recall any such reports or analyses focusing on having taken more casualties consistently than the Germans over preceding battles, as well as in the battle under scrutiny.”

 

Not the kind of information that a staff officer like Charteris would relish presenting to GHQ? So probably better left unexplored!


 

 

 

 

 

Edited by PhilB
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On 13/06/2021 at 08:52, Robert Dunlop said:

Senior British military personnel, such as Kitchener and Haig, were involved in early discussions with politicians about the potential outcomes of a declaration of war. Both advised that the war would be prolonged over several years. Once war was declared, the desirable outcome was to defeat the enemy irrespective of how long it took. And how many casualties it took, regardless of how many casualties the enemy took. The process of attrition was all-encompassing: blockades, alliances, multiple fronts, espionage, etc, etc.

 

This is an interesting observation and seems to suggest that at both a strategic and tactical level the decision to fight an attritional war against Germany had been taken prior to the commencement of hostilities. I just wonder under what or whose aegis these discussions took place. Am I right to assume that they were of a formal nature and to whom were the findings reported?  

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Robert ,

 

Have you encountered the reports made by the French soldier and politician Abel Ferry ?

 

He was rather like the French equivalent of Churchill, in so far as he was a serving officer who also participated in politics.  He was more steeped in combat than Churchill, and was fatally wounded near the end of the war.

 

He remonstrated that , by the middle of the war, German and French total deaths were not very different in the aggregate, even though the German total included soldiers killed by the Russians and the British .  He was endowed with the worm’s eye view of the battlefield, but was gaining access to the overall picture of the war’s mortality record, which, in his reckoning, painted a pretty dismal picture of the attritional aspirations of Joffre.

 

Apologies if you’re already aware of this  : it’s a mortifying thought that I might be holding forth to someone better informed than I am.

 

Phil

 

 

 

 

 

 

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9 hours ago, ilkley remembers said:

 

This is an interesting observation and seems to suggest that at both a strategic and tactical level the decision to fight an attritional war against Germany had been taken prior to the commencement of hostilities. I just wonder under what or whose aegis these discussions took place. Am I right to assume that they were of a formal nature and to whom were the findings reported?  

The meeting took place on 3rd August 1914, the day before the declaration of war was delivered. Prime Minister Asquith had called the meeting and members of the Cabinet were in attendance, along with Kitchener and Haig. 

 

Robert

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The ordnance that the respective belligerents possessed at the outbreak of war stands as an indicator of how they thought the forthcoming conflict was going to develop.

 

The greater the preponderance of field guns, the less prepared for static fighting.

 

The Germans possessed a greater ratio of heavies, : am I right ?

 

The French had heavy guns, but they were more confined to fortresses.

 

I wonder if this is a reasonable yardstick to assess how far the armies were prepared for the prolonged static fighting that we associate with the attrition of the Western Front.

 

By September 1914 Haig was already pressing the demand for more heavy high projectile artillery, as his men were taking too many hits on the Aisne.

 

The prescience that went with his assessment of prolonged war was not accompanied by awareness of the need for this kind of firepower, it seems.

 

Attrition on the Western Front was dependent so much on the quantity - and quality - of heavy ordnance, that without the requisite ratio things would go badly awry.

 

The French were much more up to the mark in this respect than the British in July 1916, and even one year later, in Haig's Flanders venture, it was apparent that the French army, to the left of the British, were achieving success much more cheaply on account of their lavish deployment of heavy guns.

 

I think that attrition and artillery need to be conflated in our discussion.

 

Phil

 

 

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On 13/06/2021 at 21:22, phil andrade said:

Look no further than Churchill’s August 1916 Memorandum to the War Cabinet, in which he scrutinised and discredited the claims of GHQ regarding the losses suffered by the Germans against the British in the first month of the Somme

 

Perhaps the problem for Churchill was that he was somewhat out of favour after the fiasco of the Gallipoli Campaign. Would be interesting to know where he got his figures from since he wasn't a member of the Cabinet at that time.

 

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2 hours ago, Robert Dunlop said:

The meeting took place on 3rd August 1914, the day before the declaration of war was delivered. Prime Minister Asquith had called the meeting and members of the Cabinet were in attendance, along with Kitchener and Haig. 

 

I suppose that this does put the an interesting light onto the perception that the prevailing orthodoxy at that stage that the war would be  a short one. It is surprising to note Haig's attendance at this meeting since he was not the commander of the BEF, perhaps he had already been identified as a potential candidate for the job should French fail.

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8 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

The Germans possessed a greater ratio of heavies, : am I right ?

 

The French had heavy guns, but they were more confined to fortresses.

 

I wonder if this is a reasonable yardstick to assess how far the armies were prepared for the prolonged static fighting that we associate with the attrition of the Western Front.

 

Phil, was the BEF really capable of fighting a continental style war in 1914 either attritional of one of manoeuvre? after all its prime role was largely that of a sort of Imperial Gendarmerie, and barely equipped to fulfil anything other than a minor supporting role in a conflict between nations with large armies

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“The ordnance that the respective belligerents possessed at the outbreak of war stands as an indicator of how they thought the forthcoming conflict was going to develop.”

 

Or maybe the proportion of cavalry?

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39 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

The ordnance that the respective belligerents possessed at the outbreak of war stands as an indicator of how they thought the forthcoming conflict was going to develop.

 

The greater the preponderance of field guns, the less prepared for static fighting.

 

The Germans possessed a greater ratio of heavies, : am I right ?

 

The French had heavy guns, but they were more confined to fortresses.

 

I wonder if this is a reasonable yardstick to assess how far the armies were prepared for the prolonged static fighting that we associate with the attrition of the Western Front.

 

By September 1914 Haig was already pressing the demand for more heavy high projectile artillery, as his men were taking too many hits on the Aisne.

 

The prescience that went with his assessment of prolonged war was not accompanied by awareness of the need for this kind of firepower, it seems.

 

Attrition on the Western Front was dependent so much on the quantity - and quality - of heavy ordnance, that without the requisite ratio things would go badly awry.

 

The French were much more up to the mark in this respect than the British in July 1916, and even one year later, in Haig's Flanders venture, it was apparent that the French army, to the left of the British, were achieving success much more cheaply on account of their lavish deployment of heavy guns.

 

I think that attrition and artillery need to be conflated in our discussion.

 

Phil

 

 

Hi

 

The Germans had these heavy guns to 'eliminate' the French and Belgian fortifications in their path so the field army could undertake the German War Plan of defeating the French Army quickly and then turn to defeat Russia.  They were not there to be used in planned trench war of 'attrition', that they were useful for that is more 'accidental' than planned.

 

Both the French and Germans had larger cavalry forces than the British, that went with having larger armies, although both their cavalry forces were much less flexible in use than the British (who were well trained in fighting on foot).  The BEF was supposed to be a force that could be sent anywhere in the Empire as well as supporting France in a continental war, the French did not think they would need a large British Army, they did need the Royal Navy to give them protection, plus British finance and industry to support them.  The heavy losses of the French in the early part of the war meant they then required a larger British Army to support them.

 

Mike

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1 hour ago, MikeMeech said:

Hi

 

The Germans had these heavy guns to 'eliminate' the French and Belgian fortifications in their path so the field army could undertake the German War Plan of defeating the French Army quickly and then turn to defeat Russia.  They were not there to be used in planned trench war of 'attrition', that they were useful for that is more 'accidental' than planned.

 

Both the French and Germans had larger cavalry forces than the British, that went with having larger armies, although both their cavalry forces were much less flexible in use than the British (who were well trained in fighting on foot).  The BEF was supposed to be a force that could be sent anywhere in the Empire as well as supporting France in a continental war, the French did not think they would need a large British Army, they did need the Royal Navy to give them protection, plus British finance and industry to support them.  The heavy losses of the French in the early part of the war meant they then required a larger British Army to support them.

 

Mike

Hi,

 

Your phrase “ more accidental than planned “ stands us in good stead in so many discussions about the Great War, not least this one.

 

Phil

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2 hours ago, ilkley remembers said:

 

Perhaps the problem for Churchill was that he was somewhat out of favour after the fiasco of the Gallipoli Campaign. Would be interesting to know where he got his figures from since he wasn't a member of the Cabinet at that time.

 

Edward, 

 

Churchill knew the right people .

 

When it came to this Memorandum, he was aided and abetted by his close pal F.E. Smith ( later Lord Birkenhead) , who had access to a lot of data and helped Churchill deploy it.

 

Significantly, when Haig heard about the August Memorandum, he wrote “ Winston’s head is gone from taking drugs ! “

 

One might well wonder if Haig would have benefited from taking a dose of them, too.

 

Phil

Edited by phil andrade
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2 hours ago, phil andrade said:

The ordnance that the respective belligerents possessed at the outbreak of war stands as an indicator of how they thought the forthcoming conflict was going to develop.

Phil, this is an important point with respect to attritional warfare. The link, however, is not altogether obvious. Your point matches well with the literature on this. France is used as the prime example, whereby the military planners did not foresee the need for more heavy artillery. If fact this wasn't the case. Joffre requested more funding to boost the arsenal of heavier guns significantly. His request need not be seen as presaging the need for a long attritional war. As with Germany, mobile heavy artillery was seen as a key element to facilitate a more rapid victory. The French equivalent of the War Cabinet did not approve Joffre's request. It is a powerful example of the tension between public-spending priorities on the one hand and military 'necessity' on the other. The price that is paid, however, is the very steep 'learning curve' - which is more to do with having to wage war with what you have, not what is needed. And it takes a long time for 'what is needed' to catch up, given the delays in ramping up production to wartime levels and needs.

 

Robert

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Presumably mobile heavy artillery was seen pre-war as desirable for reduction of fixed fortifications in a short war and not deep dugouts in a long war?

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From the French perspective (as well as German and GB), heavy howitzers were seen as important for neutralising the ability of enemy artillery to engage targets indirectly from defilade positions. The reduction of fixed or temporary defensive positions was a lesser, but still important, consideration.

 

Robert

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8 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Edward, 

 

Churchill knew the right people .

 

When it came to this Memorandum, he was aided and abetted by his close pal F.E. Smith ( later Lord Birkenhead) , who had access to a lot of data and helped Churchill deploy it.

 

Significantly, when Haig heard about the August Memorandum, he wrote “ Winston’s head is gone from taking drugs ! “

 

One might well wonder if Haig would have benefited from taking a dose of them, too.

 

Phil

 

Whatever the veracity of Churchills arguments no one in the war cabinet was listening, instead preferring Robertsons more optimistic assessments. Perhaps the more interesting and important issue here is the supine attitude of Asquith and his cabinet in allowing a Commander in Chief to continue fighting an attritional campaign on the Somme in 1916 when it was clear that the returns were diminishing. A full year later at the mincing machine that was Passchendaele Haig repeats the trick with his callous disregard for the lives of his own men as he relentlessly pursues his belief that the Germans can be ground down. It is Lloyd George who eventually puts the brake on Haig leading to the manpower crisis the following year and for which certain historians have heaped opprobrium for leaving the BEF short of men in the Spring of 1918. In reality Haig should have been reined in after the disaster that was The Somme when it was clear that his tactical nous was at best limited. Churchill was indeed correct in his assessment but sadly a weak Prime Minister simply acted as a supplicant at the alter Haigs belief in attrition

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Edward,

 

Haig gets me agitated.  I feel like repenting, to a degree....he did ask that his Somme attack be delayed until August 1916, because he knew he needed more heavy guns and more time to train his men.  Circumstances were unforgiving, he was more or less compelled to press ahead, despite his misgivings .  Haig was a good coalitionist, and was contractually committed, militarily, politically and diplomatically to follow through on the dictates of the Chantilly Conference, especially in view of the pressure of Verdun.

 

Haig's belief in attrition ?   That's doubtful.  It would have been better if he had been an attritionist.  He sought breakthrough, whereas his subordinate, Rawlinson, advocated bite and hold attrition. In the event, he fell between two stools.  What I find hard to forgive is his insistence that the thing had been an attritional success, and his disdain for Churchill's cogent and - in my view - remarkably accurate assessment.

 

For the French, however, July 1916 marked a very significant turning point in their war of attrition : their performance was as brilliant as that of the British was abysmal.

 

The reasons for this merit discussion.

 

Phil

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More time to train his men, Phil? I distinctly remember talking to an Accrington Pal after he’d shown me the two bullets removed from him after 1/7/16 and his saying “ We were two years in the making and five minutes in the destroying”. How long do you need to train a man to go over the top and walk slowly towards the enemy lines?

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3 hours ago, PhilB said:

More time to train his men, Phil? I distinctly remember talking to an Accrington Pal after he’d shown me the two bullets removed from him after 1/7/16 and his saying “ We were two years in the making and five minutes in the destroying”. How long do you need to train a man to go over the top and walk slowly towards the enemy lines?

 Phil, 

 

It was the guns and the gunners that he was worried about : at least, that’s what I think I remember reading .

 

Let me see if I can authenticate that with a source.

 

Phil 

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On 15/06/2021 at 20:55, ilkley remembers said:

Haig repeats the trick with his callous disregard for the lives of his own men as he relentlessly pursues his belief that the Germans can be ground down. 

 

Edward,

 

Forgive me if I part company with you here.

 

Haig was reconciled to the scale of the casualties, which is a different thing from being callous in his disregard for them.

 

He actually wrote, when he assumed command of the BEF in December 1915 :

 

The aim for which the war is being waged is the destruction of German militarism.  Three years of war and the loss of one tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in so great a cause.

 

He was showing a chilling prescience here, both in respect of the subsequent duration of the war, and the prospect of the decimation of British military manpower.

 

In the event, his reckoning needs to be compared with the fact that both France and Germany lost about one sixth of their men of military age.

 

This refers to deaths only, with no allowance for the wounded.

 

I confess, however, to being astonished - and, I daresay, outraged - that in his dispatch covering the entire Battle of the Somme, written at the end of 1916, Haig made no allusion to the enormous number of casualties his troops had suffered in the course of the battle.  Perhaps he didn't deem it necessary, or desirable, to dwell on them ; the corollary being that he had already countenanced them as being an unavoidable feature of the war.  Being reconciled to this is one thing ; might he not have been a bit more forthcoming in acknowledging the staggering total of 416,000 casualties ?  He was certainly keen to stress the great number his armies had inflicted on the Germans, and, in so doing, exhibited a delusional insistence that the balance was in the Allies' favour.

 

There is evidence in his more private reflections that he did, indeed, show a keen awareness of the terrible ordeal suffered by the men under his command, ; would it have compromised his professionalism as a leading soldier to have done so in the formal rendition of his dispatch ?

 

He did allude to the preparedness of his artillery , and I cite this passage to back up my earlier contention about his wish to postpone the attack in the interests of better training :

 

The work of our artillery was wholly admirable, though the strain on the personnel was enormous.  The excellence of the results attained was the more remarkable, in view of the shortness of the training  of most of the junior officers, and of the N.C.Os. and men.

 

Phil

 

 

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"The work of our artillery was wholly admirable, though the strain on the personnel was enormous.  The excellence of the results attained was the more remarkable, in view of the shortness of the training  of most of the junior officers, and of the N.C.Os. and men."

 

What date was that written, Phil? It seems to have been at odds with his 30th of June diary entry.

 

 

 

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