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Attrition


PhilB
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Just an observation and question.

The German had devised short bombardments as early as 1915. In fact I don't think they ever went in for any week-long affairs. Shorter bombardments for supression were found to be much more effective than longer affairs for destruction.

Why did it take so long for the British to learn this? Was it lack of leadership or leadership opposing change?

When I think of German offensives I am struck how terms like, "murderous bombardments," "effective artillery preparation," are used starting in the East in 1915, then at Verdun, then in again in 1918.

This seems to transcend issues such as percentage of duds and lack of experience in general. It seems to have been bad employment/technique in artillery for a very long time.

Paul

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Paul, I can't give a precise or comprehensive answer. The shell shortage of 1915 had a profound effect on the use of British artillery. I have the sense that the artillery tactics of this period were always considered a compromise, and frequently deemed to be inadequate before the attacks were launched, with the exception of Neuve Chapelle. Of course, once Neuve Chapelle got underway, the shell shortage manifested itself in the subsequent days. Innovations had preceded Neuve Chapelle, most notably the use of aerial observers linked to the artillery during the Battle of the Aisne. The first full artillery operation order for an attack was in 13th December 1914. It was produced by HQRA 3rd Division. An artillery plan was drawn up for Neuve Chapelle but there was no overall Artillery Commander. Photograph reconnaissance was first used at Neuve Chapelle.

16th May 1915 saw the first use of captive balloons for controlling artillery. Around this same time, Uniacke produced the first comprehensive rules for arranging counter battery fireplans. Sound-ranging systems began to come into use.

The first battle for Aubers Ridge (9th May) used the sudden barrage of Neuve Chapelle fame. It failed. Badly. Partly because there were too few guns but also because the Germans had learned the lesson for their trench systems. The defences were much stronger. Parapets were wider and MG posts were hidden at ground level with heavy protection. From this point, the British began to plan the longer, systematic bombardments.

All the while, the Royal Regiment of Artillery was expanding rapidly. Initially, any and every type of gun or howitzer was brought in. Thus, at Aubers Ridge the ex-Boer War 4.7" guns played a role, not altogether helpful as their rounds often dropped short. More and more units were created. In 1914, 55 batteries had been at or near Mons. Haig predicted in 1915 that 400 batteries would be needed for the Somme. The rapid growth meant new staff to be trained. Better co-ordination was required, especially for the larger battles.

All the while, lessons were being deduced by the artillerists. Fraser-Tytler, an artillery officer, reported attending a lecture given in January 1916:

'One evening a few of us went over to Vignacourt for a lecture on the the Battle of Loos, given by Colonel Tudor, RA. The hall was filled with generals, among whom was General Wattie Ross...

It proved to be an interesting lecture, some of the points made being that wire-cutting should be done by trench mortars and not guns, that a three or four day bombardment is usually quite enough to stupefy the first system of trenches, that the limitless objective is too much to attempt, and units should have their definite objectives to capture, consolidate, and hold in the successive stages of the advance so that the inevitable ebb in front of a strong counter-attack may be checked immediately, and finally, that communication trenches must be very wide.'

At a higher level, these lessons were being distilled into principles. On 8th May 1916, Major-General Birch [clearly a long-time poster to this Forum :) ], who had written the IV Corps Artillery Operation Order for the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, published a directive noting:

'All artillery in the assault must be under command of divisional commanders.

A co-ordinated plan must be made allotting guns to counter-battery tasks and tasks in depth.

Careful registration of targets is essential and takes time. Closer liaison between pilots and Gunners is paramount.

Time-tables need great care in preparation.

Etc'

The first principle was repeated in GHQ's 1916 document on 'Preparatory Measures to be Taken by Armies and Corps Before Undertaking Offensive Operations on a Large Scale.' This said:

'That a divisional commander, to whom a definite objective is assigned, should have under his orders the artillery which is necessary to enable him to carry out his task. This will include not only the normal divisional artillery but such other guns as are detailed to prepare his objective for assault.

The control of the artillery detailed to tasks other than the above may be more centralized (counter-batteries, guns and howitzers for long range barrages and to bombard localities behind the enemy's front the destruction of which requires concentrated artillery fire).'

So an infantry commander had the ultimate control over the use of the artillery for the infantry assault, ie that portion of the artillery that would cut wire and provide whatever protective barrage was needed. Just as the artillery had been expanding rapidly, so had the infantry. Many divisional commanders had only recently been brigade or battalion commanders. Given their practical experiences of the battles in 1915, it is not surprising that some might have been uncomfortable with certain types of artillery practice, especially if they had not been party to the informal processes by which the artillery commanders were refining their understanding, as per the lecture described above for example. Not only that, but the artillery command process had been undergoing change as well. The whole thing is an extraordinary example of change management across a rapidly expanding huge organisation. A quatum (or two or three) from opening another branch of Tescos or similar.

Throughout this time, the General Staff had been expanding as well. It hadn't got off to a briliant start. GHQ seems to have been very dysfunctional in the early part of the war. The British General Staff was nowhere near as developed or as systematically integrated as the German General Staff.

In any event, it all came together for the Battle of the Somme: a huge increase (relatively) in the number and quality of guns; a huge increase in artillery staff; plentiful ammunition; a well-developed railway and resupply infrastructure; new ideas and lessons that had not been tried and tested by all the key stakeholders, certainly not signed off by all of them; bad experiences when ammunition had been short; lots of new infantry staff; a rapidly expanded General Staff co-ordinating the whole enterprise.

The Somme was the first large-scale modern battle of the British Army. In 1914, the BEF had been nothing more than a small two-corps army within the huge French Army. The latter, like the Germans, had fought across the vast expanse of the Western Front. Joffre could pull off the Miracle of the Marne because GQG had the infrastructure and processes in place. The 1916 British Army had most of the infrastructure but not all of the processes. Most notably, it was possible for every British commander to point to a barrage plan and a counter-battery plan. The former could not be fully tested until the day. The latter varied hugely in its implementation. But the plans were in place and they were carried out.

I am fascinated by this whole issue. It was a massive quality assurance/compliance problem. The quality standards were not fully known. Not everyone knew or agreed with the standards. Such standards as existed were worded vaguely: "control of the artillery detailed to tasks other than the above may be more centralized (counter-battery... "; counter-battery work will be "very active", etc. It was Demming who said that "what you measure is what you get". I wouldn't mind betting that GHQ got reports that consistently said something to the effect that during the past reporting period CB fire had been "very active".

This area is something that I really want to get into more. I have had glimpses of Haig's methods for managing this general issue. It frustrates me that the few books about command and control don't really touch on these aspects. It is also clear that many writers have never experienced the problems of managing change in a large corporation, let alone anything like a newly-formed multi-million person army.

Anyway, just some thoughts FWIIW.

Robert

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Robert,

Thanks for the great e-mail.

With the amount of offensive action taken by the British forces in the West one would imagine they would have been more advanced than the Germans in artillery use. I mean the hard lessons were learned in blood.

I am not a great expert on the great offensive battles of Haig in 1916/17. I can only admit to having read the standard works on the subjects. It just strikes me that in late 1917 the Ypres bombardment lasted over a week! This seems like madness.

In contrast the German bombardments used on the Eastern front in 1915, and at Verdun in 1916 were measured in hours--not days.

Paul

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Robert, once again many thanks for taking the time to respond so comprehensively - your replies are excellent. I formed a few more questions as I read through your comments but before posting again I want to check and ensure my questions are valid. I will get back to you.

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Jonathan, Phil, and Paul

I haven't responded to all of the questions and issued posed. Jonathan, I look forward to your further comments. Travel time again but hopefully I will get a chance to offer a few more thoughts while travelling. Can't take references with me though, well not too many ;)

Robert

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Thanks again, gents, for your contributions. I`m still surprised that there is no "Theory of Attrition" for the guidance of those commanders committed to such a course. As Andy H says, staff colleges still teach Chancellorsville, not Petersburg. Grant, however, had obviously made the one calculation basic to a campaign of attrition - that he could win it. Not too difficult to make in that situation where the USA was much stronger and better supplied than the CSA. But Haig didn`t have such a straightforward calculation. Was he right in thinking that it was odds on that he would win a war of attrition, bearing in mind that the entry of the USA could not be guaranteed? Phil B

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But Haig didn`t have such a straightforward calculation. Was he right in thinking that it was odds on that he would win a war of attrition, bearing in mind that the entry of the USA could not be guaranteed? Phil B

I dont want to go off track from the exchange with Robert but as I might have already expressed on this thread or certainly elsewhere, Britain had been enforcing a war of attrition against the German home front from the very beginning of the war and this attrition was carried out with the full active support of the USA.

Consequently I do not believe Germany could have "won" the war, or at least not in the manner of victory we associate with the Allied victories of WW1 or WW2 - I think from 1916 or possibly 1915 Germany were fighting to determine a peace on their terms, which they came close to achieving in their offensives of 1918. Haig would have been aware of this and he was fighting a war of attrition to weaken the Germany army on the WF and stop them from gaining an advantage from which they could determine peace terms on France and Britain.

If the U-boat blockade of Britain had been enforced from 1914 then it would have been a very different and probably much shorter war, but I cant see the Americans would have kept out of a direct involvement and allowed Germany to dominate Europe and consequently the Global economy.

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Thanks again, gents, for your contributions. I`m still surprised that there is no "Theory of Attrition" for the guidance of those commanders committed to such a course. As Andy H says, staff colleges still teach Chancellorsville, not Petersburg. Grant, however, had obviously made the one calculation basic to a campaign of attrition - that he could win it. Not too difficult to make in that situation where the USA was much stronger and better supplied than the CSA. But Haig didn`t have such a straightforward calculation. Was he right in thinking that it was odds on that he would win a war of attrition, bearing in mind that the entry of the USA could not be guaranteed? Phil B

Phil,

I wouldn't agree that attrition theory is not taught at staff college. It is very much discussed in the context of America's limited wars from 1950 onwards. It's hidden in terms like "Continuous Concentric Pressure."

Hans Delbruck described the "theory of attrition," pretty clearly before the war. The concept was not warmly accpted from the German side, and perhaps even less understood. I don't know how closely his ideas were read in the west.

I think the Allies had a definite advantage over the Central Powers in that they at least seemed to have some type of coherent strategic concept. Germany was plagued by a vacillating policy that led to the loss of opportunities. For example, the entire campaign of 1915 in the East was muddled by the lack of a strategic plan of what was to be achieved. Knock Russia of of the war? A seperate negotiated peace? Simply remove the pressure from AH?

The Allies had the position to wage a war of attrition--superior resources, and importantly, control of the seas. Germany, as recognized by her own leaders (see the writings of Moltke the younger), simply could not win a long-term war of attrition. Thus her desperate bid to defeat France in 1914.

Paul

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Thanks, Paul. So it sounds like attrition was a correct call for Haig. Would that decision have been one for the CinC, the IGS, the Cabinet or all three? Or would there not have been a formal decision? Phil B

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Thanks, Paul. So it sounds like attrition was a correct call for Haig. Would that decision have been one for the CinC, the IGS, the Cabinet or all three? Or would there not have been a formal decision? Phil B

Phil,

Yes, I think seeing that neither side had the resources for a knock-out blow it was the correct strategy. The difference being that the Allies could win a war of attrition whereas Germany could not.

I'll have to defer to someone with more knowledge to answer your question on the workings of the British chain of command.

Paul

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Thanks, Paul. So it sounds like attrition was a correct call for Haig. Would that decision have been one for the CinC, the IGS, the Cabinet or all three? Or would there not have been a formal decision? Phil B

There was a formal decision taken to adopt an attritional strategy by the Allies at the late 1915 Chantilly conferances if the Central Powers attacked another Allied power (as happened at Verdun). The British, Russian, Italian and French General Staffs favoured the doctrine in order to wear down the Germans in smaller offensives and then to deliver a knockout blow through synchronised offensives later on the year. They agreed to concentrate on Germany and the aim was to defeat the Germans by the end of 1916. (Information from 1914-1918 by David Stevenson).

Yet I do not think that a decision was really made to embark on attritional battles like the Somme until after Verdun. as such I do ot think a formal decision would have been taken on the matter by the CIGS or Cabinet. It was proabably left to the C in C. Haig certainly mentioned 'wearing out' the Germans in his diary, especially in regards to the Somme and Arras offensive. However he also hoped for breakthrough on each occasion and one gets the picture that the attrition strategy was embarked upon when brakthrough failed, and I think that it worked rather well both on the Somme and at Arras.

Third Ypres was slightly different, I think that Haig truly believed that this was to be the breakthrough and as such there is little mention of wearing out the Germans in his diary at this point. Attrition only kicked in as a sort of secondary objective, because Haig did not really give up his belief in breakthrough until November 1917. On the Somme and at Arras, on the other hand he had given up on breakthrough at an early stage.

Having said this Third Ypres did have considerable attritional effects on the Germans and certainly made things far worse for them then for the British.

I certainly would agree that attrition was a 'correct call' for Haig because the German army had to be worn down before it could be forced to retreat from French and Belgium soil. Although attrition is a terrible thing and we should never forget this. Reminds me of what Oliver Cromwell said (allegedly when looking at the body of Charles I) 'cruel neccesity.'

Just a few thoughts.

JGM

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Yet I do not think that a decision was really made to embark on attritional battles like the Somme until after Verdun. JGM

If the Somme had been planned as an attritional battle, he wouldn`t have launched 100,000 men over the top on 1/7/16? One has to remember, too, that the attritional battle is a handy fallback strategy for the commander who`s breakthrough fails to materialize! Phil B

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If the Somme had been planned as an attritional battle, he wouldn`t have launched 100,000 men over the top on 1/7/16? One has to remember, too, that the attritional battle is a handy fallback strategy for the commander who`s breakthrough fails to materialize! Phil B

Certainly true. The Somme was intended to be a breakthrough and of that there can be no doubt. Furthermore I would consider the attritional strategy to be something of a fallback strategy when the breakthrough proved elusive, as happened on the Somme. Only attritional fighting would wear the enemy down to such an extent to make such a breakthrough possible. There was little alternative, other then more attempts at breakthrough which would probably fail.

JGM

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Only attritional fighting would wear the enemy down to such an extent to make such a breakthrough possible. There was little alternative, other then more attempts at breakthrough which would probably fail.

JGM

But every campaign started with a (usually costly) breakthrough attempt, not by a period of attrition which would have facilitated breakthrough! Phil B

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Jonathan, I look forward to your further comments. Travel time again but hopefully I will get a chance to offer a few more thoughts while travelling. Can't take references with me though, well not too many ;)

Robert

Robert,

Apologies as this is taking longer than I suspected. Hopefully I will have something to reply with tomorrow or Wednesday.

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But every campaign started with a (usually costly) breakthrough attempt, not by a period of attrition which would have facilitated breakthrough! Phil B

But the hope was that the previous years, or months, campaigning will have worn down the enemy to such an extent that attrition was no longer necessary.

JGM

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Robert – apologies for delay but I have found it difficult to find the necessary free time to cover reading and writing up. As stated previously, many thanks for your comprehensive replies although I have to say your comments differed greatly from my own understanding. I am now able to respond on some of your comments (my answer is less complete than intended as I had to deal with some work half way through my lunch hour but I felt the clock ticking against an appropriate time in which I should respond and have posted anyway):

Please note that breaking out to Bapaume involved very limited objectives after that. In the grand scheme of things, there would have been an attack against the German lines of communication to the North.

It is not so much that I think Haig was at fault for planning to exploit a breakout. In fact I think he had to absolutely plan for such an eventuality. As I said I am no military strategist, also I have the benefit of hindsight, but I struggle with the fact that Haig believed the army could get as far as Bapaume on the first day. To achieve this the Allies had to overcome three German lines including some of the strongest fortifications on the Western Front and have the cavalry rush through the debris of a battlefield to exploit the gap. As you correctly indicate, even if this manoeuvre had been possible it would not have ended the war, therefore it was part of the overall policy of attrition. Where I still disagree is that the rolling up beyond Bapaume was ever an achievable objective, which comes back to my original statement: “was Haig guilty of your point that “hundreds of thousands of casualties resulted from some maniac's unrealistic view of military objectives”

Your question involves another key issue, that of tampering with Rawlinson's original battle plan … "Plan for Offensive by the Fourth Army. GX3/1" on 3rd April, 1916 ... As you know, Rawlinson drew attention to the more distant German second line, noting that 'Contalmaison, Pozières and Serre are defended localities between the front system and the second line. All the above are well within the range of our heavy guns, and most of the front system are within range of the heavy trench mortars."

Is the quote you use above from Rawlinson’s 3 April Plan for Offensive? I have re-read Hart, Beckett, Prior and Wilson and the quote you use above contradicts their own findings. Absolutely everything I have read to date confirms Rawlinson considered the German second line beyond the range of all but the very long range guns and that sighting the line was difficult because it could only be observed from the air, being on a reverse slope. This understanding on Rawlinson’s part was a factor why his original plan was for an initial bite of up to 2000 yds. This bite would take in the German first line plus any strategic positions obtainable between the German first and second lines. The second part of Rawlinson’s plan then allowed for the artillery to be bought up and sighted on the German second line, which would sustain a bombardment for a period of about three days before an infantry offensive was launched to take that second line and encompassing the line Serre – Pozieres – Contalmaison. Where you refer to Rawlinson advancing against the second line then it would have been after this delay. This understanding by Rawlinson is clarified in my mind, by your quote that "it will be difficult to deal with... the second line, and especially with the wire, until we have advanced a considerable distance beyond our present line." In their summary of Rawlinson’s original plan P&W state “The infantry … would seize the German first line and advance beyond it, but would stop well short of the German second line”.

Haig went on to point out that "your principle effort in the first instance will be directed to establishing a strong defensive flank on the spur from Serre (inclusive) to Miraumont and to capturing and securing the high ground about Pozières and the spurs running thence towards Beaucourt sur Ancre and Grandcourt and towards Fricourt." This was almost identical to Rawlinson's recommendation. No significant sign of meddling with this part of Rawlinson's plan.

This is similar from the P&W reference to GHQ correspondance to Rawlinson dated 16 May in which Haig informed Rawlinson that the “Serre – Miraumont spur – Pozieres; Contalmaison, and Montauban be the objectives to be attained during the first day’s operations … It is understood you [Rawlinson] concur in this view”.

Faced with the evidence of my reading I can only conclude that my previously held thoughts are correct. Rawlinson did not include the German second line as part of his first day objective. The later inclusion of the German second line as a 1 July objective was due to the direct intervention, or meddling, by Haig.

I have some notes on the impact to the artillery preparation of the German second line as a first day objective together with general notes on the artillery preparation. I am happy to arrange these and type up if you are happy to continue.

Regards,

Jon

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But the hope was that the previous years, or months, campaigning will have worn down the enemy to such an extent that attrition was no longer necessary.

JGM

Hope being the key word though JGM. Too many people prepared to tell their superiors what they wanted to hear and Commanders happy to ignore the real situation.

I simply can't believe the type of attrition that prevailed was ever intended by anyone.

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I simply can't believe the type of attrition that prevailed was ever intended by anyone.

Unacceptable though it seems in human terms, I`m afraid you`ll have to, Alan! Phil B

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I'm quite sure that a war of attrition wasn't intended. Germany thought that manoeuvre warfare would win the the day in 1914 and the first half of 1915 on the Western Front, but as in any war, things change, often quite rapidly. Indeed, the British Army was largely trained for mobile warfare in the inter-war period, but who could foresee the real consequences of total war between industrialised nations?

It's easy to play the blame game in any situation, but that doesn't really help explain why things happen, or indeed why things stayed the same or changed. Surely that should be the core of any historical debate?

Terry Reeves

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But, Terry, Alan said "I simply can't believe the type of attrition that prevailed was ever intended by anyone." It may not have been in 1914/15 but certainly was in later years? Phil B

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Hello,

May I add a couple of thoughts which, I suppose, risk looking at history with modern glasses.

I think it is accepted that Haig accepted the concept of a wearing out phase, indeed that is what much of this fascinating thread is about.

Wearing out meant causing casualties. I understand that the greatest cause of casualties was shell fire and that comparatively few were killed by the bayonet.

However my understanding of command in WW1, certainly the early years is that senior artillery officers were advisers and not in a position to influence the commanders plan. The commanders seem to have believed that the best way to inflict casualties was to enable the infantry to get to grips with enemy with cold steel.

Of course, as I said earlier in this thread, Haig was largely under French direction and the only acceptable objective was to try and push the Germans out of France.

Having reviewed those platitudes, has anyone any idea if any consideration was ever given to relying on the guns to inflict the necessary casualties which they did well, rather than, apparently, using the guns to enable the infantry to engage. In other words is their any evidence of staff analysis of the results of the various attacks either by the Allies or the Germans.

Old Tom

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Phil

My comments were not intended as criticism, but simply to point out that in war as with any subject, intention and reality often turn out to be quite different. There has been a tendency to play the blame game though, particularly a far as WW1 is concerned which I don't believe helps. That was not aimed at anyone in particular.

Terry Reeves

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Phil

My comments were not intended as criticism, but simply to point out that in war as with any subject, intention and reality often turn out to be quite different.

Terry Reeves

Particularly in war, intention and reality are but distant relatives! I think this thread has reached a consensus, though, that attrition was, at some stage, not only intended but unavoidable? Phil B

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Unacceptable though it seems in human terms, I`m afraid you`ll have to, Alan! Phil B

Phil although obviously it happened I still don't accept it was planned anywhere near as soon or deliberately as was subsequently claimed. Old Tom also makes an excellent point about artillery and bayonets, I stand to be corrected but I'm sure I have read that bayonet casualties amounted to less than 2% of the total.

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