War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War.

War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War by William Philpott. Overlook Press, 2014.

Despite a vast expenditure of human life and materiel during the Great War, neither the Central Powers (the German, Austria-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires) nor the Entente (the British, French, Belgian, Russian, Italian) managed to achieve a war of movement or win decisive battles. The military stalemate that occurred almost immediately in the fall of 1914 continued until one side, it turned out the Central Powers, found themselves physically and mentally exhausted. Hence the war of attrition, William Philpott insists, made military sense, given the circumstances.


By the fifth year of the slaughter, morale on both sides was sagging.  Still mutinies in French army and German naval, the collapse of both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian imperial regimes, and food shortages in Central Europe did not much dim public support for a continued pursuit of the war.


There were even additional motives for continuing to fight. For one, there had to be something to show for the huge loss of life and fortune. Also Europeans had invested their savings in war bonds, and the only certainty of recovering their investment was to be on the winning side of the war and hence able to impose the total cost of the war on the losing side.


World War I is best known for its trenches, an elaborate network that stretched across northeastern France and Belgium. The trenches were dug to protect troops from an increase in the deadliness of firepower resulting from improved field canons, machine guns, and rifles. Light railroads kept the front supplied with that firepower. Truck transport was replacing horse-drawn wagons. We also associate WWI with tanks, barbed wire, and poisonous gas. Zeppelin airships and their bombs terrorized British cities near the coast, including London. None of these, according to Philpott, proved decisive. Contrary to the accepted historiography of the war, the military on both sides improved on their deployment of these new combat weapons, learning from the battlefield.


While war weariness was growing, all belligerents were well aware that defeat would place their political and economic institutions in jeopardy. The Russian imperial regime had succumbed to its domestic opponents in 1917. The socialist movement and its pacifism had quickly dissolved with the “the guns of August” in 1914 and no longer imposed any threat. However, the ardent nationalism that replaced it, while supporting the war effort in Britain and France, was hostile to the imperial regimes on both sides.


The Germans deployed submarines along the Atlantic shipping lanes to stop shipments of war materiel to the Britain and France.  The U.S. quickly became (as in the next war) the “arsenal of democracy.” This triggered the German decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, and that, in turn, provoked the U.S. entry into the war in the spring of 1917. By 1918 millions of American males were under arms and being deployed on the Western Front. The original belligerents had exhausted their reserves, and U.S. divisions did eventually make a difference. Though here again, Philpott believes that the strategy of attrition was the real victor, not the American doughboy.


The author does not intend for his book to be a history of WWI.  So it is interesting to see what he has omitted. The important German victory over the Russian army at Tannenberg in the first month of the war brought attention to Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and his staff officer, Erich Ludendorff. Both became heroes of the German Right in the interwar years. Tannenberg was considered to be a disaster for the Russians. Like the decisive battles on the eastern front in World War II, Tannenberg has not gotten its due.


There is little mention of the military successes of the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally. Before the War German officers had been military advisors to the Ottoman army, in part because the Russians and British had made no secret of their ambition to divide up the Asian provinces of the “sick man of Europe.” British and ANZAC (Australian, New Zealand, South African, and Canadian) came ashore and occupied the high ground above the Dardanelles in 1915. The landing, a precursor to amphibious warfare in the Second World War, proved to be a military disaster. The Turkish armies fought well and were well-lead.


Philpott doesn’t fault the planning behind the Gallipoli campaign, as most everyone else does. He suggests, however, that an invasion of Mesopotamia would have more easily accomplished the Entente’s objectives of knocking Germany’s Ottoman and Balkan allies out of the war. But the foremost proponent of the Gallipoli landing, Winston Churchill, was thinking that occupation of the Straits was the best way of exploiting an Ottoman defeat to strengthen the post-war British Empire.    

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