Passchendaele, WW1 & the Definition of “Attrition”

Dan sent me a box of books around Christmas time. One of the books was Passchendaele: The Untold Story, covering that sad and bloody WW1 battle. Even though I have read extensively about WW1 history I mainly focused on the naval campaigns (Jutland, submarines, Gallipoli) and not so much the horrendous trench warfare battles, since they seemed devoid of strategic intent.

At about the same time in the news I saw articles about the passing of the last living German WW1 war veteran. Even though it is not necessarily rational, it seems odd to me as events pass into history with no living representatives; to some extent WW1 is as far back as the Civil War.

I sat down and read through the sad story of Passchendaele as told in the book by Prior and Wilson. Passchendaele occurred during July – November 1917, as the British army tried to make headway against the Germans. At this time things were looking very bleak for the Allies; the Russians were collapsing, the French were in mutiny (they would defend, but wouldn’t attack), Rumania had surrendered, and the Italians were falling back after the disaster at Caporetto. The only positive note was the entry of the Americans into the war in April 1917.

The Passchendaele campaign was fought in what is now the Netherlands; the terrain was simply abominable. It rained throughout the campaign, and the mud and rain made movement impossible.

One of the interesting description elements from the book is the role of artillery; in this era English artillery had the following missions:

1) clear the wire so that troops could reach the enemy trenches
2) as a “rolling barrage” just ahead of the troops provide cover through a carpet of shells that forced the defenders to seek refuge and visually hide the attackers
3) smash the defender dugouts and gun emplacements in the bombardment prior to the attack
4) counter-battery fire on enemy artillery so that they wouldn’t fire as the English troops attacked (since attacking troops were very vulnerable in the open)

Artillery at this time was the dominant weapon on the attack; the infantry moved up with rifles and grenades to take the positions but nothing was going to be accomplished unless the artillery had virtually killed all the defenders because of the power of their defensive weapons and machine guns.

In the first battle of Messines artillery was provided in massed quantities and with time and sufficient ammunition to destroy the German front line and take out their artillery and wire; thus the battle was a success. However, future battles did not provide for sufficient time and artillery to repeat this success and the British made little headway.

An interesting element of the book and of this era is our “hindsight” view that the Germans were butchers and ruthless with their men; in fact they took very prudent steps to avoid casualties by pulling back their lines to more defensible “reverse slope” positions that are fortified with pillboxes and carefully selected to take advantage of the terrain. A man mostly lost to history, Colonel von Lossberg, developed the German defensive mentality that allowed them to defend in the West and deploy offensive forces in the East (where they knocked Russia and Rumania out of the war).

Thus the British were attacking in an area of no strategic value into hardened German defensive positions specifically selected to extract the maximum casualties from the attackers. In hindsight, it seems like an insane strategy.

The strategy can only be understood in the concept of ATTRITION. The British general in charge, Haig, felt that the Germans had poor morale and were about to surrender, and that these battles were causing huge casualties to the Germans.

It is this concept of attrition that moves onto “The Myth of the Great War” by John Mosier. Mr. Mosier is a controversial historian because he presents the idea that the Germans were about to win in 1918 after their major spring offensives but were stopped by the Americans, and the Americans were the ones who beat the Germans head to head. His other major point was that the Germans had won the major battles prior to this point, and suffered far fewer casualties than the English and French in comparable situations. The Germans won because they utilized artillery in a superior fashion, relying on the indirect firing howitzer rather than the direct firing cannon like the famous French 75mm gun, and also had super-heavy artillery to demolish even the sturdiest fortifications.

In 1916-7 the Allies convinced Rumania to attack the rump of their enemy’s axis, the Austrians. The thinking at this time was that the Germans were stretched thin across the West (Britain and France) and the East (Russia). However, the Germans were able to send 500,000 men down to crush the Rumanians and force them out of the war.

The key concept here is “attrition” – attrition was defined as either “no more able bodied men” (England, France) or “no more capacity to fight the war” (Russia, ultimately Germany). Let me repeat this – attrition meant you fought battles over pointless, non-strategic pieces of territory (Passchendaele) in the teeth of reinforced enemy defenses just to try to kill off enemy soldiers until there were no more available to resist. It was different for Russia and Germany because their civilians were being starved by blockade (Germany) or their industry could not provide sufficient war materials (Russia) to continue the fight.

Thus for mis-calculating attrition, Rumania was blown out of the war, and Italy became another near-victim soon after. The Germans could still fight, and raise armies to take the battle to the Allies.

Attrition in WW1 terms is amazingly different than attrition as defined in 2008 terms. The United States today has more citizens than WW1 France, Britain and Germany combined; yet our tolerance for attrition is a fraction of any of these countries.

In Iraq today the deaths since the initial invasion in 2003 are approximately 4000 US soldiers. To put this in perspective, 10,000 US soldiers were casualties at Belleau Wood (with 2000 deaths), one relatively small engagement in WW1.

Given the huge response that the Iraq war has generated in the United States (it virtually IS the critical topic for the Democrats) it is fair to say that some level of attrition has been reached where the war is in serious question. 60,000 US deaths were required to reach the same type of situation in the case of Vietnam, about 35 years earlier.

There is a clear parallel with our Allies; when I traveled in Canada over the summer I saw a lot of articles about their casualties that they were taking in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and it is a major issue in that country, as well.

It isn’t clear WHY the level of attrition needed to cause substantial turmoil in a nation has declined so swiftly from the millions to the hundreds of thousands to fifty thousand to a few thousand to probably a few hundred if trends continue. Perhaps it is the ubiquitous media coverage, or the fact that these wars are seen as “far away” and not as much on our soil as the WW1 and WW2 battles (which were in some cases viewed as a war of extinction, most notably on the Eastern Front).

Whatever your view on these topics, the two books listed above clearly show how high the concept of attrition was in 1917-8, when losses in the hundreds of thousands for positions of little military value were the norm. These tactics are just beyond unthinkable today.

Cross posted at LITGM

33 thoughts on “Passchendaele, WW1 & the Definition of “Attrition””

  1. The Netherlands were neutral-Passchendaele was in Belgium.Much of the pacifism today comes from an intellectual class that is oriented towards words solving all problems. As if!

  2. It isn’t clear WHY the level of attrition needed to cause substantial turmoil in a nation has declined so swiftly from the millions to the hundreds of thousands to fifty thousand to a few thousand to probably a few hundred if trends continue

    I think we reach attrition much quicker today because we often fight subtle wars for long term goals. People cannot see the immediate problem and don’t understand why we must pay the cost. Even a few dozen casualties are unacceptable if their deaths serve no discernible purpose. Our electronic media generated sense of timing might play into this as well. Real world events take longer than they do in fiction an people don’t realize that they are unconsciously judging live events by fictional standards.

    Another factor maybe that people in the developing world no longer experience mass death on a semi-regular basis. Up until the 1950’s, ordinary people often experienced epidemics that killed dozens or hundreds in their local communities. Natural disasters killed proportionally far, far more people on a fairly regular basis. Death was much more an accepted part of life.

  3. Rosemary waited tensely for Dick to continue.

    “See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”

    “Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco—”

    “That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

    “General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty- five.”

    “No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

    “You want to hand over this battle to D. H. Lawrence,” said Abe.

    “All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love,” Dick mourned persistently.

    (F Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night)

  4. It isn’t clear WHY the level of attrition needed to cause substantial turmoil in a nation has declined so swiftly

    Small family size and corresponding large investment per child. When one son of four is lost it’s a tragedy, they’re still going to be lots of grand children named after him; when it’s the only son or daughter, not so many.

  5. My mistake on Passchendaele being in the Netherlands… yes it was in Belgium.

    I don’t know if the small family size has a lot to do with it. It isn’t the families of the soldiers that are escalating the issues so much as the body politic. Plus, without conscription, those that protest most vehemently against the war have no prospect of ever serving in the war since it is an all volunteer force.

    People also get upset about things that are not immediate and relatively abstract such as global warming or the war in Darfur (where, bizarrely enough, they want us to intervene, but they are against intervening elsewhere).

  6. I think this post misses the point. The British did not set out to be in an attritional battle as a preferred strategy. They were making the best of a very bad set of options..

    The French Army had launched the Nivelle offensive, with high hopes, and been beaten bloody. That failure, those dashed hopes, caused the French Army to mutiny. Had the Germans realized this, they might have won the war with an offensive against the French.

    By this point the French and the Russian Armies were both starting to crumble.

    The Americans were coming, but they were a long way off.

    The Allies had to buy time.

    The British Army was the only one of the six European powers that never cracked or broke (France, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy).

    The British had to attack to relieve their French Allies. Nonetheless, the British oriented the attacks to seize critical high ground that would allow them to site their artillery, not solely to inflict attritions.

    Haig did not decide to attack where and when he did in a vacuum. He was under severe constraints. If the French Army crumbled, the war was lost.

    Despite the misery, the British were much more effective with all arms (infantry, artillery, tanks, aircraft) than they had been in 1916. The British obtained their objectives and inflicted severe losses on the Germans.

    Our English cousins tend to write about the war in a vacuum, and to view if through the lens of poetic tragedy that we learned from the verse of Wilfred Owen, and others.

  7. I believe the strategy of attrition was first tried by the Germans at Verdun. Attack an enemy stronghold, and destroy defenders and reinforcements with massive artillery.

  8. “General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty- five.”

    The Fitzgerald quote is interesting, in that the Generals Lee and Grant did indeed engage in trench warfare during the Civil War. Europeans were watching. Contrary to some American claims they were not too snobbish to learn from what they saw there. Or at least the Prussians weren’t. In the Franco-Prussian War of 70/71 they were using railroads to mobilize quickly and get their troops to the front before the French were able to dig in. Otherwise, there would have been extensive use of trench warfare in that conflict, too.

    Unfortunately, all those lessons were forgotten by 1914. Regardless of all that saber-rattling, Western Europeans of the time had known nothing but peace. Life expectancy was shorter than today, so there were few Europeans whose living-memory included war experience; to most civilians of the time, war was basically seemed like a big cops and robbers game. The only exception were the relatively small, professional British army as well as some even smaller Colonial expedition forces of a number of other countries. Those few soldiers with actual fighting experience weren’t listened to, so the Field Marshals simply hurled their troops against well-prepared enemy positions, without even trying to circumvent them. Then again, if the British expeditionary force hadn’t been put in places where it had no business to be, France would have been knocked out before the Russians could even properly mobilize. Instead of an enormous slaughter it would have been a repeat of 1870/71 (including some small territorial. um, adjustments afterwards).

  9. Life expectancy was shorter than today, so there were few Europeans whose living-memory included war experience

    While the conclusion may be true, it is not so because of the hypothesis. Most of the gain in the 20th century life span increase has been the result of reduced mortality in childhood years. Once a person reached full adulthood in the late 19th – early 20th century, their life span was similar to that of a person born in the mid 20th century. If there were few Europeans whose living memory included war experience in 1914, it was more due to the infrequency and brevity of 19th century European wars than short life spans amongst adults.

    Lex makes excellent points about Haig’s situation. Do you recommend a book for further reading?

    I remain persuaded that small family size, as well as female suffrage, act as brakes on the innate tendency toward violent conflict between states. The test will come in India and China where I ultimately expect the Indians to be more belligerent than the Chinese, primarily due to the one child policy and the reliance on the son for the provision of the elderly, as well as the collapse of the communist party in 2020-2030.

  10. While the conclusion may be true, it is not so because of the hypothesis. Most of the gain in the 20th century life span increase has been the result of reduced mortality in childhood years. Once a person reached full adulthood in the late 19th – early 20th century, their life span was similar to that of a person born in the mid 20th century. If there were few Europeans whose living memory included war experience in 1914, it was more due to the infrequency and brevity of 19th century European wars than short life spans amongst adults.

    Good point, thanks, Then again, people old-enough to remember mostly were dotards who were not listened to.

  11. I would argue that Europeans did not forget the Franco-Prussian war but rather that they remembered it to well with advantages. The Franco-Prussian war was a relatively low causality war of speed and maneuver that lasted only a few months. For the Germans it was a smooth victory and the French interpreted their defeats as the results of poor leadership and a loss of morale. Worse, an entire generation of military leaders grew up with no experience other than fighting pre-industrial cultures in the colonies. That lopsided warfare influenced their expectations to a startling degree (less so for the Germans).

    So, when the war started, both sides planned on short intense war of maneuver in which morale would play a key role. Whoops.

  12. I tend to agree with Shannon Love, with the added thought that such people as had thought about it felt that war on the scale anticipated would exhaust the national economies in a few months and lead to the end of the war… which, in rational hindsight, would have been a better outcome, but wars develop their own dynamics.

    Also, the Euros didn’t learn the lesson of the Russo-Japanese War, esp. the siege of Port Arthur, about the coming ascendance of firepower over elan, steel over flesh. The Germans did better than the French (being the Japanese Army’s primary European tutors, the Germans were better-placed to see this), and Mosier’s book tells how they (Germans) benefited from that, but even the Germans initially underestimated the effect of the new technologies.

    But, one of the biggest factors was that the rail network, which air power was not yet able to interdict (as in 1944) made it easier for the defender to reinforce a front under pressure, than for the attacker to reinforce an advance through devastated terrain. So, it wasn’t all that hard to gain a thousand yards or so, but then the offensive would peter out as the defense was reinforced and counterattacked, while the attackers were almost cut off from reinforcements by the cratered battlefield they had just crossed.

    As to why the level of acceptable attrition is so much lower today, well, the secular, pampered elite has no sense of living with discomfort, let alone mortal risk (as from industrial accidents, which were a major factor as recently as the 1950s), and since they don’t believe in anything except their own comfort, they can’t see anything worth dying for. Many, maybe most Americans are still willing to pay a price in blood if the goals are worth it and they have confidence in the leadership (polling repeatedly shows this, and it is always ignored), but the academic, media, and govt elites have totally lost the will to sacrifice.

  13. I am a sucker for a request for “further reading.”

    The following are among the books that I have read in the last ten years have influenced my thinking about the Great War.

    Quest for Decisive Victory: From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899-1940 by Robert M. Citino

    The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich by Robert M. Citino

    Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army`s Art of Attack, 1916-18 by Paddy Griffith

    Forward into Battle: Fighting Tactics from Waterloo to the Near Future by Paddy Griffith

    Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War by Robert A. Doughty

    The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Stormtroop Officer on the Western Front by Ernst Junger

    Copse 125: A Chronicle from the Trench Warfare of 1918 by Ernst Junger

    The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation by Avner Offer

    Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 by Bruce I. Gudmundsson

    On Infantry by John A. English and Bruce I. Gudmundsson (original “unrevised” edition has more detail)

    On Artillery by Bruce I. Gudmundsson

    On Armor by Bruce I. Gudmundsson

    Fire Power: The British Army: weapons and theories of war, 1904-1945, by Shelford Bidwell

    Through German Eyes: The British & The Somme 1916 by Christopher Duffy

    If Germany Attacks: The Battle in Depth in the West by Graeme Chamley Wynne

    Over Here: The First World War and American Society by David M. Kennedy

    The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 by Norman Stone

    Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan

  14. The rapidly declining numbers required for “attrition” are easy to explain: there are a lot of people who (1) want their own country to lose, (2) see war as only benefiting corporations / “the war machine”, or (3) have no real-world experience with failure, mistakes, and improvement.

    (1) Those who want their country to lose will seize upon any and every casualty as some great tragedy, whether or not they actually care about the person who has died. It’s not that the costs are too much for the objectives, it’s that they disagree with the objectives and therefore disagree with anything that could possibly help them succeed. How many of the protesters in the 70’s wanted the heroic Soviet Socialists to beat the evil Capitalists?

    (2) Those who believe war is to benefit the rich warmonger oil barons will view every dead soldier as unnecessarily dying for profit. They don’t believe the stated objectives (stopping group X, freeing people Y, etc.), seeing them only as cover to convince the sheeple to buy in to the war profiteers’ plans.

    (3) Those with no real-world experience see every death as a complete and utter failure of the system. They believe Rambo or Gordon Freeman can go in and kill 2000 terrorists, but never be injured. Or perhaps they believe we could’ve just shot Osama and Saddam with one missile each, expecting that Islamofascism would end with the death of its “leader” and that Iraq would instantly transform itself into a modern secular democracy.

    People in the three above categories existed in WWI, but not in nearly the numbers as they do today… and they certainly weren’t taken as seriously as they are today. If someone had blocked a local bridge as a war protest during WWI, the local media would’ve presented him as a fool and hurled all manner of cleverly-worded insults his way. If someone does the same thing today, even before the first shots of war are fired, the media presents him as a heroic patriot taking a stand for freedom (who also rescues puppies and writes poetry.)

  15. Well this is an interesting thread. A few comments:

    1) I don’t believe that the British achieved their objectives AT ALL in this offensive. They barely took an insignificant chunk of high ground that led to nowhere (which they gave up instantaneously in 1918 when the Germans attacked)
    2) I don’t know if attrition was the per se objective of the battle, but it became an objective as the series of battles ground on, since there wasn’t really any other plausible alternatives (i.e. they weren’t going to break out the cavalry or roll up the coast)
    3) Certainly the comment of attrition is generally correct; the battles in WW1 assumed such a limited purpose (i.e. take 1500 to 4000 yards of trenches) with monstrous casualties… these tactics fell away over the years and are not even imaginable today

    The last commenter, although it is a bit snarky, probably encapsulates a lot of the true reasons that attrition is so low. This also was the “defeatism” that contributed to the French collapse in 1940, although to their credit the French did suffer hundreds of thousands of casualties even in 1939-40 before they collapsed (nothing like WW1, but also far more than is imaginable today).

    I will check out some of the WW1 books you listed; most of my knowledge is on the more esoteric campaigns.

    What do you think about Mosier, Lex?

  16. Have not read Mosier. The summary does not comport with my understanding of the facts. The Germans had been halted before the Americans arrived in large numbers. The USA made a decisive contribution, because by the sheer numbers of fresh troops it was apparent that a final offensive in 1919 was going to put the Germans down for good. Nonetheless it was a British Empire offensive which finished the Germans off in the last 100 days. And the Germans *were* beaten.

    I disagree absolutely about the 1917 Ypres offensive. It achieved its strategic objective, the only one that mattered. It made it impossible for the Germans to attack the French and win the war.

    Haig had to attack at a time and place not of his choosing. Nonetheless, it takes two to tango, and it takes two to have an attrition battle. You can only inflict attrition if you attack something the enemy will not give up. Haig selected the high ground because it had tactical value and the Germans would defend it. They did, as he knew they would. They lost a lot of men. Then they lost the ground. Wynne’s book cites to German archives. The Germans thought the British had gotten smarter in 1917 by seeking to capture ground that enhanced the effectiveness of their artillery, i.e. ground that allowed direct observation. So, I cannot say that within the constraints he faced that Haig selected the wrong tactical objectives to force the attrition battle and to gain some valuable ground in the process.

    The fact that the German offensives in 1918 re-took the Messines high ground, if that is correct (I don’t doubt it, I just don’t remember and I am not going to look it up now), I don’t see how that makes it a poor target for Haig’s attacks. To the contrary. The Germans wanted it back badly enough to use their limited offensive combat power in 1918 to retake it. This vindicates Haig’s selection of his target, or so it seems to me.

    “…these tactics fell away over the years and are not even imaginable today…” The casualty rates in World War II in the West were comparable. Because the lines were moving it does not have the poetic tragedy associated with it. But moving or standing in one place, both campaigns were attritional slugfests. Also, take a look at the Iran-Iraq war. They basically recreated the Western Front, with mass charges at machine guns, and the whole thing, with similar scale casualties. The Chinese invasion of North Vietnam in 1979 lost something 50,000 men in a few weeks, similarly frontally attacking a densely defended prepared defense. Horrible attritional battles don’t happen among more developed countries because of nuclear weapons, which make the whole prospect pointless. But massive attritional contests may yet occur again, somewhere. Rule nothing out that is within the scope of human malice and poor judgment. Original sin does not change.

  17. Have not read Mosier. The summary does not comport with my understanding of the facts. The Germans had been halted before the Americans arrived in large numbers. The USA made a decisive contribution, because by the sheer numbers of fresh troops it was apparent that a final offensive in 1919 was going to put the Germans down for good. Nonetheless it was a British Empire offensive which finished the Germans off in the last 100 days. And the Germans *were* beaten.

    German morale was low, not so much because of the military situation per se or even the blockade that put hardships on the people back home, but because British propaganda about alleged atrocities as well as the Kaiser and the government’s failure mamaged to undermine the soldiers’ self-image and made them doubt what they were fighting for: “All those extreme reports, there must be something to that”

    AS long as morale and therefore discipline was still quite good, German infantry could handle the British tanks quite well. The tanks only became effective when morale was low and German defences subsequently became disorganized.

    Regrettably, British WW I propaganda is still wideley taken at face value until today. All those centuries of experience in writing libels really paid off. On that note, British proganda about alleged Chinese atrocities during ‘Boxer rebellion’ and even the opium wars (the term ‘yellow menace’ was coined by British propaganda) is still an influence on Western perception of the Chinese people (and not just their communist government).

  18. Ralf, you and I have gone back and forth on this. The German army was crumbling at the end because the British 100 days offensive beat them and pushed them back despite their most desperate efforts to hold on, because the troops were hungry, because they had suffered enormous casualties, because Germany’s “final offensives” had failed and everyone knew it and the troops were demoralized by that failure, because Germany’s was running out of ammunition, because the famlies of the troops were going hungry back home and they knew it, because the young guys being sent to front who were teenagers who had grown up during the war wanted no part of it and made poor soldiers, because the Allies had overwhelming superiority in artillery, the Allies had absolute dominance in the air (the slaughter of the German air aces in the last months of the war shows this), the Allies had hundreds of tanks (which could maybe be “handled” but were still a powerful weapon the Germans could not match), the Allies had overwhelming superiority in food and other provisions, the Allies had become tactically proficient, the allies had superior infantry weapons at the squad level (Lewis guns, Stokes mortars), the Allies were being reinforced by an immense American army, the German generals had run out of ideas, the German troops men were influenced by Bolshevik ideas they got from troops who had served in the East.

    Germany fought the whole world and lost. That is what is probably going to happen if you fight the whole world.

    Germany’s defeat was not the result of propaganda. It was the result of reality.

    The USA came in not because of British propaganda but because of German foolishness, particularly submarine warfare, but mostly because of the Zimmerman telegram.

    The idea that the German soldiers gave up because they had come to have moral self-doubt due to British propaganda — that is a new one on me. I see no basis for it in the German memoirs, or in anything else I have read.

    The Germans put on a tremendous effort, the men did all that could be asked of them, and then more, and then more. But no amount skill and courage and willpower can extract victory when the incompetent political leadership has created a worldwide coalition of enemies.

  19. Lex,

    let me introcuce you to Lord Northcliffe

    The entry doesn’t seem to be available for free, but the Encyclopedia Britannica ranks the Allied propaganda as the equally important cause for Allied victory as the war on land the blockade at sea. Ludendorff agreed.

  20. Ralf, I know about British propaganda. There was lots of it.

    But the war was not decided by British propaganda.

    The war was decided by incredibly bad political and politico-military decisions by the German government and High Command.

    It really took a kind of perverse genius to get the USA actively involved in the fighting.

    What kind of maniacs would send something like the Zimmerman telegram, then openly admit they had done so?

    The Germans failed absolutely to heed their own guru, Clausewitz. War is the continuation of politics by other means. Yet when Ludendorf was asked what the purpose of his March, 1918 offensive was he said “Purpose? To rip a hole in the enemy’s line!” That is strategy in a total political and intellectual vacuum, it is in fact throwing lives away (both sides) on a non-strategy. Hans Delbruck, who was brilliant and a German patriot, saw as everyone did in the Winter of 1917-1918 that with Russia out of the war, but the USA not yet involved, that there would be a major offensive in the West once the ground dried in the Spring. Delbruck very wisely published in the Preussiche Jahrbücher that at the very moment when the first shells are falling in the opening volley of the artillery preparation for the Final Big German Attack, the British Foreign Minister should be receiving the German peace demands. There would never be a better moment to cut a deal from a position of strength. That was the voice of wisdom, the voice of history, the voice of political rationality itself. Yet that voice went unheeded.

    You can look to all the external causes you want, and claim that “the game” was somehow lost on a foul or a bad call by the referee, Ralf. But the tragic truth is that the Germans launched World War One with inadequate thought and inadequate political common sense, and they waged it in a political vacuum, and they ran their army into the ground and they ruined our entire civilization in the process. They had no one to blame but themselves.

    BTW #1, you must come to Chicago and we can drink beer and argue this all in person.

    BTW #2, be sure to read these posts about John Boyd. They have application to what happened in World War I, though indirectly.

  21. The war was decided by incredibly bad political and politico-military decisions by the German government and High Command.


    At the time the Zimmerman telegram was sent, the perception was that Wilson wanted to enter the war at any cost, no matter what, and that there was nothing to lose, and there was at least a small chance that Mexico might distarct the US.

    BTW #1, you must come to Chicago and we can drink beer and argue this all in person.

    Some day I will, if at all possible. :)

    I also will read the posts, thanks.

  22. I do find posting at Chicago Boyz to be interesting but sometimes the interpretations are pretty narrow.

    I am not as much a WW1 expert as Lex (having probably only ready 100 or so books :) ) but I really haven’t really heard of third Ypres being called a success. The Germans didn’t attack in 1917 because they were busy wiping up the Russians and hitting the Italians hard; their pull back to more defensible lines was part of the strategy. They attacked in 1918 because that is when they were ready; I am not defending their multi-front strategy or their behavior that brought in the US; I am just saying that they weren’t ready to hit the knockout blow in the west in 1917.

    I think that it would be interesting if you read Mosier not because I am for or against him because your interpretation would probably be very blog worthy.

    As far as attrition, are you really saying that nowadays we can absorb even 1% of the casualties that they absorbed in WW1 or WW2? I agree that some engagements of WW2 had big casualties for the Western Allies but as a proportion of forces their casualty rates were generally much lower. Their will to suffer these enormous casualties had appreciably declined.

    The examples that you give of modern high casualty wars are between dictatorships or facing dictatorships, not the Western Allies like US, Canada and western Europe that are bearing them. The Iraqis and Iranians happened almost 25 years ago, and Korea was 50+ years ago. The big battles and high casualties aren’t there anymore; the wars have moved on to civilians on a massive scale like in the Congo.

  23. “… but I really haven’t really heard of third Ypres being called a success.”

    Success is relative. The Allies were facing a crisis that could have cost them the war. As you note, the Germans were attacking in Italy and Russia. If they had attacked France in the West, it was game over. Britain preempted with what was available where it was possible. So, it was ugly. But it was necessary, and it “worked”. It was not the moronic and callous squandering of lives by “donkey” generals that is usually depicted. Sit at Haig’s desk, in your imagination, and look at the whole war, and ask what the Hell you *can* do. There are very few cards in your hand if you are committed to not letting the French go down and losing the war. If no one else says this, so much the worse for them. Too much of what is written about World War One does not cohere as you dig down. Take a look at Doughty’s book about the French. That is a model of how it should be done. We are heading into a renaissance of World War One studies, I predict.

    I’ll get to Mosier.

    I am not saying that the USA would take those casualties. We would release our nuclear weapons long before we got near those levels. We would overcome our qualms about it long before we reached six figures of casualties, maybe before we got near Vietnam or Korea-scale casualties. I *am* saying that mass-casualty conventional conflicts could still occur in other places, hence my reference to Iran v. Iraq, and China v. Vietnam.

  24. the nature of trench warfare and strategy of going over the top differed substantially from later warfare and more closely resembled the Çivil War, where huge losses were taken for granted as armies marched at each other with fixed bayonets. Too, medical help now allows for many fewer fatalities: compare for instance Viet Nam with Iraq. More wounded and shocked but fewer die from their wounds. In sum: war and strategy evolves.

  25. “Their will to suffer these enormous casualties had appreciably declined.”

    The “will to suffer casualties” is a variable that can vary wildly and quickly. Consider, for example, what the social will to suffer casualties was in the months after 9/11 and what it is now.

  26. I’ve always understood that Haig WANTED to attack in Flanders in 1917 and the idea of relieving pressure on the French after the failed Nivelles Offensive and mutiny was mostly post-hoc rationalization. This is far more persuasive than Lex’s narrative, because if all Haig wanted to do was distract the Germans from attacking the French, he could have done it with a hell of a lot less blood and treasure than Haig used/wasted. No, Haig thought he could secure major offensive victories and the subsequent narrative about taking pressure off the French was mostly to save his reputation, and that of the British government before a war-weary and increasingly cynical populace, after the fiasco. Had Haig NOT planned an offensive, it is likely that the Brits would have felt a lot of pressure to DO SOMETHING to distract the Germans, but the something was already planned.

    I agree with Lex, I have never heard that British propaganda had any significant effect on German morale, and this seems so counterintuitive that there must be a heavy burden of proof on anyone asserting it. My read has been that German homefront morale was hurting due to the blockade but even more the idea that the war seemed interminable and Germany had little hope of victory, it was just fighting to avoid defeat. The German Army and Navy were becoming infected with Bolshevik propaganda, and then the Allied Summer-Fall 1918 offensive led Ludendorff to crack, what would later be called a ‘nervous breakdown’. Turkey and Bulgaria quit the war, the Allies broke through in Italy (setting up Austria-Hungary for surrender) and kept pressing forward in Belgium having almost cleared France, and with the High Command paralyzed the Kaiser fled, the Navy mutinied and the jig was up. In the broad sense, yes, this is what happens when one mid-sized European country tries to take on the world, but the details are interesting.

    Also, highly recommend Fromkin’s book on the origins of WW1—basically, the Austrians were afraid of the Serbs and Russians and the Germans afraid of the French and Russians, and both felt that they might be able to win in 1914 but long-term they would lose ground, so when the opportunity came, they took it—this is simplified, you really should read teh book, but a hell of a lot more satisfactory than the idea that everyone just stumbled blindly into a huge war.

  27. Also, has there ever been a worse national leader than Ludendorff? A worse strategic decision than to foment Bolshevik revolution in Russia? When people say so-and-so is SOOOO smart and such a hard worker and therefore is a natural leader, I think of Ludendorff.

  28. British propaganda had made the German troops more receptive for Bolshevik ideas. Northcliffe propaganda wasn’t just dictributed in newspapers, but also in flyers that were made available to German troops, especially inclusing the German-occupied parts of France. That propaganda portrayed the situation back home as even worse as it actually was and told the soldiers that everything would be alright, peace on on Earth and all, if they only turned their backs on the Kaiser and so-called ‘Prussianism’.

  29. To add to my earlier post:

    There have always been those who consider “more than zero” to be an unacceptable number of losses, whether it’s because they want their side to lose, they think their side is in it for the wrong reasons, or they just have a video-game mentality.

    Since “more than zero” is enough to bring about whining and complaining from those groups, but in the past their whining was attached to larger numbers of casualties, reduced casualties make it appear as though there’s a reduced threshold. In reality, their theshold is the same as it’s always been: zero.

  30. I believe that I am related to Colonel von Lossberg that you mention in the article. I wonder if you have his first name and any other information on him. Thank you so much. I heard something about a von Lossberg in WW 2, a General or something. There was a famous Hessian von Lossberg too. I left my contact information in the boxes.

    Sincerely yours,

    Christine Von Lossberg

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