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