A History of Modern Wars of Attrition

A History of Modern Wars of Attrition

A History of Modern Wars of Attrition

A History of Modern Wars of Attrition


A war of attrition is usually conceptualized as a bloody slogging match, epitomized by imagery of futile frontal assaults on the Western Front of the First World War. As such, many academics, politicians, and military officers currently consider attrition to be a wholly undesirable method of warfare. This first book-length study of wars of attrition challenges this viewpoint. A historical analysis of the strategic thought behind attrition demonstrates that it was often implemented to conserve casualties, not to engage in a bloody, senseless assault. Moreover, attrition frequently proved an effective means of attaining a state's political aims in warfare, particularly in serving as a preliminary to decisive warfare, reducing risk of escalation, and coercing an opponent in negotiations.


The First World War, especially on the Western Front, is generally considered the classic war of attrition. However, attrition on the Western Front was less a deliberate operational strategy than the result of failed attempts at a decisive breakthrough. Most generals wanted nothing more than to break into maneuver warfare as Napoleon had a century earlier. Furthermore, both the Germans and the Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia), even though faced with a complete stalemate, were reluctant to abandon total aims for limited ones, which naturally induced decisive rather than gradual attritional operations. For the Entente, declared attempts to limit offensives rarely succeeded because of the fixation with fighting a decisive battle. The Germans, of course, initiated one of the most notorious battles of attrition in history when they tried to “bleed France white” at Verdun. In all cases, attrition, being gradual and indecisive, was ineffective in attaining the total aims of the war.


After the brief flurry of mobile warfare in 1914, the French, British, and German armies settled into static trench lines in early 1915. The new technology of warfare—bolt-action rifles, machine guns, and breach-loading artillery—made the defensive very strong. Additionally, the new massive size of armies made it nearly impossible for generals to control and communicate with their formations. This inhibited offensive mobility. All the combatants faced the dilemma of how to break the stalemate.

Unperturbed by this dilemma, Marshal Josef Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, decided to launch “decisive” offensives and drive the Germans from French soil. He wanted to gain a breakthrough and return to open warfare. Fearing that the Germans would soon have overwhelming numerical superiority, Field Marshal John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force

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