WAR OF ATTRITION
By William Philpott
Overlook Press, 400 pp
Review by Sal Compagno, WW1HA President
The first world war has left its permanent mark on military fighting in both small and large campaigns. That war was to change the nature of fighting ever since. William Philpott has demonstrated the shift in military tactics in his recent study, War of Attrition. A British author of note, he has investigated why the first world conflict of the twentieth century was significantly different from previous wars. His focus is on the learning curve needed to end the struggle after four years of fruitless efforts.
Philpott covers many theaters of the war, but concentrates mostly on the Western Front as this campaign defined the crucial change in military tactics. He emphasizes the long and painful lessons learned in the first two years of the war leading to an acknowledgement of the different character fighting had changed. The bloody battles of Verdun and the Somme and those of the Eastern Theater were preliminary to a conscious awareness among military minds how the war underwent a new direction. New tactics and weapons were increasingly introduced yet progress was both slow and costly.
Throughout the writing, Philpott demonstrates how supply, manpower reserves and will eventually turned the tide in favor of the Allies and the weakness of the Central Powers who could not match them. It took more than two years to build and change the waring nations to adopt a total war consciousness. He extends great praise to Ferdinand Foch and Phillipe Petain for recognizing what was needed to defeat the German army. The French expression grignotage —gnawing — the enemy strength was to become the modus operandi for the last six months of the war literally wearing the the opposition out. But the price was equally harsh for both sides. Yet, Foch, who was supreme commander, realized the price had to be paid.
The author spares no one for mistakes and errors in judgment. He notes how Ludendorff never grasped the full extent of collapsing morale of the German soldier even with the spectacular victory in the Eastern Theater. It was the declining morale and the lack of men and the desperate shortness of supplies which Germany could not replace forcing their submission. Men, supply and determination were the key to victory.
War of Attrition is a study not to be ignored by serious students of military history and is highly recommended for the average reader. Phillpott investigation of the nature of fighting in the first global conflict will enlighten both the historian and for those who appreciate the importance of the war.