Understanding Attrition

by I.A. Isherwood

Yesterday we discussed naval warfare and the Battle of Jutland. Though the nuances of the legality of naval blockades are not everyone’s tot of rum, we got a little bit into economic warfare and the controversies of unrestricted submarine warfare. Then we jumped into Jutland: Big ships, baffled admirals, and the lingering debate over the battle’s outcome were our focus. Students took both sides (British and German) and went back and forth a bit trying to assess the notion of victory and defeat in this controversial battle. I could really care less whether we decided anything: the key thing was that the conversation was erudite and specific, taking into account the strategic victory vs. tactical victory and details of ship design and naval tactics. I get few opportunities to teach naval history – it isn’t my specialty so this is probably not a bad thing – but I really enjoy when I do.

Tomorrow we are examining the war on the western front in 1916 and examining the battles of Verdun and the Somme. I am interested to see how students conceptualize battlimagees this large, this long in duration, this bloody and terrible for participants. Gettysburg College students are no strangers to battlefields – my classroom is a hundred yards away from a Civil War hospital site and sits on land that was used to corral POWs and wounded in July 1863 – but there is an enormous difference in scale between Gettysburg and the bloody battles of 1916 (this is not to diminish the horror of Gettysburg). Verdun was a nine month long attritional battle; the Somme, four months. The scale of destruction, death, and violence of each is unfathomable for most because of the sheer size and duration of each battle.

As I write this, I am half tempted to start rattling off numbers: shells dropped, killed and wounded, divisions engaged, acres saturated with bombardment. I am not sure how useful this is because I am not convinced that we can actually conceptualize these numbers. How can we understand a million shells falling in the span of a few days? The exhausted gun crews. The terrified infantry ready for the assault, listening to the bombardment with both excitement and terror. Or the absolute tooth-breaking tension of men in dug-outs, inner-ears vibrating from concussions, the fear of a direct hit obsessively ever-present. We can’t possibly get what they got so well: that industrial warfare made hell of all things natural – landscapes, people, psyches.

But we must press on and learn something of these battles. The challenge of teaching both the Verdun and the Somme is to explain operational planning and the execution of that planning without falling victim of the cliches of WWI battles. In both cases, the generals initiating attacks believed they were risking the lives of their men – their fellow citizens – for the purpose of winning the war as quickly as possible. In both cases these hopes for victory fell short with horrible results.

In short, we’ll try to understand the notion of attrition, a concept that generals knew all too well during the war, but one hard for students to get their heads around because of its inhumanity. As students continue to read their textbook, they will also be reading Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.  Though a polemical writer (like most!) Sassoon’s account is a classic for a reason, his book a mixture of heroism and pathos, a beautifully written memoir/novel of a junior officer struggling to do his duty as the world around him seems irrationally murderous. We will contrast the feelings of this junior officer with the historical record of 1916. So stay tuned,

P.s. For further reading on the nature of attrition, I would recommend Bill Philpott’s recent War of Attrition, an excellent account of the way that generals, politicians, and common soldiers understood the term during the war.