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Interview With World War I Historian William Philpott

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: August 28, 2014 
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British historian William Philpott reconsiders World War I in his new book War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War. (Courtesy King's College)
British historian William Philpott reconsiders World War I in his new book War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War. (Courtesy King's College)

'World War I brought an end to the 19th century world and its political structures, economic organization and social relations'

At the outset of World War I both sides expected swift victory, but the war soon devolved into a brutal and protracted slugfest that killed millions, destroyed empires and laid the seeds of an even larger, more destructive conflagration. In his new book War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War noted military historian William Philpott re-examines the causes, conduct and lasting effects of the first truly global and industrialized human conflict. Professor of the history of warfare in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, Philpott specializes in military operations on the Western Front.

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What spurred your interest in World War I?
I did history as an undergraduate subject and came under the influence of Professor Michael Howard at Oxford University. I just found myself enjoying the subject and stayed on to do a doctorate. Specifically, I'm a scholar of the First World War, but also Anglo-French relations in the early 20th century and, more generally, warfare in the 19th and 20th centuries.

How did World War I bog down into a war of attrition?
The generals found that with large numbers of men in uniform they could constantly replace casualties with, at first, trained reserves, then untrained reserves that could be quickly trained up and put into the front line. Whatever happened on the battlefield, wherever they maneuvered, there were too many men for the space in which they were fighting on the Western Front, so things were inevitably going to bog down.

It was a matter first of manpower and second of logistics. Men could be moved around on railways at a certain speed, but once they detrained, they were at walking pace, and once they got into battle, they went much slower than walking pace. That meant the defender could reinforce far more quickly than the attacker could make progress across the battlefield, which again reinforced the tactical stalemate caused when mass armies tried to maneuver in far too small a space.

How did the terrain influence combat on the Western Front?
By the end of 1914 the Germans realized they were going to have to conduct a defensive battle, so they chose strategic high ground. Standing on Western Front battlefields of the First World War, you see most are localized fights for dominant high ground. The classic example is the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette, northwest of Arras, where the Germans and French fought in 1914–15, which led to some 40,000 casualties. The task the Allied armies had from 1914 to 1917 was to take the strategic high ground the Germans occupied.

Were the Allied generals of 1914 unable to adapt to the evolving nature of war?
This is one of those long-standing myths about First World War commanders. Because the battles often took place in the same areas, people assume the generals were just repeating the same mistakes. That's far from what happened; they actually adapted very quickly. In 1915 the generals engaged with the tactical problems of fighting on entrenched battlefield. In 1916 they took those models and applied them to the bigger question of how to conduct a long, drawn-out battle to engage and defeat the enemy's army. In 1917 they were able to retrain their armies in new techniques, which allowed them to maneuver more effectively and ultimately win the war in 1918.

When you look at the way the armies were organized and equipped, the way the defense had to adapt to new offensive techniques combining infantry, artillery and new technologies such as aircraft, tanks and gas, you see that the warfare of 1917 was very different from that of 1915. Commanders came to grips with the problems and found solutions.

How well did individual soldiers adapt?
Soldiers progressed alongside the evolution of warfare between 1915 and 1918. Most went into service with an outdated impression of warfare as heroic and dynamic yet ultimately found themselves becoming, essentially, technicians. In 1914 most infantrymen were equipped with just a rifle and a bayonet and wore a quaint and brightly colored uniform and a soft cap. By 1918 soldiers had modern uniforms, were wearing helmets and were equipped with a range of new weaponry.

Was the Western Front really dominated by the machine gun?
The Western Front was more an artillery duel. Its role was to clear the way for the infantry to take ground. Problems came when the artillery failed to knock out the enemy's machine guns, which were the prime weapons used to contest ground. If the machine guns were intact, they inflicted heavy casualties on infantry not adequately supported by artillery. While artillery might deal with most machine guns, the infantry had to develop its own tactics for engaging and overcoming those that the artillery barrage had not defeated. By 1917 infantry tactics had become fairly effective for dealing with machine guns—pinning down the crew and attacking with hand and rifle grenades.

So, yes, the machine gun controlled the battlefield in 1915, but solutions were found. One of the most effective was the creeping barrage, which saw the infantry advancing very closely behind their own artillery fire so the infantry could quickly engage the defenses the artillery had missed before the defenders could man their weapons.

How did the arrival of the American Expeditionary Forces affect the Western Front?
It had a very powerful psychological effect on both sides. The Allies suddenly had another huge reserve they could throw into the war of attrition—potentially an army of 4 million men, though they got nowhere near that number of effective troops to Europe before the war ended in 1918. The Germans realized if they weren't able to win the war quickly they would inevitably lose, because they couldn't match the Allies' manpower, materiel or financial strength.

The Americans' arrival wasn't the decisive factor in the war. I think the decisive factors were the Allies' development of the right techniques for taking on and beating the German army, and Allied superiority in munitions, weaponry and doctrine. I think the truly critical elements that America brought to the war were money and industrial productivity. Both had been operating on the Allied side since 1915 and were much more significant.

Did the carnage of World War I make World War II inevitable?
World War I brought an end to the 19th century world and its political structures, economic organization and social relations. But it didn't put anything concrete in their place. It brought down powerful empires and left a political vacuum in Eastern Europe; it left the defeated states resentful and victorious states like Italy unsatisfied; it created new states that had little legitimacy or power; and it led to communism's success in what became the Soviet Union. We tend to see the origins of World War II as German aggression in Eastern Europe, but it was German aggression in connivance with the Soviet Union.

What should we have learned from World War I?
The conflict has become highly mythologized. We have to step back and try to understand the objectives, the systems that were in play. Both sides were willing to put millions of men in uniform and organize their societies to fight, and both had a belief in the rightness of their cause and the necessity of victory. They were willing to go through the conflict and make the sacrifice for their belief, which would result in a better world. In the early 1920s the Allied nations felt they achieved something of that goal; it was only with the advent of the Great Depression and the reappearance of belligerent nationalism and rearmament that the public attitude about the war began to sour. The memory of the war that we have is the memory of the 1930s refracted through the lens of World War II. I've tried to tell the story of the conflict from the mindset of those who participated at the time rather than through the lens of hindsight. 


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