Paid Advertisement
Historynet/feed historynet feedback facebook link World History Group RSS feed World History Group Subscriptions Historynet Home page

MHQ Reviews: War of Attrition

By Doug Stewart 
Originally published on Published Online: May 13, 2014 
Print Friendly
0 comments FONT +  FONT -

War of Attrition
Fighting the First World War
by William Philpott. 349 pages.
Overlook Press, 2014. $32.50.

Reviewed by Doug Stewart

In the 100 years since World War I erupted, its ghastly carnage has been blamed on an out-of-control arms race, a tangle of alliances, and feckless and inept leaders. "Events passed very largely outside the scope of conscious choice," wrote Winston Churchill in The World Crisis, 1911–1918. On both sides, the belligerents "swayed and staggered forward in helpless violence."

In his fast-moving, richly detailed history of the war, War of Attrition, William Philpott puts forth a contrarian view. A professor of the history of warfare at King's College, London, Philpott describes the strategy of attrition adopted by both sides after offensive operations bogged down in 1915 as a "rational" choice—indeed, the only possible route to victory. He allows that a "casualty-conscious" observer, then as now, would view attrition as a senseless and cruel way to fight a war. "Yet the gradual, systematic destruction of the enemy's military capability proved both necessary and effective when huge armies backed by industrialized empires took the field."

Philpott, author of Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century (2009), shows how military commanders only gradually realized that planning for decisive, winner-take-all battles and territorial conquest was increasingly pointless. All that mattered was killing enemy soldiers—in large numbers and quickly.

Americans are accustomed to the story of American troops arriving in France in 1917 and 1918 to tip the balance in favor of the Allies once and for all. Philpott argues that Britain and France, with a little help from Italy, would have won the war without American troops, whom he characterizes as mainly "greenhorn" reserves (though he acknowledges that some 114,000 doughboys never made it home).

The author draws on a wealth of unusual, sometimes unpublished sources, among them one from a German cavalry officer, who wrote scornfully of his superiors' trench-warfare strategy before confessing: "War is a strange business. No one really knows it."

Doug Stewart is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who wrote about the First World War's transatlantic "bridge of ships" in the Winter 2014 MHQ.


Leave a Reply

Human Verification: In order to verify that you are a human and not a spam bot, please enter the answer into the following box below based on the instructions contained in the graphic.

Related Articles

History Net Images Spacer
Paid Advertisement
Paid Advertisement
History Net Daily Activities
History net Spacer
History net Spacer
Historynet Spacer

Which of these wars resulted in the most surprising underdog upset?

View Results | See previous polls

Loading ... Loading ...
History net Spacer
RSS Feed Daily Email Update
History net Spacer
Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement
What is HistoryNet? is brought to you by World History Group, the world's largest publisher of history magazines. contains daily features, photo galleries and over 5,000 articles originally published in our various magazines.

If you are interested in a specific history subject, try searching our archives, you are bound to find something to pique your interest.

From Our Magazines
World History Group

World History Group Network:  HistoryNet | Armchair General | Achtung Panzer!
Today in History | Ask Mr. History | Picture of the Day | Daily History Quiz | Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 World History Group. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Advertise With Us | Subscription Help | Privacy Policy