Attrition Warfare - History of World War I - WW1 - The Great War

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World War 1 Picture - French troopers using periscope, 1915

Attrition Warfare Information

Attrition Warfare

Military history

Attrition warfare is a military strategy in which a belligerent side attempts to win a war by wearing down its enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and matriel.

The war will usually be won by the side with greater such resources. A good example of this was during World War I when the Allies wore down the Central Powers to the point of capitulation.

Strategic considerations

Military theorists and strategists like Sun Tzu have viewed attrition warfare as something to be avoided. In the sense that attrition warfare represents an attempt to grind down an opponent through superior numbers, it represents the opposite of the usual principles of war, where one attempts to achieve decisive victories through maneuver, concentration of force, surprise, and the like.

On the other hand, a side which perceives itself to be at a marked disadvantage in maneuver warfare or unit tactics may deliberately seek out attrition warfare to neutralize its opponent's advantages. If the sides are nearly evenly matched, the outcome of a war of attrition is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory.

The difference between war of attrition and other forms of war is somewhat artificial, since war always contains an element of attrition. However, one can be said to pursue a strategy of attrition when one makes it the main goal to cause gradual attrition to the opponent eventually amounting to unacceptable or unsustainable levels for the opponent while limiting your own gradual losses to acceptable and sustainable levels. This should be seen as opposed to other main goals such as the conquest of some resource or territory or an attempt to cause the enemy great losses in a single stroke (e.g. by encirclement and capture).

Historically, attritional methods are tried when other methods have failed or are obviously not feasible. Typically, when attritional methods have worn down the enemy sufficiently to make other methods feasible, attritional methods are abandoned in favor of other strategies.

Attritional methods are in themselves usually sufficient to cause a nation to give up a non-vital ambition, but other methods are generally necessary to achieve unconditional surrender.


World War 1 Picture - French troopers using periscope, 1915

Picture - French troopers using periscope, 1915

It is often argued that the best-known example of attrition warfare was during World War I on the Western Front. Both military forces found themselves in static defensive positions in trenches running from Switzerland to the English Channel. For years, without any opportunity for maneuvers, the only way the commanders thought they could defeat the enemy was to repeatedly attack head on, to grind the other down.

Attritional warfare in World War I has been shown by historians such as Hew Strachan to have been used as a post hoc excuse for failed offensives. Erich von Falkenhayn later claimed that his tactics at Verdun were designed not to take the city, but rather to destroy the French Army in its defense. In practice the German Offensive was intended to go as far as possible and had no obvious design to minimize German casualties and maximize French casualties. Attrition was therefore used later in the battle to shift the focus away from Falkenhayn's tactical failure, rather than a goal of the battle itself.

Attrition to the enemy was easy to assert and difficult to refute, and thus may have been a convenient face-saving exercise in the wake of many indecisive battles. It is in many cases hard to see the logic of warfare by attrition because of the obvious uncertainty of the level of damage to the enemy, and of the damage that the attacking force may sustain to its own limited and expensive resources, while trying to achieve that damage.

That is not to say that a general will not be prepared to sustain high casualties while trying to reach an objective. An example in which one side used attrition warfare to neutralize the other side's advantage in maneuverability and unit tactics occurred during the latter part of the American Civil War, when Ulysses S. Grant pushed the Confederate Army continually, in spite of losses, confident that the Union's supplies and manpower would overwhelm the Confederacy even if the casualty ratio was unfavorable; this indeed proved to be the case.

Other examples

The French invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812
The "delaying" tactics of Quintus Fabius Maximus "Cunctator" against Hannibal Barca during the Second Punic War.
Battle of Actium of 31 BC during the Roman civil wars
The Hungarian resistance against the Mongols 1241-1242
The Đại Việt Empire (now known as Vietnam), three repulsions of Kublai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan and the last Khan of the Mongol Empire) in 1258, 1285 and 1288
The American strategy during the American Revolutionary War
Trench warfare in the American Civil War, notably the Siege of Petersburg
Trench warfare in World War I, including the Battle of the Somme (1916), the Battle of Verdun and many others
Tonnage war at Atlantic and Pacific in World War II
Static battles in World War II, including the first phases of the Battle of Stalingrad
The Vietnam War (Body count)
The Bombing of London in World War II
The "Long War" during the Provisional IRA's armed campaign against the British Army during the Troubles.
The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition from 1967-1970.
The 2011 Libyan civil war is arguably an example of attrition warfare.

Guerrilla warfare
Human wave attack
Mexican standoff
No-win situation
Pyrrhic victory
Winner's curse
Win-win game

Military theory:

Fabian strategy
Flypaper theory (strategy)
Loss Exchange Ratio
Maneuver warfare
Ivan Bloch (19th century)

More aircraft.

Source: WikiPedia

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