1916-17 Attrition


As French fought Germans to a standstill over 10 months at Verdun, other Allied armies attacked the Germans on other fronts. The idea was the same as Falkenhayn’s, but more strategic than merely operational. First, wear out the German reserve by inflicting (and thus, also taking) high casualties, then try to break through weakened lines to finish the war in the traditional way, by moving, encircling and doing great harm to newly exposed flanks. Italians attacked along the Isonzo front five times in 1916 alone, putting as much strain as they could on the armies of the Central Powers. Fighting scoured the Balkans and Romania and Bulgaria, too. Ottoman and British armies fought in the Middle East in 1916. Cavalry and camel formations advanced or fell back along ancient roads to Jerusalem and Damascus in a war of movement that attracted world attention, mainly by contrast to the stalemated immobility in Europe. Germans also fought a small war in East Africa in 1916, attacking the Allies’ imperial periphery. The Russians stunned the Central Powers with their greatest offensive of the war. Starting on June 4, the Brusilov Offensive smashed half the Habsburg army in just 10 days and broke the rest into demoralized fragments held together only by German troops and generals. Europe was drowning in war in 1916. Strange new machines fought each other in its skies, bombed and strafed the ground. Mechanical behemoths crawled in its fields, sinking into mud. Navies starved whole nations with blockade and counter-blockade, on and under the seas. Armies killed thousands daily. Everyone and everything was connected to the war.

On June 24, the Allies hit the Germans at the Somme with a massive barrage by 3,300 cannon plus 1,400 trench mortars and naval guns. The barrage lasted a week, hurling over 2.5 million shells onto the German line, though too many were shrapnel that exploded on the surface while leaving bunkers and the Germans inside mostly unharmed. Worse, fully one-third of the British shells failed to explode at all. After seven days of this, British troops went over the top, and lost 19,240 killed and 37,646 wounded on just the first day, July 1, 1916. This was the nadir and culmination of two years of industrial war with no prior experience as guide. However hard the lessons, the British did learn from the Somme and a second slaughter at Passchendaele, and other lessons at Cambrai and Arras. British performance was dramatically improved by late 1917, and superior by 1918. However, the cost of learning was shocking and immense.

Lots of Germans died at the Somme as well. Falkenhayn refused to yield ground and threw in what was left of the Westheer reserve. Outnumbered on all fronts, he clung to a brittle doctrine of comparing casualties. “The first principle of position warfare,” he said, “must be not to surrender a foot of ground and when ground is lost to throw in even the last man in an immediate counter-attack.” Falkenhayn thus did at the Somme what he wanted the French Army to do at Verdun—the Ausblutung (“bleeding out”) of his own reserves by clinging to every bit of ground. His subcommanders all agreed with this approach. Still, they were startled by the scale and intensity of the matériel battle and by troop losses. Each arriving German division at the Somme was used up within two weeks, putting even more pressure on strained reserves than the slow drain caused by the months longer but less intense fighting at Verdun.

Continuing to fight at Verdun cut the French Army contribution to the Somme offensive from 40 divisions to just 14. Still, over the next four months the equivalent of 166 Allied divisions assaulted 147 divisions of the Westheer, an army Falkenhayn now called Germany’s “iron wall,” not its “iron fist” as it was known earlier in the war. The change from offensive to defensive metaphor was striking. Nor was it just matériel advantages that made the difference. The Allies were also outfighting the Germans in an all-arms battle. If the Somme was not quite a bloody victory for the British Army, it was a significant Allied strategic success in that it wore down German reserves and morale. Britain would raise additional corps and attack again in 1917, but Germany did not have such strength left. Despite the experience of 1914–1915 in Flanders, despite defense-in-depth and an experimental doctrine of attrition-by-artillery at Verdun, the Kaiserheer was incapable of sustaining a war of men and matériel on this scale. It suffered 430,000 casualties at the Somme alone, piled atop more butchers’ bills from Verdun, the Isonzo front in Italy and the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front.

When the last German attack stalled at Verdun in July, the Kaiserheer had nothing left. By August the OHL had only one division in reserve. Falkenhayn went over to defense, only with Germans in the exposed position flailed by French guns on the heights around. He was fired as Chief of Staff on August 29, replaced by the eastern generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The French then went on offense at Verdun, grinding at lost ground, nibbling into the German position month after month. Douaumont was retaken in October, Fort Vaux on November 2. This time, hardly anyone cheered. It ended in December in mutual exhaustion. It was worse than a major battle lost. Along with the Allied relief offensive on the Somme, which was far stronger than Falkenhayn expected, Verdun was a watershed. Casualties at Verdun alone were 337,000 Germans to 377,000 French. Trading men at close to 1:1 was not the calculus Falkenhayn had expected or the Kaiserheer could afford. Intended to bleed France to death, the longest fight of 1916 severely hemorrhaged Germany as well. Yet Verdun was only one of many battles that accelerated the wearing out of armies on all sides that crimson year, Germany’s most of all.

Verdun was a victory for France, but a Pyrrhic one for the French Army. Mutinies broke out in April 1917 that left it incapable of resuming offensive actions until mid-1918. Luckily, the Kaiserheer had so damaged itself it could not take advantage. It was also nearly worn out, with mere boys called up along with cadres of unhealthy and substandard men. It was stretched over too many fronts. As hundreds of thousands of French and Germans died at Verdun, more French and British and Germans bled each other at the Somme, Russians and Germans perished by bushels in the east, and more Germans died fighting Italians in the Isonzo Valley. Germany had only so much blood and reserves of fighting men, and too many enemies. Rather than seek terms as hope of military victory faded into positional fighting, under the hidden dictatorship of Hindenburg and Ludendorff Germany committed everything. There would be no more costly offensives like Verdun, at least not just to look for a limited advantage to get a better chair at the peace conference. No more proposals for minor adjustments to the international order and Germany’s status within it. Henceforth it was total war for Weltmacht oder Niedergang (“world power or ruin”). The eastern generals returned to seeking total victory by direct military means, by sweeping campaigns and envelopments to match Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. Hindenburg remained certain even after the war was lost and over that the only way to win had been to stay on offense.

Berlin looked to any means to further this end, including at sea. Stalemate was achieved there, too, as the anticlimactic standoff at Jutland (May 31–June 1, 1916) meant the idea of fighting a decisive naval battle was taken off the table. Some German thinkers had contemplated Staatskaperei (“state-approved piracy”) before World War I, but the idea was obliterated by Tirpitz’s battle-fleet planning. That meant surface ships capable of commerce raiding were too few, too harried by Allied navies, or already sunk, taking away another option. However, the global grain harvest in 1916 was very poor. The German high command hoped that U-boats could take advantage and worsen its effects, bringing starvation to the Allies and cutting Britain off from essential food and fuel.

The urgency of the U-boat plan was established by Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff in a memorandum on December 22, 1916, two weeks after the end of the fight at Verdun: “The war requires a decision before autumn 1917, lest it should end in the mutual exhaustion of all parties and thus be a disaster for us … If we succeed in breaking England’s backbone, the war will immediately be decided in our favor.” As for the United States: “Fear of a diplomatic rupture should not lead us to recoil from making use at the decisive moment of a weapon that promises victory for us.” A month later the decision was made to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, to strangle Britain with U-boats before American belligerence so tipped the balance of forces that Germany could not win. The United States declared war on April 6. Again, Berlin’s policies guaranteed that it would face too many powerful enemies all at once. Again, Germans must win fast and win everything or lose everything in a war of exhaustion: knock out Russia in 1917, defeat France and starve Britain, all before the Americans arrived in sufficient numbers to make a real difference on the Western Front.

Germans managed the first part, knocking Russia out of the war. The tattered end of the 1916 Brusilov Offensive had radicalized many soldiers and tipped them toward mutiny in March 1917, when the tsar abdicated in the first of two revolutions in which his shattered army and soldiers played a major role. Russia was clearly defeated by midsummer, after suffering yet more casualties and mutinous reaction in the ill-advised and failed July or Kerensky Offensive (July 1–16, 1917). Large numbers of soldiers began to refuse orders. Whole units threw down arms. Desertion and disobedience of officers worsened daily. This disintegration of the Russian Army greatly contributed to the Bolshevik Revolution in November that further opened the east to deep German advances. The Russian Army was effectively removed from the Allied order of battle by the end of 1917. This was due to Russian military collapse rather than operational superiority by the Germans, though that is not how smug German staff officers saw it, reported it at OHL, or remembered it later when contemplating a second invasion of Russia in 1941. In the absence of resistance, German armies continued to advance deep into western Russia, until the Bolsheviks finally agreed to an armistice in December. When negotiations stalled in January, they resumed the advance. That forced the Bolsheviks to accept harsh terms at Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. A conqueror’s peace ceded to Germany (with smaller bits to Austria) all of Russian Poland and Lithuania, as well as Riga. Ukraine, Finland, Estonia and the rest of Latvia were declared independent states under German military and political protection. Smaller territories went to Romania and the Ottomans. That was 400,000 square miles and 45 million people, about half of European Russia. Also stripped was 50 percent of Russian industry, 90 percent of the broken empire’s coal, and all its gold reserves. This crushing settlement was set aside only because Germany lost the war to the Western Allies later that year.

Acting as a hidden military dictatorship, Hindenburg and Ludendorff hardened everything—domestic politics and German war aims. They also reversed the order of the Schlieffen idea, lurching the main military effort back to the east in 1917, aiming to knock Russia out, then return and win in the west in 1918. OHL thus again succumbed to the temptation of offense, to the allure of the next and sure-to-be-decisive campaign that first pulled the Kaiserheer westward in 1914, then east in 1915, west in 1916, east again in 1917, and finally back west in 1918, until total military defeat came. The one break in the ring of fire in 1916 came from Romania’s entry on the Allied side in August, as Bucharest declared war in expectation of rapid and easy victory (who did not?). Instead, in just two months Romania suffered counter-invasion and occupation by two armies comprising units from all four Central Powers, then loss of control of its war effort to Russia. Rather than end the war as the Allies hoped, by tipping the scales against Germany while it was already under all-around attack, Romania’s defeat gave Berlin access to food stocks it desperately needed to extend its own military effort into 1918.


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