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Book Review: War of Attrition

By (July 12, 2014) No Comment

War of Attrition: Fighting the First World Warwar of attrition cover

By William Philpott

The Overlook Press, 2014


The hundred-year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War is upon us, and for months now the book-publishing industry has been flooding the new release venues with dozens and dozens of new titles about every aspect – political, military, personal, biographical – of the Great War and its broader setting. It’s in this context that Overlook Press offers William Philpott’s follow-up to his extremely good book Three Armies on the Somme. In his new book, War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War, Philpott widens his perspective and gives readers a comprehensive one-volume history of World War One, and it’s one of the best, darkest, and most readable one-volume WWI history ever written.

Philpott starts his new account by talking about Mildred Aldrich, who recorded her own experiences in her bittersweet book A Hilltop on the Marne, and the narrow focus rules the book’s entire narrative: this is an account firmly grounded in first-hand records and memoirs, from the halls of power to the mud of the trenches. On every page, Philpott finds some perfect quote to illustrate the protracted nightmare of the war – the array of his cited sources is very pleasingly vast.

But his broader-view summings-up of all aspects of the war are even more fascinating, especially on questions of tactics and strategy. The First World War distilled into horrifying new forms the battlefield advances of the previous fifty years, and Philpott sketches clearly that black new dawn:

Following Prussia’s rapid defeat of Napoleon III’s armies, Europe was gripped by an audacious new way of making war: prepare thoroughly, mobilize rapidly en masse, concentrate quickly using strategic railways, march fast and hit hard backed by powerful artillery, encircle and smash the enemy’s armed forces with what the Prussian General Staff termed a strategy of annihilation (overlooking expediently that both French field armies had been besieged in fortresses before they capitulated, not smashed on the battlefield).

Despite ample if scattered signs that were available if they’d been paying attention to the bigger picture, nations aligned on both sides in a fight whose nature and parameters would take everybody by surprise – and which would grow organically with a horrifying aura of unavoidability. Philpott tracks that steady growth along all its fronts, ranging from well-known and lesser-known military operations to wider considerations, like the war taking place within the war, a war of munitions, a materialschlat that represented a gap Germany simply couldn’t bridge:

Germany would have to match her enemies as best she could in this new way of making war that, alongside the management of manpower, required the mobilization of science and industry, capital and labour. She could never outpace them. Germany’s mobilization problems were not managerial, since the military-industrial complex could adapt swiftly to wartime needs. Rather, Germany’s problems would relate to supply and labour.

2013 – the year before the anniversary – saw a veritable glut of WWI-related histories, and 2014 has already seen an even greater number, with who knows how many to follow. Even the most dedicated student of the First World War will have some difficulty keeping up with all this centennial activity. But a handful of these books stand out for their heft and quality, and War of Attrition is one of those. Readers should snap it up – and Three Armies on the Somme too, if they haven’t read it already.