World War I: A War of Attrition


HMS Lion is hit during the Battle of Jutland. Photograph Source: Public Domain

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Planning for 1916

On December 5, 1915, representatives of the Allied powers gathered at the French headquarters in Chantilly to discuss plans for the coming year. Under the nominal leadership of General Joseph Joffre, the meeting came to the conclusion that the minor fronts that had been opened in places such as Salonika and the Middle East would not be reinforced and that the focus would be on mounting coordinating offensives in Europe. The goal of these was to prevent the Central Powers from shifting troops to defeat each offensive in turn. While the Italians sought to renew their efforts along the Isonzo, the Russians, having made good their losses from the previous year, intended to advance into Poland.

On the Western Front, Joffre and the new commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), General Sir Douglas Haig, debated strategy. While Joffre initially favored several smaller assaults, Haig desired to launch a major offensive in Flanders. After much discussion, the two decided on a combined offensive along the Somme River, with the British on the north bank and the French on the south. Though both armies had been bled in 1915, they had succeeded in raising large numbers of new troops which allowed the offensive to move forward. Most notable of these were the twenty-four New Army divisions formed under the guidance of Lord Kitchener. Comprised of volunteers, the New Army units were raised under the promise of "those who joined together would serve together." As a result, many of the units were comprised of soldiers from the same towns or localities, leading to them being referred to as "Chums" or "Pals" battalions.

German Plans for 1916

While Austrian Chief of Staff Count Conrad von Hötzendorf made plans for attacking Italy through the Trentino, his German counterpart, Erich von Falkenhayn, was looking to the Western Front. Incorrectly believing that the Russians had been effectively defeated the year before at Gorlice-Tarnow, Falkenhayn decided to concentrate Germany's offensive power on knocking France out of the war with the knowledge that with the loss of their main ally, Britain would be forced to sue for peace. To do so, he sought attack the French at a vital point along line and one that they would not be able to retreat from due to issues of strategy and national pride. As a result, he intended to compel the French to commit to a battle that would "bleed France white."

In assessing his options, Falkenhayn selected Verdun as the target of his operation. Relatively isolated in a salient in the German lines, the French could only reach the city over one road while it was located near several German railheads. Dubbing the plan Operation Gericht (Judgment), Falkenhayn secured Kaiser Wilhelm II's approval and began massing his troops.

The Battle of Verdun

A fortress town on the Meuse River, Verdun protected the plains of Champagne and the approaches to Paris. Surrounded by rings of forts and batteries, Verdun's defenses had been weakened in 1915, as artillery was shifted to other sections of the line. Falkenhayn intended to launch his offensive on February 12, but it was postponed nine days due to poor weather. Alerted to the attack, the delay allowed the French to reinforce the city's defenses. Surging forward on February 21, the Germans succeeded in driving the French back.

Feeding reinforcements into the battle, including General Philippe Petain's Second Army, the French began to inflict heavy losses on the Germans as the attackers lost the protection of their own artillery. In March, the Germans changed tactics and assaulted the flanks of Verdun at Le Mort Homme and Cote (Hill) 304. Fighting continued to rage through April and May with Germans slowly advancing, but at a massive cost (Map).

The Battle of Jutland

As fighting raged at Verdun, the Kaiserliche Marine began planning efforts to break the British blockade of the North Sea. Outnumbered in battleships and battlecruisers, the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, hoped to lure part of the British fleet to its doom with the goal of evening the numbers for a larger engagement at a later date. To accomplish this, Scheer intended to have Vice Admiral Franz Hipper's scouting force of battlecruisers raid the English coast to draw out Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's Battlecruiser Fleet. Hipper would then retire, luring Beatty towards the High Seas Fleet which would destroy the British ships.

Putting this plan into action, Scheer was unaware that British codebreakers had notified his opposite number, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, that a major operation was in the offing. As a result, Jellicoe sortied with his Grand Fleet to support Beatty. Clashing on May 31, around 2:30 PM on May 31, Beatty was roughly handled by Hipper and lost two battlecruisers. Alerted to the approach of Scheer's battleships, Beatty reversed course towards Jellicoe. The resulting fight proved the only major clash between the two nation's battleship fleets. Twice crossing Scheer's T, Jellicoe compelled the Germans to retire. The battle concluded with confused night actions as the smaller warships met each other in the dark and the British attempted to pursue Scheer (Map).

While the Germans succeeded in sinking more tonnage and inflicting higher casualties, the battle itself resulted in a strategic victory for the British. Though the public had sought a triumph similar to Trafalgar, the German efforts at Jutland failed to break the blockade or significantly reduce the Royal Navy's numerical advantage in capital ships. Also, the result led to the High Seas Fleet effectively remaining in port for the remainder of the war as the Kaiserliche Marine turned its focus to submarine warfare.

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The Battle of the Somme

As a result of the fighting at Verdun, the Allied plans for an offensive along the Somme were modified to make it a largely British operation. Moving forward with the goal of easing pressure on Verdun, the main push was to come from General Sir Henry Rawlinson's Fourth Army which was largely comprised of Territorial and New Army troops. Preceded by a seven-day bombardment and the detonation of several mines under German strong points, the offensive began at 7:30 AM on July 1. Advancing behind a creeping barrage, British troops encountered heavy German resistance as the preliminary bombardment had been largely ineffective. In all areas the British attack achieved little success or was repulsed outright. On July 1, the BEF suffered over 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed) making it the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army (Map).

While the British attempted to restart their offensive, the French component had success south of the Somme. By July 11, Rawlinson's men captured the first line of German trenches. This compelled the Germans to halt their offensive at Verdun in order to reinforce the front along the Somme. For six weeks, fighting became a grinding battle of attrition. On September 15, Haig made a final attempt at a breakthrough at Flers-Courcelette. Achieving limited success, the battle saw the debut of the tank as a weapon. Haig continued to push until the battle's conclusion on November 18. In over four months of fighting, the British took 420,000 casualties while the French sustained 200,000. The offensive gained around seven miles of front for the Allies and the Germans lost around 500,000 men.

Victory at Verdun

With the opening of fighting at the Somme, the pressure on Verdun began to wane as German troops were shifted west. The high water mark of the German advance was reached on July 12, when troops reached Fort Souville. Having held, the French commander in Verdun, General Robert Nivelle, began planning a counter-offensive to push the Germans back from the city. With the failure of his plan to take Verdun and setbacks in the East, Falkenhayn was replaced as chief of staff in August by General Paul von Hindenburg.

Making heavy use of artillery barrages, Nivelle began attacking the Germans on October 24. Recapturing key forts on the city's outskirts, the French had success on most fronts. By the end of fighting on December 18, the Germans had effectively been driven back to their original lines. The fighting at Verdun cost the French 161,000 dead, 101,000 missing, and 216,000 wounded, while the Germans lost 142,000 killed and 187,000 wounded. While the Allies were able to replace these losses, the Germans increasingly were not. The Battle of Verdun and the Somme became symbols of sacrifice and determination for the French and British Armies.

The Italian Front in 1916

With the war raging on the Western Front, Hötzendorf moved forward with his offensive against the Italians. Irate at Italy's perceived betrayal of its Triple Alliance responsibilities, Hötzendorf opened a "punishment" offensive by attacking through the mountains of the Trentino on May 15. Striking between Lake Garda and the headwaters of the River Brenta, the Austrians initially overwhelmed the defenders. Recovering, the Italians mounted a heroic defense which halted the offensive at a cost of 147,000 casualties.

Despite the losses sustained in the Trentino, the overall Italian commander, Field Marshal Luigi Cadorna, pressed forward with plans for renewing attacks in the Isonzo River valley. Opening the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo in August, the Italians captured the town of Gorizia. The Seventh, Eight, and Ninth battles followed in September, October, and November but gained little ground (Map).

Russian Offensives on the Eastern Front

Committed to offensives in 1916 by the Chantilly conference, the Russian Stavka began preparations for attacking the Germans along the northern part of the front. Due to additional mobilization and the re-tooling of industry for war, the Russians enjoyed an advantage in both manpower and artillery. The first attacks began on March 18 in response to French appeals to relieve pressure on Verdun. Striking the Germans on either side of Lake Naroch, the Russians sought to retake the town of Vilna in Eastern Poland. Advancing on a narrow front, they made some progress before the Germans began counterattacking. After thirteen days of fighting, the Russians admitted defeat and sustaining 100,000 casualties.

In the wake of the failure, the Russian Chief of Staff, General Mikhail Alekseyev convened a meeting to discuss offensive options. During the conference, the new commander of the southern front, General Aleksei Brusilov, proposed an attack against the Austrians. Approved, Brusilov carefully planned his operation and moved forward on June 4. Using new tactics, Brusilov's men attacked on a wide front overwhelmed the Austrian defenders. Seeking to take advantage of Brusilov's success, Alekseyev ordered General Alexei Evert to attack the Germans north of the Pripet Marshes. Hastily prepared, Evert's offensive was easily defeated by the Germans. Pressing on, Brusilov's men enjoyed success through early September and inflicted 600,000 casualties on the Austrians and 350,000 on the Germans. Advancing sixty miles, the offensive ended due to a lack of reserves and the need to aid Romania (Map).

Romania's Blunder

Previously neutral, Romania was enticed to join the Allied cause by a desire to add Transylvania to its borders. Though it had had some success during the Second Balkan War, its military was small and country faced enemies on three sides. Declaring war on August 27, Romanian troops advanced into Transylvania. This was met by a counter-offensive by German and Austrian forces, as well as attacks by the Bulgarians to the south. Quickly overwhelmed, the Romanians retreated, losing Bucharest on December 5, and were forced back to Moldavia where they dug in with Russian assistance (Map).

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: A War of Attrition." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: A War of Attrition. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: A War of Attrition." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).