Attrition warfare

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Attrition warfare is a military strategy consisting of belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and material. The war will usually be won by the side with greater such resources. [1] The word attrition comes from the Latin root atterere to rub against, similar to the "grinding down" of the opponent's forces in attrition warfare. [2]

Military strategy is a set of ideas implemented by military organizations to pursue desired strategic goals. Derived from the Greek word strategos, the term strategy, when it appeared in use during the 18th century, was seen in its narrow sense as the "art of the general", or "'the art of arrangement" of troops. Military strategy deals with the planning and conduct of campaigns, the movement and disposition of forces, and the deception of the enemy.

A belligerent is an individual, group, country, or other entity that acts in a hostile manner, such as engaging in combat. Belligerent comes from Latin, literally meaning "one who wages war". Unlike the use of belligerent as an adjective to mean aggressive, its use as a noun does not necessarily imply that a belligerent country is an aggressor.

Military personnel are members of the state's armed forces. Their roles, pay, and obligations differ according to their military branch, rank, and their military task when deployed on operations and on exercise.

Contents

Strategic considerations

Military theorists and strategists[ who? ] have viewed attrition warfare as something to be avoided. Attrition warfare represents an attempt to grind down an opponent and its superior numbers, which is the opposite of the usual principles of war in which one attempts to achieve decisive victories by using minimal necessary resources and in minimal amount of time, through manoeuvre, concentration of force, surprise, and the like.

Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare, is a military strategy that advocates attempting to defeat the enemy by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption.

Force concentration is the practice of concentrating a military force so as to bring to bear such overwhelming force against a portion of an enemy force that the disparity between the two forces alone acts as a force multiplier in favour of the concentrated forces.

Ambush military tactics

An ambush is a long-established military tactic in which combatants take advantage of concealment and the element of surprise to attack unsuspecting enemy combatants from concealed positions, such as among dense underbrush or behind hilltops. Ambushes have been used consistently throughout history, from ancient to modern warfare. In the 20th century, an ambush might involve thousands of soldiers on a large scale, such as over a choke point such as a mountain pass, or a small irregular band or insurgent group attacking a regular armed force patrol. Theoretically, a single well-armed and concealed soldier could ambush other troops in a surprise attack.

On the other hand, a side that perceives itself to be at a marked disadvantage in manoeuvre 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.

Pyrrhic victory metonymy

A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has also taken a heavy toll that negates any true sense of achievement.

Sun Tzu has stated "There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare"

The difference between war of attrition and other forms of war is somewhat artificial since war always contains an element of attrition. One can be said to pursue a strategy of attrition if 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 one's own gradual losses to acceptable and sustainable levels. That 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 (such as by encirclement and capture).

Historically, attritional methods are tried only as a last resort, 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. In World War I, improvements in firepower but not communications and mobility forced military commanders to rely on attrition, with terrible casualties.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

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

An unconditional surrender is a surrender in which no guarantees are given to the surrendering party. In modern times, unconditional surrenders most often include guarantees provided by international law. Announcing that only unconditional surrender is acceptable puts psychological pressure on a weaker adversary, but may also prolong hostilities. Perhaps the most notable unconditional surrender was by the Axis powers in World War II.

History

French troopers using periscope, 1915. Periscope tranchee francaise.jpg
French troopers using periscope, 1915.

It is often argued that the best-known example of attrition warfare was on the Western Front during World War I. [3] Both military forces found themselves in static defensive positions in trenches running from Switzerland to the English Channel. For years, without any opportunity for manoeuvres, the only way the commanders thought that they could defeat the enemy was to repeatedly attack head on and grind the other down. [4]

Western Front (World War I) main theatre of war during the First World War

The Western Front was the main theatre of war during the First World War. Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, the German Army opened the Western Front by invading Luxembourg and Belgium, then gaining military control of important industrial regions in France. The tide of the advance was dramatically turned with the Battle of the Marne. Following the Race to the Sea, both sides dug in along a meandering line of fortified trenches, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France, which changed little except during early 1917 and in 1918.

Trench warfare type of land warfare

Trench warfare is a type of land warfare using occupied fighting lines consisting largely of military trenches, in which troops are well-protected from the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery. The most famous use of trench warfare is the Western Front in World War I. It has become a byword for stalemate, attrition, sieges, and futility in conflict.

English Channel Arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France

The English Channel, also called simply the Channel, is the body of water that separates Southern England from northern France and links the southern part of the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the busiest shipping area in the world.

One of the most enduring examples of attrition warfare on the Western Front is the Battle of Verdun, which took place throughout most of 1916. 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. Falkenhayn is described as wanting to "bleed France white" [5] and thus the attrition tactics were employed in the battle.

Attritional warfare in World War I has been shown by historians such as Hew Strachan to have been used as a post hoc ergo propter hoc excuse for failed offensives. Contemporary sources disagree with Strachan's view on this. While the Christmas Memorandum is a post-war invention, the strategy of "bleeding France white" was the original strategy for the battle. [6]

Attrition to the enemy was easy to assert and difficult to refute and thus may have been a convenient facesaving excuse 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. Historians such as John Terraine and Gary Sheffield have suggested that attritional warfare was, however, a necessary step on the road to eventual victory, a 'wearing down process' that sapped Central Powers strength and left them vulnerable during the Hundred Days campaign of 1918.

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 manoeuvrability and unit tactics occurred during the latter part of the American Civil War, when Union general Ulysses S. Grant pushed the Confederate Army continually, in spite of losses; he correctly predicted that the Union's far superior and more numerous supplies and manpower would overwhelm the Confederacy to the point of collapse, even if the casualty ratio was unfavorable.

Other examples

See also

Military theory:

Related Research Articles

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Battle of Verdun battle on the Western Front during the First World War

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Erich von Falkenhayn Chief of Germanys General Staff during the first two years of the First World War

General Erich Georg Sebastian Anton von Falkenhayn was the Chief of the German General Staff during the First World War from September 1914 until 29 August 1916. He was removed in the late summer of 1916 after the failure at the battle of Verdun, the opening of the Allied offensive on the Somme, the Brusilov Offensive and the entry of Romania into the war. He was later given important field commands in Romania and Syria. His reputation as a war leader was attacked in Germany during and after the war, especially by the faction which supported Paul von Hindenburg. Falkenhayn held that Germany could not win the war by a decisive battle but would have to reach a compromise peace; his enemies said he lacked the resolve necessary to win a decisive victory. Falkenhayn's relations with the Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg were troubled and undercut Falkenhayn's plans.

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Loss exchange ratio is a figure of merit in attrition warfare. It is usually relevant to a condition or state of war where one side depletes the resources of another through attrition. Specifically and most often used as a comparator in aerial combat, where it is known as a kill-ratio. For example, during the Korean War, American combat jets had a kill-ratio of 4-1. This means for every four aircraft shot down by an American aircraft, one American plane was shot down by an enemy fighter.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to war:

References

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