Attrition: Fighting the First World War

Posted: April 22, 2016 in Book reviews

By William Philpott


There’s a lot of History out there, so even as someone with an interest in history there are an awful lot of gaps in my knowledge, and in particular I’ve felt for a while that I didn’t know enough about the Great War, or World War 1 as it came to be known, certainly I didn’t feel as well versed as I do about World War 2, and I had been planning to find myself a decent book on the subject. As such I was thrilled when I got this book for Christmas.

Philpott is Professor of the History of Warfare at Kings College London and this is clearly a thoroughly researched book that covers the entire conflict and, unlike a lot of histories of the war, it doesn’t just focus on the Western Front, and so attention is given to the war at sea, the Eastern Front, the Middle East, and Italy. Attention is also given to various home fronts.

Since the 1918 the First World War has been constantly reappraised by historians, politicians and by the man or woman in the street with an interest. Was it a tragic loss of human life, the horrific destruction of a generation’s youth, or was it a necessary, and even inevitable, evil? Although he does include quotes from those involved, Philpott’s book is not a tale of the ordinary man in the trenches, it is a high level overview, specifically of the strategy that eventually evolved to fight the war, that of attrition, that the only way the Allies or the Central Powers could win was by wearing their opponents down until they literally could not fight on any more. Philpott’s overview is therefore quite dispassionate, which may not appeal to everyone, nor will his conclusion that attrition was the only way to win the war and, rather than meaningless slaughter, was the best response to the emergence of fully industrialised warfare. In this at least he does offer evidence to support this hypothesis, detailing countless occasions when supposed lightning strikes and breakthroughs designed to deal the enemy a crippling blow proved failures in the end that cost more lives than the drudge of trench warfare (Gallipoli is just one example of this.)

Whether you agree with Philpott’s conclusions or not, this is still a very factual overview of the conflict and is to be recommended on that basis.

It’s not an easy read however. The text is densely packed, and at times it is a little bit of a slog to get through; much as the soldiers of World War 1 had to fight for just a few feet of ground at a time, on occasion it was a struggle to get two or three pages further on with each session, and this isn’t helped by the author’s occasionally awkward prose, and a surprising amount of typos—a complaint I’ve seen mirrored in other reviews of this book—and I do think it perhaps needed more editorial input.

Overall this is a recommended read; it’s just not an especially quick or easy read.

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