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Attrition: Fighting the First World War Hardcover – 14 Aug 2014

4.3 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (14 Aug. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408703556
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408703557
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 3.5 x 23.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 398,093 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

A refreshingly balanced view . . . the great strength of Philpott's book is its magisterial overview of the whole war . . . a fine contribution to our growing understanding of the conflict (Peter Parker Daily Telegraph)

A highly readable account . . . a great book for those who want to look behind the propaganda (Sunday Herald)

Philpott's achievement is to present a view of The Great War as an attritional conflict in a very readable fashion. 'Attrition' is an accessible work for the general reader rather than a denesley argued mongraph...

Attrition stands on its own merits, as an important contribution to an active and lively scholarly debate

William Philpott's boldly argued and engaging book is a timely rejoinder to simplistic views

(Times Literary Supplement)

'The great strength of Philpott's book is its magisterial overview of the whole war... a fine contribution to our growing understanding of the conflict.' (Peter Parker Daily Telegraph)

A first-class overview of the whole war, and a useful addition to anyone's library (Military History)

'William Philpott, Professor of the History of Warfare at King's College London, is an eminent academic who has written extensively on conflict and has the knowledge to enable readers to view the First World War in a fresh context. His new book, Attrition, is a highly readable account of the run-up to the conflict... a great book for those who want to look behind the propaganda and read detailed accounts of all aspects of the so-called Great War.' (Steve Briggs Sunday Herald)

'deftly combines narrative with analysis... William Philpott's boldly argued and engaging book is a timely rejoinder to simplistic views, and an implicit rebuttal of the notion that it was uniquely dreadful.' (Gary Sheffield Times Literary Supplement)

Book Description

The magnum opus of the First World War, from the outstanding historian at the King's College Department of War Studies.

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4.3 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
This is a thoroughly well researched account of the Great War. It is not just another routine history of the well known events, but, as the title suggests, focuses on the fundamental nature of the conflict, which was one of attrition. A hundred years after the start of the war, the seemingly pointless deaths of so many thousands of young men fighting over a few square miles of territory is the widely accepted essential characteristic of 1914-1918; yet Philpott convincingly makes the case that for the military leaders, such as Joffre, Foch and Haig, who now are notorious as callous warriors, the Great War was about the relentless wearing down of the opposition’s resources, primarily through killing as many Germans, Austrians etc as possible. It was this gnawing away at the aggressors that led to victory, not the capturing of mud-churned land.
I have to say that the act of reading this book was also, to some extent, an act of attrition. The writing at times is rather clumsy and wooden and there are far too many spelling and typographical errors. This is an expensive book, and the lack of effective proof-reading is just not acceptable for a leading publisher.
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Format: Hardcover
The strategy of attrition has rarely been given a good name, associated with a lack of imagination and a too easy propensity to accept heavy casualties for limited results. The antipathy to attrition was strongest as a consequence of World War I, condemned by David Lloyd George during and especially after the war, and subsequently ridiculed by a long line of military writers, ranging from Basil Liddell Hart to Alan Clark. The revulsion against the losses suffered on the Western Front also struck a chord in the popular imagination, with attritional strategies bound up in the idea of ‘lions led by donkeys’ (a phrase fraudulently coined by Clark) that continues to the present.

In this valuable study, William Philpott – Professor of the History of Warfare at King’s College London and author of an acclaimed study of the Battle of the Somme – reconsiders the whole concept and its central importance in the waging of the war, as well as persuasively arguing that a knowledge of the nature of attritional strategy is the surest way for the reader to make sense out of the chaotic fighting of 1914-18.

Philpott quotes the French military theorist Commandant Colin, who got to the heart of the problem in a prophetic comment of 1911: ‘When armies of the same value, commanded by good generals, are facing each other, it is numbers – the material element – which is the deciding factor.’ Germany’s military leaders knew the Materialschlacht would decide the outcome of the war (hence their despondent private musings on the subject) but they still clung to the hope that the German Army’s superior operational skill might somehow tip the balance in their favour. They were proved wrong.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I've read a lot of books on this area and whilst I'd agree that Philpott is not the first person to use the word 'attrition,' what is relatively new is positioning that as a purposeful strategic approach, rather than lack of ideas ie we've got a large army, what should we do with it? In the last ten or fifteen years, there's been a movement away from the 'Lions led by Donkeys' perspective of the Great War towards a more balanced approach eg Gary Sheffield's Forgotten Victory. But even Sheffield essentially views 1914-1916 as learning what not to do, so in positioning it as deliberate, Philpott is saying something different.

One of the myths that's still routinely spouted is the idea that the German Army was a far better and flexible military organization; they were certainly better led at the tactical level but their two major offensives prior to 1918 were just as bloody as anything tried by the Allies eg the Kindermorden bei Ypern and Verdun, the infiltration tactics and rolling barrages used in 1918 were copied from tactics used in Brusilov's 1917 offensive on the Eastern Front etc. Nothing wrong with that - learning from the success of others is still a good idea - but Philpott does a good job of making the point that Falkenhayn's assault on Verdun was a disastrous strategic decision because it played to the Allied advantage in numbers.

I think he goes too far the other way - Passchendaele should have been stopped long before it actually was and seriously impacted British Army morale - but his ideas are a useful corrective. The real tragedy of the Great War was that after the Marne, Germany could not win - a fact that was openly acknowledged by Crown Prince Wilhelm and Falkenhayn among others - but it could raise the price of defeat.
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Format: Kindle Edition
This account of the Great War is very readable. The style is excellent. The author is History Professor at Kings London a university with a reputation for high standards in teaching and research. Having studied there under Professor Sir Michael Howard I can vouch for its eminence.

There is very little wrong with this book and it can be recommended for the general reader. As a military history it is one of the best to have emerged this year, far,far superior to Paxman's, and even better than Hastings which to be fair dealt only with the first year of the war. It is, however, not in the same class as Margaret MacMillan's brilliant book published earlier this year. Hers is not however a military text.

Unfortunately, there is very little that is new in this book. Attrition is as old as fighting; after all siege warfare was essentially attrition. Examples can be found in, for example, the thirty years war, the American Civil War, the Russo--Japanese war, and countless other conflicts. The French word usure means wearing out, it is another word for attrition. Joffre used the word usure in 1916 when trying to persuade Haig to attack in order to wear out the Germans before the main offensive. It was already clear that the lack of flanks, unlike the Eastern front which hardly gets a mention, meant attrition was the only tactic that was feasible.

Delbruck was the first to define attrition. He argued its essence was the exhaustion of the enemy's will to fight. The term has since aquired many different meanings. It has frequently been viewed as a defeatist strategy involving a bloody slogging match. In fact many attempts to achieve a decisive victory have resulted in protracted wars of attrition.
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