‘Bleed Them White’ Argues German Leader
The Ignominy of the War of Attrition
Special to The Great War Project.
(29-31 December; 1 January) At the beginning of 1916, precisely a century ago, the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire—are “in the ascendant,” as historian Martin Gilbert writes.
The picture for Britain, France, and Russia is not good. Serbia, the small state where the war first broke out in August 1914, “was entirely under Austrian and Bulgarian occupation. Russian Poland and Belgium were under German control.”
Germany and Austria “were confident of their power,” writes Gilbert.
Russia does mount an offensive in Poland on the Eastern Front in December 1915. It is supported by a thousand guns, “each with a thousand shells,” but it “fails to break the Austrian line; 6,000 Russian soldiers were taken prisoner.”
It accomplishes nothing.
That offensive ends on December 27th. On the same day, the British War Cabinet decides to withdraw the last Allied troops from the Gallipoli peninsula in northwestern Turkey.
At sea, the war is also going badly for Britain. The sinking of Allied shipping “had been continuous and destructive,” reports Gilbert.
The Germans have plans for winning the war in 1916. They include “unlimited submarine warfare.” (Under American pressure, Germany has limited its attacks on British shipping after the sinking of the Lusitania in May of 1915.)
But a British naval blockade of Germany is taking its toll on Germany’s civilian population who are slowly starving.
The Germans also have plans for the French forces on the Western Front: “an attack on the French forces defending Verdun and its ring of forts,” reports Gilbert.
Verdun is a town in northern France, and Germany is planning an offensive there for the coming February. Their goal is attrition, according to the German commander-in-chief General Erich von Falkenhayn, to “wear down the French army, to create a breaking point in French morale.”
Falkenhaym writes to the German Kaiser, “If we succeede in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense a breaking point would be reached,” England’s “best sword” would be knocked out of her hand.
The French are well aware of the German focus on Verdun and are planning what amounts to a desperate defense of the fortified town. This pleases Falkenhayn. “If they defend Verdun to the last (as Falkenhayn believes they will), “the forces of France will bleed to death.”
The British historian Alastair Horne writes about this strategy….
“Never through the ages had any great commander or strategist proposed to vanquish an enemy by gradually bleeding him to death.”
This is symptomatic of the Great War, Horne writes, “where in their callousness leaders could regard human lives as mere corpuscles.”
Conditions are so horrendous that both the commanders-in-chief of British and French forces announce they will no longer visit casualty clearing stations. General Joffre tells his staff after pinning a medal on a soldier blinded in the fighting, “I mustn’t be shown any more such spectacles….
I would no longer have the courage to give the order to attack.”
On December 30th a hundred years ago, the French parliament takes an action that will reverberate down through the years. It passes a law, writes Martin Gilbert, “which gave the land on which the British war cemeteries were located on French soil as ‘the free gift of the French people for a perpetual resting place of those who are laid there.’”
Not long ago, Gilbert reported, the cemeteries are still there. Nearly a century later: “more than 2,000 cemeteries, tended by nearly five hundred gardeners.”