3

In his book The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, Alistair Horne describes the memorandum introducing Erich Von Falkenhayn's plan to compel France to throw all its men into the defense of Verdun, because (in Falkenhayn's words) "If they do so, the forces of France will bleed to death", then comments:

Never through the ages had any great commander or military strategist proposed to vanquish an enemy by gradually bleeding him to death.
- The Price of Glory, Alistair Horne

Is Horne correct, or had previous military commanders suggested a strategy along these lines?

  • 5
    Wasn't every siege in history essentially this? – T.E.D. May 5 '17 at 13:43
  • 1
    @T.E.D. - That's pretty much why I asked. It didn't seem plausible that in 8,000+ years of recorded history of warfare, no one said "Let's keep attacking our opponent until they're all dead" prior to 1916. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica May 5 '17 at 21:57
  • 1
    Grant's 1864 campaign in Virginia and Fabius's Fabian Strategy in the Second Punic War immediately jump to mind. – Pieter Geerkens May 6 '17 at 20:12
  • 1
    Concur with @PieterGeerkens - Falkenhaven was not the first to recommend Fabian strategy. Which is fortunate, because I'd had to refer to Falkenhavian strategy....Horne's assertion doesn't even meet the standard of preliminary research to ask the question on SE. (Horne should have checked Wikipedia.)</tongue-in-cheek> – Mark C. Wallace Jul 3 '17 at 18:33
13

In short, no, Sir Alistair is wrong in this case (although the example quoted is, perhaps, more an example of journalistic hyperbole than something intended to be taken literally).

There many examples of 'wars of attrition' from history. One might argue that the strategy dates back to Quintus Verrucosus's defence against Hannibal during the Second Punic War in the 3rd century BCE.

In the "modern" age, the strategy was used to good effect against the British during the American Revolutionary War, and also in the later stages of the American Civil War (three good examples there were the Siege of Vicksburg, the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg).

Perhaps the best-known example though is Napoleon Bonaparte's ill-fated 1812 invasion of Russia, where the Russian strategy devised by Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov literally bled (and froze!) Napoleon's army to death.

Erich Von Falkenhayn came from a West-Prussian Junker family. He entered cadet school at the age of ten and later attended the military academy. There is no doubt that he knew his military history. His strategy was undoubtedly inspired by these, and other, successful attritional campaigns.


EDIT: This paper by Robert Foley on German Strategy and the Path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870-1916 (shared by the author on academia.edu) is also definitely worth reading.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Napoleon got bit twice, in Spain by Wellington's Spanish Allies (guerilla warfare) as well as by Kutusov's Cossacks. – Pieter Geerkens May 5 '17 at 2:35
  • 1
    Verrucosus! I didn't realize he was called that too... what a funny cognomen. – Felix Goldberg Jun 18 '17 at 16:15
  • @FelixGoldberg Apparantly named for a wart growing above his lip (at least according to Plutarch) – sempaiscuba Jun 18 '17 at 17:26
2

By no means. There is at least one earlier example (by about fifty years) plus probably others that I've overlooked.

In 1864, the North's Ulysees S. Grant decided to take direct advantage of the Union's numerical superiority of two to one, realizing that he could lose men in this proportion and still win. Viewed in this light, all but the most egregious of the North's previous "defeats" were actually Union victories (at Chancellorsville, for instance, the Confederates inflicted casualties in the ratio of only four to three and lost Stonewall Jackson). He combined this idea with a second one; that if the Confederate army could be separated from the defense of Richmond, the South would lose. Put another way, Grant could force the Confederates to fight on his terms by attacking Richmond and forcing Lee to defend it.

The Overland Campaign started with several near misses, and Union losses of nearly two to one. For all that, Grant sacrificed 60,000 men (against Confederate losses of about half that) in sixty days to get sixty miles closer to Richmond. When there was an outcry, Grant retorted "I plan to fight it out along this line if it takes all summer." With Grant closing in on Richmond, the Union loss rate went down to three to two, and ultimately, one to one. Lee simply could not survive such a war of attrition and finally fled Richmond to Appomattox, where he surrendered when caught by the Union army.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.