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Fighting the First World War: Stalemate and attrition

For much of the First World War, the Western Front remained almost static, with each side killing many of the other’s men but otherwise making little progress. Dr Jonathan Boff investigates why the war developed in this way and whether later depictions of wartime strategy were fair.

The First World War is often perceived as a war of attrition, a conflict in which each side tried to wear the other down by killing as many of its men as possible. This article explores the tactical, strategic, and political realities of the war, the extent to which the war was indeed characterised by stalemate in the trenches and strategic deadlock, and why this characterisation exists in the popular imagination.

Photograph of a trench on the front line

Photograph showing a French soldier in a front line trench, May 1917. He is firing a pneumatic trench mortar, an indirect fire weapon. This weapon was the counterpart of the German Minenwerfer, a short-range anti-trench weapon.

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How did the stalemate start?

When Germany went to war in August 1914, it gambled on knocking France out of the war in six weeks before turning on Russia to avoid a drawn-out, two-front war. The German idea, known as the Schlieffen Plan after the general who first came up with it in 1905, was to launch its armies in a giant right hook through neutral Belgium and northern France to outflank and destroy the French army and then capture Paris. The Battle of the Marne (6–10 September 1914) scuppered that, and the Schlieffen Plan failed. A surprisingly resilient French army, using its railways to brilliant effect, redeployed its reserves to defeat an over-extended, poorly coordinated and tired German force. At Marne the German advance was not only halted, but they were compelled to retreat about 40 miles northwards. Within weeks the Western Front had petrified into a maze of trenches and barbed wire stretching from Switzerland to the sea. For most of the next three years, the Allies tried to eject the Germans from occupied France and Belgium. They launched attack after attack in famous battles such as the Somme and Third Ypres (Passchendaele), but the only tangible results were lengthening casualty lists. The front lines would only begin to move again in the final year of the war.

Battle of the Somme, a map of the situation in December 1916

Map of the Somme area. Dec.1916.

This map demonstrates the deadlock experienced during the First World War. Between September and November 1916, the Allied advances over five months totalled just six miles.

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Map showing wet areas of Passchendaele front

Map showing the Allied front line at the Ypres Salient on 2 December 1917, weeks after the end of the Battle of Passchendaele. The blue shaded areas mark the wet and waterlogged areas facing the Front.

Likewise at the Third Battle of the Ypres, the conditions caused by poor weather and the devastation of the ground by the intense artillery bombardment meant that no British advances could take place.

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Machine guns and trenches were a distinctive feature of the First World War, but it was neither of these that made the Western Front static. Artillery was the biggest killer on the First World War battlefields, and it was artillery, not machine guns, that soldiers built trenches to avoid. But these trenches were a symptom rather than a cause of the immobility of warfare. With so many lethally-armed men in so small a space, it had become too dangerous for soldiers to move around above ground in daylight. Trenches offered cover, but within not very many months, both sides had worked out how to attack across No-Man's-Land, at high but bearable cost, and capture the enemy's trenches. Effective artillery was the key. When the guns and infantry worked well together, more often than not the attacker could break into the enemy's defences. Both armies integrated a range of new methods and technologies, such as the tank and the aeroplane, into how they waged war. The result was a highly dynamic measure/counter-measure race. Every time the attackers thought they had solved one problem, they discovered the defenders had posed them another.

Mounting a Great Gun by Muirhead Bone

'Mounting a great gun' by Muirhead Bone, official British War Artist, which emphasises the scale and complexity of modern warfare.

Artillery was the biggest killer on the First World War battlefields.

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In the middle years of the war, how to turn limited tactical success into larger victory eluded both armies. There were two underlying problems. First, any defender could rush in reinforcements to plug gaps faster than the attacker could convert a break-in into a breakthrough. While the defender could generally rely on intact transport networks, the attacker's supplies and fresh troops always had to flow across the battlefield the guns had just devastated. Second, First World War battlefield communications were extremely unreliable. Light signals were easily confused and telephone wires were often cut by artillery fire or a wayward tank; wireless was still in its infancy and semaphore was suicide. As soon as assault troops went over the top, they advanced away from their telephone networks and were forced back on communication technologies as old as war itself, such as pigeons and runners. Both frequently got lost or hit. Effective command and control thus became hardest just when it was needed most. One of the ironies of the First World War is that the very tools that enabled modern industrial societies to field and sustain million-man armies – technologies such as the telegraph, the telephone and the railway – also made it impossible for them to use those armies effectively in the attack. Only in 1918, when the Allies improved their combined arms tactics and German reserves ran down, did the war become mobile once more.

The whale and the elephant

The deadlock was not merely tactical, however. It was also strategic. There was a mismatch between the maritime capabilities of the Allies and the continental strength of the Central Powers. Britain and France, in particular, because they owned large ocean-going navies , possessed a level of strategic mobility and global reach that Germany, Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire could only dream of. This allowed the Allies to mobilise the resources of the whole globe for its war effort and to launch and sustain campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, Palestine, Mesopotamia, all across Africa, and even in China and the Pacific. On the rare occasions Germany tried to use its navy at all, as at the Battle of Jutland (1916), and with the U-boat campaign of 1917–18, it only underlined its impotence. However, the damage naval power could do to a land-based alliance that controlled the resources of half of Europe was, even with the tightest possible blockade, limited. The First World War is, in part, the story of the battle of the whale against the elephant: each supreme in its own element, but neither able to defeat the other.

Thinking in the very broadest terms, it is perhaps not surprising that much of the First World War was spent in stalemate. In hindsight, from the first day of the war, the Allies possessed an economic, industrial, financial and military edge such that the war’s result was never in real doubt, but the Central Powers were not so far behind. Any fight was likely to go on for a long while. This was especially the case given the depth of feeling and determination both sides displayed. Right from the start the war was widely seen as a fight to the death. The upward spiral of violence and ever-lengthening lists of the dead and injured only entrenched attitudes on both sides and made compromise increasingly improbable, thereby extending the war. Given the balance of forces and intensity of hate that developed, one might even argue that the First World War was over surprisingly quickly: four years looks short compared to the wars against Nazi Germany (1939–45) and Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1792–1815).

How have later depictions of First World War strategy shaped our impressions of it?

Why, then, do we think of the First World War as such a long and futile slog? We have already seen that there’s a kernel of truth to this belief. But it’s not quite so simple. Politicians such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, who had spent the war thinking they could do a better job than their generals, refought the war in their memoirs. These memoirs, powerfully written by two of the century’s finest wordsmiths, were steeped in contempt for military minds that could conceive of no strategy more imaginative than attrition. Their version of the First World War captured the popular imagination. Those professional historians who did understand military realities and might have countered this myth were too busy writing pedantic official histories designed to educate junior officers. As a result, the idea that there had been a less bloody alternative to attrition gained ground, despite the lack of evidence to support it. This was an existential conflict between two highly committed and powerful alliance blocs, wielding an unprecedented number of the most lethal weapons yet devised. Most people were aware that it would be resolved by horrendous bloodshed, but felt the need to fight or support the war effort nonetheless. Attrition had its critics at the time, however, not least from a whole strand of anti-war or even outright pacifist feeling that helped form popular perceptions of the First World War, and continues to do so to this day. Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful and War Horse, for instance, make powerful and effective appeals for our sympathy, but do little to engage properly with the realities of the war, or to give us the rounded understanding of the events of 1914–18 that might allow us true empathy. We need to see the war, and the men who fought it, as they were, warts and all.

  • Jonathan Boff
  • Dr Jonathan Boff is a Senior Lecturer in History and War Studies at the University of Birmingham, where he teaches courses on conflict from Homer to Helmand. He specializes in the First World War. Haig's Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany's War on the Western Front, 1914-18 was published by Oxford University Press in April 2018. His previous book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2012) was short-listed for the Templer Medal and for the British Army Book of the Year award. He was educated at Merton College, Oxford and the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and spent twenty years working in finance before returning to academia. He serves on the councils of the National Army Museum and Army Records Society, has worked as a historical consultant with the British Army and the BBC, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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