The War of Attrition

Wounded Canadians

During the next three years the Allies hurled eleven full-scale offensives against the Germans on the Western Front. All of them were part of one basic strategic idea, to break through and force the Germans to come to terms. The great advantage of trench warfare in the first years of the war lay with the defence. Attacking generals had no alternative but to attack frontally, hopefully with such effect that the main defensive lines would be broken which would allow for the possibility of making other parts of the defensive line untenable. Once the trench systems were left behind the war of manoeuvre could recommence. At this stage in the war manpower was plentiful but artillery and shells of the right calibre were not. The years 1914 to 1916 were years principally of manpower against defence; the later years of the war were those of men and machines, particularly masses of well commanded artillery. Casualty lists lengthened at an alarming rate; with the Germans generally acting on the defensive, the western allies could either do nothing and let the Germans occupy economically vital parts of France and Belgium, or they could attack and try and eject them. If they did nothing there was also the risk that Germany would concentrate on Russia, knock her out of the war and then concentrate all her resources on the western powers. And so for the first two years of the war, France in particular, with her great conscript army battled again and again against German lines. While one developed new methods of assault the other developed new methods of defence. The key lay in a massive expansion of artillery, improved communications and flexibility in operations.

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