1916: Attrition and The Well-Planned Disasters
The third year of the war featured human misery of a type and scale that deﬁed understanding or conventional description, a sense among some of the front soldiers that they had been betrayed and abandoned, and at home a growing weariness with the war, which translated either into defeatism or a grim determination to stay the course. In other words, the war we now remember ﬁnally arrived. One might think that the alternative to badly planned disasters would be well-planned triumphs. Instead, the world got well-planned disasters that took on a horriﬁc scale because of the thoroughness and ingenuity of the planning. They were disasters not because of incompetence, coldbloodedness or bad luck but because of their context. They took place in a titanic struggle in which the two sides were more or less equal, especially in their capacity to mess up the hopes and plans of the other side. What the Prussian writer Clausewitz called the ‘friction’ of war, the inability of those in command to impose their will effectively, dominated the course of events. Accounts of the war that stress how badly it was managed usually imply that it could have been much tidier or better run. Such critiques are like moving ﬂags around a map of a battleﬁeld well after the battle. They use hindsight to predict the past and to say, in effect, that things would have gone much better if Napoleon, Caesar or maybe even if the author had been in charge. The starting point to understanding the war in its maturity, however, is to accept that its horrors and its waywardness were built-in. Of course the ﬁghting could have been better managed. There is room for criticism or for speculation along the lines of ‘if only this or that had been done’. But not much. What happens at the sharp end of modern wars is remarkably resistant to close control from above. Just look at today’s headlines – whatever day it is.