Wearing-out battle | Admiral Scheer | 18 Jan 1916

Haig and the wearing-out battle

Right, time to engage with one of the more notorious subjects that comes up when discussing General Haig and the way the BEF fought under his command. Today, General Haig makes a very important note in his diary, about how the BEF should fight its battles.

The principles which we must apply are:

1. Employ sufficient force to wear down the enemy and cause him to use up his Reserves.
2. Then, and not till then, throw in a mass of troops (at some point where the enemy has shown himself to be weak) to break through and win victory.

This is, of course, far from a detailed roadmap to victory and shouldn’t be treated as the sum total of his thinking. But this is, fundamentally, how the British Staff College has taught him (and everyone else who’s passed through its doors for a very long time) to win battles and wars, and this is what people mean when they speak of the “wearing-out battle”. Haig himself had before the war taken care to insert those principles into doctrine, and he now also believes he has an example of these principles demonstrating themselves.

Yeah, it’s back to First Ypres, where Haig was the senior British general. The importance of this battle on Haig’s thinking, and by extension the rest of the BEF, simply cannot be overestimated. Haig’s assessment of that battle has entirely vindicated those principles. The Germans, as he sees it, first applied relentless force onto the Old Contemptibles, who did indeed use up all their reserves. By the time of the Battle of Nonnenboschen in mid-November 1914, it was the cooks and the quartermasters and the sanitary orderlies taking up rifles and going into battle. Fog of war then intervened and convinced the Germans that there was no point proceeding to stage 2. On the evidence they saw, however much they tried to wear the BEF down, more men kept appearing to hold them off.

So Haig sees First Ypres as a tale of the Germans throwing away a certain victory right when it seemed that all they had to do was kick the door down and relieve the butler of his elephant-gun before raiding the chateau at leisure. He’s a simple man with simple convictions (more on that later), and he is utterly determined that he will not make the same mistake. He will remember how the enemy, too clever by half, let him off the hook right at their moment of triumph. He will hold his nerve, maintain the stiffness of his upper lip, and so gain a great victory.

We shall have plenty more to say about this concept of the wearing-out battle in 1916; but there it is. Importantly, as formulated here, attrition is a key component (since without attrition the enemy does not need to commit his reserves so quickly), but it is clearly a means to an end. The enemy is to be worn down so that a breakthrough can be achieved. This is not the same as General von Falkenhayn’s professed concept for the Battle of Verdun (21 more shopping days to go!), in which attrition is an end in itself.

Reinhard Scheer

Meanwhile, over on the German side of the hill, it’s also a critcally important time for high command. The High Seas Fleet, in fact, has a new commander. The torpid Admiral von Pohl has departed for good, terminally ill with cancer (he has little more than a month to live). His replacement is Admiral Scheer, one of the HSF’s principal commanders.

Scheer’s attitude is about as far removed from von Pohl’s as is possible. He’s confident that, with proper planning, he can convince the Kaiser to reverse the directive issued after the Battle of Dogger Bank to preserve the fleet at all costs. He wants to return to the 1914 strategy of poking the Royal Navy with a stick, in the hope that he can gradually wear them down to a point where the Grand Fleet will lose its superiority in battleships; and then he can seek a direct, decisive fleet-to-fleet engagement.

He’s also very punchy about the potential for submarines. And, since they’re currently being restricted from commerce raiding duties, why not use them as an integral part of the wearing-down strategy? To say nothing of what might be done with the Navy’s airships…

I don’t like generals, or admirals, much. They’re boring. But lots of things start with them. You can’t ignore them if you want to understand why things happen. And the appointment of Scheer is the first step on the road to the Battle of Jutland, the only battle for four years in which one day could have completely changed the entire course of the war.


Meanwhile, in the Caucasus. The Ottoman rearguard breaks in front of the Cossacks at Hasankale. The only things between the Russian Caucasus Army and Erzurum are a very long road, a very large fortress, and a very rattled army. And the Russian Brains Trust is already turning its attention to the questions of what to do about the fortress and the army.


In Paris, the French government underlines its commitment to the Balkans (ineffectual and not enough of it) by sending another division to Salonika. General Sarrail has been appealing for more men for quite some time, and now he’s got them by bypassing General Joffre and appealing directly to his political supporters in the government. There are now enough men in theatre to hold Salonika against a deeply hypothetical attack, but not nearly enough (and not enough logistical support) to support another offensive. For now, the theatre is going to have to rest while the Serbian Army can be re-moulded back into an effective fighting force. That is, if the Austro-Hungarians now marching through and occupying Montenegro don’t get to them first…

Robert Palmer

Today I am humming “London Bridge Is Falling Down” as I write about Robert Palmer in Mesopotamia. Weather continues to put paid to any thought of attacking the Hanna chokepoint.

Rain stopped at 8 am. Whole place a sea of mud ankle deep, and slippery as butter. Nearly the whole bridge had been washed away or sunk in the night. We got men’s tents from the ship, cleared spaces from mud and pitched camp again. Rain started again about 1 p.m. and continued till 4. The Wadi had meanwhile come down in heavy spate and broken that bridge, so we were doubly isolated.

I went out to post piquets. It took two hours to walk three miles. Jubber Khan sick all day, so I had to manage for myself, helped by North’s bearer. Foster being sick, North is Officer Commanding D Company, and I share a 40lb. tent with him. He is the son of the Duke of Wellington’s Agent at [Stratfield Saye House], but has served three years in Northern Rhodesia, so is quite used to camp life.

Stratfield Saye in Hampshire was bought by the nation for the first Duke of Wellington after his defeat of Napoleon. The house and its estates would have been managed by a hired agent rather than personally by the Duke, and it’s the agent’s son who Palmer is now sharing a tent with. Incidentally, the current 4th Duke’s son, a Boer War veteran, has rejoined the Army and is serving as a subaltern in France.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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