Attrition warfare has a bad reputation. It is traditionally scorned by the intellectuals of military thought. It is seen as wasteful and slow. Especially after the slaughter of static trench warfare in WWI, the focus on military thought was on finding ways to avoid the stalemate of attrition warfare. The results of this school of thought include the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg, and the US Army’s obsession with mechanization in WWII. Indeed, to this day, the US Army and Marines have placed enormous emphasis on maneuver warfare. Even in this day and age of COIN warfare, the land forces still discuss what is essentially an attrition campaign in maneuver terms.
The Civil War in many ways presaged the horrors that would be fully implemented 50 years later in Flander’s fields. It saw some of the first examples of trench warfare, and was on the cusp of the age of rapid fire infantry weapons. The formations of troop units were still those of the older age, where massed units were a necessity to mass the firepower of slower firing weapons. The speed of advance, on the battlefield itself, was that of a slow walk. But it was not uncommon for commanders to move units between theaters at the previously unheard of speed of locomotives.
The Civil War remains our deadly conflict. Roughly 600,000 dead. And in many ways, it really was a war of attrition. The North tried to attrit the South to destroy its ability to rebel. The South tried to attrit the North until such time as the North decided it was not worth the price to pay to keep the Union whole.
Grant gets a lot of credit in the general public for winning the war. But he’s often held in some suspicion by the military intellectuals for waging a campaign of attrition rather than one of maneuver. He fought Lee at damn near every opportunity, rarely taking the time to improve his approach or muster larger forces.
But here’s the thing about Grant’s attrition campaign in the East. It worked. It worked where every previous campaign had failed. And that’s all that matters.
Why did Grant succeed where his predecessors fail? All the previous commanders in the East had sought a decisive engagement with the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV). Each and every time the Army of the Potomac attacked, it was intended either as a knock-out blow that would destroy the ANV or to capture Richmond and force an end to the rebellion. Before every attack, the Union generals would amass troops and supplies. Time would be spent to move troops and equipment to launch the attack. Each time, the Union leadership would struggle to achieve sufficient mass and concentration to force a decisive engagement.
The problem was this. Not a one of the Union generals was even in the ballpark when it came to Lee’s talent. Lee is greatly thought of as a master of maneuver warfare. And he truly was. But he was also brilliant at the defense, and had the finest touch for economy of force.
Lee repeatedly attacked north into the Union, not to achieve a specific territorial gain, but rather to disrupt Union plans (spoiling attacks) and to force the Union to disperse its forces in the defense of its territorial integrity. There was always a great deal of fear that Lee might actually seize Washington, DC (remember, the Brits had burned it down only 50 years before, and the Potomac area was not the most Union friendly part of the world).
Also, whenever Union generals paused to prepare for their attack, Lee worked like a madman to prepare defenses to meet them. He would defend and draw a heavy price from the attacker. Either his defenses would bleed the Union troops white, or he would place them in such disarray that he could fall back from his defenses with little fear of a vigorous pursuit.
Grant took a more aggressive approach. Rather than spending time amassing all the troops available, he’d take those at hand (which always outnumbered the ANV anyway) and attacked. Relentlessly. Grant was not trying to achieve a decisive victory. He was trying to kill enemy troops. He knew that his hasty attacks would cost enormous numbers of Union casualties, but he also realized that he would receive replacements and reinforcements far faster than Lee could ever hope for.
Grant grasped that the South’s only ability to continue the rebellion was to have an army in being, namely the Army of Northern Virginia, and he realized that any other objective was purely secondary. Destroying the ANV was the Army of the Potomac’s only real objective. But Grant didn’t try to bring the ANV to decisive battle.
By attacking every time the opportunity presented itself, he slowly whittled away at its strength. He bled it of its core of veteran leadership, and hardened campaigners. It’s level of skill dropped precipitously as more and more of its replacements were mere boys or old men.
By attacking at the earliest opportunity, Grant denied Lee the chance to improve his defensive positions. He was able to inflict greater casualties on the AVN, and force it to displace sooner. Eventually, Grant was able hound Lee to the point where, at Appomattox, a decisive engagement was inevitable. It is easy to say that this attrition strategy was wasteful. But, again, it worked, where other approaches had failed. Indeed, had Grant been on hand to pursue such a strategy sooner, it may well have materially shortened the war, and reduced the bloodshed. Grant played to his strengths, and prevented Lee from capitalizing on his. That’s a sure sign of good generalship.
Interestingly, after shunning attrition warfare in the 20 years after WWI, searching for a workable maneuver warfare doctrine that would reduce casualties and force decisive engagements, the Allies in Western Europe, under Eisenhower, would actually use a very similar strategy. Eisenhower resisted advancing with one powerful thrust to the heart of the German land. Instead, his first objective remained the German armies in the field and by attacking across a broad front, he decimated the German armies.
One wonders if our current leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan have studied and appreciated the advantages of attrition warfare.