Conference Report: 1916: The Cost of Attrition


This summer, I was fortunate to have been invited to present a paper at the Australian War Memorial’s 1916: The Cost of Attrition conference. In late July, a number of academics from the Anglophone world assembled in Canberra to explore the events of 1916, focusing on the impacts of this particularly violent year. Befitting a conference in Australia, there was considerable emphasis on the experiences of Dominion forces. The conference also brought together some talented early career researchers to present their work on the First World War.

One of the key themes that emerged for me was how differently the events of 1916 are remembered across the world. Of course, this should not have been a surprise, but having come fresh from Britain, with its prominent commemorations of the battles of the Somme and Jutland, it was a bit of revelation that battle of the Somme holds far less fascination for the public in former Dominion nations. Tim Cook, from the Canadian War Museum, highlighted this is his keynote address: In Canada, there were no formal commemorations of the battle. Public, and by extension government, interest there is firmly focused on the anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017. Glyn Harper of Massey University highlighted a similar phenomenon in New Zealand where an officially sponsored tour of the Somme battlefield scheduled for this year was canceled from lack of interest. Closer to home in Europe, for the public of Germany and France, of course, the battle of Verdun is the most significant event of 1916, while the battle of the Somme has received far less attention.

What attention is given to the battle of the Somme in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand appears to be focused on individual elements of the battle or specific events of 1916: For Australia, the ill-fated diversionary offensive at Fromelles and the attempts to capture Pozières feature. Pozières again features for the Canadians, and for New Foundlanders Beaumont Hamel is significant. This underlines the increasing ‘componency’ of the British army during the war, with each Dominion component becoming more aware of its own unique identity as the war progressed. These identities forged during the war helped shape how the war has been remembered, a point highlighted by papers from Peter Burness and Daniel Eisenberg, both from the Australian War Memorial.

However, at the same time these components were developing their own identities, speakers made clear they were also becoming more integrated into the British army as a whole. Aimee Fox-Godden from King’s College London spoke about how the lessons from the fighting in France in 1916 were disseminated and adapted in other theatres of the war. This point was reinforced by Jean Bou’s paper on the operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Meleah Hampton (Australian War Memorial), Robert Stevenson (Australian War Memorial), and Michael Molkentin (Shellharbour Anglican College) showed how the AIF relied upon the rest of the British army for its doctrine, force structure, and also for direct support in battle. Glyn Harper and Tim Cook demonstrated the same for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This point was reinforced by Andrew Simpson in his paper on the development of corps as a key level of command during the war. Jim Beach from the University of Northampton highlighted the significance of intelligence provided by the GHQ of the British Expeditionary Force for all its components.

Appropriately for a conference about the cost of attrition, another of the key themes developed over the course of the conference was the challenge of meeting the demand for manpower. Jean Beaumont from the Australian National University spoke about the often-bitter debates over the conscription referendum in Australian politics in 1916 and 1917. Tim Cook spoke about how the conscription debate as well as the wider debate about manpower highlighted the deep divisions between Anglophone and Francophone Canada. Linked to this was another issue of developing a sustainable force structure. Robert Stevenson and Michael Molkentin spoke about the difficulty the Australians faced in maintaining the units of the AIF at full fighting strength, particularly when faced with fresh demands on manpower created from the need for new types of units (e.g., heavy artillery or air squadrons).

A third theme that stood out over the conference was the experience of the attritional combat during the year. Meleah Hampton and Glyn Harper covered combat on the Somme, particularly the hard slogging for small gains in territory. The British historian Peter Barton made some excellent use of sources from the German archives to show what combat was like for both German and British troops. Ashley Ekins, the head of the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial spoke about the morale and discipline in the AIF during the war, with some striking examples of punishment routines devised to make up for the lack of the death penalty for AIF personnel. Aaron Pegram from the Australian War Memorial spoke about the significance of the idea of ‘reciprocity’ in shaping the treatment of Allied prisoners of war in German camps: The German authorities recognized that mistreatment of Allied prisoners would be used as justification of mistreatment of German prisoners, and this helped protect prisoners on both sides from abuse. In a welcome shift from the experience of the war on land, James Goldrick of the Australian National University highlighted the challenges of combat at sea in 1916, particularly the North Sea with its notoriously poor weather.

Of course, this short report cannot do justice to the breath of the papers presented or to the quality of the questions and discussions they generated. An edited volume of the paper is due to be published, which will bring these important papers to a wider audience.

Image: A view of the Somme battlefield near Martinpuich. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (H02116).


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