World War 1: Who Really Won?

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker

 

1918 A Very British Victory

Peter Hart

Orion / Weidenfeld and Nicholson 2008

 

The Myth of the Great War

John Mosier

Profile Books 2001

 

Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier

John Terraine

Cassell 2003 (first published 1963)

 

I have always felt that the accepted view of World War I is badly thought out. We have been subjected to the maudlin views of those who interpret the poets of the war; we have accepted Lloyd George´s view of Haig as a bloodthirsty blunderer; we have heard the view that British troops were “lions led by donkeys”. Yes, the poets have illustrated the gruesome and unpleasant nature of war – war has always been obscene, but has rarely attracted capable poets; yes, Haig was Commander in Chief of a British force that lost more men than any other British force in history - but, of itself, that fact does not make him a bad general; yes, British troops were heroic, and so were British officers. I do not believe that the proportions of bad troops and bad officers was so very different from any other army that Britain has put in the field during its history. Nor do I think that the armies of any of the belligerents can be pigeonholed by any particular description.

 

The book 1918 A Very British Victory puts the traditional British view. Following on from John Terraine´s moving biography Douglas Haig, The Educated Soldier (describing a cavalry officer in such terms is indeed strange, and he was unusual for a cavalry officer in that he had spent three years at Brasenose, leaving without taking his degree), Peter Hart sets out to show how much the army had learned during the first three and a half years of war, and Hart´s story is told in the words of the contemporary officers and soldiers.

 

By 1918, the British and the French no longer hoped for the best in terms of their artillery bombardments (for example, that the barbed wire would have been cut on the first day of the battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916); they no longer sent whole armies of infantrymen to their doom in front of the massed machine guns of the Imperial German Army. They had developed instead a concept called All Arms Combat, in which the artillery, tanks, machine guns, Royal Flying Corps and the infantry in new formations co-operated to give the attackers the best chance with the fewest possible casualties. The most potent of these arms was the artillery, with its new reliance on the creeping barrage and the modern science of how meteorology affects the flight of shells. By 1918, the artilleryman needed a good head for figures.

 

The infantryman relied no longer only on his rifle; he was far more likely to be sent into battle with a Vickers (heavy) or Lewis (light) machine gun, and with grenades and bombs strapped to his belt. And he walked behind the tank, taking advantage of this moving shelter. He was also supported by aeroplanes spotting difficulties in front and attacking formations of enemy soldiers. The British was not the only army to fight in this way; it may be that British commanders broadly adopted German tactics, although they do not admit as much. John Mosier in his The Myth of the Great War (2001) suggests that the German army developed better tactics, training and leadership from very early in the war; their superiority is demonstrated in their very much lower casualty lists. Over the whole war on the Western Front, the German Army lost roughly half of the numbers lost by the allied armies together. Their superior weaponry dated from well before the war. One very good example is their 105mm howitzer, dating from 1913. This field piece had a hydraulic recoil mechanism whose advantage was that the gun did not have to be repositioned after every shot. The traditional piece (which is how the allies were armed) was knocked off line by each discharge, and required to be repositioned before the next shot. The Germans also had the 150mm and 210mm howitzer designed on the same principle.

 

It is Mosier (he is American) who applies an acid test. He suggests that in assessing records by individuals or even nationalist writers, the historian should beware of those which are self congratulatory. Any man whose writing does not show himself or his nation in a good light is almost certainly telling the truth, and he discards many records – and I suppose we must include Haig´s personal diary here – for this very reason. He shows that in 1918 it was the advent of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) which tipped the balance away from the attacking Germans. It is difficult to counter this thesis because the Germans retired from the war after the Americans came; but was it because they came? Of course, the cynic might discard Mosier´s view because he is American and puts an American point of view.

 

If those who have derided the efforts of the senior military of the day could have had their way, I wonder what they would have done instead? It was noticeable that the new armies joining the war at later dates (the Australian and American) placed enormous reliance on massed infantry attacks as well as the superiority of rifle fire in exactly the same way as the British, French and Germans had done earlier in the war. The two new armies had an immense impact on both their allies and their opponents. The British found the Australians barbarous and disrespectful, but were impressed by their fighting qualities. The Americans would not allow their troops to be subordinated to any other allied commander, and insisted in forming their own discrete army. General Pershing was responsible for this attitude, and it is true that the Americans with new eyes saw things in a different way. They were not encumbered with the prejudices and old fashioned thinking which characterised some of the allied commanders. The Germans too found these new warriors of a superior physique and mental attitude.

 

The old hands on the Western Front had learned the hard way that in modern static trench warfare, the artillery was king, and the machine gun crown prince. The ideas of the first half of the war were that the artillery would smash enemy resistance, infantry should then create a hole in the enemy´s line which would then be exploited by cavalry bursting through to the green fields beyond. These ideas never worked out because the artillery was not able to inflict enough accurate damage (for example, artillery shells did not cut barbed wire; they merely blew it into the air, and it returned to the ground more or less undamaged); if you had dugouts deep enough, and the Germans constructed some of the deepest, enemy shells were relatively innocuous; and when the barrage lifted and the infantry were on their way, you emerged from the dugout and manned your machine gun against either infantry flesh or horse flesh, both equally vulnerable to machine gun fire. This was the story of the Somme in 1916. The Germans also perfected the reinforced concrete pillbox; occupied by machine gunners, these strongpoints were very difficult to overcome, in particular at Passchendaele in Flanders in 1917.

 

Because each side tacitly admitted the difficulty of breaking through, their main strategic concept came to be that of attrition. This blood curdling idea was that if the enemy was losing more troops than you were, then he was losing the war. Both sides had this concept. The allies (including initially Russia, and eventually the AEF) had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of manpower (including their Empires and Dominions) which the central powers could never match. In the days of stasis on the Western Front, the grinding down of the enemy in this enormous mincemeat machine was seen as the only means of making progress. An important concept for the Central Powers was that if they could cause enough damage to the British and French armies, the war might be won before the Americans could apply any great numbers to the battlefields of France. This was the basic rationale behind the immense German attacks of 1918.

 

Haig became C-in-C British Expeditionary Force in December 1915, and was still there on 11 November 1918. If he were a poor commander, then Lloyd George as Prime Minister was negligent not to remove him. The truth is that in spite of the losses incurred under his command, he was the best commander available, and possibly the only man willing to undertake command. It is difficult to understand the stresses for any one man in charge of the millions of British troops in France during this bloodiest of wars, and Haig must have had an iron constitution to withstand the pressures of command as well as the obvious loss of confidence of the Prime Minister during those three years in charge. He was upheld in part by his staunch Scottish faith.

 

But Haig was adamant that the war was to be won on the Western Front, and probably in Flanders. Italy, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonika, Palestine were all sideshows. In his way Haig was perfectly right, and he may have been right to begrudge the taking of troops from his command for the sideshows in the East. The enemy was German and victory on the Western Front was the only way to defeat him. I believe that he was wrong in his concentration on Flanders. Their later actions showed that the Germans would rather come to an armistice than fight the war on their own soil; it would have been better therefore to attack with the aim of getting into Alsace and Lorraine. These provinces had been German since the war of 1870 and provided a constant reminder to the French of their failure in that war.

 

It is certainly true that the land war was never fought on German soil, in the West at any rate. The Germans sued for peace long before their own country was invaded.

 

When WW2 was in its final throes, memories of letting the German army off the hook at the end of WW1 had been well learned and Churchill insisted that Germany must be physically as well as morally conquered. There were no objections from either USSR or USA. In comparison, I wonder whether Britain and USA would have had the second Iraq war if they had finished the job properly in 1990. After the entry of the AEF into the war in 1918, the Germans began to deal with President Wilson. He wanted to end the war, and the German high command saw him as less adamantine than the other allies. Looking back, perhaps one can see that the powers in Germany (I mean the Prussian warrior caste) had come to the conclusion that the war could not be won because of the advent of the AEF; and that it was better to demand an armistice before the fighting reached German soil. In the light of German actions before and during WW2, the French expression reculer pour mieux sauter seems to describe very well their actions and thoughts.

 

There are many contemporary descriptions of the state of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war. The French General Fayolle in Germany in December 1918 said, “The country does not project an image of a vanquished people. Everything breathes order, prosperity, richness. Germany is not at all exhausted. If left alone, they will start the war all over again, in ten years, if not before.” Other descriptions by Germans showed that the lack of food available to the armed forces and to the civilian population was a potent contributor to the collapse in German morale. There are stories of surrendering Germans being overwhelmed at the quantity and quality of the food available to allied troops. The British were convinced that the naval blockade was a factor in Germany´s surrender. But it is also a fact that German arms production was at its highest level in 1918, and in terms of hardware and attitude, they were far from defeat.

 

March 1918 saw the beginning of the last ditch attempts of the Imperial German Army to finish off the Western Allies before the US arrived on the scene. Quarter-master General Ludendorff masterminded five massive assaults on the allies´ positions between 21 March and July 1918. The German army made immense inroads into allied positions and at one point Haig issued his “backs to the wall” instruction. Although the British took the most of the pounding, according to Peter Hart it was the British armies which spearheaded the final assault in the West. Some British divisions seemed to attract German attacks. No sooner were they withdrawn from one part of the front and sent to recuperate at another, than they would be slammed by another attack. To me, this redeployment to other parts of the front smacks of poor intelligence on the part of the higher British command.

 

The AEF began to be involved in counterattacks from July 1918 onwards and the Allies began to recapture lost ground from August 8, the day named by Ludendorff “The Black Day for the German Army”. Ludendorff recognized the German army´s doom, and began to insist that the Emperor find a way to stop the war. The German high command agreed with him and it was only a matter of time before they agreed an armistice. There was a suggestion that the Kaiser should personally lead his troops into battle and so meet a hero´s death, but Wilhelm II met this idea frostily. Prince Max of Baden wrote to Wilson on October 5 to ask for an armistice, and Wilson replied that if Wilhelm remained on the throne, he would consider surrender only. In early November the Germans began to come to terms with the consequences of this viewpoint, and on November 9 the Kaiser was forced to abdicate.

 

Moser reckons that the German army lost half as many men as the allies on the Western Front, and there are 768,000 German WW1 graves in France. If that is the case, then there must have been about 1.5 million allied killed on the Western Front. But of course the figures are not that simple. On p12 Mosier completes a sobering table, including missing and wounded. The figures are skewed by other smaller nationalities not included, by individuals who appear in more than one figure, and general inaccuracy because of the sheer difficulty of accurate reporting.

 

Casualties by Nation, Western Front

Country Deaths Missing Total  Wounded
Belgium 35 000 63 000 98 000 na
France 1 070 000 314 000 1 384 000 3 481 000
GB 564 715  319 824 884 539 1 837 613
US 116 950 4 452 121 402 239 787
         
Total  1 786 665 701 276 2 487 941 5 558 400
         
Germany 669 263 623 260 1 292 523 1 214 327

   

With figures like these, Mosier´s argument becomes even more persuasive. The political establishments of France and GB were constantly misled by their army commanders about the scale of casualties suffered and inflicted and the scale of victories (they rarely admitted to defeat). One reason why the BEF was so vulnerable in 1918 was because Lloyd George refused to meet Haig´s demands for replacement troops. The troops were available, but they were in Britain out of Haig´s reach. The Prime Minister behaved in this way because he believed that Haig was too profligate with British troops; yet Lloyd George´s husbanding of troops in Britain put the whole of the British war effort at risk, and there was a real danger that the German attacks of 1918 might have succeeded.

 

So where does the truth lie? If the British and French armies had not held out through the dark years of 1914 -1918, there would have been no war for the AEF to win. If Haig, Nivelle and Joffre had been more careful in their expenditure of troops, the war might have lasted for years more. We cannot anachronistically apply our ideas to their circumstances. The allied generals were certainly fighting that war with ideas from previous wars, but this was not unusual. Senior military figures are notoriously impervious to change. But the Germans in both WW1 and in WW2 showed a greater aptitude for warfare than their opponents, and belying their reputation, a greater flexibility and aptitude for new ideas.

 

It is one of the strengths of the liberal democracies that they have withstood the challenge not only in WW1 but also in WW2, and continue to do so.

 

Peter Kingdon Booker

11 November 2008

a little after 11:00

 

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