Illustrated History of the First World War
The Strategy of Victory, 1914-1918: The Life and Times of the Master Strategist of World War I, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson
Ordeal of Victory
The First World War
From a distance of fifty years it is more obvious than ever that the First World War—far more than the Second—was the great turning-point of modern history. By 1918 the epoch which opened in 1815 was over; and what happened between 1919 and 1945 was little more than the completion of the process of erosion. Of course, the collapse of the old order was not simply the result of the war. From around 1905 there were plenty of signs that the bourgeois synthesis was disintegrating; and competent historians—such as Elie Halévy—have seen in the outbreak of war in 1914 the response of the old order seeking to forestall incipient social revolution. It was their miscalculation, their belief that a short, sharp thrust could restore their fortunes, that ushered in the great period of change.
The effect of the First World War was therefore to bring into relief the hidden and unresolved tensions which had been gathering strength ever since the closing years of the nineteenth century. It weakened the framework of society and made it easier for new forces to emerge. But when, and how, and why, between 1914 and 1918, did these consequences become apparent? “It is not the same world as it was last July,” Walter H. Page told President Wilson in October 1914; “nothing is the same.” After fifty years we are better placed to evaluate Ambassador Page’s remark. As a prognostication of the ultimate outcome, four years later, it is remarkably perspicacious; as a description of the situation at the time he was writing it was far from literally true. Even after their great encircling movement had brought the Germans to the Marne, British and French generals expected victory and a return to “normalcy” before the end of 1914. When on September 13 Sir Henry Wilson predicted that “we should cross into Germany” with a month, his opposite number on the French staff had no hesitation in reducing the estimate to “three weeks.”
For us today the residuary interest of the military history of the war of 1914-18 is not merely to see how and why these predictions were unfulfilled, but rather to establish the long-term consequences of the failure to force a quick decision. On the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914, we may expect a spate of books of which the present batch is probably fairly typical. It will be a pity if they do no more than fight the old battles all over again. All the books here reviewed are concerned pretty narrowly with the course of military events. Mr. Taylor’s is exceptional because, with the true historian’s eye for perspective, he never makes the mistake of discussing the military events in isolation. As treated by Mr. Terraine, Captain Falls and Mr. Bonham-Carter, the war has the appearance of a deathly game of chess played by blindfold generals with human pawns. For Mr. Taylor it was the crucible of a new society. It is this superior standpoint, above the parties which enables him to review events and personalities in terms which are meaningful today.
In military terms the war divides in 1916. In reality, it had bogged down in deadlock a year earlier, but no one was prepared to accept the fact. It was only a question, the western allies believed, of waiting until Kitchener had his new model army ready in 1916. It was only a question of finding a way round the German flank—hence Churchill’s unhappy brain-child of 1915, the Gallipoli campaign. Or, finally, the fault was thought to lie in the men at the top and the answer was to replace generals who had failed by others more determined, more thrusting, more aggressive. When in December 1915 Haig took Sir John French’s place as British commander-in-chief in France, and Robertson for all practical purposes supplanted Kitchener in London, people thought the trick had been done. 1916 was the year of disillusion.
The slaughter of Verdun and the Somme, which was its most lasting contribution, caused more heads to fall. Now it was the turn of the German and French commanders, Falkenhayn and Joffre. In England the disasters of 1916 led to the supersession of Asquith by Lloyd George as prime minister and tarnished the reputations of Haig and Robertson. They also gave rise to violent controversies which have raged ever since. It is around these controversies that the books of Mr. Terraine and Mr. Bonham-Carter are built—two warriors rushing tardily to the rescue of the fallen idols. Mr. Bonham-Carter’s defense of Robertson is balanced and temperate, Mr. Terraine’s plaidoyer for Haig more like a lawyer’s brief. It will delight those who enjoy blowing on the embers of old fires; but I cannot find that either book calls for any radical revision of judgment. For that reason it would be unprofitable to recapitulate the dreary conflicts between “easterners” and “westerners” and “frocks” and “brasshats” which are their substance.
When the war was over, the agile civilians—led by Lloyd George—got in some telling bodyblows which the muscle-bound soldiers were unable to parry, and their case ever since has tended to go by default. That is the justification for Mr. Bonham-Carter’s and Mr. Terraine’s books. But even when argued, as it is by Mr. Terraine, with a full panoply of polemical hardware, it is not much of a case. Haig, no doubt, was not the callous general of the post-war stereotype; he was not, as Mr Terraine puts it, “careless about the lives of his soldiers,” “insensitive” to the expenditure of “cannon-fodder.” But that does not make him a great, or even a competent, general. Mr. Terraine’s bold assertion that Haig was the “chief architect of Allied victory” is hard to swallow. If we must seek an architect for what in sober reality was a process of “muddling through,” it was, paradoxically, Ludendorff who (perhaps with more excuses) committed in 1918 the very mistakes his opponents had made the previous year. If we look for one on the Allied side, it can only be Foch, put in as supreme commander when Haig and Pétain failed in the crisis of March 1918. “Foch,” even Mr. Terraine admits, “was the directing force.’
Of course Haig and Robertson did their best according to their lights. It was the lights that were wrong. The most that could be said for Haig was said by Churchill: he “was unequal to the prodigious scale of events, but no one else was discerned as his equal or better.” (Lloyd George, more succinctly, said he was “brilliant to the top of his army boots.”) Robertson had a clearer appreciation of the situation, and always doubted Haig’s plans; but, buffeted between the soldiers and the civilians, he allowed his sense of loyalty to his brother-in-arms (and senior in service) to deflect his judgment, with the result that, deserted by Haig, he was sacrificed for Haig’s errors. Ceaselessly harassed by Haig for more men and more ammunition—his only recipe—Robertson perceived, unlike other generals, “that in a war of this kind many things beside the actual army must be considered.” But these are only mitigations. Robertson and Haig, Mr. Bonham-Carter sums up, though “both big men,” were “insular and conservative.” Above all, we may add, they lacked imagination. Lloyd George once compared Kitchener’s mind to a lighthouse, which sent out a penetrating beam for a moment and then left utter darkness, as the light revolved. In the case of Haig and Robertson it is fair to say that they worked conscientiously to bring their slow mental processes into line with the quick march of events, and sometimes succeeded, but the beam of insight was lacking. The war, in Lloyd George’s phrase, was beyond their “mental equipment.”
They had only the scantiest inkling of the revolution in warfare that industrialization had brought about. Haig never grasped that railways would always enable the enemy to bring up reinforcements before infantry attacking on foot could break through. For him, as for Robertson, it was a question of “sufficient ammunition and sufficient men to continue pushing without a pause.” His mind dominated by the concept, vividly remembered from old-fashioned colonial wars, of horsemen pouring through a breach opened by the infantry, Haig retained his cavalry until the end, despite Robertson’s misgivings. In fact, the cavalry succeeded once—in Palestine and Syria; and Captain Fall’s book is a lively account of their prowess. But Captain Falls is too experienced a military historian to exaggerate their importance even there. The reason the Turks threw in their hands, he rightly says, was the situation in Europe, not their own “downfall in Syria,” and the cavalry simply rode through already demoralized troops. In Flanders they were enfiladed by German machine-guns, and perished horribly and without profit.
Machine guns and barbed wire dominated the war; they were the real commanders-in-chief. In the end even Haig could not avoid recognizing their decisive role. But only in the end. In 1915 he described the machine-gun as “a much overrated weapon,” and said that two per battalion was ample. Kitchener thought four. It was Lloyd George who supplied the answer. “Take Kitchener’s maximum; square it; multiply the result by two; and when you are in sight of that, double it again for good luck.” It was the same with tanks. Here it was Robertson who was “reserved”—he called them “a desperate innovation”—but Haig, having got his tanks, proved incapable of handling them until Sir John Monash showed him the way at Le Hamel on July 4, 1918. As Mr. Taylor says, “the only general of creative originality produced by the First World War” was Monash, the Australian.
When the war was over, Haig propagated the myth, now revived by Mr. Terraine, that “the secret of our victory in 1918” lay “in the great battles of 1916 and 1917.” It was a flattering interpretation, if scarcely the true one. But the campaigns of 1916 and 1917 were nevertheless of decisive importance though in ways far different from anything that Haig or Robertson foresaw. The slaughter on the Somme in 1916, the mud of Ypres and Passchendaele the following year, the clear evidence of the inability of the generals to find a way out, changed the whole character of the war. When Lloyd George became Prime Minister on December 5, 1916, a war of a new type began. The events of 1917, the revolution in Russia and the entry on the scene of the United States, hastened the dénouement. The result is summed up by Mr. Taylor. “In 1917,” he writes, “European history, in the old sense, came to an end. World history began…it was the moment of birth for our contemporary world.”
What makes Mr. Taylor’s book outstanding is his capacity to penetrate through the undergrowth of controversy and conflicting interpretation to this central truth. He is not greatly concerned about individual responsibilities (he is mild, for example, in his judgment of Haig, who, he says, “had to do what he did” because of public pressures). The reason is that he knows that events transcended individuals and that the results, though unintended, were more important than the individuals who, without realizing it, produced the results. His book, compared with Mr. Terraine’s or Mr. Bonham-Carter’s, is short; but this very fact—plus an incisive mind—enables him to clarify the issues. But, above all else, he realizes that the various Staffs and Headquarters with their intrigues and personal animosities, were far less important in the totality than they liked to think. Few battles, indeed, bore any relation to their plans. Mr. Taylor would, I think, subscribe to Philip Gibbs’s famous description of high strategy as “a fetish of elementary ideas raised to the nth degree of pomposity.” In the pomposity of the generals Mr. Taylor finds matter for gentle, mocking laughter; they are his light relief. But there was nothing to laugh about in the results, short-term or long-term. The short-term results were the stricken human wreckage spread over the fields of Flanders or the Pripet marshes; the long-term results were a world from which the sense of living within an established order, which had characterized the nineteenth century, even at its worst, has been obliterated. For us today, living in the longer term, this is the lasting casualty of the military barrages of Verdun and the Somme.
To understand this revolutionary change it is necessary to turn from the tarified atmosphere of General Headquarters to the grim realities of the trenches and the home front. This, essentially, is what General Thoumin sets out to do. His book is an attempt to evoke a direct impression of the horror, sacrifice, bravery and despair through excerpts from the writings of those who actually participated. It conveys a readable impression of what war meant to the sailors, soldiers, and airmen who endured it; and it is not General Thoumin’s fault if the impression is conveyed even more effectively by the admirable illustrations which are an integral part of Mr. Taylor’s book. The authenticity even of contemporary writing is always open to doubt; the camera provides a direct record. Through it, as Mr. Taylor says, “we can relive the First World War, not merely read about it,” see again the devastated countryside and the queues for food, the tanks bogged down in mud, the corpses strewns around shell-craters.
The generals were professionals who prided themselves on moving professional armies with the precision of machines. They thought the professional army, trained for quick victories as at Sadowa, was the answer. By the end of 1915 they were compelled to realize that it was not, and then they could think of nothing except to call in the masses. More men, more shell-fodder, was their only recipe for victory. But the masses they evoked were beyond their control. With the entry on the scene of The Mass, with total mobilization, in factories and on the land as well as in the armies, the war changed its character. The powers took up arms with only the slightest idea of what they hoped to gain from it. On the German side Bethmann Hollweg and Falkenhayn still manoeuvered for a compromise peace. That was why they were cast aside. Once the stalemate set in, it was impossible to ask men to go on dying, and women to go on weeping, and their children to go on starving, all for a return to the status quo. A desperate situation called for desperate remedies, and statesmanship flew out of the window. Hatred had to be whipped up and, with hatred, exorbitant war aims which neither side, granted a moment of sanity, could ever have expected to secure and hold. It was in 1917 that the seeds of the war of 1939 were sown.
Total war also necessitated regimentation and direction. Contrary to legend, the concept of a planned economy was not a wicked plot of impractical socialists but the invention of Walter Rathenau, a capitalist multi-millionaire whose planning enabled Germany to carry on but in the process dealt a death-blow to liberal economics. It also quickly turned into a war of subversion. In 1914 the western allies had no quarrel with Austria-Hungary. By 1917 respectable conservative statesmen were plotting the dissolution of the Habsburg empire and calling on the subject peoples to revolt. How else could the military deadlock be broken? And, on the other side, Ludendorff was driven to undertake his great offensive of 1918, which ruined the German army, for fear lest otherwise he might be compelled to accept a compromise peace. He knew all too well that Wilson’s dream of peace without victors or vanquished—that anything less than total victory—would be fatal to the regime for which he stood. But Wilson also, by 1918, was a prisoner of events and Pershing, in any case, had no intention of stopping short of unconditional surrender. Oddly enough, when it came to ending the war, the only sensible person was Haig, who warned repeatedly against “paying off old scores.” It was the final proof how out of touch he was with reality.
It would be foolish to expect events of this magnitude to teach a lesson. But nothing will be lost if the fiftieth anniversary of the First World War provides a warning to those, in high places and in low, who still toy with the idea that, when things get too hot, a short, sharp war may after all be the best way out. Total war imposes a strain no social order can withstand; it is the catalyst of revolution, the matrix of social change. Fifty years ago it ended the European age and brought a proud civilization toppling; next time it may end history altogether.