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Letters from the Front

M. R. D. Foot on a collection of letters from WW1 soldiers

6 August 2008

12:00 AM

6 August 2008

12:00 AM

1918: A Very British Victory Peter Hart

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp.552, 20

A wide gap has opened up between British military historians who work on the world war of 1914-18 and the mass of British schoolteachers who take it in school history classes. The teachers, impressed by the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, follow what may be called the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ school of Alan Clark, and regard the war as a colossal waste of men and effort. More and more of the military historians, led by Brian Bond, now appreciate that British commanders in those years contended well with the unprecedented difficulties of industrial war, and deserve credit rather than contempt. Peter Hart, who has soaked himself for a decade in the treasures of the Imperial War Museum’s collections, weighs in on the historians’ side with a most readable book based on original documents.

He mixes together soldiers’ letters home to their families and friends with the much better-known reflexions of the high commanders on both sides. He has many more letters from British and British Commonwealth than from French or German writers, but does not leave the enemy out altogether, and, as deftly as a pointillist painter, he blends his fragments into a coherent whole. At the end of every extract he names the writer and adds the unit or formation to keep the reader abreast of the angle from which the war is being viewed.

There is not a great deal of grand strategy here, but there is plenty of human interest; most of the horrors that soldiers could not bear to talk about when they came home on leave get covered, including a lot of dismembered bodies. The nastiness of war is set out quite nakedly, so is its noise; only its boredom is skipped over. There is plenty of fright and plenty of quiet courage as well.

He begins with the catastrophe of Ludendorff’s attack of 21 March 1918, which my generation was brought up to believe was the blackest day in the British army’s history, and shows that, black though the day was, it was not an irretrievable disaster. A few units broke altogether; most did not, and the proverbial bloody-mindedness of Tommy Atkins kept some sort of line in being. By late April, the machine gunners of the 33rd Division plugged the final gap, Ludendorff’s men overran their supplies and the battle faded away. Several battered British divisions were sent down to the Chemin des Dames, in the French line, for a rest and were overrun in their turn by Ludendorff’s next attack.

Yet the German army, universally acknowledged in 1914 to be the finest in the world (like the French army in 1939), failed to impose itself on the comparatively amateur British, who learned, by hard experience, to develop what is now called the all-arms battle, and to combine the efforts of infantry, tanks, engineers, and above all artillery to bring the Germans to their knees. Hart demonstrates how thoroughly, from 8 August 1918, Haig’s forces broke the will of Ludendorff’s to fight and beat them in the open field. By the end, which came rather suddenly on 11 November, the Germans realised they must have at least a pause. The armistice terms they then had to accept were so fierce that thereafter they had no chance of re-starting the war.

Hart’s book brings out well the abruptness of war, and is crammed with narrow escapes: none narrower than that of Major Lyne, 64th brigade, Royal Field Artillery. Near the river Lys, in April 1918, he was standing, legs apart, helping to right one of his battery’s eighteen-pounders that had been half overturned by a shell. Another shell from a howitzer arrived and landed between his feet; but sank so deep into the soft soil that when it burst, the ground received all the splinters, and he survived. This bears out the saying that, of all the features of war, luck is the most critical.

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