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The price of victory

In the patriotic mythology of British arms 1759 may be the one true annus mirabilis, the ‘year of victories’, the year of Minden, Quebec and Quiberon Bay, but has there ever been a year comparable to 1918? In that year 20,000 British soldiers surrendered on a single day, 31 March, and yet within six months Britain and her allies had recaptured all the territory lost since 1914, destroyed Austrian and Bulgarian resistance in Italy and Macedonia, encircled a Turkish army in Palestine, mastered the submarine menace at sea, and fought the German army to the brink of disintegration and the German empire to the point of revolt.

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

With Our Backs to the Wall David Stevenson

Allen Lane, pp.688, 30

In the patriotic mythology of British arms 1759 may be the one true annus mirabilis, the ‘year of victories’, the year of Minden, Quebec and Quiberon Bay, but has there ever been a year comparable to 1918? In that year 20,000 British soldiers surrendered on a single day, 31 March, and yet within six months Britain and her allies had recaptured all the territory lost since 1914, destroyed Austrian and Bulgarian resistance in Italy and Macedonia, encircled a Turkish army in Palestine, mastered the submarine menace at sea, and fought the German army to the brink of disintegration and the German empire to the point of revolt.

In the patriotic mythology of British arms 1759 may be the one true annus mirabilis, the ‘year of victories’, the year of Minden, Quebec and Quiberon Bay, but has there ever been a year comparable to 1918? In that year 20,000 British soldiers surrendered on a single day, 31 March, and yet within six months Britain and her allies had recaptured all the territory lost since 1914, destroyed Austrian and Bulgarian resistance in Italy and Macedonia, encircled a Turkish army in Palestine, mastered the submarine menace at sea, and fought the German army to the brink of disintegration and the German empire to the point of revolt.

The allies had won the tactical battle on land and the strategic battle at sea, they had won the economic, technological, man- power and logistical battles, and the most extraordinary thing of all is that virtually no one could have predicted any of it. From the day that the Americans joined the war allied survival was probably assured. But to anyone at the end of 1917 looking at the disparate and conflicting aspirations and war aims of the belligerents, at the frustrating slow drip of American reinforcements — more than balanced by the collapse of Russia on the eastern front — or the growing legacy of sacrifice that made a negotiated peace ever less reachable, there must have seemed no reason why the war should ever end.


For all the startling triumphs, though, 1918 was not what Alfred Austin had dreamt of when he imagined a heaven in which he could sit in an English country garden receiving alternate telegrams announcing British victories by land and sea. In the last months of the war the BEF won a series of genuine offensive battles in Flanders, but no one could have been under any illusion that the German army that surrendered to them in unprecedented numbers in the autumn of 1918 was the same formidable enemy they had faced at Passchendaele or on the Somme.

Post-war Germany would put its own fatal political spin on these defeats — the ‘stab in the back’ theory — but the real irony is that it was German military successes in the spring and early summer that brought on the crisis that would finally end the war. The great Somme offensive — ‘Michael’ — launched in March against the British 5th and 3rd armies was as critical as any moment in the war. However, German victory carried with it the seeds of its own ultimate defeat, bleeding its army of its best fighting troops and, crucially, provoking that massive influx of American reinforcements that it had been designed to pre-empt.

After the war Haig liked to portray the victories of 1918 as a direct consequence of the attritional slaughter of 1916 and ’17, but it was Ludendorff’s premature offensives that were the real cause of Germany’s collapse. The problem for the allies before the summer of 1918 had been that of dislodging a German army from heavily prepared positions, but with the laws of diminishing returns inevitably kicking in, each successive German advance left its extended and worn out army less and less able to resist an allied counter-attack:

Like Harold Godwin’s housecarles on Senlac Hill, like Napoleon’s Imperial Guard at Waterloo, or Pickett’s Confederates at Gettysburgh, they were most vulnerable when they sallied forth, and most imposing as they sealed their downfall.

This is a familiar enough story, but it can never have been so authoritatively told as it is here. It is impossible, in fact, to exaggerate how impressive this book is. It is not an elegant piece of work, but this is not an elegant subject. It does not concern itself with either the horror or the pity of war, but they can safely be taken for granted. It does not have the great narrative sweep of, say, Robert Massie’s two volumes on the naval race and the war at sea, but the theatre it covers is too vast and varied for that. Its structure — a narrative section of 160-odd pages, followed by nearly 400 more of analysis — has its drawbacks (you have to wait more than 300 pages for the Royal Navy, arguably the chief architect of victory, to make a show) but it is hard to see what else would serve his purpose. It enables him to address every aspect of the conflict — military, economic, social, political, labour, gender, Ireland, morale — and cover them with a grasp of issues and a mastery of detail that builds into an irrefutable analysis of not just why the war was won and lost, but why both sides were prepared to end it when they did.

And that end, inevitably, makes for sobering reading. Should the allies have pushed on into 1919 and forced on Germany a peace that would have left no room for revisionism and no prospect of rearmament? Hindsight might say one thing, but the massive allied casualties sustained in the last months of the war said another. ‘We are forced to ask every morning’, Horace Walpole wrote in 1759, ‘what victory there has been for fear of missing one.’ Few people, though, in 1918 could have stomached many more victories like those the allies had won. 1,081,952 British and Empire dead, 1,380,000 French, 460,000 Italian and 125,000 American had taught the world the grim truth of Wellington’s aphorism: the only thing worse than a battle won is a battle lost.


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