Very few wars throughout history have followed the traditional literary three-act structure as well as the First World War did. It’s possible to divide it quite neatly into this most common of narrative structures, even if they are somewhat uneven – a short first Act between August 1914 and the First Battle of Ypres, a long second Act between January 1915 and December 1917, and then the third Act, a proper Götterdämmerung featuring the largest battles of the war, and in which the major character arcs of men such as Haig, Foch, and Ludendorff are resolved in a literarily satisfactory way.
Haig and Foch, having learnt from their earlier mistakes, are finally able to see how the war can be won, and then to win it. Ludendorff, however, can never acknowledge that Germany will be beaten until it’s far too late, can never temper his military theory with practical experience, and his efforts to secure final victory eventually cost him, and Imperial Germany, the entire war.
And the First World War does have some powerful narratives constructed around it. Roughly speaking, there are two main ones in the UK, which I’ll call the Poets and the Serious Historians for convenience. In the last ten years, a third one has emerged, the Revisionists, although that’s still not a particularly mainstream set of arguments. And there are, of course, outliers – Allan Mallinson’s recent book, Too Important For The Generals, doesn’t fit neatly into any of the above groupings, for instance, although I’d place it closer to the Poets than to anyone else.
As a rough guide, the Poets argue that the war was an exercise in pointless futility and upper class stupidity, in which callous aristocrats flung millions of young men against barbed wire and machine guns to gain a few yards of muddy ground to win a war that didn’t even need to be fought. The battles of 1915, 1916, and 1917 feature prominently in their presentation of the war. The Serious Historians, on the other hand, pay a bit of lip service to the horrors of the war, but then veer off to talk about how great the German Army was! I’ve seen books about the First World War where 1914 takes up half the pages, as the Schlieffen Plan is dissected from every which angle and you get the sense that although it failed, the author thinks it really deserved to succeed. 1915, 1916 and 1917 are then kind of glossed over, and the next lengthy section covers the German offensives of 1918, and we’re treated to yet more discourse on German ingenuity, German tactical flexibility, German operational dynamism, the brilliance of German generals, German virility, German masculinity, German butchness and manliness… and then the British counterattacked and won the war. That last part kind of gets glossed over as well.
This bizarre extolling of German martial virtue is also a prominent feature of Second World War historiography. At times you’d hardly think they lost both conflicts.
The Revisionists have always been there, but have picked up some steam in the last 10 years. Their argument is that the British Army, totally unprepared for war in 1914, actually became increasingly effective as the war went on, and that by 1918 the generals who had failed in earlier years had become capable, competent commanders. Most would also maintain that, far from a pointless and unnecessary struggle, the British probably had no choice other than to fight in the First World War, and that the majority of British troops understood this.
So. How do you create a narrative?
This varies from writer to writer. Most of my writing is crime-based, and is usually inspired by a real event. So In Murder’s Shadow, my Work-in-Progress novel, traced back far enough, finds its inspiration in a Year Ten research project I did on the crime of Jack the Ripper. In fact, its genesis is so far in the past I don’t really remember who came first, Paul Quinn or the Shadow Stalker.
Generally, today I think of a crime first, and then the detective who will investigate it. I have two fictional universes that I can set stories in, so the first choice I make is to which universe this crime belongs, and then how it will be dealt with by the characters in that universe. The stories on this site all belong to what I call the Sandiverse, after its female main character, which does have a few creative limits; I use real places and try to use real police procedures, which means that Sandi’s freedom of action is limited by realistic travel times, the need to follow the rules, and the fact that I can’t blow Wrexham up in a terrorist atrocity every two weeks. But on the whole, I can create whatever events I want to and put Sandi and Paul Quinn through whatever wringer I want to.
When creating a narrative about something real, however, the rules change. The events have already been created for the narrator, the wringer that your characters will go through is already there, in fact even your characters are ready-made. All you have to do is decide what kind of story you will tell.
It’s disturbingly easy to look at the same events in the First World War and tell several completely different stories about them.
How do you do this? Well, you use the evidence selectively. So, for instance, if you wanted to present Field Marshal Haig as a blood-soaked, psychopath butcher callously ordering hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths in pointless attacks, you would focus on his actions during the Battles of the Somme and Third Ypres, and probably not really talk about too much else. To try and present Haig in a more positive light, you’d offer some defence of those actions, but would try to focus more on his successes in 1918.
To give a fully-rounded picture of Haig, you’d note his attempts to dissuade his then-superior Field Marshal French from ordering an attack on Loos in September 1915 on the grounds that it would, ahem, cause heavy casualties for no appreciable gains. You’d also note his refusal of an order from the French Marshal Foch to continue the Amiens attack in August 1918 because, again, it would cause heavy casualties for no gains, and try to juxtapose this with his uncaring disregard for loss in 1916 and 1917 – for no appreciable gains. Haig, his record shows, was capable of both resisting orders for futile, bloody attacks, and of ordering them to be carried out himself. He is a more complicated character than either his critics or his supporters generally acknowledge.
A perfect commander, then, for a complicated war.
Time to go back to the beginning, and see if I can unpick any of these narratives.
I, clearly, have my own view – I have no sympathy for the Serious Historians, some sympathy for the Poets who I feel over-simplify things at times, and generally agree with the Revisionists most, although not all, of the time. But I’ll aim for fair persuasion. When something is my viewpoint, I’ll either say so or try and make it obvious, and when I don’t know something, I’ll say so.
A pointless war?
This is difficult to argue, because it eventually rests on a counter-factual. And it depends on how you view the Kaiser’s Germany.
The origins of the First World War can be traced back to 1871, and the humiliating defeat of France by Prussia that unified the various German states into one Empire under the Prussian Kaiser. France suffered an easy military defeat, and Germany even annexed Alsace and Lorraine, disputed territory to be sure but historically part of France for hundreds of years.
Grimly aware of their numerical and industrial inferiority towards their aggressive, militaristic neighbour, the French government in 1894 concluded the Franco-Russian Alliance with Russia, stating that each would aid the other if attacked. This would split Germany’s armies between its eastern and western frontiers. Germany itself was the leading power of the Triple Alliance, which also included Austria-Hungary and Italy, and was seen by Germany and Austria-Hungary as a counter to Russian aggression, and by Austria-Hungary as a neutralisation of Italian ambitions in the Alps. The two alliances effectively split Europe into two armed camps.
The British Empire actually remained aloof from all this until relatively late in the day. Into the 1890s the British regarded France, not Germany, as the main threat. This was partly for historical reasons, but mostly because France possessed a large fleet of warships. Simply put, a country could only threaten Britain if it had a fleet. British foreign policy since the time of the Spanish Armada had been to identify the dominant land power in Europe and form alliances to contain them, to prevent them spending money on building a navy that could threaten the British mainland. With the, er, notable exception of 1776 – 1783 when the government’s obsession with the Empire led it to neglect its continental alliances, this had been pretty successful until the late Nineteenth century, when London began to become obsessed by its Empire and again lost interest in continental shenanigans.
Although that lesson’s surely been learnt, right? Never again will Britain be led to disaster by politicians fixated on some dream of ‘Global Britain,’ forgetting that the island’s destiny has always been created on the continent of Europe.
Pause for laughter. Further pause for the laughter to turn into tears.
In 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm II viewed the Royal Navy laid out in review for his grandmother Queen Victoria’s jubilee. And he was jealous. If Grandma, Uncle Edward and Cousin Georgie had nice toys, well, he wanted them too! Soon thereafter, Germany began construction of a Navy intended to rival Britain’s. Not long after that, Britain began to view Germany as its biggest threat and France as its natural ally.
The German Fleet was seen as a mortal threat by Britain, and as a toy-yacht-building competition by the Kaiser. It pushed Britain firmly away from Germany.
A second strand of British foreign policy had been to keep the ports of the Belgian coast, from whence an invasion could most easily be launched, in friendly, or at least neutral hands. The German Army, they suddenly realised, was now threatening those ports. And one of Britain’s few continental commitments was an agreement to preserve and protect Belgian neutrality and integrity (although as far as I’m aware, it didn’t explicitly commit Britain to military action). In 1904 and 1907 Britain sighed understandings with France and Russia ending colonial disputes between them, and at some further point Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, secretly undertook that the Royal Navy would defend the French Channel Ports in the event of a war with Germany, allowing France to focus on the Mediterranean and Italy.
In 1910 the Cabinet authorised the Director of Military Operations, Brigadier General Henry Wilson, to begin talks with his French opposite number, General Foch, on how the British Army would fight alongside the French in the event of a war with Germany. Neither committed the British to actually taking any action, although the French seem to have expected that they would. Grey’s Naval understanding was kept from Parliament and most of the Cabinet, which was certainly a violation of the accepted norms of government. But Wilson’s discussions with Foch received almost no supervision from either the government or his superiors in the Imperial General Staff. He, a rather junior general, effectively had carte blanche to plan any response to German aggression. One for the Peaky Blinders fans now, but the Field Marshal assassinated by Tommy Shelby in season 2 is actually loosely based on Wilson.
Was Germany a threat? An article I read recently listing 10 lies told about the First World War stated that it was impossible to claim that the First World War was a struggle for democracy when Germany had universal male suffrage and Britain did not, and also when autocratic Russia fought with Britain and France. Ok, so by that note I could retort that the Second World War wasn’t a struggle for democracy and that the Allies and Axis were morally equivalent Because Russia, the second part of that argument is a non-sequitur, but there’s some validity to the first point. Germany did have universal male suffrage, Britain did not – Germany also had a powerful Social Democrat movement. But this ignores the fact that the German constitution was deliberately written so that the Reichstag had little real power – this was concentrated in the hands of its general and the Kaiser. The Reichstag, as designed by Germany’s first Chancellor Bismarck, was essentially a talking shop designed to convince the socialists they had influence when in reality, the aristocrats who really ran Germany could make all the decisions.
Now, to be fair, the British government was dominated by the aristocracy as well during the latter half of the Nineteenth century, and much of the country did not have a vote, but the elected representatives of the people did make the decisions, not Queen Victoria, and did surrender power when they lost elections. I think it’s best to characterise Britain at this time as a developing democracy, but, awkwardly for the ’10 lies,’ brigade, Britain ultimately became more democratic during the war, whilst Germany became a fully-fledged military dictatorship with ease. Germany was an autocracy with some democratic clothes on; Britain a democracy that hadn’t quite realised it wasn’t a monarchy yet.
The most developed democracy of the age was probably France, actually.
So it is legitimate to characterise the First World War as a defence of democracy against an autocratic military dictatorship, in my view anyway.
As for whether Germany was a threat… when you get down to it, in 1939 war broke out because Germany had launched an unprovoked invasion of a neutral country… which is pretty much exactly what happened in 1914. The two differences are: in 1939 the Germans had already done it twice before, so there was no realistic argument that maybe they would stop with Poland; and that the Kaiser wasn’t as bad as Hitler.
Neville Chamberlain is as vilified for not standing up to Hitler sooner as Asquith is for apparently rushing into war with the Kaiser. I don’t really think you can have it both ways – the context was actually fairly similar both times. Ultimately, Germany in 1914 was doing the same thing as Germany in 1939, and getting the same response. I’d argue that there are only two legitimate reasons to fight a war – to protect one’s own country from aggression, or to protect another. Germany had invaded Belgium without provocation or cause, and though Britain’s guarantee didn’t specify military action to be taken if Belgium’s territory was violated, it was generally understood that this would be Britain’s response.
As for ‘Not as bad as Hitler,’ well, that’s a ridiculous argument. By that standard, no intervention should happen until a warlord had killed another six million people, as 5,999,999 wouldn’t be as bad as Hitler. No, the Kaiser was not a genocidal manic like Hitler, no his government was nowhere near as repressive, but his territorial ambitions were nearly as vast. And a Europe dominated by a militarised Germany would still have suffered, even if maybe not as badly as under the Nazis. Early Twentieth century democracy was very far from perfect, but to say that this makes it equivalent to the militarised autocracy that was the Kaiser’s Germany, or that it was not worth defending from that, is facile. And does anyone really think democracy could have developed in a Europe run by the Kaiser?
So no, I don’t think the war was pointless. I don’t think Britain could have avoided it (and Britain did make genuine efforts during the July Crisis to avert a conflict). I think the expansionist ambitions of German militarism did need to be stopped.
That’s not to say that the politicians and military leaders didn’t make mistakes (so many mistakes), or that the war wasn’t a tragedy.
It’s possible for something to be both necessary and tragic.
One of the points made by the ’10 lies,’ post was that the failures of Britain’s political and military elite turned the public against war, and efforts to recast the war should be resisted on those grounds. I’d argue that this fundamentally misses the point. The war was both necessary and justified, and yet its cost was enormous, and horrible, and every other adjective that’s ever been thrown at it. The suffering it unleashed is basically beyond our imaginations one hundred years later.
If a necessary, justified war to protect neutral countries from aggression costs so much, no one has any business starting one for oil, or to prop up a repressive government in South Vietnam, or to stop Ukraine joining the EU. Wars should be avoided whenever possible. That it doesn’t mean it will always be possible to avoid wars.
But wait, I hear you ask. Why, if the Germans were fighting Russia, France, and Britain, did they invade Belgium?
I have a Cunning Plan…
The Germans saw the Russians and French coming a long time before the war broke out – before they even formed a formal military alliance.
Prussia’s military successes in the 1860s and 70s were made possible by the creation of the Great General Staff. This was a collection of officers whose role was to run the army for its generals, to act as their brains and do their thinking for them.
Insert obvious jokes here.
In truth, the General Staff was a revolutionary idea that was eventually copied by every other Western country – and by Germany when Prussia evolved into Germany in 1871. The General Staff realised in the 1880s that a military alliance between France and Russia would force them to fight on two fronts, and did what every good General Staff should do; they wrote a plan for what to do if they ever had to fight both countries together. The Chief of the General Staff, General Waldersee, sensibly noted that the strong fortifications on the Franco-German border made attacking there extremely difficult, and that for all its manpower reserves Russia’s army was inefficient, poorly led, and badly equipped. His plan, therefore, was to defend Germany’s western border against the French whilst Germany’s main armies were used to defeat Russia’s, thus allowing Germany to negotiate with both from a strong position. It was a pragmatic, sensible military plan.
Unfortunately, Kaiser Wilhelm was neither of those things
He hated Waldersee’s plan, sacked him, replaced him with General Schlieffen, and demanded Schlieffen produce a plan that would give him an absolute victory. Schlieffen decided that defeating Russia quickly would be impossible – Russia and its army were too big. Therefore, France would have to be defeated first. But the French fortifications were too strong to be taken easily. So Schlieffen hit upon the apparently masterful idea of a giant encircling operation on the French left flank. With Belgium neutral it could be anticipated that the French would have few or no troops stationed on their northern border, their main forces being concentrated instead in the south. By marching three of Germany’s field armies through Belgium, the French, attacking as they would presumably be into Alsace and Lorraine, could be surrounded on a gigantic scale, trapped between the Germans on three sides and Switzerland on the fourth.
It looked great on a map, and military historians have lined up over the hundred years since the war ended to talk about how ‘brilliant, but flawed,’ it was. Brilliant, in the sense that it apparently represents the epitome of German brilliance, innovation and dynamism.
Flawed in the sense that it was never going to work.
To be fair, some Serious Historians have actually done something that many Serious Historians intensely dislike – they’ve sat down with calculators, looked at distances and march speeds, and deduced that the German Army of 1914 could never march far enough, fast enough to encircle the French. But the Serious Historians like talking about brilliant ideas and martial spirit and valour, and many of them feel that the Schlieffen Plan deserved to succeed. So, although they pay lip service to the many, obvious, blinding flaws in Schlieffen’s plan, they largely focus on what a brilliant German idea it was.
There were just three problems with it. It assumed that the Belgians would, er, just let a million German soldiers march through their country, that the British would do nothing about this, and, worst of all, that the French wouldn’t realise what the Germans were doing and wouldn’t do anything about it.
Everything that actually happened, in other words.
The July Crisis of 1914 was sparked when the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo, by terrorists sponsored by a rogue faction of the Serbian secret service. The Austro-Hungarians initially intended to respond with a strongly-worded letter, but, egged on by Wilhelm who felt that a war would unite the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then decided to invade Serbia… and then they waited. And waited. And waited. For several weeks, whilst the Russians decided that they would in fact defend the Serbs.
Germany assured Austria-Hungary that it would defend them if they found themselves at war with Russia. This activated the Franco-Russian Alliance, which the Germans knew all about, so whilst the Russians prepared to invade Germany and Austria-Hungary in defence of a country Tsar Nikolai II despised, Germany prepared to defend its ally against the Russian bear… by sending half its army to invade Belgium, a tiny neutral country in completely the opposite direction.
The British public could be forgiven for thinking that this was villainy on an epic scale.
I just want to see how a war is fought… so badly…
As the July Crisis flared into open conflict in August 1914, the British government was deeply split over the issue of whether Britain should join in. The Opposition Unionists were keen for war, as was Prime Minister Asquith and Foreign Secretary Grey. But many in the Liberal Party were deeply opposed, and a lot depended on the views of the Chancellor, David Lloyd George. When it looked like the war would only involve France and Russia, Lloyd George seemed to be favouring neutrality (as did large parts of the public). The Cabinet was entirely split on the issue, with half of Asquith’s government threatening to resign whatever decision he took.
Whether he actually said this or not I don’t know, but in the 2014 BBC drama 37 Days about the run-up to the war, Lord Morley asks how one army of several million men can defeat another army of several million men without several hundred thousand men becoming casualties. And either Morley, or the scriptwriter, had it right – the short answer is, it doesn’t. Armies of several million are not destroyed in a single battle, or without enormous bloodletting.
To put that another way, once he made the decision to unleash Germany’s armies there was no way to stop the Kaiser without a lot of people dying. And, honestly, for anyone who is an absolute pacifist and believes that no amount of oppression or aggression justifies a violent response, those losses will always be an unacceptable price to pay.
I can’t personally agree with absolute pacifism. I’d cite Christopher Hitchens: pacifism is immoral itself, as it calls for no resistance to evil. War should be avoided whenever possible, but it won’t always be possible to avoid war. With all that said, I think pacifism is a more respectable position than anything actually advocating war. Wars cannot be won without enormous suffering. Lives will be lost, lives will be ruined.
Many of those lives that were lost, or ruined, in the First World War, can be chalked up to Britain’s woeful lack of preparation for a major conflict. And for that, the British Establishment and its lazy certainties can be blamed. Wanting to fight a war and being prepared to fight a war are not the same thing – no sensible government should advocate the first, every sensible government should advocate the second. The British government in 1914 got that arse-backwards.
Britain’s army was tiny by continental standards, and over half of it was distributed in various Imperial garrisons around the world. Although it was well-trained and proficient at a tactical level, it lacked operational or strategic expertise, as well as heavy equipment. Douglas Haig gets much criticism, some of it fair, some of it not. But he certainly can be blamed for restricting the number of machine guns per battalion to two in the years before the war, on the grounds that it encouraged defensive thinking. The Army had a vanishingly small number of medium and heavy cannon, and no plan for how to acquire a lot of them quickly. It had very few trained staff officers, and no plan for how to train a lot of them quickly.
It would take until 1917 for these deficiencies to be rectified.
The only defence, of a sort, is that if Britain’s military preparations were bad, as least they weren’t as bad as those of Germany and France. The Schlieffen Plan was bad; its French counterpart, Plan XVII, managed to be worse, being not much more detailed than ‘March into Alsace and Lorraine, fix bayonets, and drown the Germans in the Rhine, and never mind about what may or may not be happening in Belgium.’ The Germans, the French reasoned, certainly wouldn’t try to mount a massive outflanking manoeuvre north of the Ardennes forest, as, after all, the French had stationed no troops to stop them. Why would they attack the vast undefended spaces of northern France when the decisive point was Alsace and Lorraine, where the French army was concentrated. The only reason the Serious Historians have ever been able to assert that the Schlieffen Plan might have worked is because Plan XVII was exactly what the Germans wanted the French to do.
French tactical instructions from 1913 actually required attacking infantry to unload their rifles, effectively making them badly-trained spearmen. The Zulus could have informed the French how well spearmen attacking riflemen, machine guns and artillery was likely to go. So if you’ve ever suffered from Impostor Syndrome, take solace in the fact that you can’t possibly be as bad at your job as Colonel Grandmaison, the man who wrote that.
All the major participants believed that the only way to fight a war was by attacking. Standing on the defensive was seen as insufficiently martial. But the power of defence had been shown in both the American Civil War and Russo-Japanese War, where no side had been able to overcome prepared defensive positions without enormous casualties. Instead of looking to increase the firepower of attacking infantry, and their protection via artillery, the European militaries became obsessed with the idea of valour and spirit overcoming a wall of hot lead travelling at high velocity.
If it sounds stupid that’s because it was.
Britain’s own plan had been worked out on the back of a fag packet by General Wilson in 1911 – the Striking Force would muster on the left of the French Army, near the Channel Ports, and, er… further details to follow. Churchill’s argument, for a British force mustering in reserve for forty days whilst rapid mobilisation of reserves and stripping-out of Imperial garrisons brought it up to 300,000 men, at which point it could be unleashed on a vulnerable part of the German line, was airily dismissed. Overall, it seems to have required too much thought for Asquith, and was too slow to aid the French for Wilson.
There was just one small problem… it was bollocks
Blackadder aimed this quote at the European system of preventing war through military alliances, but it applies equally well to Plan XVII, and to the Schlieffen Plan.
In early August 1914, the Germans unleashed three of their field armies through Belgium in a massive right hook, whilst the French obligingly attacked into their lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, with an unsurprising lack of success since attacking troops weren’t allowed to have, er, bullets.
’10 Lies We Are Told About the First World War,’ argues that the Germans promised to guarantee Belgian integrity. Given that half a million Germans had just launched an unprovoked invasion, it seems that the Belgians may not have quite taken this at face value, and they decided to fight back.
Given that by September the Germans were stating that neither Belgium nor Luxembourg nor the Netherlands would ever again exist independently, I’d have to conclude that they were probably right to. ’10 Lies,’ like everyone else (myself included) has a narrative to sell you, and like everyone else ignores or downplays awkward facts that contradict that. I’ll try not to do that.
Anyway, since the Schlieffen Plan assumed that the Belgians would just wave the Germans on through, it was already failing within a day of being launched. Then the British began mobilising their armies. And then… for a very, very long time, nothing. It took the French commander, General Joffre, nearly three weeks to realise what the Germans were really up to, by which point both his own 5th Army and the British Striking Force had been tumbled into retreat by the enormous German 1st and 2nd Armies. Joffre was truly fortunate that the Belgians had bought him two of those weeks with their staunch resistance to the German attempts to cross the Meuse. He doesn’t seem to have wondered at all why the Germans were fighting so hard to get through the Belgian defences, and weren’t apparently bothered by his own attack through Alsace and Lorraine.
By late August, even Joffre had to realise that the Germans had not cooperated, and he ordered a series of retreats. But the German right hook was running out of steam, its troops exhausted and a large gap opening up between the 1st and 2nd Armies. Joffre seized this opportunity – German 1st Army decided to wheel inside Paris instead of outside it, presenting a flank to the Paris garrison, which attacked, drawing the two German armies apart again. In the first few days of September, German 1st, 2nd and 3rd Armies fought French 6th, 5th and 9th Armies (actually winning each individual battle, as French tactical instructions for their soldiers to bring knives to a gunfight went as well as you’d expect), whilst the British Striking Force (soon renamed the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF), crawled into the gap between 1st and 2nd Armies as slowly as its reluctant commander, Field Marshal French (no really), could manage. French considered the war already lost, and that the BEF was too tired after its retreat, but some of his junior staff officers (including Wilson) twisted his arm.
The British advance was excruciatingly slow, almost managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the Battle of the Marne, but eventually the threats to their flanks forced the Germans to retreat, which they did so at a leisurely pace to the Chemin des Dames, a ridge from which the BEF could not then push them off. The fighting subsided somewhat as the French and Germans tried to turn each other’s northern flank – the southern one being secured against the Swiss borders in mountainous country that nobody wanted to attack in. Throughout October, both sides crawled towards the English Channel, whilst what was left of the Belgian Army fell back to meet the French in Flanders.
The BEF was sent to plug the gap between the Belgians and French at Ypres, the last major Belgian town still free. The Germans, meanwhile, had appointed a new Commander-in-Chief, von Falkenhayn, whose strategic masterstroke was… to repeat the Schlieffen Plan, only on a much smaller scale with many fewer troops against an enemy that was holding prepared defensive positions, and hope that this time it would somehow work.
The result was the First Battle of Ypres, as the Germans battered the BEF back into a salient. Someone once said that nature abhors a salient, but the German generals rose magnificently to the challenge of proving them wrong, launching a series of attacks that were broken up by heavy British rifle fire with heavy casualties, particularly in front of the village of Langemarck. Trenches weren’t really a feature of First Ypres – there wasn’t time to dig any – but the frontage attacked was so small that the Germans couldn’t force a breakthrough, although they came close several times. Ypres was defended by I Corps, under Haig; Lieutenant General Haig as he then was. Haig solidly refused to panic during the battle’s crises, deploying his few reserves calmly and competently to restore situations that seemed to be deteriorating, whilst the German commanders flung their troops headlong at his defences, killing thousands of their own men for few or no gains.
Both the Poets and the Serious Historians avoid talking too much about First Ypres – the Serious Historians because the Germans did really badly, the Poets because Haig did pretty well, and they view Haig as a uniquely cynical, callous commander. Cynical and callous I’ll come back to, but ‘uniquely,’ is surely wrong. The Germans showed at First Ypres that they too could throw the lives of their soldiers away uselessly.
Towards the end of 1914 both sides began digging trenches, putting machine guns on top and barbed wire in front. By Christmas, the Western Front had become the world’s biggest siege, with the British, French and Belgians effectively attacking a fortress of mud and metal.
So, to sum up the achievements of Germany’s ‘brilliant-but-flawed,’ Schlieffen Plan, they had: Not defeated France, not defeated Belgium either, brought Britain into the war, and killed over a hundred thousand of their own soldiers.
But apart from that it had all gone very well.
Everyone always gets slaughtered in the first ten seconds…
The thing about trench warfare was that it wasn’t anything new. Not really.
It was basically siege warfare.
But few within the British army recognised this. Field Marshal French did not; neither did Haig, now promoted to General and commander of British 1st Army. Two men who did were the Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener, and the new commander of II Corps, Lieutenant General Plumer, but neither was in a position to affect how the BEF fought its battles. French was a rather poor choice for commander of the BEF; he had a bad habit of being anywhere but his headquarters at crucial times, and was prone to bouts of both defeatism and neurosis. Both he and Haig were cavalry officers, and saw the Western Front not as static warfare, but as mobile operations temporarily halted. They both saw the trenches as a temporary situation, and always expected the war of manoeuvre to be restarted soon.
The BEF had by now expanded to be two full armies, and Haig’s 1st Army would be next into action, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. This is alternatively A) the first example of Haig’s butchery and indifference to casualties, or B) a well-planned and generally successful operation. Both things can’t be true… or can they?
Well, it depends on the story you want to tell.
British troops went over the top at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. The German defences had been hit by a short but powerful barrage, giving the British the element of surprise, and initial gains were good, with British and Indian troops taking the village of Neuve Chapelle itself. However, the German second line hadn’t been suppressed and over the next few days British and Indian troops suffered heavy casualties as they failed to make any headway against it, although they also held their ground against several German counterattacks.
Neuve Chapelle was the BEF’s first setpiece attack against entrenched German positions, and a few things stick out about it. First, the British carried the first German trench line without heavy casualties. Second, they could make no progress against defences unsuppressed by artillery. Third, the Germans could move reserves to counterattack any break-in faster than the British could exploit it. And this, basically, was the pattern of the majority of battles between 1915 and 1917. Initial success, then stall, then fierce counterattacks, with most of the casualties occurring during the stalling and counterattacks. As for what it says about Haig, well. You can use the battle to support either view of him. It was his first time up at bat as an Army commander, already leading more troops than the Dukes of Wellington or Marlborough ever had. He planned the break-in operation well and was aware that there would be no breakthrough; but he was initially slow to call a halt when casualties mounted, and ordered some attacks to be pressed regardless of loss.
It needs to be underscored in any criticism of British generals that neither the French nor the Germans had any clue how to break through the trench lines either, and both sides were trying to innovate. The Germans thought that poison gas might be the answer, and used it against British, French and Canadian troops holding the Ypres Salient in April 1915, in the Second Battle of Ypres. They found it no easier than the British – although initial gains were good, as soon as the gas dissipated and the British moved up their reserves, their attacks faltered with heavy casualties, but were pressed on regardless. The Ypres Salient was held by 2nd Army, under General Smith-Dorrien. He was probably Britain’s best general, and had committed the cardinal sin of being obviously better at his job than his boss, Field Marshal French. When Smith-Dorrien suggested, sensibly, shortening the line by withdrawing from the Ypres Salient, French claimed he’d lost his nerve and sacked him. The only thing French did right was replacing him with Britain’s second-best general, Plumer.
Canadian Brigadier General Arthur Currie fought his first battle here – he was a failing real estate agent who’d narrowly avoided prosecution for embezzling funds from his militia regiment, an unlikely military hero if ever there was one.
Haig, meanwhile, was in action again in May, at Aubers Ridge. And this really was a disaster. The preceding barrage had entirely failed to suppress the German defences, and the British and Indian troops suffered heavy casualties as they tried to cross No-man’s Land. The barrage was called back several times with no effect, and Haig went forward to a Corps headquarters as they day wore on and was briefed on the unfolding calamity. And he…
Called off the battle.
This is the same Haig who earned his nickname of ‘Butcher,’ by attacking the strongest parts of the German line in terrible conditions again and again. So what was going on at Aubers Ridge? Well, a literarily satisfying solution, at the start of the Second Act of the war, is for Haig to feel that he hadn’t tried hard enough at Aubers Ridge and to try and make up for that at the Somme and Third Ypres. I don’t think that’s it, but I do think this, and his later attempts to stop the attack at Loos, show that Haig can’t be simply pigeonholed as blood-drenched martinet. He was a complicated commander, in a complicated war.
In a Poet narrative, Aubers Ridge might well feature as an example of useless deaths for no gains, but Haig’s quick reaction in stopping the offensive probably wouldn’t. Generals who respond to casualties by calling off the attack don’t make good targets for Poetic wrath.
Haig made some progress a few days later at the Battle of Festubert, the first battle which ran on and on for weeks, although the British actually made only two major attacks, with the rest of the time being taken up by counterattacks and attempts to take and retake points of local importance. Both Aubers Ridge and Festubert formed part of the Second Battle of Artois, General Foch’s attempt to break the German line at Vimy and advance on Cambrai and Douai.
These attacks failed, with heavy French casualties, but Joffre wasn’t deterred. Determined to prove that the Germans weren’t the only ones who couldn’t make nature abhor a salient, he decided to attack the massive one at the centre of their lines, from Artois to Champagne. The British would mount a diversionary attack at Loos, near the town of Lens. Field Marshal French thought that this was ideal ground to attack over.
Haig, when he went to examine the battlefield, couldn’t have disagreed more. He was horrified by the idea of attacking at Loos, open country dominated by enormous slagheaps from which the Germans could call down artillery fire with ease. He wrote to French urging him to cancel the attack, but French insisted. Haig would attack at Loos in September.
With no choice, Haig mustered as much artillery as he could, which wasn’t much, and some poison gas. The British went over the top as part of the biggest combined offensive of 1915, and it was a bloody failure. The best that the French could manage was taking Vimy Ridge, but the German counterattacks swept them off it soon after. Lack of wind prevented Haig’s gas attack from achieving much, and his attack was only partially successful – but it did cause a small rupture in the German lines and captured Loos itself. Haig wanted to exploit this success quickly, but French had positioned the two reserve divisions, the 21st and 24th, too far back, and it was the next morning before they could be launched against the German lines.
They were slaughtered without making gains of any sort.
For all his efforts to persuade French not to attack at Loos, Haig had convinced himself that a decisive victory was possible, and chose to use the two inexperienced divisions against a strong, unsuppressed German line. This was a purposeless folly. Haig should have known better, and should have found the same moral courage that he had at Aubers Ridge and stopped the attacks. Although neither the Serious Historians nor the Poets give him enough credit for trying to stop the attack, and then for achieving a partial break-in despite a lack of artillery, he deserves every criticism sent his way for sending in the reserves.
Haig had become convinced (quite correctly) that under Sir John French, the BEF was doomed – after Loos French lapsed back into defeatism, and his constant meddling had irked Haig and Plumer. Haig now intrigued against him, and replaced him as CINC of the BEF that December. The British, meanwhile, had activated a 3rd Army at about the same time, and a 4th in January 1916 under Sir Henry Rawlinson.
It might be depressing the men a tad
Hold on, what about Gallipoli?
Every family in the country has stories of, usually but by no means exclusively, men killed or wounded in the First World War, who marched to battle and never came back, or who didn’t come back whole. I have two. One of them was a relative of my biological mother who was killed by shellfire at Gallipoli.
In Darkest Hour, Churchill rejects criticism of his Gallipoli operation, saying that it was a serious military idea that could have worked if the Generals and Admirals hadn’t frittered away Britain’s advantages. Broadly, as a summary of the campaign, this is correct. When the Turkish Ottoman Empire joined the war in December 1914, the main sea route to Russia through the Sea of Marmara was closed. The main Turkish force was deployed in the Caucasian Mountains against the Russians; Churchill’s vision was for a lightning strike on their relatively undefended capital at Constantinople, using a combined Navy-Army force. This would force the Ottomans from the war, and open the route for supplies to be sent to Russia. The first objective of any coalition war is to keep the coalition together.
Convinced that the gravity of the war was in France and the North Sea, the Army and Navy flatly refused to send anything other than the second-string; a few obsolete battleships and some barely-trained Army and Anzac divisions – men from Australia and New Zealand. The Naval attack on the Turkish shore batteries was badly botched, and because the Army wasn’t prepared to land at all, it took nearly a month before the first troops went ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula. General Sir Ian Hamilton was a capable commander… but his subordinate generals, um, weren’t.
And after a month the Turks kind of knew they were coming.
The British and Anzacs weren’t able to push sufficiently far inland to get their beachheads clear of artillery fire, and the Turks were able to reinforce faster. Hamilton retained Naval supremacy, and saw that the neck of the peninsula, a few miles down the coast at Suvla Bay, was barely garrisoned. He ordered a second landing there, which went ashore in the face of little resistance. Had the commander at Suvla General Stopford done, well, anything, the Turkish divisions at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove would have been cut off and forced to surrender, leaving nothing between the British and Constantinople.
But Stopford stayed on his ship for nearly two days, whilst his troops ashore essentially mulched about without orders whilst the Turks frantically rushed in troops to seize the high ground, and the story of Cape Helles and Anzac Cove was repeated. By autumn the British had given Gallipoli up as a bad job, and they evacuated their troops in December.
It’s hard to dispute the Poets on this one (the Serious Historians don’t tend to touch it except to scoff at British, and especially Churchill’s, incompetence). The senior commanders were largely incompetent buffoons who launched badly-planned attacks, the casualties were enormous, nothing was gained. Gallipoli wasn’t a bad idea – but it was badly executed. The revisionists might point out that Hamilton was a good general let down, but generally, nobody tries to defend Gallipoli.
Does this plan involve getting out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the Germans?
Back in France, Sir Douglas Haig now commanded a BEF rapidly growing towards one million soldiers. No British general ever had, or would again, command a force so large. Indeed, the only other people in history who’d ever commanded a force as large as, or larger than, Haig’s were his contemporaries. There were no manuals for how to conduct and direct attacks on a front of 300 miles garrisoned by three million men; everyone, Haig included, was making it up as they went along.
Haig was a cavalry officer, who believed that the war of manoeuvre would be restored when the cavalry galloped through a gap and into open country, but other generals, most notably Plumer at 2nd Army and Rawlinson at 4th Army, looked at the Western Front and believed that this would never happen. The problem was, although the Western Front was 300 miles long, for the amount of troops garrisoning it, it was actually quite short. There were enough men to man three trench lines, and have divisions positioned in reserve behind them ready to counterattack, and have divisions in central reserve behind them where tired troops could be sent to refit and retrain – and to do this all along the front. There was no room to turn a vulnerable flank, because one simply didn’t exist. And any break-in could be sealed by reserves moving forward at the speed of trains, against exhausted troops moving at the speed of walking. All attacks had to be frontal, all could be subjected to enfilade fire unless enemy troops on either flank were also engaged, and even if attackers could break the first line (and they usually could), the second would generally be where they stopped. Breakthrough and break-out were simply not possible. Not without first wearing down the Germans.
Plumer and Rawlinson seem to have realised this – so too Julian Byng, at this point commander of the Canadian Corps. And all three seem to have realised its logical extension – that wearing down of the Germans could only happen if the British didn’t wear themselves out in the process, therefore attacking troops had to be given every protection possible. Byng was developing a close relationship with the Canadian Arthur Currie, now promoted and the very model of a modern Major General, and Currie was learning how to be a general fast. Far from always hoping for a break-out and pursuit, many senior British generals were advocating for cautious, limited advances, maximising enemy casualties and limiting their own.
But Haig could not accept this.
At Staff College, Haig had been taught that battles consisted of three stages: opening manoeuvres, wearing-down, and the crisis point. His final despatch, in 1919, argued that the battles of 1916 and 1917 were the wearing-down phase of a four-year long continuous battle, and in truth there’s some merit to that argument. German forces had to be weakened before they could be defeated. It was increasingly clear that the Russians couldn’t do that, and the Allies’ Second (and Third) Fronts in Italy and Greece seemed to hold even less promise than the Western Front, being as they were at the end of long supply routes and involving difficult mountainous terrain. Therefore the Germans would have to be weakened and beaten where the majority of their forces were – France. Haig’s problem was that he continually expected that the Germans were at the end of their tether, and that collapse was imminent.
As the BEF grew, so too did its front, eventually as far south as the Somme. General Joffre, still French commander, wanted to launch a combined attack in the Somme area stretching as far north as the Ancre vallery, which would initially involve 36 Allied divisions. But the Germans beat him to the punch, starting their attacks on Verdun in February – a battle that would last until November. The French front came under severe pressure and buckled in several places in February and March, and Joffre began demanding that the attack on the Somme be launched sooner to relieve the pressure on his lines. The militarily sensible option was to withdraw from Verdun altogether and shorten the French lines – but this is easy for a British blogger 102 years later to say. In 1916, neither France’s generals nor her soldiers wanted to surrender yet more of their country to the Germans. Meanwhile, the ground at Verdun was soaked in the blood of hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers, as the Germans flung their troops forward relentlessly for few or no gains.
Yes, those brilliant German generals with their dash and their panache and their innovative tactics couldn’t think of anything better to do than repeatedly attack the French line in much the same way as the French and British were doing to them, and hope that this time would be different.
The Chief of the German General Staff, von Falkenhayn, later insisted that he was trying to wear the French down through a battle of attrition, drawing their reserves into counterattacks where they could be more easily killed in the open. Verdun was described as the ‘Blood Pump.’ Later historians have maintained that he was trying to break through, and he either drifted into attrition through ‘Mission creep,’ or made that claim up later to justify his failure to break through.
After all, he had to be trying to break through, didn’t he? No German general could ever do something so unimaginative as try to wear his enemy down through attrition.
Von Falkenhayn had hit upon essentially the same plan as Haig’s Army commanders, and it very, very nearly worked for him. Had the French not had Britain as an ally, their army would have been fought-out by the end of 1916 and would have collapsed. Surrender would have been forced. As it was, the French Army would stagger on until April 1917, and when it did start to buckle and break, its British ally would buy it enough time to rally itself for 1918.
The Serious Historians prefer to brush over Verdun because German generals aren’t supposed to use attrition; the Poets dislike it because it shows once again that generals besides Haig were capable of ordering pointless attacks for heavy casualties. To me though, it seems that von Falkenhayn had grasped the ugly truth – that the war could only be won by killing hundreds of thousands of young men and women. The armies involved were too big, their defences too strong and too wide, for any clever manoeuvres.
But unlike Haig, von Falkenhayn would pay the price for not giving the Kaiser his victory. He was sacked in August 1916 and replaced by Field Marshal von Hindenburg, with General Ludendorff as his Chief of Staff.
Yes, the one who Wonder Woman killed. No, he didn’t take crystal meth.
The Somme attack had been planned for mid-August, and it had initially been a mostly French operation with Haig’s forces playing a smaller, supporting role. But as French casualties mounted at Verdun and the situation became desperate, Haig felt honour-bound to bring it forward to 1st July, by which point the British had taken over the leading role. General Rawlinson would command the battle. Rawlinson wanted to make a cautious, limited advance well-supported by artillery, what was being dubbed ‘bite-and-hold.’ Haig, however, had convinced himself that the 1st July attack would prove to be the decisive one of the war, and leant on Rawlinson to go all-out for a breakthrough. The resulting plan was a muddle; there was no real trust between Haig and Rawlinson, and Rawlinson was as new as an Army commander as Haig was as a CINC. He lacked the confidence to back his own judgement over Haig’s. Indeed, between them in the planning stages the two men seem to managed to combine each other’s worst ideas into their overall plan.
For a week before the attack, 1,000 British guns pounded the German lines. It sounds impressive, although it was less than the apparent sum of its parts. Less than one-third of all the guns were heavy artillery, which did the most damage; most of them were still field guns that could fire quickly but did relatively little harm to entrenched troops. Too much shrapnel was used, which was ineffective against either trenches or barbed-wire. And British munitions production was still some way below full efficiency, as around 30% of their shells failed to explode. They’re still being dug out of the Somme today.
Worst of all, the barrage ended ten minutes before the infantry attacked, giving the Germans plenty of time to man their parapets.
Rawlinson and Haig had both assumed that the barrage would destroy the German defences, although no attempt to test this had been made (arguably the guns to do this couldn’t be spared from the line). Their assumption would get thousands of men killed, and they are rightly excoriated for that, Haig more so than Rawlinson, again rightly. They really did order the infantry to get out of their trenches and walk very slowly towards the Germans. What the Poets sort of push to one side is that they thought they had very good reasons for doing that. The attacking infantry were only half-trained, and the British chronically lacked the experienced junior officers and NCOs to remedy that, as they’d all been either killed or promoted in 1914 and 1915. Convinced as they were that the defenders would have been mostly dealt with by the barrage, an advance in parade ground order seemed like the best way to proceed to Haig and Rawlinson.
A number of junior commanders disagreed – the extreme southern Corps changed the order to ‘Run at the Germans as fast as you can,’ and actually achieved most of its objectives with the fewest casualties sustained that day (although they were still heavy). Others tried to lay down ‘creeping,’ or ‘drifting,’ barrages, artillery fire that moved slowly forward across the battlefield to cover the infantry, although those attempted on 1st July ran far too fast. And the wire wasn’t cut, and No-man’s Land was nearly half a mile across in places, and half a million other things went wrong… the further north the attacks went, the worse things got, as poorly-trained and poorly-equipped British infantry ran up against powerful, unsuppressed German defences. It was Aubers Ridges and the second day at Loos writ large. 57,000 men became casualties, 19,000 of them died, and among the wounded was my own great-grandfather, struck by a German bullet that narrowly missed his heart. He was a Yorkshireman from a small seaside village near Middlesbrough, who for no well-explained reason we know of was serving with the Highland Light Infantry.
To stand a chance against the German defences, the British needed light machine guns, trench mortars and rifle grenades. All of these had been introduced in 1915, but wouldn’t be widely available for another year – and the troops weren’t trained to use them in any case. Haig and Rawlinson could have stood on the defensive… but Verdun had brought the French close to their breaking point. The British simply had to attack.
They didn’t have to do it quite so badly.
The fighting at the Somme continued until mid-November. It wasn’t a case of daily attacks against the Germans until they eventually succeeded: there were actually about twelve sub-battles, which formed the major set-piece attacks. The time in between was taken up with division or brigade-level scrapping over features of local importance, attack and counterattack. Some of the major attacks, like the night attack of 14th July, were reasonably successful – or Flers-Courcelette, on 15th September, when the British first deployed tanks, and started to show some tactical flexibility. And for all their performance on the 1st July, German casualties soon equalled those of the British as the battle became a bloody draw.
Haig would not break through on the Somme. The German army was still too strong. The best the BEF could do was to wear them down and weaken them. And, in grand strategic terms, the battle achieved its most important objective, halting the German attacks at Verdun and taking the pressure off the buckling French.
Had Rawlinson stuck to his guns and insisted on limited, cautious, bite-and-hold attacks, the cost in blood may have been far less. The German High Command were deeply shaken by the fighting on the Somme; any other army in the world probably would have broken. And, had Rawlinson stuck to his guns, Haig may have listened. In early November, with the battlefield now swept by rain and a morass of mud, Lieutenant General the Earl of Cavan, commanding XIV Corps, wrote a letter to Haig and Rawlinson. He all but refused to continue offensive operations and stating plainly that no one who hadn’t visited the front line could know the state of the troops (Cavan had visited the front; Haig and Rawlinson had not). Not only did Haig decline to censure Cavan for behaviour that certainly bordered on insubordinate, he is known to have held him in high regard later in the war.
Haig’s reaction to subordinates who refused to shut up and do as they were told is something I’ll come back to later.
Of course, if you’re a Poet, Cavan’s stand is something you’ll want to ignore. It doesn’t fit the narrative, does it? Of remote, distant chateau generals, uncaring of the suffering of their men, if those same generals were arguing forcefully for attacks to be halted.
Meanwhile, Haig put in one more, strictly limited, attack at Beaumont Hamel to allow him to claim some kind of victory, and the Allies began to shake up their political and military leaderships. Out went General Joffre, whose failures at Verdun were one too many for the French government; in came the architect of the counterattacks at Verdun, General Nivelle. In Britain, the increasingly drunk Asquith was toppled by his Unionist coalition partners, and the energetic, capable David Lloyd George appointed in his stead. Lloyd George was a Liberal, not a Unionist, and didn’t have the support of the majority of his own party, but he had drive and vision that no Tory politician could equal, and so he came to Downing Street.
And Haig was promoted to Field Marshal.
Another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin
Nivelle promised a war-winning offensive, using the methods that had brought him some success at Verdun. Lloyd George came to Downing Street convinced (correctly) that unity of command was the way forward for the Allies. Unimpressed by Haig, he clumsily tried to have him subordinated to Nivelle, which Haig was able to resist for the most part, although he was temporarily placed under Nivelle’s command for the Spring Offensive. Nivelle planned a diversionary attack by the British in the north at Arras, that would draw off German reserves, at which point the French would storm the Chemin des Dames ridge on the Aisne, and break the German lines near Laon. Advances of ten, twenty miles were predicted.
Whether or not this would have worked is a moot point. The Germans had already decided that another victory like the Somme would utterly ruin them, and had decided to retreat from their vast salient in Artois and Champagne to an enormous set of fortified trench lines, five miles deep in places, known as the Hindenburg Line (the Germans called it the Siegfried Stellung, Siegfried Position). Not only were these defences much stronger than those the British had tackled at the Somme, the withdrawal had shortened the German lines and allowed them to put thirteen more divisions into reserve. And in this war, it was the reserves that stopped the attackers, not the front line troops.
Haig and Nivelle claimed this withdrawal as a victory and a sign that the Germans were cracking. Trained in a military culture that rejected anything other than offensives and saw retreat as a sign of weakness, neither man could recognise a tactical withdrawal when they saw one. And with Russia teetering and seemingly months away from defeat, Hindenburg and Ludendorff certainly saw this as a temporary tactical withdrawal.
Yes, alright Serious Historians, crow away, I’ll let you have this one. It was a masterstroke by the Germans.
Neither the Arras sector, nor the Chemin des Dames, were affected by the withdrawal, which took place between them. Nivelle decided to press ahead regardless, although many junior Generals were sounding increasingly strident alarms throughout March and early April. The British launched their diversionary attack at Arras on 9th April. 3rd Army under Allenby initially did well, taking their first objectives on time for limited casualties. The Canadian Corps, under Sir Julian Byng, stormed Vimy Ridge in a single morning – one of the most heavily defended positions on the front, which had defied the French twice. But then Allenby overdid it, pushing his troops too far onto objectives that the artillery hadn’t reduced, and blaming them when they failed. Subordinate commanders complained bitterly as the battle descended into the familiar attritional slog – heavy casualties, no gains. Haig, meanwhile, unleashed his protégé and walking First World War General caricature Sir Herbert Gough on the Germans and Australians alike at Bullecourt, on the southern flank. Gough commanded the 5th Army, and was Haig’s blue-eyed boy for a while; he was a thrusting young cavalryman who believed in the final breakthrough, and used cavalry horses for racing and polo in his spare time. On the Somme he had earned the undying enmity of the Canadians; at Bullecourt he added the Australians to his collection.
Allenby, meanwhile, became the red-haired stepchild, being banished to the Middle East, where to be fair he did roundly thrash the Ottomans. Given that he had a vastly better equipped army and endless open flanks to manoeuvre around, I can’t help thinking it would have been a disgrace if he’d achieved anything less, but this hasn’t stopped his supporters claiming that he was the best general of the war. Haig replaced him as commander of 3rd Army with Byng. Byng cried when he had to leave his beloved Canadian Corps, but there was only one man he wanted to replace him; Arthur Currie. The failed colonial land speculator and financial criminal was now a Lieutenant General.
Nivelle opened his offensive on 16th April in appalling weather, with rain and snow battering the front, and once again showed that it was not just British generals who knew how to uselessly sacrifice tens of thousands of their troops. Nivelle had said that if his offensive were not successful within 48 hours, it would be cancelled. Instead, he continued to fling men at the Chemin des Dames for over a month. And then the unthinkable.
France’s soldiers had fought bravely since 1914 against the invading Germans, taking the main brunt of the battles so far. The courage and sacrifice of many French soldiers had held the line at Verdun. But they had been abysmally let down by their commanders time and again, in the opening moves in 1914, in the poorly-planned battles of September 1915, in the failure to detect the German build-up at Verdun, and this latest debacle just rammed home the awful truth – the senior generals didn’t know what to do.
As in the British army, talented junior generals were starting to rise to the top. In fact, Nivelle had seemed to be one of them. But it was taking too long, and the obsession of Joffre, Foch and Nivelle with attacking, anywhere, any time, had worn the French to their breaking point. The troops stated that they would still hold the line, but would not attack, and they demanded better conditions and more leave.
Had the French government tried to suppress the mutinies with force, their army would have certainly collapsed. Had the Germans learnt what was happening, they would have certainly attacked and probably won the war. Somehow, however, the brilliant Germans failed to detect that the French were near collapse and failed to react, which is not something Serious Historians like to talk about when frothing over Germanic martial ability. No side’s intelligence operations emerged with much credit in the First World War, but not noticing that your enemy’s army is refusing to attack… that takes some doing.
Instead, the French responded intelligently, sacking Nivelle and bringing in the cautious, well-respected General Petain in his place. Petain toured the front, spoke to the soldiers man-to-man, met their grievances, promising no more attacks – they would wait for the tanks, and for the Americans. Slowly but surely he nursed the French Army back to, if not rude health, then certainly its feet. He was the hero France needed in 1917, even though he did completely spoil it by being Hitler’s puppet President in 1940. His service to France in 1917 and 1918 against German militarism should not be forgotten – but nor should his collaboration with the much greater evil of Hitler twenty five years later.
Like Haig, a complicated commander for a complicated war.
What was clear was that the French were fought out. General Nivelle’s gargantuan efforts to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin had all but broken them. The Americans, unable to tolerate unrestricted German submarine warfare, had finally joined the fighting in April 1917, but it would be a year or more before their armies reached Europe in enough strength to make a difference.
The main burden of the fighting must now fall on the British.
It’s the same plan we used last time… and the seventeen times before that
The same unrestricted submarine warfare that had brought America into the struggle had also panicked the Admiralty, who wanted the German submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend cleared. This was somewhat disingenuous, as most of the U-boats operated from bases in Germany or the island of Heligoland anyway, and the Admiralty was fiercely resisting the actual solution to the U-boat crisis, convoying. But Haig had already been looking at the Ypres Salient as the ground for his next attack, and the Admiralty’s demands were exactly the justification he wanted.
In truth, the British Army in 1917 was far more powerful than it had been in 1914, or even 1916. At long last, adequate numbers of guns and shells were being supplied, allowing barrages that could cut the wire and destroy the trench system with confidence. The infantry were being equipped with ever-increasing amounts of Lewis guns, trench mortars and rifle grenades, giving them the firepower to overcome obstacles that would have held them up for days or weeks in 1916 – and crucially, time was being found to train them in the fire-and-manoeuvre tactics to use them. Even the staff work was, at long last, catching up, as the various officers rapidly promoted into roles beyond their training and experience learnt how to fulfil them. The British were learning to fight, and by 1917 could take on the German Army on its own terms. The only thing that could possibly go wrong would be if Haig ordered them to attack across a waist deep-swamp overlooked by Germans on ridges in driving rain.
Pause for the reader to see where I’m going with that…
In truth, the plan produced for Haig by the local Army commander, Plumer of 2nd Army, was actually a good one. Plumer had been planning an attack on the Messines Ridge south of Ypres since 1915, and had twenty-one enormous mines planted undetected under the German lines. He intended to smash the German lines at Messines, then advance in the north across the Gheluvelt Plateau to the Gravenstafel and Passchendaele Ridges in a series of methodical, step-by-step battles that would leave the British 5 miles from the crucial rail junction at Roulers. Roulers supplied the German troops holding the Belgian coast. If it could be taken, a major troop withdrawal would be forced, pinning the Germans back to the Dutch border. Plumer wanted to get started in June to take advantage of the good summer weather.
Haig’s interference pulled the plan apart. Although Plumer would get to mount his attack on the Messines Ridge, Haig wanted to switch the second part of the operation to his favourite general, Gough, whom he felt would be more inclined to go for a decisive breakthrough (suggesting that he’d completely missed the point of Plumer’s plan). This meant that, although the Messines Ridge attack was a total success, there was a six week delay whilst Gough’s 5th Army moved north to Ypres, and prepared its own plans, and conducted a two-week preliminary barrage.
By which point the Germans kind of knew that they were coming.
Like the Somme, the Third Battle of Ypres was actually a series of sub-battles tied together by local attacks and counterattacks. Gough’s initial attack on 31st July was actually reasonably successful, taking most of its objectives, but it also didn’t trouble the Germans unduly. The Germans had concluded that trenches were so 1916 – they were too vulnerable to artillery fire and holding them cost enormous casualties. By 1917 they had abandoned long trench lines in favour of mutually supporting strongpoints and pillboxes, loosely held together by trench lines, and they had abandoned the idea of holding the front line – instead, British troops were expected to get through it but exhaust themselves doing so, then be halted by the second, main, line, and pushed back by counterattacks as they became tired and lost their artillery support. This was defence in depth, and on 31st July it seemed to work fairly well.
And then the rains came.
The battlefield at Ypres was reclaimed swampland with poor drainage and a high bed of clay underlying the top soil. In between the rain and constant heavy shelling it quickly became a morass of mud, knee- or waist-deep. Attacks in these conditions were difficult at best, requiring careful preparation and detailed staffwork. Neither of these were Gough’s strong suits, and his attacks floundered throughout August, with the Battle of Langemarck on 16th August a particularly poor performance. Contrary to popular belief, Haig’s Headquarters knew exactly how bad the conditions were (his Intelligence Chief, General Charteris, visited the front on 4th August). It’s odd that this has become the popular belief, since the truth doesn’t exonerate Haig of anything, it condemns him of stupidity (at best). The Poets’ narrative of remote Chateau Generals of course would fall apart if they acknowledged that many senior commanders visited the front regularly, and this may be why Haig gets something of a pass on one of his worst mistakes of the war.
Even Haig couldn’t ignore Gough’s failures however, and on 25th August he switched the main focus to Plumer’s army. Plumer paused the battle whilst he brought up more artillery, and prepared to do what he’d wanted to do all along – a series of rapid hammer blows, carefully planned to minimise losses. It took nearly a month to prepare, during which time the Germans assumed that the Battle of Flanders (as they called it) was over. But between 20th September and 4th October, helped by a spell of dry weather that turned the battlefield from a swamp to something resembling a desert, 2nd Army dealt three shattering blows to the Germans, pushing them back to Gravenstafel Ridge and causing such heavy casualties that Ludendorff and Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the local commander, thought that a major retreat might be inevitable.
And then the rains came again.
The battlefield was swiftly converted back into a swamp, and what were to have been Plumer’s final hammer blows, at Poelcapelle and Passchendaele, drowned in the mud. In truth, after the heavy deluge of 7th October, Haig should have stopped the offensive – the Gravenstafel Ridge was actually a more defensible position than Passchendaele Ridge, 2,000 yards further along, and there was now no prospect of threatening Roulers. But he had decided to press on. Robin Neillands gave a whole list of reasons why he might have thought this, including his incurably optimistic sentiment that this time was different and the Germans were cracking, but in his recent book Passchendaele, Nick Lloyd, in my view the best of the war’s recent historians, feels that the truth is far uglier – Haig’s job was under threat. Lloyd George wanted him gone, and he needed to take Passchendaele to give the War Cabinet some kind of victory that he could use to retain his job.
Either way, this was Haig’s worst mistake in his worst year.
After the failures of the Battles of Poelcapelle and First Passchendaele, Haig did at least do one thing right. If he wanted Passchendaele, or what was left of it, then there was only one man and one corps for the job: the Army’s rising star and its elite formation.
Arthur Currie and the Canadians.
Currie was horrified by what Haig was asking and nearly mutinied when Plumer passed the orders along, although both men kept his reaction to themselves and Currie gained an unfair reputation as simply another butcher. In reality, he flatly refused to attack unless he could do so on his terms, in his own style, in his own time. To this, Haig assented. Partially this may have been because, as a Canadian commanding Canadian soldiers, Currie could not be pushed around like Plumer, but partially because, as with the Earl of Cavan the previous year, Haig seems to have respected subordinates who spoke up for themselves. He himself hadn’t been backwards in coming forwards as Sir John French’s subordinate, so he could hardly complain when junior generals did the same.
Currie stated that he would need two weeks to take Passchendaele, and would not be rushed – effectively, he assumed command over both Plumer and Gough. Plumer seems to have taken this pretty well, but Gough was furious, fuming that he didn’t know who was commanding 2nd Army. Personally, I think he may have felt that he was slipping in Haig’s estimation, and that a new favourite child had appeared. He and Currie could not have been more different – Gough was an aristocratic Anglo-Irish cavalryman who used Army horses for polo in his spare time, whilst Currie was a pre-war Weekend Warrior from Canada, with no time for niceties. When Haig visited the Canadian Corps HQ at Poperinge, Currie arrived late from a visit to the front, covered in mud, and demanded without any preamble that Haig tell him where his promised heavy guns were.
The Second Battle of Passchendaele took two weeks. Currie broke it down into three set-piece advances of 5-700 yards each across the marshy ground between the Gravenstafel and Passchendaele Ridges, each phase being supported by as much artillery as he could scrape together, ignoring Gough’s glowering that he was going too slowly. It cost 4,000 Canadians their lives, and Currie stated baldly that it was not worth a drop of blood, but he gave Haig Passchendaele. In driving rain, through waist deep mud, against some of the strongest German positions on the front.
And they say there were no good generals on the Western Front.
And actually, I should give an honourable mention to I Anzac Corps’ general, William Birdwood, whose repeated tours of the front line froze two of his toes off. Gough was maybe looking in the wrong direction when he feared that Currie might supplant him. Spoiler alert.
Haig deserves every last criticism the Poets can throw at him for the last month of the Third Battle of Ypres. Had he stuck to Plumer’s original plan, he might have had a major victory, but breakthrough fever overcame him, he went with Gough instead, and he lost another 250,000 soldiers.
Events, meanwhile, were unfolding. Lloyd George had always been fascinated by the Italian front, where the Italians had spent 25% of their combat power failing to move the Austrians more than a few miles back from the River Isonzo (in Battles One to Eleven of the Isonzo). The Austrians were dug in across Europe’s largest mountain range, but Lloyd George thought that armies that couldn’t breakthrough on flat ground might have more luck against them, and throughout 1917 pestered for troops to be sent to Italy, feeling that there were opportunities for decisive action there.
The Germans proved him right. Troops transferring from the Eastern Front to the Western Front made a quick stop at Caporetto, pushed the Italians back dozens of miles, very nearly pushed Italy out of the war altogether and forced the British to transfer five divisions to Italy to stem the rout. This weakened their lines in France just as the numerical balance tipped against them.
The October Revolution had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, and they immediately ended the war in the East. Half a million and more German troops were soon making their way across Europe to France, tilting the balance of power on the Western Front in Germany’s favour for a few precious months, until the Americans could arrive in force. If the Germans were to win, they’d have to do it soon.
The last battle of 1917 seemed to suggest to Ludendorff that he could. The British mounted a surprise mass tank attack near Cambrai, nearly breaching the Hindenburg Line. Had Haig been ready for it, he might have had his breakthrough that November, but in a curious role-reversal, he felt that the Cambrai offensive wouldn’t produce any real results whilst the local commander, 3rd Army’s Byng, began suffering from breakthrough fever himself and pushed too far with too few reserves. The British made impressive gains, but could not hold them against the inevitable German counterattacks that then pushed them back to their start-lines, and in some cases beyond them.
December 1917 was a dark time for the Allies.
The Americans were six months away at least. Their commander, General Pershing, was determined that they would enter the fight as one army, properly trained (exactly what the near-defeat of France had not allowed the British to do in 1914 and 1915), which was probably right, but which gave Hindenburg and Ludendorff a small window in which to try to win it for the Kaiser. The Second Act was ending. The Third was about to begin.
The Germans would come very, very close.
If they hit me, you’ll be sure to point it out
General Petain had saved France from defeat in 1917, but in 1918 he would do his best to undo all that good work by insisting that the British take over more of the front from the French army. It should be remembered that, although the British had done most of the fighting in 1917, their army was still only half the size of France’s, and the front south of Verdun was pretty quiet. With troops being hived off at the same time to be sent to Italy, and Lloyd George refusing to send reinforcements to France in case Haig mounted another Somme or Third Ypres, the British line now became dangerously overextended south of Arras. Ironically, the results of the efforts of Haig, Joffre and Nivelle to weaken the Germans enough break through their lines had had the opposite effect.
We’re getting to stage of the war now that the Poets don’t like to talk about. The battles of 1915, 16, and 17, which epitomise the useless waste they decry, they will wax lyrical about (quite literally) all day long until the cows comes home. But their version of the First World War peters out in 1918 as everyone sort-of gives up. Almost no one can name any of the battles of 1918 (The Fourth Battle of Ypres, anyone?) because the Poets’ view dominates discourse on the First World War, and they don’t really talk about 1918.
The Serious Historians, though. They love talking about 1918.
The first part of it, anyway.
The British line now extended from their junction with the Belgians north of Ypres down as far south as the River Oise. General Gough’s 5th Army, weakened after the horrific fighting at Third Ypres, had been given the front from Flesquieres to the junction with the French at the Oise, a total of forty two miles. He had only fourteen divisions with which to hold it, and these were still recovering from the battle at Ypres, with their ranks depleted and the replacements from the UK (that Lloyd George had allowed Haig to have) far from trained or incorporated. The defences that had been inherited from the French were poor, almost non-existent, and there was not the time to rebuild them or train troops in how to use them. Haig had given the longest section of British line with the worst defences to its weakest Army, and seems to have hoped that the Germans wouldn’t notice.
John Farrell criticises Haig for being surprised at the idea that the Germans might attack in a war. This is actually quite unfair – Haig knew that something was coming, and had a rough idea of where, and when. But the British did not realise what kind of monster Ludendorff would unleash on their lines on 21st March 1918. The Germans had amassed 72 divisions, against 25 British, in what would be the largest battle on the Western Front to date, stretching from Arras to the Oise. The battlefield of the Somme could (and did) fit quite comfortably in the area fought over in March 1918, with room to spare for the Ypres Salient, and Lens-Loos.
The Germans dispensed with the weeks-long bombardments that had presaged all the Allied attacks in the previous three years, instead hitting nearly half of the British line with a short, intense barrage by 6,000 guns – enormously more powerful than the British barrage on the Somme two years before. The British too had abandoned linear trenches in favour of mutually-supporting strongpoints, and a recoiling defence intended to give up some ground to render the attackers vulnerable to counterattack by the reserves. But 5th Army had had no time to build a Battle Zone, let alone a Support Zone, into its defences.
And Gough had no reserves.
Neither did Haig.
The British simply held too much line for them to have any troops spare. The only reserves in France were those of the French themselves, held by Petain. For all the frothing of the Serious Historians over the brilliance of the Germans’ innovative ‘new,’ tactics, the British actually fought hard and well on 21st March, holding up the German advance all along the line and preventing them obtaining their first-day objectives in many areas. So far, Ludendorff’s offensive had produced much the same result as Haig’s in 1916 and 1917 – enormous effort for little result. The pattern now was for the reserves to swarm forwards and mount their counterattacks, holding or even pushing back the attackers whilst new defence lines were constructed to the rear, allowing the defence in depth to work and use the ground to absorb the next blows. But without any reserves, this couldn’t happen. Instead, the next few days saw the Germans grind their way deeper and deeper into France. The 5th Army, despite what the French (and later Serious Historians) later tried to claim, never broke. But it did bend and buckle as various hard-pressed units were forced to withdraw, and the units on their flanks were obliged to retire too to avoid being cut off. Haig sent what reserves he could, but it wasn’t much.
Only the French could stem this onslaught. But Petain’s cold calculations and pragmatism that had saved the French army from disaster in 1917 had already started to turn into the pessimism and defeatism that would infect and cripple France’s armies in 1940. He thought that the war was lost, and the British were done. He would send no troops. Instead, he proposed the allies separate, with the British retreating north to protect the Channel ports, and the French south to protect Paris, leaving each with an enormous open flank for the Germans to turn. It couldn’t have been better for the Germans if Ludendorff had been writing Petain’s plans as well as his own.
And it was something Ludendorff himself hadn’t earnt.
The Kaiser’s Battle, as it was known, could have won the war for Germany. But at the crucial moment Ludendorff made a decisive blunder. The British fighting retreat was concentrated on defending the city of Amiens, leaving fewer troops in the south. The gains there seemed greater, so Ludendorff decided to make that the main focus of his efforts on 25th March. But in truth, the British had neglected their southern flank because there was nothing there to defend. Amiens was the prize. Through Amiens flowed half of the supplies to the British front; if it could be taken, the British would have to retreat and separate from the French.
The Serious Historians have always defended this as Ludendorff’s deciding to take the path of least resistance; the dynamic response of a great commander to events in the field. His plan was, they have always maintained, to separate the British and French at Amiens, but he altered it as events unfolded and it just slipped away from him. The truth, Allan Mallinson pointed out, is that Ludendorff didn’t really believe in plans – he’d never really bothered with them in Russia. He thought if he could break the enemy’s line, ‘Then as for the rest, we shall see.’
This, of course, is a fancy way of saying that he was making it all up as he went along. But for someone selling the narrative of the Incredible German Generals, it’s inconvenient, and tends to be downplayed – especially since Haig was already planning ahead, sending the Anzacs to help stem the tide but keeping the Canadians back so that they would be intact for a counteroffensive later.
Finally, he was thinking like a man leading millions, fighting across hundreds of miles.
By the time Ludendorff realised the importance of Amiens, it was too late. The French and British governments had been appalled at Petain’s plan when they heard of it, and decided at long last that a single Allied commander – a Generalissimo – was needed. It went to Ferdinand Foch, who as a Marshal and Chief of the General Staff was Petain’s superior. The French reserves poured in, holding the southern flank for the British, and the Anzacs were able to hold the line in front of Amiens that April, stopping the Germans with a brave and daring night counterattack by exhausted troops.
Haig was forced to sack Gough over the disaster. He was replaced at 5th Army by Lieutenant General Birdwood, the commander of I Anzac Corps, who had frozen his toes off visiting the front lines repeatedly at Third Ypres. The decision was taken to combine the Australian divisions into one corps, along Canadian lines, and appoint an Australian general to command them. John Monash was the son of a Polish Jew, a real outsider who had been a civil engineer before the war. He was also Australia’s answer to Arthur Currie – the Canadian who was already replacing Gough as Haig’s favourite child.
Ludendorff, meanwhile, attacked again in Flanders on 9th April. Having drawn Haig’s reserves off to the south, progress was initially good (recapturing all the ground lost at Third Ypres in a single day), and for a brief moment it looked like Ludendorff might reach the Channel Ports. Haig was prompted to issue his most famous order, exhorting his men to hold each position to the last man and round, ‘With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause.’ Foch was initially reluctant to send French reserves, but Haig refused to panic, and without panic and a British collapse, Ludendorff’s attack ran out of steam short of the important rail junction at Hazebrouck. Foch soon relented and French reserves arrived, stabilising the front.
It was clear that the French needed to hold more of the line again, but Petain still wanted the British doing more. The compromise was for five British divisions which had been heavily battered in the March fighting to recuperate on the Chemin des Dames Ridge, on the Aisne. This, however, was the road to Paris, and Ludendorff decided to make his next effort here, crashing through all five British divisions in late May (although their tough fight won grudging French praise). By June the Germans were across the River Marne again and bearing down on Paris. Foch recognised that the purpose of this offensive was to draw his reserves south and away from the British, allowing Ludendorff to make a final attack in Flanders. Too canny to allow this, he instead hectored the American general, Pershing, into committing US troops ahead of schedule. The Americans did not have an army yet, but they had several divisions ready, and Pershing grudgingly allowed these to serve under French command. They stopped the Germans at Chateau Thierry on the Marne, and held the line at Belleau Wood during fierce fighting later in June.
Although the Americans seem to get a bye for the same errors that everyone else is excoriated for – US Marines attacked in line with bayonets fixed at Belleau Wood. This is, if anything, even more unforgivable than doing so in 1914. By 1918 everyone knew what would happen.
Ludendorff’s attacks had ground to a halt, and the German Army was increasingly swelling with disquiet. He had promised them peace, and delivered only more bloodshed. Victory seemed as far away as ever.
Ludendorff responded by doing something unexpected – he actually wrote a plan. He would break through the French lines at Rheims, pull their reserves to the south, break through the British lines in Flanders, and drown them in the Channel.
‘But… hadn’t he just tried that?’ you ask in confusion.
Well, yes. That was the same plan that he’d tried and had failed on the Aisne a few weeks earlier. Ludendorff was a dynamic, innovative, brilliant German commander though, not a plodding, cautious British one, so let’s not point out that by June 1918 he was out of ideas.
The French were ready and waiting for the Germans in the Second Battle of the Marne. The Germans made slow, painful progress through the French defences on the first three days, but then the French and Americans counterattacked powerfully and drove the Germans back to their startline. Ludendorff would continue planning his second attack in Flanders until mid-August, but it would never happen. His army was quite fought out.
But so were the French. And it would be another two months before the Americans were ready. Only the British could start the process of pushing the Germans back.
But by now, the British were ready. At long last, the BEF had become the army that the Germans could not stop.
In late July, Haig asked General Rawlinson at 4th Army to prepare an offensive that would free Amiens from German artillery fire. Although the British held the town, it was comfortably in range of German guns, and Haig wanted his supply routes cleared. In great secrecy, the Canadians were transferred south to join the Australians under Rawlinson’s command. Currie and Monash had been quick to take a liking to one another, and cooperated closely over the planning, for what would become known as the All-Arms Battle. No longer would the infantry get out of their trenches and walk very slowly towards the Germans. Now they would be protected by a powerful, carefully designed creeping barrage, supported by tanks, and possessing a fearsome array of Lewis guns, trench mortars, and rifle grenades of their own. Fire and manoeuvre was the order of the day. Rawlinson’s divisions were half the strength of the ones Haig had had him dash to pieces uselessly on the Somme in 1916, but had twice as much firepower.
And there would be no preliminary bombardment. The Germans were so fixated on Flanders that they thought the British would mount a spoiling attack there, and that the Canadians had been sent there to do so.
When the British guns opened fire on 8th August, surprise was complete.
The Canadian and Australians drove deep into the German lines, capturing all their objectives and breaking up the German counterattacks. 13,000 prisoners were captured, a hitherto unheard-of number, but the Germans were stunned by the ferocity of the attack. The entire German 2nd Army was recoiling, leaving the 18th Army’s flank exposed. Allied casualties on 8th August were under 10,000. But the Germans still had their reserves. Shocked he may have been, but Ludendorff still reacted quickly, ordering 18th Army to retire in line with the 2nd, and flooding reserves in. Renewed attacks on the 9th and 10th achieved progressively less, but cost the Allies progressively more.
And still Haig ordered the battle to continue.
I’m not a man to change my mind, you know
Now was the hour of Currie.
He and Rawlinson went to see Haig on the morning of the 11th, armed with photos of the German defences being constructed ahead of their advance – defences that would take time and careful preparation to subdue. Rawlinson thought he could advance again in ten days. Currie seems to have flatly refused to continue attacking.
And Haig listened.
Haig had always called out his superiors when he thought they were wrong, and in Currie he had found a similarly honest subordinate. Currie was blunt and artless, hardly the ‘Right Sort.’ Instead, he was the right man, at the right time. He convinced Haig that the Amiens battle would have to be closed down.
And now Haig had an epiphany. He looked at the maps of the Amiens sector, realised that the German reserves had to be coming from somewhere, found that Ludendorff had denuded the Arras sector, leaving it vulnerable, and decided to attack at Arras instead.
This was a lightbulb moment for Haig, but he sold it to Foch four days later, refusing to attack at Amiens until Rawlinson was good and ready. Instead, 3rd and then 1st Army went onto the attack instead, with the Canadians returning north to 1st Army. As the Germans rushed their reserves north, Rawlinson struck another hammer blow, driving across the whole of the old Somme battlefield in days, sending Ludendorff’s troops reeling. Ludendorff had no choice – he had to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line again, abandoning all his gains of the previous six months’ fighting. This was Germany’s last throw of the dice. If they could defy the Allies from here, perhaps they could still force a negotiated peace.
The writing was on the wall in early September when Currie’s troops drove through the Drocourt-Queant Switch, a subsidiary of the main Hindenburg Line. But this was the crucial moment. Although the Germans could no longer win, they could still force a draw which would leave them in control of vast part of Eastern Europe. The next battle would be against the Hindenburg Line, and it could be no Somme, no Third Ypres. The Allies absolutely, positively had to win.
In Foch and Haig, they had generals who were up to the task. Neither man could have done it 1915, or 16, or even 17, but they had learnt from their bloody mistakes. At last, they saw the Western Front as one long battlefield, rather than the series of separate ones Ludendorff was still mistaking it for, and they planned the largest battle of the First World War. The Americans would launch a diversionary attack south of Verdun in the Meuse-Argonne (which would go very badly as the Americans made all the same mistakes as the British at the Somme, despite repeated British and French warnings). The Canadians would drive towards the Hindenburg Line in the north, the British and Belgians would mount another diversion at Ypres, and 4th Army would break the Hindenburg Line at the village of Bellenglise.
Currie produced a bold plan to cross the Canal du Nord, in front of the Hindenburg Line, at a narrow dry point, which was also the most strongly defended part of it. 1st Army’s General Horne thought that Currie was surely preparing a bloody failure, and brought in 3rd Army’s General Byng, Currie’s old friend, to talk him out of it – but Currie said he could do it, and if anyone could it, it was him. The Canadians blasted their way across the Canal on 27th September and prepared to assault the main Hindenburg Line, then the British and Belgians broke out of the Ypres Salient on the 28th, taking all the ground fought over the previous year in a single day’s fighting. There was nothing between them and the Dutch border.
And on the 29th, Australian, American and British troops attacked the Hindenburg Line itself.
The inexperienced Americans found their attack bogging down, as they failed to mop up the German defences, and they had to be rescued by the Australians in a bloody failure that may have cost Rawlinson his job. However, in the south, British IX Corps had attacked the Hindenburg Line at its strongest point, where it was protected by the St Quentin Canal. Troops of the North Staffordshire Regiment, in 46 (North Midland) Division, would have to swim the canal and storm the strongest defences in the world. It seemed impossible. Both IX Corps’ Lieutenant General Braithwaite and 46 Division’s Major General Boyd thought that it would be a massacre; a sacrificial stunt in which their men would be slaughtered, yet again.
And then they only went and did it.
Braithwaite and Boyd gave their troops every possible protection, including an enormous creeping barrage that pounded the defences for eight hours, and the massed fire of every machine gun they could get their hands on as the troops crossed the canal. Braithwaite, who had infuriated the Australians as a remote, tactless, incompetent Chief of Staff at Gallipoli, had reinvented himself as a capable Corps commander whose troops conquered the toughest defence in history for less then 1,000 casualties. And they say there were no good generals in the First World War.
Braithwaite had learnt from his mistakes.
By early October, the British were through the Hindenburg Line at all points and the Germans were trudging through autumnal rains and mud back towards the Meuse. The Germans asked for an armistice, initially believing that the Allies would grant them a pause in which to retire and, if they disliked the terms offered, resume fighting from a position of advantage. And so the fighting continued for another month, even though it was obvious to everyone that the Germans had now lost.
Whatever else you may think about the First World War, those deaths after 9th October 1918 were completely pointless. The German Army fought on another month because its commanders were in denial, causing thousands more deaths as it was turfed out of defensive positions at Valenciennes and the Sambre by the inexorable, unstoppable British advance. By 11th November 1918, the British had reached Mons, firing their first and last shots in almost the same place.
As it became apparent that they could not win, a wave of strikes swept through Germany and the Navy mutinied. Soldiers, sailors and civilians alike demanded peace, and when the Kaiser would not deliver, unrest turned to Revolution. Empowered by the Army’s defeat, the civilian leaders forced the Kaiser’s abdication, and also that of his son. He grabbed a load of his furniture and fled into the Netherlands. He died shortly after Hitler conquered the country in 1940.
About 35 miles behind you
That’s actually one of Blackadder’s more unfair observations, and indeed the myth of the Chateau Generals needs addressing because it’s actually both pernicious and stupid. First of all, brigade and division commanders seem to have stayed relatively close to the fighting, and several Brigadier Generals were killed or captured during the war. Second of all, the higher a general was promoted, the more complex his job got, and the more front he had to defend, or attack. A general defending five miles of front cannot position himself in a front line trench where he can only see 20% of it at best. He needs to be somewhere where he can be found easily and communicate with his entire front line – where his staff have space to do all their paperwork. And not all lived in Chateaux. Lieutenant General Birdwood, who made so many visits to the front during Third Ypres he froze his toes off (for the avoidance of doubt that generals skulked in rear areas) spent the battle in a tent.
But there were good reasons for senior commanders to take over Chateaux. Haig and his army commanders needed to be out of artillery range (so that they could work uninterrupted), and needed to have enough space for their staff and attendants. You don’t want a general to have stop fighting the battles to cook dinner and wash – you have other soldiers whose sole job is to do everything for the generals so that they can focus on planning and fighting. Chateaux tended to provide enough space, and reliable enough communication links, for an entire headquarters. Yes, they were more comfortable than accommodations for front line troops, by a very long stretch, but… why not? The General is the man directing the battle, commanding hundreds of thousands, millions, of men. Do you want them to be living like a monk in a spare cell, eating gruel and mouldy bread to show that they’re on your level, or do you want them to live in comfortable surroundings where they can be kept in top physical and mental condition to keep you alive?
No, generals sitting around map tables and answering phones is not heroic, or romantic. What it is, is how a war is fought. And oddly, it’s the people who criticise the generals for living in Chateaux, instead of dugouts in the frontline, who are the ones keep telling us that war is neither heroic nor romantic.
It’s not the Chateaux’ fault if the top mental condition of some generals was, um, low.
How low varied from general to general. Gough didn’t deserve to be sacked over the retreat of 5th Army during the Kaiser’s Battle, but should have gone much earlier. Rawlinson was lucky to survive the Somme, but his performance at and after Amiens suggests that there was always a capable general in there somewhere trying to get out. Byng, Horne, and Birdwood all commanded their armies well. Plumer never received the credit he deserved. Sir John French nearly lost the war in 1914 and was ultimately responsible for the debacle at Loos; Stopford of Suvla was a disaster zone. Others, like Aylmer Hunter-Weston, deserve nothing but vilification.
And then there’s Haig.
If the story of 1918 is news to you, that’s because the Poets don’t talk about it and the Serious Historians don’t talk about it after the last German offensive failed (beyond mumbling something about the British counterattacking and winning the war), because it doesn’t suit either of them. The British Army of 1918 was a powerful force, well-led and well-equipped, which dominated the battlefield and which the Germans could not defeat in attack, nor stop in defence. Its generals tried hard to minimise their losses, refusing to press attacks they knew would not succeed and sparing no effort to support their men with firepower.
They’d learnt how to fight.
No one more so than Douglas Haig.
Haig in 1916 and 1917 was incompetent and callous, indifferent to the suffering of his troops. He was over-promoted, doing a job for which he was not ready, fighting a war he did not fully understand. He had to learn on the job. When you learn on the job you make mistakes, and when you make mistakes commanding a million men in a warzone, you kill thousands of them. Haig made enough mistakes that he should have been a genius by 1918… and the Haig of 1918 was a capable CINC, ably directing defence and attack across the largest battlefield in British history. He did a remarkable job – in 1918.
In 1915 Haig also showed concern for the lives of his soldiers, stopping one attack that had lost momentum, another that had clearly failed, and trying to stop a third he knew could never work. This same man then ordered hundreds of thousands to their deaths on the Somme and the ridges of Ypres. So the question has to be – why?
My opinion is that two factors were at play. Firstly, Haig had changed jobs. As 1st Army commander, his role was to win the next battle and hold the line, keeping his men alive and his strength intact. As CINC of the BEF, he saw his job as winning the war (and he never really realised how long it would be). It could never be won by sitting on the defensive and hoping that the Germans would go away – Haig knew he had to attack. There is good evidence that he knew exactly how much his troops were suffering. Neillands thought he was an incurable optimist, Lloyd that he was a compulsive gambler, I think he thought that the Germans must be suffering as badly as he knew his own troops were, and that one more push would surely break them. He was wrong, repeatedly and often.
Haig never actually found the limits of his own troops’ endurance, although he probably came close at Third Ypres. By 1918, he didn’t need to. The other factor in Haig’s failures, I think, is that until 1918 he didn’t have the means to do anything other than batter away at the same place repeatedly and hope for the best. In 1916, the Battle of the Somme had taken all the combat power the British Army had available. The weapons, and ammunition, and transport, and staffwork, to close down the Somme offensive and quickly open another one elsewhere, just didn’t exist in 1916. In 1918, the British Army had the capability to mount attacks on the scale of the Somme roughly every ten days – enough guns that they didn’t need to be moved, enough trained troops that they didn’t need to shuffle in attack divisions, enough staff officers to plan the battles. Haig didn’t spot this at first – Currie needed to point it out to him. But it is striking that when he became aware that he didn’t have to strike one place repeatedly and hope that something gave, he stopped doing it almost immediately.
Haig’s nature as a gambler combined with a genuine belief that he couldn’t do anything else combined to awful effect for his men. Whatever he may have felt about the Somme and Third Ypres, whatever he genuinely believed, he was wrong. There were other options, limited attacks to wear the Germans down, but, fixated on the breakthrough, Haig would not consider them. He did listen to subordinates, but I think a structural failing of the British Army was that junior generals who knew that his plans would never work, did not feel able to tell him so – until Currie. With no one willing to tell him no, and his obsession with breakthrough, Haig blundered in 1916 and 1917 and his men paid the price in blood.
His failures in 1916 and 1917 should never be forgotten, but nor should his final triumphs in 1918. Given where the British Army, and Haig, had started from, it was a remarkable turnaround – to go, in four years, from tiny Colonial police force to mighty Continental army. For all his mistakes, Haig did get a few things right. Whether the latter is enough to forgive him the former is a matter for each individual.
When I’ve made my decision I’ll let you know.
Could the cost have been lower? I think so. But it should be borne in mind that between them, Haig’s armies and those of the French had the job of defeating the main German army. They did so in four years and three months, at a cost of 2.2 million deaths. The Red Army of 1945, by contrast, had to do exactly the same job, and although it managed it in three years eleven months, it suffered over 8 million dead – and that doesn’t even count Russian civilians! The Red Army of 1941 was a large, well-equipped, modern force with a proper General Staff – utterly unlike the British of 1914. No one really talks about this.
What it says is that one army of several million cannot defeat another army of several million without several million deaths.
The Allies got their strategy badly wrong in 1915 – instead of viewing the war as a whole, they focussed on the Western Front and launched attack after pointless attack. Their priorities should have been to knock the Turks out of the war and open lines of communication to Russia by forcing the Dardenelles; then drawing the Germans off the Western Front with a vigorous landing at Salonika in support of the Serbs that could have threatened Vienna. In 1916, they could have worn the Germans down with a series of strictly limited ‘bite-and-hold,’ attacks at the Western Front, gradually increasing in scale as they became more practiced and the staff officers more experiencd, whilst the Russian Army was equipped and trained, so that in 1917 it could have drawn the Germans away from the West as the Allies continued to grind them down, focussing on inflicting casualties whilst preserving the lives of their own soldiers. By 1918, a fully-equipped BEF with enough trained staff officers could have been ready to administer the coup de grace.
That might have lessened the blood price.
But it would always have been high.
And this is why the Poets are ultimately right about one thing – War Is Bad. It is horrible, terrifying, messy, squalid, appalling, and every other adjective you can throw it. Personally, I think that until the whole world has embraced liberal democracy (which looks less and less likely by the day at the minute) the world will never be free of war. The countries of the West, whose freedoms and liberties, however imperfect, represent the best future for humankind, must be prepared to defend those freedoms against those who would seek to take them. But saying this, emphatically, does not mean that the West should go around looking for fights. If a war is forced on you by a Hitler, or a Kaiser, or any other petty dictator who wants what isn’t theirs, that’s one thing. Invading a country, let’s call it Iraq, in order to make a few oil billionaires a little bit richer – that is unacceptable.
Because many, many people will die, or be maimed, or suffer psychological trauma, and they cannot be asked to take that risk for anything other than the highest of stakes.
The First World War turned the British public, indeed most of the Western world, against war for any purpose other than defence. The men who died at Ypres and the Somme, at the Marne and at Amiens, would have agreed with that.
Because this is the cruel irony of the Poets. The more they claim that the dead of the First World War were led like lambs to their deaths, the more they demean and deny agency to men whose testimony shows that they knew what they were fighting for, and that they considered it worthwhile to do so. If the narrative of the Serious Historians is based on ignoring any evidence that the German generals may not have been any less stupid than the British or French, that of the Poets is based on ignoring the testimony of anyone who wasn’t, well, a poet.
And that, ultimately, is how you create a narrative about a factual event. As General Melchett says in Blackadder Goes Forth, ‘If nothing else works, a total pigheaded unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.’
It is commentary on the generals who fought the First World War, it fits a great of many of them rather well, but it applies equally well to those who have written about them.