The Western Front

By H. Sidebotham

[The Atlantic Monthly, April 1918]

Sir Douglas Haig's long dispatch, published in the first week of January, covered the whole of the fighting on the British front in France and Belgium between the battle of the Ancre and the battle of Cambrai.

Sir Douglas Haig is not a born dispatch-writer. He has neither the power of resolving by an epigram the tangles of a complicated strategic situation, nor the faculty of graphic description and the quick Irish sympathy which made the dispatches of Sir Ian Hamilton from Gallipoli such fascinating reading. He is a diplomat, too, and one would search his dispatches in vain for the indiscreet or hasty phrase which reveals more of the truth than it is intended to do. He eschews generalities and is sparing of the obiter dicta on military affairs beloved by the layman. Still, his dispatches are instructive reading. Collate this long one with the famous speech of Mr. Lloyd George in Paris in November, and we have, if not all the facts about the British offensive in 1917, enough to enable us to form a fair and reasonable judgment. The critics, in England certainly, and perhaps in America too, have done less than injustice both to Sir Douglas Haig and to Mr. George, but a careful reader can now correct his misapprehensions and form a surer judgment about our future military policy.

At Paris, it will be remembered, Mr. Lloyd George laid all the blame for our failures in the war on the fact that the Allied strategy had not been an organic unity, but merely had tacked and stitched together the military plans of each of the Allies. It is no secret that from the early years of the war he was an 'Easterner' in his views. He very early began to doubt the feasibility of a break-through on the Western front, and preferred the chances of an offensive in the East. With the Dardanelles expedition he did not identify himself so completely as Mr. Churchill, and his prejudice was in favor of an attempt to attack Austria from the side of Serbia. To this view the French General Staff also inclined; and thus, before the overrunning of Serbia, there was formed a somewhat unusual degree of sympathy between him and the French command.

Begun too late to save Serbia, the Macedonian campaign degenerated into an extravagant insurance premium on the safety of Saloniki and on the neutrality of Greece; but just as the advocates of the Dardanelles campaign argued that it was the execution of the business, not its strategy, that was at fault, so the Franco-Serbian school insisted that the idea of assisting Serbia and attacking Austria from the southwest was quite sound, and that the cause of its failure was the tardiness and vacillation of its execution.

The views of this school were confirmed by the fate of Roumania. It was easy to put the blame for her breakdown on Russia, who was primarily responsible; but had the Allied forces at Saloniki been in a position seriously to Coöperate with Roumania on the south, Roumania would never have made the mistake of invading Transylvania—a mistake which, was in fact her undoing. And the fall of Roumania was the real, though not the avowed, cause of the fate of the Asquith government. Logically, having come into power owing to the failure of its predecessor's policy in the East, the present government should have begun by correcting the obsession of our strategy with the West, which was responsible for the slow weakening of Russia, our disastrous failure in the Balkans, and our middling success in the war with Turkey.

There were, however, great and, as it turned out, insuperable difficulties in effecting a new orientation of our policy. In the first place, our best chances of exercising a decisive effect on the war in the East had disappeared with the abandonment of the Gallipoli expedition and the overrunning of Serbia and Roumania. All that we could do now in the East was to put fresh vigor into our campaigns against Turkey on the Mesopotamian and Egyptian front; and this the new government did, and it had its reward in the capture of Bagdad. But the capture of Jerusalem, which should have taken place at the same time, was delayed nine months, partly by mistakes in the leading of the British army of Palestine, but still more by the failure to give Sir A. Murray the necessary support. The Palestine campaign was, in fact, like all our eastern campaigns, starved for men and material; and not until General Allenby had taken command and been given heavy reinforcements of both men and material, did Jerusalem fall.

Thus, even under a government which was convinced of the importance of the East in our military strategy, the same mistakes—in kind though not in degree—were made as under the Asquith government, and our advance against the Turkish Asiatic empire was in consequence many months in rear of scheduled time. It would have made all the difference to our prospects if Jerusalem had fallen, as doubtless was intended, at the same time as Bagdad. By now there would probably not be a Turkish division south of the Taurus.

The reason for this modified success was that, at the beginning of 1917, the General Staffs of both England and France were fairly confident of breaking through on the West. Their plans had already been prepared in concert, and after the British victories on the Somme and the Ancre, their hopes of a break-through seemed not unreasonable. It must be remembered further that the progress of the U-boat campaign had greatly strengthened the arguments for making our main offensive on the West. The shortage of mercantile tonnage was a serious and valid objection to the beginning of a new and ambitious over-seas campaign in the eastern Mediterranean. The longer the sea voyage, the more tonnage required; and the war in France had this great advantage, that the sea passage for supplies was very short.

Sir Douglas Haig's plans for 1917 had been arranged with General Joffre. Their idea was to continue the offensive on the Somme which had been begun on July 1, 1916, the French operating as before, in the direction of Peronne, and the English, on their left, attacking both sides of the marked salient which had been formed in the German lines as a result of our successes in the autumn of 1916. On one side of this salient an attack was to be delivered on the Vimy Ridge, on the other side the attack was to press the advantages we had already won on the Ancre. That done, the British were then suddenly to transfer their offensive to Flanders, where, in Sir Douglas Haig's opinion, the chief British military interests lay. It was a rational plan, and, difficult as the campaign in Flanders promised to be, there was good reason to hope that, begun early enough, it would recover the whole of the Belgian coast before the winter set in.

This plan seems to have been arranged in November, 1916. It is not certain that the War Cabinet of the new government was greatly enamored of it, and the criticism was early made that it would be very costly in men. Mr. Lloyd George would have preferred an offensive, not against Germany, or in Flanders, where the enemy's positions were strongest, but against Austria, and in conjunction with the Italian offensive. At the beginning of 1917, there was some reason to fear that Germany might effect a concentration against Italy (which she in fact did at the end of the year), and there was a school of strategy in England which favored meeting and, if possible, anticipating it by a bold offensive by the Napoleonic route to Vienna over the Carnic Alps and through Laibach. This view, however, was not shared by the General Staff, which now as always insisted that the war must be won in the West; and its opinion was accepted, though not without demur from some of its members, by the War Cabinet.

But now an unfortunate thing happened: General Nivelle succeeded General Joffre in the command of the French armies and had different views about the offensive. General Nivelle thought that his best chances of success were against the hills behind the Aisne; instead of attacking immediately on the British right, as in the Somme battle, he proposed to deliver the main French attack from the south, and this plan, as General Haig puts it, entailed 'a considerable extension of my defensive front, a modification of a rôle previously allotted to the British armies, and an acceleration, of the date of my opening attack.' It is clear that these alterations were not to his liking. He wanted to get busy in Flanders as soon as he could, and the shifting of the main French attack to the south and east threatened to impair his chances in Flanders, or at any rate to postpone the beginning of the attack there.

Now, as in the autumn of 1914, the British and French commands saw the problem from a slightly different angle. If General French had been perfectly free, he might never have fought the battle of the Aisne, but would have transferred his troops into Flanders, perhaps a month before he actually did. General Haig's views were on this matter identical with those of General. French, and he preferred the original plans because they promised to release his armies earlier for the campaign in Flanders which he had most at heart. He had, however, to give way. 'I received instructions,' he writes, 'from His Majesty's Government to readjust our previous plans to meet the wishes of our Allies.' There is no trace of feeling, still less of bitterness, in this sentence; but there is no doubt that a great deal of history is concealed behind it.

In the agitation, which arose in the British press over Mr. George's speech in Paris, it was stated freely that Mr. George had been anxious for a united command. A united command in France could mean only French command; so that, if this proposition was ever made, it was one for putting General Nivelle in supreme command of the British and French armies on the West. Had it been carried out, General Haig would presumably have gone to Italy to conduct an offensive against Austria. The plan actually adopted, therefore, was in the nature of a compromise. It neither put General Nivelle in supreme command, nor left General Haig free to carry out his original plan.

For a variety of reasons the new plans were not successful. General Nivelle is accused of having made his attacks without sufficient artillery preparation, and his losses were certainly much heavier than they should have been. His calculation, perhaps, was that the most important factor of success was surprise, and that prolonged artillery bombardment, by giving notice of the attack, did more harm than good. Be that as it may, the French offensive was too costly to be kept up, and General Nivelle made way for General Pétain, whose principles, as we shall see, were entirely different.

In the meantime the French offensive on the Aisne had a very disturbing effect on the British plans. General Haig's idea had been to waste no time in pressing his attack near Arras after he had captured the Vimy Ridge. 'I did not consider,' he writes, 'that any great strategical results were likely to be gained by following up on the front about Arras and to the south of it.' The British attack on the Vimy Ridge was made on April 9, and the French attack on the Aisne began a week later. Under the original plans, General Haig, after capturing the Vimy Ridge, would have transferred his armies to Flanders; but the battle of Arras was prolonged in order to assist the French offensive. The later stages of the Arras battle were much more obstinately contested than its beginning on the Vimy Ridge, and except that it brought us up to the Hindenburg Line, and familiarized us with the new defense tactics of the Germans, it is hard to see what all this hard fighting contributed to the business in hand. Doubtless it relieved the pressure on the French, but apart from that our troops would have been more usefully employed in Flanders.

The first attack in Flanders, that on the Messines Ridge, was delivered on June 9, but the attack on the ridge east of Ypres was not begun until July 31, seven weeks later, and by that time the best weather of the year had all been used up. The disappointments of General Haig came very thick about that time. He had counted on the Russians, and it was now clear that the Russians were, for all practical purposes, out of the war. He had counted also on the active coöperation of the French in this offensive, but the new commander-in-chief, General Pétain, was a convinced believer in the strategic defensive. Not that General Pétain had abandoned all hopes of breaking through the German lines; but he held that at present France could not afford the losses necessary to force the pace. Later, perhaps, when the American reinforcements had reached their maximum, the attempt to break through might be resumed, but for the present his policy was purely Fabian. His great anxiety was to conserve the man-power of France. Where an opportunity for attack presented itself, no one knew better than he how to make full use of it, but there is all the difference between brilliant but isolated successes and the steady pressure of a long-continued offensive such as the British were engaged in.

The French army on the British left did excellent work in the operations east of Ypres; but, when all is said, the bulk of the work was thrown on the British army. What wonderful work it was, all the world knows, but it was costly in men, and it failed to give the results for which we had been hoping. At one time, indeed, it looked as if we should break the German lines completely, and compel an extensive evacuation of the Belgian coast; a fortnight's fine weather and we should have done so. Even as it was, there is some reason to think that the Germans were preparing to evacuate the Belgian coast. Not for nothing did Von Kuhlmann renounce German political ambitions in Belgium, for the enemy's politicians speak only after consultation with the soldiers, and in the light of their interpretation of the military situation. As it was put by a writer in the Manchester Guardian, the speeches made by the government in the Reichstag were only the shadows on the blinds that concealed the conferences of the General Staff.

It was at this time too that Germany is believed to have made an offer to France, through an agent in Switzerland, to evacuate Belgium, and even to make concessions to France in Alsace-Lorraine, if only she were given a free hand in the East—an offer that was promptly rejected. It is clear how her mind was working. She was genuinely alarmed at the progress made by the British in Flanders. Under pressure from Austria she had committed herself to a campaign against Italy, but she could not be certain what measure of success she would have, and if the worst came to the worst, it might be that she would have to evacuate the Belgian coast for the sake of this Italian campaign, which she had delayed until as late in the year as she dared, so that she might first take the full measure of the British offensive. She was face to face with a military crisis comparable with that of the autumn of 1916, when Roumania entered the war. She was about to venture a great military gamble, and before risking it she paused and made a bid for peace with the Western Powers. But the gamble came off beyond all her expectations. Not only was Italy driven from Austrian territory, but she was forced to retire, after suffering very heavy losses, to a line far in the rear of that from which she started when she first entered the war. To protect even that line, troops had to be withdrawn from both Belgium and France, and the offensive in the West was now definitely over. Better still (from Germany's point of view), Russia entered into negotiations for a formal peace.

Napoleon required his generals not only to be good but to be lucky, thereby recognizing luck as one of the factors in war. Sir Douglas Haig in 1917 was abominably unlucky. He had had his original plan spoiled by a general who was almost immediately superseded, and whose supersession brought yet another change in the military policy of our ally which was even less advantageous. Forced by circumstances beyond his control to postpone his offensive in Flanders, he thereby lost all the fine weather of the year; but, thanks to the incredible exertions of his troops, he gained enough success to show what he could have done if the weather had been reasonable. At the end events occurred in Italy and Russia which clouded over achievements as remarkable as any in the history of the British army, and made a long offensive of nearly eighteen months spell something like defeat. Sir Douglas Haig and his army deserve congratulation on their achievements, and condolence on the sheer bad luck that blighted them.

It was under these circumstances that Mr. Lloyd George made his speech at Paris, explaining his reasons for setting up the new Inter-Allied Council. His instances of the failures which had resulted in the lack of a single united strategy were most of them drawn from the early history of the war, not from the events of 1917. The English Premier, being a man of imagination, doubtless felt that at such a moment the British army in the West was in need of sympathy rather than of criticism, however kindly and sincere. But looking back on the past from the vantage-ground of Sir Douglas Haig's dispatch, we must recognize that the whole campaign in Flanders was a mistake after General Pétain's appointment. The two armies in the West, after the failure of the offensive on the Aisne, proceeded on different principles. The principle of Pétain was economy of man-power; General Haig, on the other hand, having been fighting all the year for what he regarded as subsidiary objects, could not bring himself to abandon his project in Flanders. The Ypres salient had tortured the British army for two and a half years, and the temptation to clear the enemy from the hills east of the city was irresistible. If he could have resisted it, he would have saved many lives; but some of the saving might have been lost later, for the Germans holding the ridge east of Ypres had an excellent jumping-off ground for renewing their attempts to win through to the Narrows; and the autumn campaign, for all the blood and mud which suffocated it, secured us against that danger. It is, however, interesting to speculate on what our probable course of action would have been if the Inter-Allied Council had been in existence when Nivelle succeeded Joffre and was succeeded by Pétain.

The charge so commonly brought against Mr. Lloyd George of wanting to supersede General Haig by General Nivelle would, under such circumstances, have had no point. The view of the British Staff, which, as General Haig complains, Was summarily set aside, would have had a better chance of presentment, and the policy would have been determined after the arguments on both sides had been put. It is even possible that the French offensive would not have taken place on the Aisne at all, or even on the Somme, but would have been-directed to the recovery of the French mining and manufacturing districts.

Again, after the succession of General Pétain to the French command, the question would then necessarily have come before the Allied Council what the British policy ought to be under those circumstances; and it is conceivable that such a discussion would have directed attention to the risks on the Italian front. General Cadorna, at any rate, after the military collapse of Russia became certain, was under no illusions about his own position. He feared a concentration against him, and though he never thought that his defeats would be so sudden and so overwhelming, he expected to be driven slowly back. Had there been an Inter-Allied Council, this point of view would have been put, and it is possible that the Italian defeat would have been avoided and even replaced by victories which would have further increased the war-weariness of Austria.

The controversy which assumes such an important place in the discussions of Mr. Lloyd George's Paris speech—whether the new Inter-Allied Council should have over-riding powers over the separate general staffs—is not, after all, of first-rate importance. Between equal allies there can be no such thing as over-riding their separate wills. The main thing is to ensure that the common interest shall be kept steadily in view at each crisis, and that there shall be some permanent machinery for coordinating the efforts of the Allies.

The British General Staff cannot justly be charged with selfishness, but it is often charged, and not without reason, with taking too narrow and provincial a view of its duties, and with acting as if the campaign in Flanders and Northern France were the whole war. And some part of this blame must be shared by the British Admiralty. The department which understood the nature of sea-power should have been the first to see the importance of the East in our imperial strategy, and should have insisted more strongly on its views being adopted. But then, the Admiralty never had a Lord Haldane at its head, and its staff work never attained the degree of influence and authority in the national councils that the Imperial General Staff at the War Office acquired as the result of Lord Haldane's work. Lord Haldane's services to War Office organization were very great, but they produced a somewhat lopsided development of British strategy. In this war, for the first time in English history, the dominating ideas of the national strategy have been military and not naval, and we have suffered in consequence; for our traditional naval strategy would have recognized the Dardanelles as the key of the whole war so far as this country was concerned, and there would have been no collapse of Russia if our navy could have done for her what it has done for France. Nor was there any way of rendering that service except by the Black Sea.

The year 1917, then, in spite of brilliant work, was a disappointment for the Allies. What are the prospects for the coming year? Russia is out of the war; Italy no longer threatens Trieste, but has been hard put to it to defend Venice. The French who, a year ago, were full of hopes of a break-through, have fallen back on the defensive. We ourselves, after incredible exertions, ended our offensive with something very like a reverse at Cambrai. If we could not break through last year what conceivable chance, it is asked, is there of breaking through this year? To add to our worries, the U-boat campaign is beginning, for the first time in the war, to have some effect on the morale of the people. There is no despondency, but there are far more skeptics than there were of the possible solution of the military difficulty being found; and for the first time in the war there is some danger of a failure of resolution, not from lack of faith in our cause, but from doubts as to how far victory is physically possible along the lines we have been pursuing. This state of mind is dangerous, and though much may be done to fortify the people by the consolations of oratory, our best consolation, with Germany in its present mind, is military and naval victory. If there is a real prospect of that, the rest can be managed; if there is none—well, the rest cannot be managed.

It is not a fashionable thing to say nowadays, but in the writer's opinion our prospects of military victory are on the whole rather better now than they were last year at this time. All last year Russia gave no real help to the Allied cause. She detained on her frontier, it is true, a great number of German and Austrian troops, but their fighting strength bore no real relation to their numbers. All through the year the Russian front was a rest cure for the German army. Divisions shattered in the Western fighting were being sent to Russia and replaced by fresh divisions from Russia; and it is hardly too much to say that the British and French faced, not at any one time, but during the year, practically the whole fighting strength of the German army.

Sir Auckland Geddes, in a late speech, by adding up the total number of Germans and Austrians on the Eastern front, calculated that we may have to face on the West an increase in the enemy forces of no less than 1,600,000 men—an alarming calculation, especially when we remember that these figures do not include any allowance for the German and Austrian prisoners who would presumably be released by Russia if she made a separate peace. In asking the House of Commons to give him power to raise another 450,000 men, his principle apparently was to divide the possible enemy increase by four, there being four Allies left in the war, and to assign to our own army the duty of providing a good fourth.

He was right to provide against the worst possible contingency, but there is good reason to think that his estimate of the probable increase in the numbers of the enemy was exaggerated. One does not see Austria, in her present state of feeling, providing large numbers of men for service in France or Flanders, and even Germany would not be able to withdraw all her troops from the East. Nor will the restoration of the prisoners add very greatly to the enemy's strength. Many of them would be wounded, and few will be fit for service for months after their return. Many more will take good care not to return until the war is over, and the Russians certainly will not force them to return against their will. All things considered, the effect of Russia's defection will be to add perhaps a million men to the strength of the Germans in the West. To that number we should add the demands that the defense of Italy may make on the resources of the Allies—demands, however, which the 450,000 men for whom Sir Auckland Geddes is asking should allow us to ignore in our calculations. On the other hand, against that increment we must set the new American army in France, which by the end of this year, especially if the Germans use up men in a new offensive in the West, as seems generally to be expected, should have restored something like equality in numbers. In the writer's opinion, this is a better military prospect than we had a year ago, and for this reason: a year ago the Germans were satisfied to be on the defensive in the West, whereas this year the successful defensive will not satisfy them. Unless they win outright this year, they have lost the war. Indeed, if they do not win outright, it may be doubted whether they will await the American blow in 1919, and will not choose to make peace before it falls.

The great miscalculation of the British and French General Staffs from 1915 to 1917 was that they ignored the enormous difference in standard of strength required for successful defense and for successful offense. Because they beat back the German offensive in France in 1914, both staffs seemed to have assumed that even a slight increase of strength would give them a chance of a successful offensive. This chance never existed in 1915 or 1916, and perhaps not in 1917 either, except on the basis of a ridiculous estimate of Russia's strength and France's endurance. All our attacks on the West in 1915 were a misapplication of energy and a waste of man-power; for to break through lines so strongly held as those of the Germans, a superiority largely in excess of that which we had in 1915 or in 1916 was necessary. In setting ourselves, therefore, to break through on the West, we were loading the dice against ourselves. We indulged in false optimism. For the same reason, we are indulging in false pessimism now, when we suppose that an increment even of a million men in the German strength is in itself enough to make the difference between a barely successful defensive like the German campaign last year and the brilliantly successful offensive which presumably Hindenburg hopes for this year. An increment considerably greater than that number of men in our own strength failed to give us what we wanted, and there is no reason whatever to suppose, so far at least as numbers are concerned, that the Germans can do in 1918 what they failed to do in 1914 and we in 1916 and 1917.

It is natural that those who were optimists last year should be pessimists now, because in both cases they ignore the vast disproportion between the demands of successful defense and successful offense. But for the converse reason, those of us who were pessimists then should be optimists now. Given management, there should be no chance of a German break-through this year; and unless it is done this year, it will never be done and Germany will be beaten. The chances of her failure now are greater than the chances of our success a year ago.

But it is absolutely necessary that we should realize the conditions of successful defense, and should resolutely and consistently observe them. That numbers will help the defense goes without saying, but they are perhaps the least important factor in success. The most important is the staff work, and that is why English critics have attached so much importance to the publication of the facts about Cambrai, and why the government's suppression of the facts has had such a depressing effect on English opinion. The duties of a staff which is conducting a strategic defensive are threefold. First, it should economize man-power by every possible means. The true tactics of the defense, as Hindenburg has shown, are to hold the first lines with as few men as possible. That can safely be done only by the possession of great superiority in artillery, by elaborate fortification, by the provision of comfortable dug-outs, and by the accumulation of every possible artificial obstacle. Hitherto the British army, hoping to change its quarters, has given insufficient attention to these matters. Secondly, a corollary of holding the front line lightly is that we should have powerful and well-placed reserves for counter-attack. The promptness and efficiency of these counter-attacks will depend most of all on the quality of the railway communications. Lastly, the Intelligence Service must be perfect, and that depends on our aeroplanes and on the way we use them. It will be seen that these conditions for successful defense are all mechanical, and mere numbers of men come last in the order of importance.

Two provisos should be added. First, that no revolutionary change is made by the enemy in his armament such as might disturb the present balance of force. Second, and this is still more important, we must have enough ships to ensure the largest armies America can raise being brought safely to Europe and maintained there. That is a master condition of our hopes; and to its fulfillment everything else must give place.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.



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