The Battle of Amiens (8-11 August 1918): Some (Old) Thoughts

This is the conclusion to my MA dissertation on the Battle of Amiens. I wrote it in 2006 and there are many things I would rework if I were to write it today. But it challenges some lazy stereotypes and, given the anniversary today, may at least amuse…

This dissertation has questioned the view that Amiens was an ‘all-arms deep battle’ won by a modern-style combined arms weapons system.[1] We have seen that tanks, aircraft and combined arms method were less important in deciding victory than the combination of 1917 infantry and artillery techniques with co-ordinated assaults.

Indeed, the ‘modernity’ of Amiens has tended to be exaggerated. It is, of course, possible to find similarities between Amiens and later battles, such as El Alamein. Bernard Freyberg, on seeing the plans for Operation Lightfoot, for example, commented that ‘this operation approximates to the battles fought in 1918’.  In the stress on counter-battery fire, the use of coloured phase lines (and the lack of a plan for exploiting success!), so it was.[2] One must, however, beware the attempt to squeeze 1918 battles into a later template, as Jonathan Bailey, for example, does. According to Bailey, the battles of 1918 are representative of a ‘modern style of warfare’:

‘The new style employed three dimensions and a psychological aspect. The object was not to flank, envelope [sic] and annihilate, but rather to break through from the front while simultaneously devastating the full depth of the enemy rear’.[3]

In the misuse of the RAF, and failure systematically to attack German command networks, this paper has shown that there were considerable limits to the British concept of battle as three-dimensional, and to their understanding of the psychological element. The theory of Soviet-style ‘deep battle’ lay yet in the future.

The other side of this coin is that continuity between Amiens and earlier battles of the First World War has been underplayed by historians. There is no space here to go into this in depth. Two examples will have to suffice.

First, the similarities between the battles of Amiens and Cambrai, nine months earlier, are striking. The BOH volume on Cambrai ascribes the early successes to three factors: the ‘secret concentration of the striking force’; the surprise gained by the use of unregistered artillery fire; and the use of tanks to break down wire, reducing the need for an artillery bombardment prejudicial to surprise and freeing the guns for counter-battery work. The failure to exploit success is explained by a lack of infantry training and equipment for open warfare; by staffs stuck in a trench warfare mentality; by a lack of tank reserves; and by the failure of cavalry.[4] We might add that exploitation was, in any case, compromised by the choice of a battlefield backed by a major obstacle. All of these points apply equally to Amiens. The infantry and artillery tactics of Amiens were generally those of Cambrai. The tactical innovations at Amiens, such as the attempted use of Mark V* tanks as armoured personnel carriers, and the use of Whippets with cavalry, mainly failed.

Secondly, Simon Robbins identifies seven major failings at the tactical level in the attack of 24th Brigade at Contalmaison on 7th July 1916:

1) insufficient preliminary  reconnaissance;

2) lack of co-ordination with neighbours;

3) poor liaison between units;

4) bombing along trenches in isolation rather than a simultaneous attack well-supported across open ground;

5) lack of good artillery support;

6) poor situation reports;

7) Brigade HQ too far back and out of touch.[5]

Almost all featured in the attacks of, for example, 32nd Division on 10th and 11th August.[6]

The need for co-ordinated attacks is a lesson of combat as old as warfare itself. The failure of the piecemeal attacks of late July and August 1916 on the Somme, for example, had caused Haig to send Rawlinson what Prior and Wilson describe as a ‘boys’-own-guide on how to command an Army’ including the prescription that ‘the [next] attack must be a general one, engaging the enemy simultaneously along the whole front to be captured…’[7]

The thesis that 1917-1918 constituted a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, it appears, requires further investigation.

Similarly, this paper suggests that the ‘learning curve’ concept requires further refinement and development, fully to understand the relative contributions of tactical method and operational art to the victories of 1918.

If we wish to understand why the British were victorious on the battlefield in 1918, we must be able to explain what had changed since earlier years. They possessed no new war-winning technology. Their generals had largely the same names. The men of 1918 were of no better quality than their predecessors, and might, as a mixture of comb-outs and young conscripts, have been worse. There clearly was a ‘learning curve’ of sorts: the army of 1918 was so different from that of 1914 that of course something must have changed. The progress made since the Somme was clearly considerable. If the tactics of 1918 were broadly the same as those of 1917, however, two possible explanations remain. Both require further research, only the possible outlines of which can be sketched here. First, perhaps German opposition was weaker by the late summer of 1918. It is certainly striking that the Germans were able to launch no large-scale counter-attack at Amiens, as they had with success at Cambrai.

Alternatively, perhaps the British were displaying increased operational flexibility. Certainly, planning and preparation times were greatly reduced. Three weeks separated conception and execution in the cases of both Amiens and Cambrai: a big improvement over the months required for Third Ypres, Arras and the Somme. Simpson argues that general decentralization increased command flexibility and quickened tempo.[8] We have seen that this was not a notably successful aspect of the British at Amiens. The change of artillery objective from destruction to neutralization, and the use of tanks to cut wire, however, undoubtedly lightened the logistic burden. Improvements in the supply system, according to Brown, also contributed:

‘Administrative excellence allowed Haig far greater flexibility in his strategic decision making than he had enjoyed previously. By the summer, he could launch simultaneous offensives or sequential ones on widely separated fronts – something that had been unthinkable before 1918’.[9]

Goya argues that increased artillery mobility and flexibility were a major factor in French successes. 42nd Division’s artillery, for example, supported no less than four different divisions on 11th August.[10] To what extent is the same true of the British?

The achievement of greater operational flexibility and tempo, however, requires more than just the necessary tools.  Also crucial are the ability and willingness to think on the operational plane and to see a particular battle as part of a larger undertaking. The record of Haig and Rawlinson at Amiens in this regard is mixed. On one hand, lack of clarity at the planning stage caused confusion and prejudiced the exploitation of early success. On the other hand, they displayed considerable mental agility in suspending the operation as soon as it became clear it was bogging down. This decision had three main causes. First, it was largely a negative reaction to stiffening resistance. Secondly, Foch must be credited with sensing the vulnerability of the Germans to ‘lateral exploitation of success’ by ‘a series of co-ordinated and concentric blows’, and with managing to impart this strategic vision to his allies.[11] Lastly, Haig estimated correctly the new ability of the British army to pursue such an approach. It is telling that Haig was transferring his focus to Third Army’s attack on Bapaume on the morning of the 11th, before the decision had been taken to halt the offensive of Fourth Army.[12]

To see whether the British Army achieved, and how it employed, greater operational flexibility and tempo requires further research on a larger canvas than a single battle. If the key to British defeat of the Germans was indeed operational, however, the irony of the Battle of Amiens may be that their own operational failings, by causing the offensive to stall, helped give the British that key.  In this sense at least, perhaps, Amiens was ‘a battle unlike any other’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Sheffield and Bourne (2005), p.1; Prior and Wilson (1992), p. 309

[2] Barr (2005), pp. 261, 288, 314, 342

[3] Bailey (2001), pp. 132, 151

[4] BOH 1917 Volume III, pp. iii-iv, 278-288

[5] Robbins (2005), p. 23

[6] See above, p. XXXX

[7] GHQ to Fourth Army (OAD 123), 24th August 1916; quoted in Prior and Wilson (1992) pp. 222-223

[8] Simpson (2006), p. 224

[9] Brown (1998), p. 179

[10] Goya (2004), pp. 390, 409

[11] Philpott (2000), pp. 38-46

[12] BOH, p. 150

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‘Sleepwalking to War? Britain in 1914 and 1939’

This is a talk I gave at the Hay Literary Festival in 2014:

When I was asked to speak here today, I was asked to talk about the lessons Great Britain learned from the First World War and how she applied them in the second. I think this topic gives a chance to show something which I think we historians, in our enthusiasm to jump on the centenary bandwagon, are in danger of losing sight of during these centenary commemorations of the First World War. One danger we run, I believe, is to see the Great War as a special case, in some way divorced from history rather than part of its warp and weft. Paul Fussell famously argued the war was a discontinuity in time, an event so unique that traditional methods of expression and understanding break down, and the war can only be made sense of via the study of individual experience. I’m a historian. You wouldn’t expect me to agree with that. But we’re not doing a terribly good job, so far this year at least, of showcasing history at its best. Too much of the public history has been very old-fashioned. It’s been British and overwhelmingly Western Front, when it was called a World War, surely, for a reason? We’ve been fighting old battles, such as ‘was it all Germany’s fault, or no-one’s?’, which tend to dribble away into  rather crude Agatha Christie style-body-in-the-library-search-for-whodunnits. Or we’ve been debating stale old 1960s clichés of futility: in other words, on ground of the enemy’s choosing. Now, I’m not going to pretend that what I say is completely Right-on with all the latest methodologies and approaches to the history of the Great War. People who wear sports jackets and chinos aren’t generally too down with the kids. But what I would like to do today is to take one aspect of the First World War and put that back into the longer history of Great Britain in the twentieth century. There are, in essence, two histories of Great Britain the twentieth century. The first concerns the decline and fall of Britain as a great power in international politics. You see it in the work of historians such as Corelli Barnett and Paul Kennedy but actually it was originally and brilliantly nailed by Sellars and Yeatman in 1066 and All That. It is the story of how Britain stopped being Top Nation and history came to a . A crucial part of that story involves the stupidity of a ruling class which was unable to adapt – either quickly enough or in some cases at all – to the realities of the modern world. Lack of preparedness for the two world wars is seen as a very good example of exactly such failings, and indeed the whole ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth is, I think, a symptom of just such thinking. The second history was foreshadowed by A.J.P. Taylor in 1965 when he talked of the Second World War: ‘Imperial greatness was on the way out; the welfare state was on the way in.’ It centres on the social progress made domestically in Britain during the twentieth century: the way life got infinitely better for most people over those hundred years. The redoubtable Arthur Marwick saw this clearly. Now, for at least the last couple of generations, history has disintegrated into specialisms which sometimes seem at least to be speaking ever less to each other, when they’re not actively at war. But one of the points I hope to make is that we need to see the two together.

The third reason I think this topic is worth talking about is that it opens up questions of lasting importance to do with the appropriate relationship between civilian government and the military, and if we have time I might finish up with a few thoughts on that.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Christopher Clark’s recent book. This argues that the nations of Europe sleepwalked into war in 1914. In many ways it’s a brilliant book. It’s proved remarkably popular in Germany, where it’s been seized on as startling new evidence that here at least was one war that wasn’t the Germans’ fault. I’m not sure that’s quite what he’s saying, or that it’s as original as it seems, and I’m far from convinced he’s quite seen the problem in the round, as I just hinted, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in discussing his argument. We can do that in questions later, if you like. Instead, I’d like to pick up on his sleepwalking metaphor and discuss it in particular with regard to Great Britain. Especially I’d like to compare British preparedness for the two world wars. Certainly the popular perception, I think, would be that Great Britain was tragically unready in both 1914 and 1939.

I’d like to argue something rather different. I want to argue, in fact, that Great Britain, far from lagging the class in adaptation and innovation, was leading it. Recently, Professor David Edgerton has argued against ‘declinism’ in books like Warfare State and Britain’s War Machine. As those of you who know his work will see, I’m about to take a very different approach from Edgerton, whose work I think displays a few weaknesses. As befits a historian of science and technology at Imperial College, his focus is on hardware, while mine is on software. We end up in similar places, though. I’d like to suggest that, during the First World War, Britain invented a radical new way of organising for and waging war. She refined and applied this method again a generation later, and exported it to the United States, to help win a Second World War, and in fact to establish the framework which enabled the West to outlast the Cold War. She managed to square the historical circle which had confounded states since Pericles led Athens: how to resolve the conflicting demands of democracy for ever more butter with those of the military for guns. She did it by taking the love child of politics and economics, political economy, and crossing that with military strategy to open up a whole new level of warfare: Grand Strategy: the mobilisation and direction of all the nation’s resources to further national objectives. The two world wars demanded nothing less.

For almost other major twentieth century power, the choice turned out to be stark: go down in defeat. Or go over to the dark side, turn your back on democracy, and embrace the evil creeds for whom men and women were mere means, rather than ends: fascism or communism. Only Britain and the USA avoided that trap.

By the way, I don’t mean to argue this in any triumphalist fashion. I don’t think this means Britain is the best country in the history of the universe. Although I think it is an achievement of which I believe the British can be proud. I just don’t think such hit parades mean much or are even very interesting.

I’d like to take this argument in four steps. First, I’ll discuss briefly where the idea that Britain was unready for war in 1914 and 1939 comes from. Then, I’ll look at 1914 and suggest, in essence, that we under-estimate how prepared she was because we tend to look at it with hindsight as a narrow army problem, when in fact the right way to see it is as from a broader, partly naval, perspective. Thirdly, I’ll look at how decision-making mechanisms evolved after 1914 which enabled Britain to conceptualise and formulate Grand Strategy, and at some of the changes which took place in practice. Fourthly, I’ll argue that the Great War saw a shift in Britain’s psychological preparedness which proved vital in 1939-45.

So, let’s start with this idea that Britain was unready for war in 1914 and 1939 and see where it comes from. I think we can identify three sources. First, in both world wars, there was a diplomatic and political imperative to argue that ‘it was the other bloke what started it’. Any evidence which emphasised British unpreparedness helped here. Secondly, our perception of both wars displays the same pattern: early war effort at first confused and uneven – at best – until new regime takes over, solves all the problems and wins the war. In the first war, after a wobbly start from the Asquith government, Lloyd George comes to power and wins the war. In the second war, of course, the seed of victory is sown when Churchill replaces Chamberlain. This narrative, it goes without saying, has largely been formed by members of that new regime, those who won the political arguments at the time and who made damned sure history recorded their version of events. David Lloyd George’s door-stopping War Memoirs published 1936-8, were as shy and retiring as the man himself and best sellers. But it was Winston Churchill who led the charge here. His The World Crisis, telling the story of the Great War, was famously described by Arthur Balfour as ‘Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe’. By the time it came to the Second World War, Churchill was even more determined that history should be kind to him, as David Reynolds’s breathtaking account makes clear. He had the advantage, of course, not only of being extremely closely identified with survival and then victory, but also of being able to say ‘I saw all this coming and no-one else did’. Churchill set the agenda for the historiography of both world wars, and no-one yet has been able to break out of the framework he set.

But there is also a third factor at work, I reckon, which is that there seems to be something deep in the national psyche which sees improvisation as an essentially British talent, especially when contrasted with Germanic mechanical efficiency. The well-known author J.B. Priestley gave a series of famous radio talks in June-October 1940, ‘Postscripts’ to the Nine O’clock News. In one of his most famous postscripts, he described the Dunkirk evacuation, brilliantly juxtaposing the pleasure cruisers and Isle of Wight passenger steamers, symbols of bucket-and-spade holiday innocence, still redolent of egg-and-cress sandwiches, with the epic of their role in the evacuation. Only the British, he argued, could have ‘snatched glory out of defeat’ thus, for ‘This is not the German way’. We simply seem to like thinking ‘everything will be all right on the night’. It’s a central part of our national myth that, even as the Armada bore down on Plymouth Hoe, Sir Francis Drake was happier playing bowls than drilling his men. If military professionalism meant Oliver Cromwell and the death of liberty, or Louis XIV and papist absolutism, perhaps a bit of old-fashioned British amateurism was preferable? The rationalism of the continental Enlightenment was midwife to the guillotine, so it seemed healthier all around to privilege the empirical over theory and induction over the a priori. Such deep-seated strains of thought were then reinforced by Victorian concepts of what it was to be a gentleman, of which amateurISM (but not, note amateurISHNESS) was key.

The second step in my argument concerns Great Britain in 1914. Clearly, she was not prepared for war in the sense that she saw it coming and actively got ready by stockpiling grain or armaments. It is perfectly clear that Britain was behind the curve throughout the July Crisis. As late as 18 July, nearly three weeks after the assassination in Sarajevo, the Royal Navy invited the German fleet over for Cowes Week in August. I like to think about the warmth of welcome they might have received if they’d carried through on the invite. There were war books to share out responsibilities for government departments, and mobilization schedules. There were contingency plans to turn, for instance, the brand new buildings of the University of Birmingham into a hospital. But there was no full set of carefully worked out military plans for taking a million men to Europe and fighting a major war there. Britain never built and had no intention of building an army fit for a multi-million-man land war. The only way to do build a continental-scale army was to take the politically suicidal step of introducing conscription, doubling income tax or cutting all social spending – so central to the government’s programme – to zero. Instead, the size and composition of the BEF remained fixed as it had been since 1907: six infantry and one cavalry divisions. It was a global strategic reserve to be sent at short notice wherever in the world it was needed, not necessarily to France.

Britain, after all, had global commitments on an immense scale. At first sight, the more one looks at British strategic planning before 1914, the less strategy – let alone planning – one sees there. Strategy could mean little more than reacting to the latest crisis. That was the logic of the geopolitical situation before 1914. But there was always a political dynamic at work, too. It’s hard to credit it today, but there was a time when politicians were wary of committing themselves to expensive plans for hypothetical situations which might never happen and could only tie their hands if there is a real need for action. Thank goodness nothing like that happens any more!

That is, at least if one sees the world as we tend to today, through the khaki lenses of the army. Pick up naval binoculars, however, and the world looks rather different. In particular, we can see people in and around the Admiralty who are identifying Britain’s national interests, sketching out policy objectives, calculating and procuring and deploying the means required to achieve them. Brilliant men like Julian Corbett, the barrister turned novelist turned historian and strategic genius, and Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher, turned theory into planning. While the precise use of the Army remained unspecified, and the orders given to Field Marshal Sir John French were vague in the extreme, the Royal Navy existed for four very clear purposes, clearly laid out in the instructions of his naval counterpart, Admiral Jellicoe.[1]

The Royal Navy was able to see the bigger picture, as the War Office could not, because it benefitted from four legacies. First, Britain had built up long experience under Marlborough, the two Pitts and Castlereagh of how to use the navy to conduct strategy on a global scale. It had long been a worldwide force which had to see things globally, like it or not. Secondly, the Royal Navy was the first, last and only defender of not only the formal Empire but also the – I sometimes think more important – informal commercial empire which flourished under seas kept safe for Free Trade. Thirdly, and this is closely related, Commerce, Trade and the Navy had already lived symbiotically together for hundreds of years. The Admiralty understood full well that maritime strategy was about more than just naval fighting and could also include also an important economic warfare dimension. Lastly, in the decade or so before 1913 the Admiralty had direct and extremely important experience in mobilising popular opinion, finance and industry to compete with and comprehensively defeat Germany in a naval arms race. This offered a template for the kind of integrated effort required in 1914-18. It later offered a prototype for arms races of the Cold War.

Thus, during the last week of July 1914, while at Aldershot the army played polo in the summer sun, the navy was already at work. It concentrated its strength at its battle stations at Scapa Flow and around the world. This was a clever move which might work in one of two ways. Either it would signal to Germany that Britain meant business and deter conflict. It was widely and purposely reported in the press. Or, if that failed, it would make sure the navy was ready for war. As soon as fighting broke out, all undersea cable communications were cut, isolating Berlin from her colonies. Then the navy, backed by a formidable intelligence effort, began to sweep the seven seas clear of German shipping both naval and merchant.

This leads on to step 3 of my argument. We’ve seen that there was a historic tradition of a form of Grand Strategic thinking in Britain, and indeed that there were at least some people around whose minds were working in those terms. But pre-war attempts to establish a proper forum for such discussions in the newly created Committee of Imperial Defence (1903) foundered on mutual mistrust between generals, admirals and politicians as much as on policy differences. One of its standing sub-committees drew up the War Books I just mentioned, but it never had executive power. In any case, it was a peacetime organisation. It was put on ice and did not meet once either war had begun. During the first war itself, there were significant obstacles to joined-up government. These included Asquith’s lack of dynamism; Kitchener’s personality quirks; thereafter, Lloyd George’s distrust of the brass hats echoes down the century. Neither Asquith nor Lloyd George ever developed a civil-military partnership such as Churchill finally established with Alanbrooke during the second half of the Second World War. These two were greatly helped by the growth of a defence bureaucracy during the interwar period. I won’t bore you with the full history, but an alphabet soup of committees were set up in the 20s and 30s. Much of the machinery, such as the Joint Intelligence Committee, in fact survives today. Some of the committees, especially in the 1930s, were not helpful. They marked attempts to shelve difficult decisions, not to resolve them. And even some of the most important, such as the increasingly influential Chiefs of Staff Committee set up in 1923, might look like attempts to produce joined-up strategy but in fact represented shabby compromises designed to force army, navy and air force to agree on specific issues (in this case, policy towards Turkey in the Chanak crisis).

Nonetheless, the net effect was three things. First, and it’s important to remember this because it’s easy to forget: throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Great Britain remained in the absolute front rank of world military powers. She had the world’s largest navy, the strongest aviation industry and the most mechanised army. On the eve of war she was building more tanks than Germany did panzers. Secondly, the right decisions were taken at the right time to ensure that, when war came, Britain was defended by the most modern and lethal air defence system available; and it met the test of the Battle of Britain. Thirdly, the strategy-making machine was so effective during the Second World War that, in the first months after American entry into the war and right up to the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, British negotiators were able to run rings around their US counterparts. They continued to do so until the USA imitated them and set up the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee, which then worked mostly hand in glove with the British as the Combined Chiefs of Staff.

There were other, more tangible, steps made toward greater coherence in Grand Strategy during the first war. One can see this in attempts at a scientific Manpower policy, for instance. It was clear to all that, during the Great War, uncontrolled voluntary recruiting to the army had stripped even vital industries of necessary labour. By May 1915, 23.8% of (highly skilled) munitions workers had joined up, for instance. Conscription never really solved this problem: in the Potteries and mining town of Burslem, miners were being sent off to join the army well into 1918. But in April 1939, five months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, conscription was brought back not only to equalise sacrifice and send a message to Germany, but also to avoid such inefficiencies second time around. Reserved occupations were established early and strictly enforced. Women were eventually conscripted, a step even Hitler never took.

Economic mobilisation and state intervention in the economy on a scale inconceivable before 1914, for instance, was an important theme. As the historians who wrote the Official History of the War Economy in the Second World War wrote, ‘If in imagination one looks forward from August 1914 to November 1918, one is impressed by the utter strangeness of the economic country into which the nation had marched – or been marched- during those four years.’ For instance, the government took over running the railways. The Ministry of Munitions, set up in 1915, had expanded by 1918 to encompass 65,000 employees in 50 departments, managing 250 government factories directly & supervising 20,000 more. In essential industries such as the Jute trade, the government set price and output at every step of the supply chain from the growers in Bengal through the millers and stitchers in Dundee through to the finished sandbag on the Western Front. Between 1911 and 1921 the number of central government employees doubled. In the Second World War it nearly doubled again. The war effort second time around was run by key individuals, many of whom had come to prominence in the First World War. One such was Sir John Anderson. In 1917 he had been trusted, at the age of only 34, with setting up the civil service of the crucial new Ministry of Shipping. Brought into government as a technocrat during World War Two, he served as Home Secretary and Lord President of the Council, in essence acting as an apolitical ‘home Prime Minister’ while Churchill fought the war. William Beveridge, author of the 1942 report which laid the foundations of the welfare state, played a series of senior civil service roles in the ministries of Munitions, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Food. Alongside such rarefied mandarins, however, the little-educated Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour in Churchill’s government and a remarkable man, first came to the fore as national organiser of the Dockers’ Union in 1914-18. The consequence, as Sir Stafford Cripps put it in 1942, was ‘perhaps the most revolutionary element in our war experience is [the] revelation of an almost unlimited capacity for production’. Even in the first half of the war, when Britain was supposedly left so vulnerable by Chamberlain & Co’s failure to prepare, she produced more aircraft, warships, merchant ships, tanks, bombs and light artillery guns than Germany ever managed.

Less tangible, but more important, is the fourth step of my argument: the psychological shift which: identified that a major modern war was likely to require the total mobilisation of all national resources; was prepared to trust the state to take the lead on that, confident in the knowledge that any suspension of democratic rights was only temporary The rise of Big Government began before 1914 but it was greatly accelerated by both world wars and became not just a welcome guest but an everyday companion. Also – and this is a key lesson learnt from the First World War and applied in the Second- realised that restoring the status quo afterwards was no longer enough. When Britain went to war again, it must be for a better world, not just the same old one. One can overstate this – and many historians have – but certainly a part of the appeal which Labour rode to victory in the 1945 election was precisely this idea that this had been a ‘People’s War’ for a ‘New Jerusalem’. Consider this quotation:

‘If we speak of democracy, we do not mean a democracy which maintains the right to vote but forgets the right to work and the right to live. If we speak of freedom, we do not mean a rugged individualism which excludes social organization and economic planning. If we speak of equality, we do not mean a political equality nullified by social and economic privilege. If we speak of economic reconstruction, we think less of maximum production… than of equitable distribution…. The European house cannot be put in order unless we put our own house in order first. The new order cannot be based on the preservation of privilege, whether the privilege be that of a country, of a class, or of an individual.’

It’s pretty radical stuff, isn’t it? Does anyone want to guess who wrote it? In a sense that’s less interesting than where it was published. The author was E.H. Carr, certainly in fairness an admirer of much on the left. It was a leader in The Times on 1 July 1940. Not the obvious place for this kind of stuff. We do need a caveat here: the results, even in the birth of the Welfare State, were much less radical than at first sight and involved the usual quota of shabby compromises and backroom deals of any political process. It wasn’t all an idealistic march to the new City on a Hill, but that’s something else we’ll have to leave for questions.

So, what I hope I’ve shown so far is that Britain, far from being poor at catching up with the real modern world, was actually rather good at it. Britain alone, because of her global imperial experience, had the mental equipment that enabled her to forge the tools required to meet the challenge of twentieth century so-called ‘Total War’. When she applied this toolkit in the first war against Germany, she began to develop something we can call Grand Strategy. This enabled her, as few of her partners and none of her rivals could, to mobilise resources to the maximum possible extent such that she could a) survive and b) play a major part eventually in victory, in two world wars. It also equipped Britain and her Western Allies for the long hard slog of the Cold War.

But not only did she invent a new, in-the-round approach called Grand Strategy, she even managed to fashion a socially progressive programme from it. Guns today could not just mean more guns tomorrow for ever. There had to be some butter somewhere, even if it was in the future. This was a lesson that the USSR forgot during the Cold War. Britain didn’t stop Being Top Nation because she did everything wrong (although of course, nor did she do everything right) but because the economic costs of remaining a global superpower expanded beyond her ability to pay them AND – and this is the important point – she took the political decision not to make endless and open-ended sacrifices on the social front to preserve her geopolitical position.  And even during the Cold War, when the threat at times seemed very real, imminent and overwhelming, still Britain politicians managed to ignore the shrill demands of the military professionals for ever more treasure and resources. Despite the most doom-laden prognostications of retired generals and admirals, Britain  – unlike, I would argue, to some extent, the USA – never lost control of the defence establishment and managed always to maintain a balance between spending on guns – and on butter. All the while she made sure that the warriors always remained subject to democratic checks, that war always remained what Clausewitz said it should be: a means to achieve political ends, rather than an end in itself: the continuation, famously, of politics by other means.  In hindsight, she made, on the whole, the right choices, not the wrong ones.

My purpose in arguing this is not to be triumphalist, to argue that Great Britain is the best country ever in the history of the world. (Although I do think it’s an impressive achievement of which the British can feel proud). But I hope I have shown two things. First, that it is possible to look at British history in the twentieth century and not see it purely in terms of decline and disaster. Secondly, that actually, if we are fully to understand the history of GB in the C20th we have to integrate her military and social histories, not treat them as separate or even inimical to each other, as historians have tended to do: they are intimately intertwined.

 

[1] 1. To ensure for British ships the unimpeded use of the sea, this being vital to the existence of an island nation, particularly one which is not self-supporting in regard to food.

  1. In the event of war, to bring steady economic pressure to bear on our adversary by denying to him the use of the sea, thus compelling him to accept peace.
  2. Similarly in the event of war, to cover the passage and assist any army sent over seas, and to protect its communications and supplies.
  3. To prevent invasion of this country and its overseas Dominions by enemy forces.

 

“No plan survives contact with the enemy”: How everything went wrong for everybody on the Western Front in 1914

I’m going to post here, from time to time, texts of papers I’ve given at various times on topics related to the First World War. They don’t always have a full (or indeed, sometimes, any) critical apparatus, and they were read out or improvised from, so please excuse any conversational touches, rough edges, etc. In some cases, they may overlap each other or other things I have written; in others, I may not even agree with them now. But I hope you find them interesting. Comments welcome.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy”: How everything went wrong for everybody on the Western Front in 1914

Jonathan Boff

Paper delivered to Surrey Branch, Western Front Association,  June 2014

Copyright: Jonathan Boff

One hundred years ago, pretty much to the minute, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and sparked off a chain of events which led to the war we’ll be commemorating over the next four years. The war that resulted certainly confounded the expectations of many. There’s a common view that the armies which went to war in August 1914 misunderstood the nature and lethality of modern war. Their officers, the story goes, were hidebound conservatives who despised technology and wilfully ignored the tactical lessons, of recent campaigns dating back to the American Civil War, of the difficulty of attacking in the face of withering modern firepower and the effectiveness of trenches. They therefore expected a short sharp conflict with a couple of decisive battles and home before the leaves fall. We now know that’s not true, that militaries studied, for instance, the Russo-Japanese War almost obsessively, and that senior figures on both sides in the run up to battle were anticipating  a long drawn-out conflict. In Britain, these included Kitchener and Haig; in Germany, the two Moltkes and Schlieffen’s quartermaster.

I was asked the other day, at an event similar to this, if there was any way it could have been a short war. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but only if Germany won.’ She needed a crushing victory over France in the first six weeks, as the famous Schlieffen plan intended. So if we want to understand how the stalemate developed, we have to explain why Germany didn’t win that victory. (I realise now that there was another way: if Russia captured Berlin. But this is not the Eastern Front Association, is it?)

This is well-trodden ground. As Professor Sir Hew Strachan has written, ‘probably no single episode in the military history of the First World War attracted so much controversy in the inter-war years as the events of the first six weeks on the western front.’  For between the wars the German army picked the scab of their failures in August and September with an almost frantic obsession, in a debate encompassing literally hundreds of publications and the best military brains in the country. What I’d like to argue today, however, is that all this brainpower was bound up in a mental strait-jacket of arrogance so deep that it was unable to face the real facts. Far from being a surprising outcome caused by the mistakes of a few individuals, the failure of the Schlieffen Plan was one of the most over-determined events in history. I will argue that the stalemate was not the result of tactical difficulties: these affected all sides more or less evenly. Instead, it was based in fundamental German weaknesses at both the operational and strategic levels which both contradict views of the German army as extraordinarily dangerous and shed light on the nature of warfare in 1914-18.

I’m not going to review all the literature generated by the controversy. We’d be here all night. And I’m going to ignore the Terence Zuber debate. Zuber has many weaknesses which include being catastrophically wrong about the Schlieffen plan. But it is worth highlighting some of the many ‘what-if’ questions which surround this campaign as a result.

What if Germany had not violated Belgian neutrality? Would Britain still have entered the war?

What if Moltke had stuck more closely to Schlieffen’s intentions and kept his left wing very weak?

What if Moltke had not sent 2 corps in East Prussia in late August?

What if Hentsch’s view that they should retreat from the Marne had not prevailed?

What if Kluck had turned Maunoury’s flank NE of Paris on the River Ourcq?

That’s a long list of questions, and I don’t intend to run through each now. We can talk about them if you like in questions later. But notice there are 2 common threads running through them all. First, none of them admit that the French might have been any good. Which of course they were. One of the most striking facts about 1914 is the skill with which Joffre used his interior railway lines to shift men from his right flank to the threatened left. Another is the resilience of the French soldiers who, even after ten days of defeats and retreats could still attack so desperately on the Marne. And secondly, they are all about the ‘wrong’ decisions of German individuals. Of course, individuals did make bad choices during the campaign. But notice that there’s no room for the idea that there might be something institutionally wrong with the German army. The presumption is that it was the Germans’ campaign to lose. And that, I think, is a mistake. Here’s why.

I’d like to talk about one particular aspect of the German army in 1914: command and control. Now, this is frequently seen as a particular strength of German armies of the twentieth century, the idea being that superior command systems and individuals enabled her to punch above her weight in both the world wars. In particular, the Allies are often criticised for having a restrictive, centralised system of command which made them ponderous and inflexible, while the Germans enjoyed a much more devolved and decentralised approach, known as Auftragsataktik or ‘Mission Command’, which left much more room for initiative on the part of the man on the spot and enabled high tempo, together with superior training and motivation, to offset inferiority in manpower and materiel. Now, the applicability of this concept to the army of 1914-18 has been questioned by those (Condell & Zabecki) who see it more as a product of the Freikorps experience. Others have seen it as representing a longer tradition of aristocratic independence under the King/Kaiser which left generals free to act as they saw fit (Citino). Elsewhere, I have argued that, if it ever existed at all, it broke down in 1918 under the pressure of events and Ludendorff’s personality. What I’d like to do today is to look at 1914, and particularly the experience of the commander of Sixth Army, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, to see what Auftragstaktik meant in 1914, and to offer a provocation or two of my own as to whether it makes sense to speak of a command system  in 1914.

Rupprecht, as a royal prince, is a particularly interesting case study for two reasons. First, he straddled two worlds: as heir to the throne of the second most important state in Germany he had political access and clout of his own, as well as privileged sources of information, such as the Bavarian Military Plenipotentiary at the Kaiser’s GHQ, General Karl von Wenninger. And yet he was also as close as any royal heir could come to a professional soldier, and had as his Chief of Staff the extremely professional and talented Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen. Their biographers disagree about who took the lead in this relationship in 1914, but they clearly worked well together as a team and for present purposes I’m going to treat them as a unit. Secondly, the conduct of this pair, especially in Lorraine in August and September 1914, has generated an impressive paper trail. We all know how obsessively the German army picked over the bones of the Schlieffen Plan between the wars, but we tend to remember only the controversies about what went wrong on the right wing, up to and during the Battle of the Marne. At the time, there was almost as much argument – some of it vicious – about what went on in Alsace and Lorraine. At least 20 publications argued back and fore before the outbreak of the next war closed the debate down. Markus Pöhlmann has written an extremely interesting study of this debate in his book on the writing of the German official histories.

There isn’t time today to fill in the narrative of the fighting on the southern half of the front. The fullest treatment so far, for those who are interested, is Dieter Storz’s in the Schlieffen Plan book published by the MGFA. Instead, I’ll concentrate on Rupprecht’s interactions with OHL at four key decision nodes, each of which displays a different model of command. Taken together, these suggest to me that thinking about German command in terms of where it sits along a continuum of Auftragstaktik is wrong and that another model altogether is a better fit for how decision were made. I’ll argue later that this model is the Kaiser’s court, but let’s leave that for now.

The first interaction I want to discuss occurred on Tuesday 18 August 1914. This was the fifth day of a retreat Rupprecht was carrying out, in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, designed to draw French forces into a pocket in Lorraine where they could be at least fixed to prevent them being shipped north to oppose Kluck and Bülow, and ideally destroyed. Intelligence was poor, partly due to wishful thinking. At first, OHL identified this as the main French thrust, involving up to 80% of Joffre’s active corps but Rupprecht was more sceptical, and by 17 August it was clear that the true figure was no more than half that. In any case, the French advance was far from the reckless onrush of myth but in fact was extremely cautious, averaging only some 5-8 km per day. Right from the start, Rupprecht had argued that if he were to tie down French troops in the south he needed to attack and gain the initiative. This would also help maintain the morale of his troops. In a series of fraught meetings and ‘phone calls with ever different members of OHL (Tappen, Dommes, Stein), Rupprecht became increasingly frustrated that Moltke’s staff were tying his hands.  Finally, during the afternoon of 18 August, Krafft spoke again with QMG Stein, who told him that OHL would not forbid an attack, that Sixth Army must do what it considered right, and ‘you must bear the responsibility.’ The decision was that Sixth and Seventh armies would attack on 20 August.[1] The official history summarises it thus: ‘after a lively debate with OHL Crown Prince Rupprecht had decided, despite Generaloberst von Moltke’s previously advocated plans for a further retreat of Sixth  Army, to go over to the offensive on 20 August to clarify the situation. OHL had delegated freedom of action, along with full responsibility, to AOK 6.’[2] As it happens, the attack, despite heavy casualties on both sides, was a major success, throwing the French back to where they had started within 48 hours. Moltke was moved to tears by Rupprecht’s success. The Kaiser awarded Rupprecht the Iron Cross both Second and First Class and was only dissuaded with difficulty from visiting him in person to congratulate him.[3] Only later did controversy arise, with Rupprecht accused of having attacked too soon in contravention of Moltke’s wishes and Schlieffen’s master-plan, and then of having pushed too far. Let’s ignore that for now. Instead, I would suggest, this is not a case of an empowered subordinate, as the ‘man on the spot’, feeling free to react as he feels right within the broad outlines of the mission he’s been given by his superior. Rather, this seems closer to an abdication of responsibility by an increasingly exasperated OHL.

Moltke’s command was famously dysfunctional and he didn’t last long, being shoved sideways soon after defeat on the Marne. Two things are striking about his replacement, Erich von Falkenhayn, however. First, he changed few of the personnel within his immediate staff. Secondly, .he brought no radical new idea, instead trying to stage Schlieffen II. To that end, Sixth Army was shifted up from Lorraine to try to outflank the French who would, it was hoped, be pinned along the River Oise. On 18 September Rupprecht and Krafft met Falkenhayn (and Moltke!) to receive their orders. These were to use his three (later four) corps to force a decision on the right wing and to secure the army’s flank. Communications were a problem, however. Everything needed for First, Second, Seventh and now Sixth armies was having to travel along just one railway line via Brussels and Valenciennes and Rupprecht’s corps would unload days apart and then be faced with approach marches of up to 100 miles. The question was whether they had time to wait, concentrate Sixth Army and strike in strength in a few days; or must advance as soon as possible with whatever was to hand. To Rupprecht, Krafft and Moltke, the first course of action was clearly preferable. Falkenhayn, however, insisted on a piecemeal deployment. His reasons for this were twofold. First, there were already signs of French pressure on Kluck’s open and vulnerable flank which must be protected as soon as possible. Secondly, the Germans, as so often in both wars, underestimated enemy resistance and exaggerated their own strength. One more push and the French would collapse…[4] Although Falkenhayn promised Rupprecht a free hand, it is hard to see what that could possibly mean when he was committed to such a piecemeal deployment. The predictable result was a series of indecisive encounter battles in the last week of September and first half of October from the Somme up to Lens, which achieved little beyond an extension of the stalemate northwards.

The change of command at the top eased command relationships between Sixth Army and OHL only temporarily. The diaries of Rupprecht and Krafft, for instance, are full of complaints not only of Prussian disdain for the Bavarians but of a ‘dilettantisch’ approach. Rupprecht’s response to new orders on 14 October – the third node – is revealing of how poorly the system was operating. Sixth Army was to hold on the defensive from La Bassée through Armentières to Menin to lure the British into a trap which the new Fourth Army would close. ‘The mission we’ve been given is analogous to that we had at the beginning of the campaign and it remains as questionable as before, whether the enemy will run into the trap. This return to Schlieffen’s ideas, under very different circumstances, seems to me very doubtful. We’re ceding the initiative completely to the enemy.’[5] Three times Rupprecht asked to be permitted to take the offensive; three times, Falkenhayn refused to let him do so. Falkenhayn allegedly told Wenninger ‘Even if the Crown Prince of Bavaria stands on his head, he may not attack!’[6] When Krafft and Rupprecht discussed protesting to OHL, however, they decided that they should not since it was OHL’s idea and their responsibility: a toxic reaction which speaks volumes.[7]

In the last few days of October, relations between OHL and Sixth Army deteriorated even further and offer us a fourth case. Rumours began circulating that Falkenhayn was criticising Rupprecht’s leadership behind his back. OHL bypassed Rupprecht by setting up a quasi-independent command under General Fabeck, partly using divisions from Sixth Army, for the ‘decisive’ attack up the Menin Road. This forced Rupprecht to cancel an assault planned for 27 October after he’d issued an order of the day calling for energetic attacks, thus making him look stupid. Rupprecht was furious: ‘Either I command the army, or I resign. This cannot go on. Falkenhayn lets himself be influenced by every Chinese whisper and jumps to conclusions which are in every way damaging, which weaken the offensive spirit of the men and undermine their trust in their superiors. If only Falkenhayn would be replaced by Gen. Oberst von Bülow or one of the senior generals. On the one hand army commands are kept too much in the dark about the general situation, on the other OHL interferes in their business, instead of contenting itself, in the manner of the great Moltke, with issuing general directives and leaving the armies to carry out the missions they’ve been assigned.’[8] Note the appeal to myth. He threatened to drive to see the Kaiser to complain, although there is no evidence he did so, nor that he raised the matter when the Kaiser next visited army HQ on 31 October – 1 November. What is certain, however, is that from now on Rupprecht and Falkenhayn were enemies. The prince formed part of the Hindenburg Fronde which sought to unseat Falkenhayn in early 1915. Falkenhayn continued to try to bypass Rupprecht in the chain of command all the way through the Artois battles of the spring, until at last the Prince was moved to complain to the Kaiser in May 1915. Falkenhayn was forced to apologise but took his revenge by transferring Krafft away to command the Alpenkorps and installing a Prussian colonel as Sixth Army Chief of Staff.

So, we’ve seen four different manifestations of command friction between OHL and Rupprecht. On 18 August, OHL apparently devolved decision-making but in fact abdicated responsibility. One month later, OHL again in theory gave Rupprecht a free hand but in practice did not. On 14 October OHL’s direct intervention was met by the Bavarian royal equivalent of the modern teenager’s ‘whatever’. And 27 October saw a final breakdown which led to both Rupprecht and Falkenhayn trying to find ways to work around the formal chain of command.

I’m not going to argue that either side was consistently right in the decisions made. Four factors put sand in the Vaseline. First, to a large extent friction arose precisely because the pressure of events threw up situations where, even if intelligence had been perfect, there was no single correct answer. And intelligence was very far from perfect. Secondly, command facilities and especially communications were consistently poor. For instance, at Sixth Army headquarters, the operations staff was crammed into two rooms (one of which doubled as Krafft’s bedroom) with only one telephone between them all.[9] Things weren’t much better at OHL in Luxembourg: there was no gas or electric light and the office of the Chief of Operations, Tappen, was in a cupboard.[10]  Thirdly, personalities played a role. Moltke was evidently in the throes of a nervous collapse of some kind; Rupprecht was a prickly character, full of amour-propre and keen to uphold the rights and privileges not only of himself as a Prince but also of Bavaria herself.[11]

The fourth and most important factor, however, was the nature of the command set-up itself. Two-dimensional models, which see decision authority going up and down the chain of command, require everyone to know which way is up. But the German system was less clear. As long as generals like Rupprecht thought they could bypass the chain of command and go straight to the Kaiser through the Immediatsystem, they were less likely to do as the Chief of the General Staff told them. This undermined the Chief of the General Staff’s authority, which was in any case weakened by the fact he that he knew he held his appointment only at the whim (I use the word advisedly) of Wilhelm II. As early as 10 August the head of his Military Cabinet was openly asking around whether Moltke was up to the job and Falkenhayn knew he was far from the army’s candidate for the job. The need to manage the Kaiser as well as the war was quite clearly too much for Moltke, and must have proved a serious distraction for his successor, too. More insidiously still however, the monarch-courtier dynamic characterised not just the relationship between Kaiser and CGS, but also that between the CGS and his immediate collaborators, whose future and career depended on him. Men of the so-called ‘camarilla’ like Tappen, Hentsch and Dommes were lucky to survive Moltke’s fall and knew it. The importance of their views, and the seriousness with which men like Rupprecht had to take what they said, inevitably waxed and waned with their influence, injecting yet more uncertainty into the relationship between OHL and subordinate commands.

In other words, it was Wilhelm II’s influence which allowed such a confusing and uncertain system to continue and indeed to replicate itself as thoroughly as it did in the higher ranks of the army. This created a culture of command so far from rational models of Auftragstaktik or its opposite that they seem almost irrelevant and, it appears, the word ‘system’ can hardly be applied. The more one looks at German command in 1914, the more apt Dr Johnson’s comment about a dog walking on its hind legs becomes: it was not done well, but it is surprising to find it done at all.

I’ve been putting the jackboot into the German army. But these problems of command and control were common to all armies and, given the difficulties of communication on the twentieth century battlefield, probably insuperable. In 1912 Foch said: ‘the armies have outgrown the brains of the people who direct them. I do not believe there is any man living big enough to control these millions. They will stumble about, and then sit down helplessly in front of each other thinking only of their means of communication to supply these vast hordes who must eat.’ This seems a pretty accurate prophecy of the first couple of years of the war, as the generals struggled with managerial problems on an unprecedented scale as well as the minor matter of how to fight their enemies. The railways had enabled the building of million-man armies and had transported them to the battlefield but as soon as the soldiers got off the train, although the weapons were new, they might as well have been campaigning a hundred or two hundred years before, otherwise. It was a combination of too many men blundering around in too small a space, armed with too much firepower which set up the stalemate. Nonetheless, soon in 1915 armies on both sides began to learn how to break in to the enemy’s defences, as the British showed at Neuve Chapelle, the Germans at Second Ypres and the French at Second Artois. But while communications remained too poor to enable exploitation and the conversion of break-in into break-out, and there was no effective arm for exploiting any breakthrough, little could change.

In other words, while there are certainly tactical aspects to the stalemate which creeps up the front between August and November 1914, I think the biggest influence is operational. As Bavarian military historian Dieter Storz has suggested, ‘Without doubt the German army of 1914 did least well where before 1914 it had been most confident and had trained itself well through staff rides and wargames: in the sphere of higher command.’  We haven’t even discussed logistics, but of course they are crucial too.

I’d like to finish up by thinking a little about strategy and how it applies here. If we restrict our analysis to the tactical and operational problems of the Schlieffen Plan, we are falling into the same trap the German army fell into in the 1920s: assuming it should have worked and then trying to work out why it didn’t. That’s an assumption which needs questioning, which means looking at the strategic coherence of the plan in the first place. The idea that France could be defeated in six weeks at first sight doesn’t seem stupid. After all, that’s exactly what happened in 1940 and, while Hitler’s army was more mechanised than Kaiser Bill’s, most of its soldiers still marched to war just as their fathers had done.  In 1940 French command was paralysed and the morale of the troops collapsed, but both might have happened in 1914 as well. In another case, Napoleon III lost the Battle of Sedan and his throne six weeks after the outbreak of war. (The defence of France in 1814 by his uncle, universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest generals who ever lived, lasted only two months.) In fact, though, it was more complicated than that. It was the war of 1870-1, of course, which resonated in the minds of Moltke the Younger and his colleagues, who were well aware that Sedan had changed the regime in Paris and the character of the war, but had not ended it. Instead, the new Third Republic had displayed an apparently inexhaustible ability to generate new armies and to inspire armed civilian resistance from franc-tireurs insurgents. The Schlieffen Plan had no political component at all, either to forestall such a possibility or to deal with it. Rather like the invasion of 1870, and some recent examples we can all think of, no provision had been made for establishing a new regime with whom a peace could be signed. So we can’t tell what German intentions were, in the event of them crushing the French army. Nor can we guess what French reactions would have been. All we know is that the German army was petrified of a rerun of the 9-months’ ‘Volkskrieg’ which followed Sedan and was determined to avoid it. That, after all, is one of the major reasons they massacred over 6,000 French and Belgian civilians in the opening months of the war: to indicate they were prepared to brook no resistance. If France had continued fighting, even after the fall of Paris, there’s no telling how many German divisions might have been tied down and so unable to attack Russia in the east. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that Russia would be defeated anyway. Russia’s a big place.

In other words, I suspect that, even if the Schlieffen Plan had worked, it wouldn’t have worked. If you see what I mean. Operational success, even including the fall of Paris on timetable and decisive defeat of the French army (the BEF is a strategic flea on the bull’s back in the 1914 context) would not have brought the strategic benefits intended.

Which raises the obvious question: why do it? One of the first lessons one learns as a historian is that, when you come across someone in the past doing something which seems irrational, that probably means you haven’t worked hard enough to understand their reasoning. True loonies are thankfully rare in history; most people are rational most of the time by their own lights: you just have to understand what those lights are. In the minds of Moltke & co and the Schlieffen Plan, there seem to have been several factors at play:

1) a genuine paranoia about encirclement, underpinned by a Social Darwninist view whereby empires which didn’t grow must die

2) a very real sense that Germany stood for a unique culture and set of spiritual values which was under threat from, especially, British materialism

3) a feeling that, however remote the possibility it worked, the Schlieffen Plan offered the best chance of success. In fairness, militarily, this was probably the correct judgement, once the decision for war had been made.

4)  a deep-seated, belief that man for man and unit for unit the German army was better than its enemies. This arrogance takes us back to where we came in. One of the tragedies of 1914 is that the German military either could not tell the difference between a conclusive result – with the Battle of the Marne was not – and a decisive one – which it certainly was. Or, if it could, it was not prepared to accept the decision. Nor did it learn the lesson that they did not have the best army in the world. Even the next three years of bloodshed was not enough for them to pick up that lesson. It would take another five and a half years of an even more terrible war to learn it properly.

[1] Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, Mein Kriegstagebuch (Eugen von Frauenholz, ed.) Volume I (Munich: Deutscher National Verlag, 1929), pp. 6-21. The account in the published diary follows the MS closely, omitting only the flustering of Dommes.  See also Krafft von Delmensingen, Die Führung des Kronprinzen Rupprecht von Bayern auf dem linken deutschen Heeresflügel bis zur Schlacht in Lothringen im August 1914 (Berlin: E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 1925), pp. 17-21

[2] Reichsarchiv, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Band I Die Grenzschlachten im Westen (Berlin: E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 1925), p. 256. See also pp. 208, 210-11.

[3] Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, Mein Kriegstagebuch (Eugen von Frauenholz, ed.) Volume I (Munich: Deutscher National Verlag, 1929), pp. 36, 41

[4] Rupprecht, Mein Kriegstagebuch Volume I, pp. 126-7; Diary entry 18 September 1914, pp. 1a-2a, BKA NL Krafft 48 Tagebuch 18.9.-27.10.1914; Robert T. Foley, German Strategy and the path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870-1916 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 99-102

[5] Italics only in unpublished diary

[6] Rupprecht, Mein Kriegstagebuch Volume I, p. 236

[7] Krafft Diary entry 14 October, p. 87a, BKA NL Krafft 48 Tagebuch 18.9.-27.10.1914

[8] Sentence in italics only in unpublished diary.

[9] Rudolf von Xylander,, Deutsche Führung in Lothringen 1914: Wahrheit und Kriegsgeschichte (Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt Verlag, 1935), p. 22

[10] Holger H. Herwig, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2009), p. 171

[11] Wenninger noted on 6 September that ‘my first week in our new headquarters as the only Bavarian was as miserable as that in Koblenz was enjoyable. The thermometer rises and falls with the performance of our troops on the battlefield.’

Writing Tips: A Model History PhD Introduction

I’ve been tweeting occasional Writing Tips via @jonathanboff but this is too long for a Tweet, so I thought I’d post these notes on how to write a PhD introduction here. Note that this is UK- and History-specific. Different traditions might have different requirements and I give no reps and warrants for the utility of this in other contexts. The underlying ‘So What?’ question is, I believe, applicable to writing the intro to any piece of written work, but UK History PhDs tend to meet a very formal, stylised set of expectations which this aims to help satisfy:

There is a template which the successful PhD Intro conforms to:

1) Brief para explaining broad area of interest

2) Detailed secondary literature review of works relevant to that theme (important: thematic, not book by book), from which it becomes evident either that there’s a gap or a debate in the historiography which you are going to fill/contribute to by…

3) Answering this Research Question (one sentence only, analytic not descriptive).

4) This question is important not only because it answers the issues raised in 2) but also because it relates to these broader debates (whatever you can think of)

5) To answer this question this dissertation will ask these 4-6 (?)  sub-questions , each one of which not-so-coincidentally occupies one chapter

6) and the sources used, which have these strengths and weaknesses, are X, Y and Z.

The question at the back of your mind when writing the Intro will be the same one pre-occupying the reader: So What? Why should I bother to read this thesis?

Hope this helps. Any comments gratefully received.

What can we learn from Haig’s Enemy?

I think we can learn at least seven things from seeing the war through Rupprecht’s eyes.

1) It would be easy, observing the commemorations of the past four years, to think that this was a British-only event. The fact that British soldiers fought alongside allies, most obviously the French, and against human enemies, most notably the Germans, is often skipped over, and we tend to look at the war from an exclusively British perspective. This is a mistake. It is clear from Rupprecht’s papers that, for the whole first half of the war, it was the French, not the British, who were perceived as the greater threat. Even when the BEF scaled up, from 1916 onwards, it was still the French army, not the British one, which scared the Germans most.

2) The German Army

Myth: The German army was a superb tactical instrument, a true meritocracy with a very flexible system of command which enabled fast responses and great flexibility. It learnt and adapted to the challenges of the new warfare with speed and skill, developing ‘stormtroop’ tactics in the attack, and elastic ‘defence in depth’ tactics when under threat, both of which underpin modern tactics even today.

Reality: The weaknesses within the German army contributed greatly to its defeat. The officer corps was riven with cliques and patronage. Senior commanders interfered all the time in the operations of their subordinates. It was overtaken in the race to innovate by the British and French, who created new ways of fighting by1918 to which the Germans could find no answer.

3) Arrogance

Just like the British in Blair’s Wars, the German military’s confidence in its ability to solve problems outran its capability. If the German army hadn’t presented the Schlieffen Plan as a workable military solution to Germany’s political problems, the war might never have started. Once war broke out and the Schlieffen Plan had failed, the high command continued to believe that it could find tactical answers to the impossible strategic situation Germany had created for herself, and so refused to consider any kind of climb-down. The army’s failure to be honest with itself, or with its politicians, cost Germany dearly. Arrogance loses wars.

4) The French…

…were seen as more of a threat by the Germans than the British. Not only did the French carry the main brunt of the fighting on the Western Front for at least the first two years of the war, but right to the end of the war the Germans saw them as more skilled fighters than the British. The troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were seen as brave but clumsily handled in battle, poor at coordinating attacks and exploiting success. On the other hand, politically, London was seen as the centre of gravity of the Entente. In March 1918, the Germany army launched its final desperate attempt to win the war with an attack on the BEF: partly because it felt the British were a softer target, and partly because they felt that knocking the British out of the war could cause the French to fold.

5) Learning and Adaptation

Myth: the war was a static, sterile stalemate where everyone just kept bashing away in the same unimaginative and futile manner.

Reality: it was a cockpit of furious innovation. Every time one side came up with some tactic or measure to give it an edge, the other raced to counter it. Brand new technologies such as the aeroplane and the tank were developed as weapons and built into radically different ways of fighting war which, by 1918, were almost unrecognisable to the soldiers of 1914. Learning and adaptation constituted another front in the war, one contested no less savagely than the physical fighting fronts.

6) Winners and Losers

Myth: This was the war no one won. Little changed, and nothing was solved. Domestic social and political change remained glacial. In international relations, it took a second, even more terrible, war, to resolve the German question.

Reality: Domestically, it is true, not much changed in Britain. There were no homes for heroes, and certainly few jobs. Some women got the vote, but they would probably have got it anyway. Politics went on much as before. In much of Europe, however, everything changed. Revolutions brought down the empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans, and of Germany herself. They swept away monarchies and ruling classes which had endured for centuries. The tragedy, for Germany and the world, was that the Weimar republic which took over from the Kaiser was too weak to withstand the ravages of the Great Depression and the demonic force represented by Hitler and the Nazis.

7) Tsunami of modernity

It’s easy to see the aristocrats of middle Europe who were washed over or away by the tidal wave of change in the first half of the twentieth century as tragic victims of forces beyond their control. The same applies, indeed, to many of those killed or otherwise harmed during the two world wars. For many of these people, however, that would be a sentimental mistake. They saw themselves not merely as passive victims but as responsible agents, making decisions for themselves. Often, sadly, those decisions were poor ones. History, however, should seek to reconstruct their sense of themselves, not rob them of it.

Who was Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, and why does he matter?

Under the 1871 constitution of the Second Reich, a number of independent kingdoms retained considerable autonomy within the empire of Germany. Prussia was the largest of these, but Bavaria was second biggest. So during the First World War Wilhelm II was Kaiser or Emperor of Germany and also King of Prussia, while in Munich Rupprecht’s father, King Ludwig III, ruled Bavaria and, in peacetime, had his own army. In wartime the Bavarian army became part of the German military, of which the Kaiser was Supreme Warlord. Rupprecht and his father were members of the Wittelsbach dynasty which had ruled Bavaria since the twelfth century. The most famous member of the dynasty is probably Mad King Ludwig II, the patron of Wagner and builder of castles so fairy tale that Walt Disney borrowed the silhouette of one for his Magic Castle.

Rupprecht himself was born in 1869, in Munich, the first of 13 children.  His name was a nod to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the English Civil War cavalryman and  King Charles I’s nephew. In fact, Rupprecht was descended through his mother from Charles I and would become the Jacobite Pretender. He was educated at a public high school (the first in his family to be so) and at Munich and Berlin universities. He was also commissioned into the Bavarian army and spent time at the Bavarian War Academy where the high-fliers were hothoused for senior command. By 1900, at the age of 31, had been promoted to Major-General and given command of a division and although it’d be naive to argue that his promotions owed nothing to his status, the evidence is that he worked hard at being a soldier, or at least as hard as a royal prince of those days could be expected to work. He had to balance his profession with carrying out an increasing number of royal duties, and chose also to indulge a love of foreign travel and Italian Renaissance Art.  His love of nudes was not confined to the Botticellis, however, and he enjoyed a typically late Victorian/Edwardian royal playboy youth until in 1900 he settled down by marrying his cousin, Marie-Gabrielle, in the face of opposition from both her parents and his family. Tragically, of the five children they conceived, only one survived to adulthood, and Marie-Gabrielle herself died young, aged only 32, in 1912. After losing his wife, Rupprecht threw himself into his military career with redoubled energy and in 1913 he was promoted to a post which would give him command of the largely Bavarian Sixth Army in the event of war.

He fought his first battles against the French in Lorraine during August and September 1914 where he fought a campaign which is little known here, because the British were not involved, but proved highly controversial in Germany between the wars. When the front there slid into deadlock, he was sent north during the so-called Race to the Sea to try to outflank the Anglo-French forces first along the line of the River Somme, then around Arras, until finally in October he finally came up against the BEF during the First Battle of Ypres. Over the next 18 months Rupprecht commanded Sixth Army on the defensive in Artois repelling French and British assaults in a series of bloody battles. His role in the early months of 1916 was restricted to a watching brief during Verdun and the early months of the Battle of the Somme until, in August 1916 he was promoted one last time, to Field Marshal, and given command of an army group, well over a million men, covering the front roughly from Champagne to the Belgian border. This gave him responsibility for coordinating the defence during the still-terrible last months of the Somme battle, as well as for iconic battles of 1917 such as Arras, Third Ypres and Cambrai. In 1918, it was Rupprecht’s men who spearheaded the offensives of spring 1918 which represented Germany’s last throw of the dice, and again it was they who bore the brunt of the Allied counter-offensives carried out between August and November 1918 during the campaign known as the Hundred Days.

By the time the Armistice was signed, Rupprecht had lost not only a war but also his inheritance. His father fled a revolution which seized control of Munich and effectively abdicated. Rupprecht escaped into Holland under a false name. Increasing political violence meant he was not able to settle back in Bavaria for a year, and even then, the threat of an indictment for war crimes hung over his head, although the case was eventually dropped. I’ll finish the story of Rupprecht’s life after the First World War in a later post.

So Rupprecht had a huge and highly responsible role at the heart of the German army on the Western Front for the whole war. He wasn’t, frankly, a new Napoleon: the First World War didn’t make many of those. It did, however, destroy the reputations and careers of many generals on both sides and Rupprecht not only avoided that fate but was sufficiently highly thought of that he was promoted, and given more responsibility, rather than the opposite. Most importantly for our purposes, as a senior general he was at the heart of Germany’s military effort and, by virtue of his royal and political status, privy to many of the debates and disputes which roiled the supreme command during the war. Conveniently, he also kept a very full diary: in the Secret Royal Household Archive in Munich are lodged 4,197 handwritten foolscap pages, almost all of them written up with a few hours or days of the events they describe. Luckily, his handwriting is not too bad and in 1928 he published an edited version cut down to a slightly more manageable 1400 pages in three volumes. The bulk of his correspondence, likewise, survives. Very few German, and even fewer British,  historians have really mined these sources in detail… until now.

Looking at Rupprecht, therefore, can teach us all sorts of interesting things not only about how the German army operated, which is useful if we are to grasp the war in its proper context; but also it can help us better understand what was happening on the British side of the war. In a later post, I’ll discuss some of the lessons I think we can learn.

Why did I write ‘Haig’s Enemy’?

There are two answers to this: a long one, and a short one.

The short one is ‘because I was asked to.’ When a prestigious publisher such as Oxford University Press invites you to write a book for them, I suspect that most historians, especially those still in the early stages of their academic career, would leap like a salmon for the opportunity. Getting the chance, with a reasonably priced volume, to speak, not just to a coterie of other academics, but to a broader trade audience, while retaining the intellectual bite to satisfy the demands of my masters and the Research Excellence Framework was too good a career opportunity to overlook.

The longer and less flippant answer goes as follows. This year marks the last of the First World War’s centenary years. August 2014 already seems a long way away. For a historian interested in memory and narratives of the past, it has been fascinating to observe how we collectively have chosen to remember and commemorate it. There have been some major triumphs along the way. I’ll mention just two: the Poppies, first at the Tower and then on tour around the country, took us all by surprise and offered a kind of secular but still semi-sacred focus of pilgrimage; and we’ve seen fantastic engagement by local people all over the UK with the wartime history of their communities. Alongside the triumphs, however, as always there have been areas where I think we have fallen short. I don’t intend to go through them all here: perhaps I will in a later post. But one failing is particularly relevant to my book, Haig’s Enemy. The failing I have in mind is that we’ve been unable to break out of the habit of seeing the First World War as an almost purely British event. Rarely, in the course of the centenary commemorations, or in the popular memory of the conflict more broadly, have we been reminded that this was an international event, which saw not only British and Commonwealth, but French, German, Italian, Russian and Turkish families also ripped apart. The 888,000-odd poppies represented well the dead of the Empire but said nothing about the young men from France or America who never came home, to mention just 2 countries, never mind the German, Austrian or Turkish soldiers who fell, too. Even professional historians have tended to write the German history of the war, or the French history of the war, or, most often in this country, the British history of the war; but rarely have they put them together. I am a pretty simple bloke, but this always seemed a bit of a problem to me. There are two sides to every story, after all.

So, the first thing I wanted to try to do with this book was to see what the First World War would look like if you looked at it through German eyes, rather than those of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. And the best way of doing that, I thought, was to find a particular individual who was closely involved in as much of the war as possible and to follow his experience through. It needed to be somebody who hadn’t been much written about, especially in English, and so I settled on Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, Haig’s Enemy and the most famous general you’ve never heard of. I’d come across him when writing my previous book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front and thought he might be interesting. Anyone who has read much about the Generals of the First World War will know that they tend to be somewhat one-dimensional characters whose interests outside soldiering were limited to horses and golf, but Rupprecht was different: he had a real hinterland and lived a long and in some ways tragic life.

In later posts I’ll talk more about who Rupprecht was, why he was important and interesting, and will preview some of the things I think we can learn about the First World War, and indeed modern history more widely, from studying him.

The German Spring Offensives 1918: Corollary: Why the British weren’t (quite) so dumb after all

Although, as I argued in my blog of 5 March (see below), the German army’s offensives in the spring of 1918 were always likely to fail, they did enjoy some startling successes. The first few days of both Operation MICHAEL (which began on 21 March) and Operation GEORGETTE (9 April) strained the British army almost to breaking point. More British troops raised the white flag and went into captivity during the two weeks of MICHAEL than during the whole of the war on the Western Front up until then: 75,000, in all. This was less the result of a general loss of morale than a symptom of British defensive tactics being sometimes unable to withstand a German attack which was always extremely violent and sometimes deployed stormtroop tactics to great effect.

One reason commonly put forward, by historians such as Tim Travers and Martin Samuels, for the failure of the British defence was that the BEF was trying, but failing, to put into effect tactics of ‘elastic defence-in-depth’ which they had cribbed from the Germans. ‘Elastic defence-in-depth’ (EDID) is a system, echeloned back from a thinly held front line, whereby most of one’s strength was held back, out of enemy artillery range, in a series of zones up to ten miles deep, which would operate rather like the crumple zones on a car. When attacked, forward garrisons were to give ground until the enemy, channelled into natural killing zones and disordered by his advance, could be counter-attacked and defeated by reserves manoeuvring up from deep. There is no question that GHQ ordered the BEF to organise their defences along such lines. Nor is there any doubt implementation was patchy and inconsistent, and that, when the Germans struck, many of the new defences were not complete, especially in the sector of the overstretched British Fifth Army.

To some extent, the British failed for a lack of resources: the manpower and material required to develop successive defensive positions in zones deep into the rear simply did not exist. To some extent, however, it is also represented as a conceptual shortcoming: the British, it is argued, never truly understood the idea of EDID, because (implicitly) they were either too dumb to grasp how it was supposed to work, or never possessed the tactical flexibility required to make it do so.

There is, however, a hidden assumption in here: that EDID was the best way of resisting offensives in modern warfare. With hindsight, we know that to be true. But in 1918 it was much less clear. Considerable doctrinal debate was continuing within the German officer corps, where three views of the best way to organise a defence contended. First, there were still a few traditionalists who believed that the morale advantages of holding firmly on to the front line (‘crust defence’) outweighed the rigidity of such a scheme and its vulnerability to enemy artillery fire. Secondly, there were the adherents of EDID, as outlined above. And there was a third group who, when they talked of ‘defence-in-depth’, had in mind not an elastic scheme of manoeuvre but a series of tough fixed defences echeloned deep. During the Third Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917), all three had been tried at one stage or another. None proved successful all the time. EDID had proved unable to prevent the ‘bite-and-hold’ tactics General Plumer used in late September 1917, but the crust defence employed at the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October) was no better at stopping the British. Although Ludendorff ordered an immediate return to EDID, in the mud of the Passchendaele Ridge defences, although deep, became increasingly static. In any case weather, terrain and logistics robbed the British offensive of much more force than any German tactical genius.

In other words, the evidence of the last full-scale battle before spring 1918 was that there was no single defensive panacea on the Western Front (any more than a ‘silver bullet’ existed for the offence). If the Germans, who after all had several years of defensive experience on the Western Front, couldn’t make up their minds, why are we surprised that the British were caught in several minds? EDID was not some self-evident answer which the British were just too dumb to see.

Why, then, does the consensus think EDID was so obviously the solution? The answer begins, as it did in the case I discussed in my blog of 5 March, with the German official historians. To them, manoeuvrists to a man, EDID seemed the only possible way for an emasculated and outnumbered interwar Reichswehr to defend Germany against Poland or, heaven forbid, France.* Therefore, they played up EDID in their studies of the FWW, and so it entered the mainstream. The experience of the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, especially on the Eastern Front (and at least when Hitler wasn’t, ironically, insisting on ‘no retreat’), reinforced the apparent utility of EDID, and fed directly into US and NATO doctrine for the defence of Western Europe against the Warsaw Pact. So hindsight, and the agenda of the German official historians between the wars, have conspired to make the BEF look dumber than they probably would have done at the time.

* There is a final, intriguing possible hypothesis, which it would take much research to test, if it is possible at all to reconstruct what happened in sufficient detail. The final volume of Der Weltkrieg, Volume XIV, which deals with the events of 1918, was not finally compiled until probably about 1943 or even 1944, by which point Hitler had issued several ‘no retreat’ orders, in the face of opposition from his generals of the traditional Army. ‘No retreat’ has similarities with ‘crust defence’. Might the emphasis on EDID in the later volumes of the official history represent coded criticism of Hitler from the official historians? After all the Reichsarchiv was closely aligned with the old-school army and, indeed, had intimate ties with the plotters of July 1944….

 

 

The German Spring Offensives of 1918: Last Chance or Forlorn Hope?

In the March 2018 issue of BBC History magazine, my esteemed colleague and friend Professor Alexander Watson has contributed an excellent article on the German spring offensives on the Western Front in 1918: ‘Germany’s Final WW1 Gamble’. He argues that the offensives, which began on 21 March with Ludendorff’s onslaught on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) around St Quentin, marked Germany’s last chance to win the war and that they blew their opportunity by failing to pay sufficient attention to the operational level of war. Specifically, he argues, Ludendorff diffused effort when he should have concentrated it, and never identified  the importance of logistics, and especially the rail hubs at Amiens and Hazebrouck, to the BEF and so to the Allied war effort. Fine tactical performance, in other words, was undermined by poor operational art.

This line of argument has a long history, dating back at least to the German Official History (Der Weltkrieg), written in 14 volumes between the 1920s and early 1940s, the last volume of which, dealing with 1918, was finally published only in 1956. Professor Watson is an exceptional scholar, to whom I will gladly defer on most things to do with the Central Powers, and on anything concerning the Eastern Front, during the First World War. His article is very much of a piece with the consensus, and reflects in particular reflects David Zabecki’s outstanding The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War (Routledge, 2006). On this, however, the consensus, Zabecki and Watson are wrong, and the reason they are wrong throws up interesting issues around the way the German high command conceived the war they were fighting, as well as how its history was constructed.

There is no doubt that Ludendorff made a number of mistakes during the spring of 1918. He should have delegated command to a single Army Group rather than try to keep control himself. He under-estimated both how quickly his assault troops would tire and the logistics required to maintain the offensive’s momentum. He certainly failed to set a single operational objective, preferring instead to follow an opportunist approach which led to eccentric, rather than concentric, attacks. And he probably did not attach sufficient importance to either Amiens or Hazebrouck.

To argue, however, as the consensus does, that operational errors undermined brilliant German tactics, is to subscribe to a hidden assumption that the Germans would have succeeded had they not made certain mistakes. This, I would argue, is false, for two reasons, the second of which tells us something very interesting about how the history of the war has been constructed.

First, it underestimates the seriousness of the situation in which Germany found herself. On paper, at the end of 1917, Germany had three options:

1) settle for a negotiated peace

2) sit on the defensive in the West while eliminating Russia and Italy

3) attack in the West to defeat Britain, France (or both).

In reality, her choices were much more limited. There was no possible peace deal on the table, and even if public opinion in all the combatant countries had not hardened beyond compromise as the war went on, no one was more intransigent than Ludendorff. He could not give up Belgium but, unless he did so, no peace deal was likely to be acceptable to the Entente. For him, any outcome less than total victory would count as defeat and threaten revolution at home.  Further, Britain, France and the USA were clearly determined to fight on, with or without Russia, so sitting on the defensive would achieve little, except give the Americans time to build up their strength in Europe and shift the balance further against Germany. In other words, if Germany did not attack, she’d be admitting defeat. The Spring Offensives were a desperate gamble by a man and a country who felt they had nothing to lose because they were doomed. The parallels with the Ardennes Offensive of 1944 are striking: Ludendorff shared some of Hitler’s nihilism, even if he did not take it to quite such murderous extremes (as Michael Geyer has argued).

Secondly, it would be a mistake to see German stormtroop assault tactics as brilliantly successful but undercut by poor operational art. Often lauded as foreshadowing Blitzkrieg and establishing a template for modern warfare, they were in fact were far from invincible.  Even on the first day of the offensive, 21 March, for all the stunning gains made in some sectors, the Germans were stopped five miles short of their objectives in others. The attack on 28 March (Operation Mars) proved a disastrous failure at least in part due to poor German artillery and infantry tactics. German success and failure, even at the tactical level, depended, as always, on terrain, weather and the strength or weakness of the Entente defence. The Allies also did some important things which contributed to the outcome, right, such as appointing Foch to supreme command to reduce potential Anglo-French friction, and accelerating the pace of American reinforcement.

Why do we see the Spring Offensives so completely through German eyes? Why do we automatically assume that this was Ludendorff’s battle to lose? The answer, I think, lies largely in the role of the Reichsarchiv in writing the German official history. Those who composed the Official History had the same benefit of hindsight we do. They could have seen that the Central Powers were in a hopeless position by spring 1918, and had been since at least the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914) if not before, had they chosen to focus on the political and strategic levels of war. Instead, they obsessed about the operational and tactical, and they did so for a very specific reason. The Reichsarchiv authors were mainly retired officers of the wartime German General Staff, trained before 1914 by Graf von Schlieffen and his acolytes. They had been chosen specifically to construct an Official History which would serve to educate the officers of the shrunken post-Versailles Reichswehr, to maintain the technical excellence and self-perceived political aloofness of the army, and to keep the manoeuvrist Schlieffenite flame alight against the day when it might be required once more. The two campaigns which attracted most of their attention were the two where the German army most obviously failed: those of August-September 1914 and of March-June 1918; and their emphasis throughout was on the German mistakes made, so that these could be put right next time. To admit that the enemy had been better would not only generate no useful tactical or operational lessons, but also undermine the German soldiers’ image of themselves as the best in the world and threaten morale. Nor did they have any interest in narratives of strategic hopelessness, because the idea that Germany should never again fight such a war was irrelevant to those who saw themselves as preparing her in case she must. Hence we’re left with the German Official History, the ultimate source for almost all the accounts of the Spring Offensive written since, as a very influential narrative of what might have been, if only… Whereas, in fact, the German attacks of March 1918 were the last forlorn hope of a bankrupt regime and their defeat was as inevitable as any event in History ever is.*

* And in Haig’s Enemy (OUP, 2018, available at all good bookshops…), I discuss in detail how and why the German military could not, or would not, face this fact until it was too late.

Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front

I’ve refreshed this website to celebrate the imminent publication of Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front by Oxford University Press. You can find out more about the book here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/haigs-enemy-9780199670468?q=jonathan%20boff&lang=en&cc=gb

I intend to blog more about why and how I wrote this book over the next few weeks, but in the meantime, here’s the cover art (which I love):

9780199670468