November 1918

1918: Year of Victory, edited by Ashley Ekins; Exisle Publishing, 2010, 308 pages, $49.99.

The Great War “changed the world irrevocably. Running like a scar across history, it became a demarcation line [and] marked the birth of the modern era, in attitudes, social relations, art and culture”. Indeed it did, and we all remain heirs to this cataclysm, which will increasingly dominate historical debate as the centenary of the outbreak of the war approaches in 2014.

This book is a timely and useful contribution to that debate. Its fifteen chapters cover most of the important aspects of the final year of the war; they are generally well written and accessible to academics, professionals and lay readers alike; the book itself is handsome and extremely well produced, with many illuminating photographs, and two helpful maps.

With one exception, the chapters were originally presented at an international conference on “1918 Year of Victory”, held at the Australian War Memorial in November 2008, and this may explain their conciseness and clarity of expression. Generally, the contributors are prominent academic and professional military historians, and their essays are well documented and competently argued. Several are particularly notable, especially the one paper included that wasn’t presented at the conference: “Ninety years on: Recent and changing views on the military history of the First World War” was delivered by Stephen Badsey as a public talk at the AWM in October 2008, and has been included because of its obvious value as an overview of an increasingly contentious area of historical research.

The book begins with a helpful introduction by the editor, who also contributes an interesting chapter on morale, discipline and combat effectiveness in 1918. The first contribution is a chapter by Jay Winter, which served as the keynote address to the conference. Winter enjoys probably the highest profile amongst historians of the Great War in the English-speaking world, and led the increasingly problematic shift in the field from political, diplomatic and military concerns to issues of social and cultural history, with an ever-expanding focus on the civilian population and its experience of the war. It is therefore perhaps a little incongruous that his is the lead essay, as others pursue the more traditional focus, and it may be for this reason that the editor describes his assessment as “original”.

In fact, it is not so much original as peculiar. It is also gimmicky, with strained references to “geometry”, “dialectic”, “double helix”, “braiding”, “structure and contingency”, “topography”, “overdetermination”, and “field of force”. This theoretical patina reflects Winter’s postmodern approach to the study of the war. Himself a socialist and a pacifist, Winter’s first book had been an intellectual history of Socialism and the Challenge of War (1974), but with Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1995), he became the Anglophone prophet of the cultural history of the Great War, which he sees as the culminating third stage in its historiography, supplanting the first stage, dominated by military and diplomatic histories; and the second, characterised by economic and social histories. The third, cultural, approach turns away from the tangible military dimensions of the war towards its non-military and civilian aspects, conceived in ethereal postmodernist terms as texts, narratives, codes, symbols and languages; and it explicitly elevates a preoccupation with aspects of individual subjectivity such as memory, mourning, intimacy and identity over the academic objectivity that had previously guided military history.

As Gary Sheffield remarks in his book Forgotten Victory, this is allegedly necessary because the war was “such a uniquely terrible experience that it cannot be understood as part of any historical process or analysis [but only] through the emotional response of individuals”. Although this approach “collides head on with the archive-based ‘scientific’ approach to the writing of history”, this is disregarded, allegedly because “the majority of people view [the war] as a unique cultural event, essentially ‘outside’ history”, while only “a small group of historians [any longer] see the war in the context of political and military history”.

One result of this postmodern approach that elevates the war into the realm of the ineffable is the notorious exhibition (or “non-exhibition”) at the revisionist Historial de la Grande Guerre at Péronne, in which Winter played a lead role. Here, the Battle of the Somme is meant to be memorialised by silently declaring (that is, without any signage or other public notification of the fact) that an entirely empty wall between rooms 2 and 3 is mystically symbolic of that battle. As Winter explains, in Remembering War:

Without even a notice, there is another metaphoric representation of something not there—the Battle of the Somme itself … By leaving a blank wall on your right between rooms 2 and 3 … we confront you with the radical impossibility of representing the Battle of the Somme. This absence, or silence, or void, if you will, is an anti-monument, a challenge to our comprehension … What was it like to be here, on the Somme … when the battle was still going on? We simply do not know in a way we can represent in this museum.

(Visitors might reasonably reply that if the research and curatorial staff don’t know how to represent the Battle of the Somme, then it might be time for some new staff.)

In his chapter, Winter expresses mystification at another event: How did the Germans manage to lose the war, given the alleged gross incompetence of the Allies’ high command and the avowed military genius of the Germans? Thoroughly bemused, Winter is driven to assert that “the best way to approach the question as to when the German army and nation realised the game was up is to bypass any attempt at a comprehensive, coherent answer”, and he then goes on to illustrate this rather anarchic approach by quoting Hitler’s Mein Kampf sympathetically and at length because he believes it illuminates “the double helix of front and home front”.

Winter’s argument therefore operates at a high level of generality but is consistent with his focus on the civilian dimensions of the war. It appears to be that the war was won and lost on the respective home fronts, and reflected the difference between democratic and autocratic states and the distinct ways these mediated narratives about the military and civilian war efforts. Accordingly, “there were parallel roads to victory and defeat”, from home front to battle front, and “the way the Allies built and maintained this road led to victory; the way the Germans did so led to defeat”. He adds the qualification that it was only the German genius for “operational ingenuity”, that allowed them to delay for so long the inevitable. Ultimately, however, it was the civilian population that determined the outcome: there was a “braiding together of disillusionment”, confidence in the military effort evaporated, extreme privations were no longer accepted; and by July 1918, “there was no reason to continue a war which could not be won”. Winter adds that there had indeed been a “stab in the back”, but that it had been “Ludendorff [who] had wielded the dagger”.

The question of how Germany could possibly have lost arises because of the hegemony exercised over the entire field by the nihilist view of the war, according to which, as Stephen Badsey summarises: “the war had begun as an accident over nothing, been fought by incompetents who had sacrificed a generation, and nothing had been won by it that was worth winning”. This perspective serves as an all-pervasive underlying premise, so that, as Robin Prior laments in another chapter:

many conferences on the First World War are exercises in flagellation and depression [and] the only sensible conclusion to reach … is that the Allies lost the war. Indeed, one historian did reach the astounding conclusion that in 1918 the Germans were so successful that they were forced to seek an armistice. So even when the Allies won, they lost.

Fortunately, Prior’s chapter shifts the argument from myths and generalities to battlefield specifics. For example, he describes an inspection of enemy gun emplacements carried out by a group of British staff officers the day after the battle of Amiens. It revealed that accurate prolonged shelling had made it impossible for the Germans to man their guns, 90 per cent of which were captured intact. As a result, at a cost of 9000 men, “in one day at Amiens the British had gained almost the same amount of ground they had on the Somme in four months; and that [earlier] effort had cost them 400,000 casualties”.

Rather than follow Winter in “braiding” abstract arguments about “structure and contingency” and the “double helix”, Prior addresses the centrality for victory of such brutally relevant issues as “the wear on the barrels of individual guns, the speed of the wind, and the temperature of the air on the day of battle”, along with accurate maps, aerial photography, effective range-finders, and the preparedness of junior officers to persist with perfecting their art in the face of lack of interest from High Command. Consequently, at Amiens and along the Hindenburg Line, unprecedented artillery bombardments devastated the German defences, and “no infantry, whether well trained or ill, could withstand this maelstrom”. As Prior concludes, in what serves as a riposte to Winter’s view of the war as an event decided in the realm of culture, “whatever events were being played out on the German home front, there [was] no disguising the fact that it was the army in the field that had lost the war”.

Nevertheless, it is a reflection of the grip the nihilist view of the war has on our culture that Prior concludes by lamenting how “the greatest victory ever won by the British Army, at Amiens … is now largely forgotten”, while the focus remains always on the carefully cultivated tales of wilful carnage at Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. He sees his essay as an attempt to help restore the balance.

This is the mission also of Gary Sheffield, whose book Forgotten Victory is a tour de force that tackles the nihilist argument head-on. In his chapter, he expresses optimism that the “lions led by donkeys” stereotype is in retreat. He also resists the assertion that the German army “to a considerable extent defeated itself”, although he acknowledges, for example, that the German High Command’s failure to recognise the strategic significance to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of the logistic and communication centres of Hazebrouck and Amiens, and to launch all-out attacks on them was a major error. Ultimately, for Sheffield, it was “allied soldiers manning artillery pieces and machine-guns, firing Lee-Enfields and Lebels”, who inflicted the decisive losses when the Germans launched their last massive, desperate attack.

Their High Command sought to end the war in much the same way it had begun, betting everything on the massive Kaiserschlact, in much the same way that it had wagered victory on the Schlieffen Plan. While the first day of Operation Michael, March 21, 1918, was nearly a debacle, with German forces smashing through the British on the Somme, ultimately the Germans merely “captured large tracts of ground that proved to be indefensible”, suffering 40,000 casualties to the BEF’s 38,000. It was “a tactical defeat for the British, but … a strategic disaster for the Germans”. As Robert Foley points out in another chapter, between March 21 and April 10, the besieging German armies in Operation Michael “lost 303,750 casualties, including 35,163 dead. In other words … the equivalent of an entire army”.

Like Prior, Sheffield also emphasises the importance for ultimate victory of the many improvements and innovations that advanced the performance of the allied forces, including:

the evolution of combined arms tactics based around the all-arms team; advances in artillery techniques; sound logistics; airpower; and not least, hard-won experience among fighting troops, regimental officers, staff officers and commanders.

As a case study he recounts the exploits of the 38th (Welsh) Division in 1918. Raised in 1914 as a New Army formation, “it was initially heavily politicised with various Liberal apparatchiks being put into command positions”, although it improved after “some judicious sackings”. It also lost strength in 1918, with brigades being reduced from four to three battalions, creating morale issues.

Nevertheless, it engaged in a successful attack in April 1918 near Aveluy Wood, “clearly displaying a measure of tactical competence”. This was repeated in several other actions, in August and October, so that

judged by the results of their attacks during the Hundred Days, the 38th Welsh Division was in a select band of elite divisions. Along with three Australian, three Canadian, and another four British divisions … it achieved a success rate of between 70 and 80 per cent.

This reflected various tangible factors including devolution and flexibility of command; much shorter time lags between the planning and execution of attacks; recognition of the potential of combined arms attacks; and high morale. Such improvements made this crucial period “the twentieth-century British army’s finest hour”, as it defeated the much-vaunted German forces.

An Australian case study of this “learning curve” process is provided by Peter Pedersen in his chapter on Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash’s application of formal battle procedure in his command of the Australian Corps in 1918. Learning from the bitter experience of Gallipoli, Monash insisted on the need to allow adequate time for the orders relating to a planned attack to percolate through the command structure and be implemented. In addition, “Monash imparted to the Australian Corps what he called a unity of thought, purpose and tactical method”. This thoroughness was applied successfully in several battles, including the capture of Hamel spur, which was preceded by a planning conference chaired by Monash with an agenda of 133 items. By 1918, the Australians were well trained and highly experienced, the command structure had become devolved, responsive and flexible, and the various units could readily anticipate each other’s actions. As a result, Hamel was followed by significant success at Amiens, Mont St Quentin and Péronne, where procedures had to be compressed as the battles quickly unfolded.

Other chapters provide valuable discussions of the experiences of the French, American, New Zealand and Canadian forces, all of which add something to our understanding of the history of the war, and frequently contest received wisdom. Elizabeth Greenhalgh counters the view that the French were minor players in 1918; while Meleah Ward argues that the inexperience of the American forces coupled with a determined attachment to outdated open warfare tactics limited their effectiveness and increased their losses. Unfortunately, “the Americans remained resolute in their inexperience and faced a long learning curve, a process they were ultimately spared by the ending of the war”. Glyn Harper seeks to lift the veil that has inexplicably fallen across the outstanding efforts of the Kiwis in the important battle of Bapaume, observing that it was “a significant milestone in the New Zealand Division’s long, dark journey across the Western Front”.

In his excellent chapter on the Canadian Corps during the Hundred Days campaign, Tim Cook describes how “the Canadians had climbed the steep learning curve of battle since early 1915”, and had come to serve as elite shock troops, only to find that the 1918 attacks looked “like repeats of the Somme”, as they were hurled into some of the most important battles, at quite disproportional cost, suffering 45,835 casualties between August 8 and November 11. Tragically, rumours spread that the Canadians had been sacrificed by their commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, “to enhance his reputation in the eyes of his imperial masters”. So bitter and prolonged were these feelings that Currie was obliged to fight a prominent court case in 1928 to clear his name.

The remainder of the book is composed of interesting chapters on the war at sea and in the air in 1918, another on the peace settlement and one on the Returned Sailors and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia, 1916–19. It concludes with Stephen Badsey’s invaluable chapter, mentioned above.

Ultimately, November 1918 marked the victorious end of the beginning of the battle for liberal democracy that continues today. As Badsey points out, the nihilist view of the war contested in many of these chapters emerged shortly after the war, in the context of Comintern anti-Western propaganda, German and American revisionism, political vendettas, attention-seeking memoirs, economic depression, totalitarianism, the Second World War and the Cold War, and then took a firm hold during the cultural revolution of the 1960s, “in which the entire structure of the societies that had fought the First World War was rejected and mocked”.

Tragically, this insurgent generation now has a stranglehold on the academic study of history, so that it is “not possible to study the First World War at either undergraduate or master’s degree level at Monash University”—named, of course, after our greatest general—and “there seems a real danger that the Australian voice may cease to be heard in the near future” in the study of the war. This creates a vacuum that high-profile ideologues from the far Left are eager to fill with their hyperbolic repetition of the nihilist view, applauded by media that literally know no better (see my article “Anzac in Ashes”, Quadrant, April 2010). Fortunately, as this book demonstrates, there are still some scholars with the objectivity and skill required to expose this view for the self-lacerating ideological bunkum that it is. 

Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer, History and Communication, at James Cook University.

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