Reviewed by David Beechey
David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2011. ISBN: 9780674062269 752 pp., $35.00.
I must first of all admit that on opening this book I very quickly became prejudiced in favour of it simply because there are twenty one pages of clear maps. I am often disappointed in works of military history because frequently they are woefully short on maps and without maps and it is difficult to follow the author’s arguments and the troop movements that are described in the text. I wondered if the text would justify my initial favourable impression and I have to say that it does.
The first part of the book is a succinct précis of the War up until the Armistice in November 1918. David Stevenson has previously written an excellent history of the First World War and it is no surprise that his précis brilliantly describes not only popular opinion in the belligerent nations but the political manoeuvrings as well as the battles.
He describes how, with an increasing number of belligerents, Britain was forced to send an expeditionary force to Iraq because of Turkish intervention and led and instigated an Arab revolt. This was still a sideshow compared to Europe. Japan then joined the War on the Allied side but only to acquire German possessions in the Pacific and German leaseholds in China and then did little else. Stevenson also details the involvement of other nations and the other fronts; many of them little known.
He is fascinating in his wide ranging analysis of the politics and how a number of peace feelers had been made in 1917 and early in 1918. Unfortunately neither France, Germany nor Britain were prepared to concede much. It appears that he does not fully share the widely accepted view about President Wilson’s idealism because he notes ‘(Wilson) had decided that it was not in America’s interest to endorse any peace feelers including one started by the Pope and wanted the war to continue which would make Britain and France more dependent on him and augment his leadership over both camps’.
It is astonishing on completing the Prologue to realise that despite the terrible losses in men there was little opposition by the public in any of the belligerent nations, except for Russia, and despite the impression given by countless films and books morale was high. Britain and France still maintained a free press although Germany did not.
By the end of 1917 all participants still had hopes of winning although Britain and France were preparing for the fighting to continue well into 1919. The major event was the collapse of Russia in 1917 and the opportunity for Germany to force a favourable peace and move considerable forces to the Western Front. America had entered the War and Stevenson believes that the Germans ‘feared their numbers’ but ‘considered them brave but poorly trained’ and although they ‘foresaw that American deployments would tilt the balance…they failed to predict the massive US troop shipments’. By the 1st April 1918 the German army numbered over 4 million whereas the Allies could muster just over 3 million. These troop numbers are inconceivable in Western Europe to-day. Both sides, contrary to modern day popular opinion, had developed innovative tactical developments. I was particularly intrigued to read about the ‘Pulkowsky Method’ ( the idea seems to fit our preconceptions of Germanic thoroughness ) which ‘calibrated painstakingly the idiosyncracies of each individual gun’s firing trajectory by trials away from the line; so that when used in action it could target a map co-ordinate accurately without registration’. The Germans had also interestingly developed the early imaginings of the Blitzkrieg used so successfully in 1940. Having made the decision to attack, the increasing build up of American forces behind the French positions was a major factor in the German decision to ‘strike the English’.
The major German problem was a lack of motorised transport and was another important factor in choosing the British rather than the strategic objectives that they actually desired simply because they were closer. Even then ‘all the German military chiefs regarded the offensive as a high-stakes gamble’.
The British were not experienced in defence having been almost entirely on the offensive whereas the Germans had developed defensive systems consisting of zones, with plentiful reserves beyond artillery range, and starting initially with outposts not a continuous trench. The British were starting to emulate the Germans but were ‘in a backward state’ even though British and French intelligence had ascertained that an offensive was likely.
On the 21st March the Germans attacked and the artillery barrage preceding it was the greatest ever experienced. The British upon whom the main thrust was directed were forced to retreat and the Germans advance was significant and was more extensive than any previous offensive by either side. It was viewed by Haig, commanding the British, as being so serious that he issued a Special Order on the 11th April — ‘three weeks ago the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a fifty mile front….with our backs to the wall ….each one of us must fight to the end…’. Vera Brittain, the well known and highly principled pacifist who was nursing behind the Front commented that ’there was a braver spirit in the hospital that afternoon’.
However, although the British were prepared for a battle of attrition, the Germans were not; and once again it was the American build-up which was always a serious factor in their calculations.
The losses were staggering. Between the ‘21st March and the 29th April nearly 700,000 men became combat casualties: 326,000 Germans, 107,000 French and 260,000 British’. The French became worried that the British would have their eyes on a retreat to the Channel ports but this was not a British intention as they had confidence that the French could stand in defence and even support them ( unlike 1940 when the French could obviously not do so hence the British retreat to Dunkirk ) although obviously there were contingency plans for such an evacuation.
The German second blow was on the 27th May and was again an intelligence triumph because they identified another weak spot in the Allies lines which was thinly held by French troops and partly held by recuperating British forces. The attack was so successful that the advance was allowed to continue beyond the objectives. Pershing ‘informed Washington that the situation was very grave and the time had come for the US to bear the brunt of the war’. On the 31st May the US 3rd Division helped to halt the German advance along the Marne and on the 6th June the US 2nd Division attacked Belleau Wood clearing it of Germans despite taking heavy casualties. Although a minor victory the effect was a tonic and caused great concern to the Germans.
On the 4th June, Ludendorff the German supreme commander, recognised that any further major operations were not possible, despite the considerable territorial gains.
By mid-July the German fortunes were reversed, partly by the first wave of the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic which struck them some three months earlier than the Allies, and partly by lack of transport and supplies as well as the increasing odds against them.
The Allies came to the conclusion that the Germans were weakened and changed a planned counter-attack into a major offensive. In what was mainly a French attack the American 1st and 2nd Divisions attacked with the 1st Moroccan Division between them and the ‘ferocity of the latter, mainly Senegalese, startled the Americans’. Once again, to modern eyes, the casualties were astonishing: the Germans lost 30,000 prisoners, over 600 artillery pieces, 3,000 machine guns and total casualties of 110,000 against the Allies 160,000! But as Stevenson points out although this was a ‘very big battle …. no single Western Front engagement was decisive’ it was ‘a succession of assaults (which) completed the demoralisation of the German infantry and wore their commanders down’.
By 1918 the British had become adept at locating enemy artillery and in the ensuing attacks located 95% of the Germans guns before an attack commenced so that they could be destroyed shortly after an attack began. Some of the attacks were so successful that for the first time since 1914 there were major cavalry attacks.
Stevenson’s conclusions are that the Germans wore themselves out by conducting an offensive in 1918 when they had maintained a defensive stance in the West since their early victories in 1914 and comments that ‘like Harold Godwin on Senlac Hill, Napoleon’s Imperial Guard at Waterloo or Pickett’s Confederates at Gettysburg they were most vulnerable when they sallied forth, and most imposing as they sealed their downfall’.
It is generally the opinion in the UK that the American involvement in the First World War was ‘too little, too late’ but the facts that Stevenson quotes contradict that. The total American forces landed in France in 1918 were 2,078,880 and they suffered casualties of 244,086! Stevenson has much detail on the American involvement including the astonishing facts ( to me anyway ) that there was an American Regiment in Italy ( 123rd Ohio ) and other troops forming a joint Japanese/American Force in the Far East.
Stevenson does not simply describe the fighting but has lengthy sections on the economics, naval warfare, air forces, gas, intelligence, technology, logistics, trains, morale, gender and class. He wears his learning lightly, however, as his writing is clear and the narrative flow in the first part is riveting even though we know who is going to win.
He charts carefully the factors that caused the collapse of the Central Powers and the picture that he paints is totally convincing from the initial desertion of allies, through strikes, pacifism, mutinies, starvation, transport failures, and then communist revolution.
The book does not end when the Armistice is signed and carries on to show how the Allies failed to see the ‘sheer derangement that was spreading in Germany and the demonic energies unleashed by defeat’.
The returning soldiers did not feel defeated because when the War ended they were still standing on conquered territory and the belief in a ‘stab in the back’ was first printed in December 1918. From 1920 onwards the German Army and Navy planned to renew hostilities and because Germany ‘had not been properly beaten then further war would be justified both morally and practically’.
Stevenson’s research has been extensive and he has used numerous original sources in French, German and Italian and it shows in the text.
I only have one criticism and that is his belief that ‘Britain and America bear the primary responsibility for dismantling the disarmament and security provisions of the Versailles Treaty’. This is with the benefit of hindsight and should have been tempered by an analysis, no matter how brief, of the terrible destruction brought to British, French, and to a lesser extent, American, families and the wholesale horror at the thought of another war. I write this living in a small Lancashire village that had about two hundred or so homes in 1918 and had thirty four names on the War Memorial and that does not include the seriously wounded who would probably have numbered another one hundred or so. We still have a member of the congregation who, as a small boy, remembers the dreadful tension as the Vicar read the list of the latest casualties each Sunday. I can easily imagine the revulsion the families would have felt at the thought of another war and their views would have been shown in the ballot box.
I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone, even if they have no interest in the First World War, because out of 752 pages only 169 deal with the actual fighting and they are gripping in any event.
I will leave the last word with Pershing and his comment on the 30th October 1918 that the Allied position was so favourable that they should ‘continue the offensive until we compel Germany to an unconditional surrender’ and that a ceasefire now would ‘possibly lose the chance to secure world peace on terms that would insure its permanence. It is the experience of history that victorious armies are prone to overestimate the enemy’s strength and too eagerly seek an opportunity for peace’.
David Beechey was born in North Wales in 1942 but thinks of himself as British first and Welsh second. He obtained a degree in Civil Engineering and then a Diploma in Management Studies followed by becoming a Fellow of the British Institute of Management. He formed his own contracting company in 1979 and specialized in the building of bullion vaults and cash-in-transit centers and has expertise in their security. He still works in the business. He has maintained a serious interest in Political Science since winning the Current Affairs Prize in the last year at his College. His interests range from sailing, gardening, military history, reading, to classical music and the theatre. He has travelled widely and has flown over a million miles to the United States where he has a particular interest in the American West. He is currently completing a novel set in Arizona in 1942. He lives with his wife in Lancashire, UK.