1918: Winning the War, Losing the War

30 Jul 18
Posted by: Simon Bellamy

edited by Matthias Strohn

There have been numerous histories of the last year of the First World War, ranging from narratives of the Western Front campaign to more comprehensive studies of the factors which brought the conflict to an end. The centenary will no doubt produce yet more, perhaps prompting some to ask whether there is anything new to say. This volume firmly answers that question in the affirmative.
Before considering the content, the genesis of the book is interesting in itself. In his foreword the Chief of the General Staff, General Carter, explains how the British Army recently established a Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, in order to develop the conceptual component of fighting power. As he reminds us, Clausewitz believed that war has a constant nature (violent and contested) but a changing character (how it is conducted) which we need to understand. One of the new centre’s tasks has been to support Operation Reflect, the Army’s First World War centenary commemoration. This book’s editor, a senior lecturer at Sandhurst, has played a role in that project and is well-placed to coordinate chapters by leading scholars from Europe and the US, several with distinguished military careers. The stated aims are to provide a general narrative of the events of 1918 and to encourage debate; the book has succeeded in the first of these objectives and will no doubt do so with the second.
General Carter sets the scene with perceptive observations about parallels between that momentous year and the situation today. Adapting to change and exploiting emerging technology was a key to battlefield success a hundred years ago, and today’s small army also needs to be innovative, notably in the domain of information warfare. As in the First World War, we face an uncertain strategic environment and may have to fight a conflict which we didn’t choose. Given the catalyst for the book, and the undoubted importance of the campaign on the Western Front, it is apt that it takes a land-centric approach. However, it strikes this reviewer that General Carter’s analysis (and much more of the content) is equally pertinent to today’s maritime and joint environments. Moreover, it would be wrong to suggest that the focus is exclusively on the four major armies contending in France and Flanders in 1918 (American, British, French, German), although a separate chapter is devoted to each of them. Other authors consider the battlefronts elsewhere in Europe and beyond, as well as the war at sea and the conflict in the air.
Throughout the narrative there are examples which offer lessons for today. For example, it is argued that Germany, fearful of a long war of attrition, often focused on short-term objectives, making strategic decisions without considering second- or third-order effects. Similarly, her army’s tactical battlefield success was sometimes exploited by conducting further operations which lacked clear objectives; one instance was a crucial failure to aim for vulnerable British logistics hubs in the major spring offensives of 1918.
The chapter on the war at sea offers a succinct overview of operations in the last year of the war, including in less prominent theatres, and their strategic influence. In many ways this was also a war of attrition, with Germany lacking the resources to replace lost U-boats and to build sufficient strength to win a tonnage war against Allied shipping.
With its concise, balanced narrative complemented by searching operational analysis, this volume makes an important contribution to the historiography of 1918. It will assist scholars and general readers to understand what happened and why, whilst giving today’s leaders much to ponder on the lessons for our times.