Book of the week: 1918: A Very British Victory

A.W. Purdue on the high cost of the Armistice

August 14, 2008

The year 1918 saw what Peter Hart describes as: "the ultimate British victory, greater than Waterloo or Trafalgar in both its overall scale and the end results. For the only time in world history the British Army could lay a realistic claim to being a dominant military force." Yet the extent of the victory and the centrality of British troops to it are little recognised.

Germany's defeat is variously attributed to the effectiveness of the naval blockade, the breakdown of German civilian morale or the prospect of the expected arrival of a mighty US Army on the battlefield.

This retrospective purblindness is in contrast to the pride in victory of public opinion in Britain in the years immediately after the First World War.

A major reason for the dyspeptic view of the British Army's victory in 1918 is that the commander in the year of victory was Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, prime villain in the "lions led by donkeys" school's view of the war, and a man regarded by many commentators with what Hart describes as "hatred - not a lightly chosen word".

Haig triumphed in 1918, but his success continues to be overshadowed by the enormous loss of life for little gain at the battles of the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele in 1916 and 1917.

He and the British Command grew wise from their mistakes in what Hart characterises as not so much a learning curve but a "learning big dipper". Many will disagree with the author's defence of Haig, for many thousands of men paid the price for this educational experience - even though it has to be admitted that if strategy and tactics had been exemplary, the death toll would still have been horrific.

By 1918, however, the lessons had been learnt and the British Army had developed the concept of the All-Arms Battle, the co-ordination of infantry, artillery, machineguns, tanks and aeroplanes. It had become the most effective fighting force in the world and was able to resist Ludendorff's great spring offensive and then launch the counter-attack that led to victory.

At the centre of this study, however, is not the strategy of generals but the mindset of the ordinary British soldiers, whose dogged perseverance made victory possible.

As the oral historian of the Sound Archive of the Imperial War Museum, Hart draws on the evidence provided by hundreds of soldiers, mainly from Britain and the Empire; but he also uses accounts by German combatants. The great strength of the book is the interplay and contrast between, on the one hand, the perspectives of commanders, the strategies, tactics and manoeuvres and retreats and advances that provide the broad narrative of battles and, on the other, the bottom-up view of war as experienced by the men who did the fighting.

The British Army had been fighting for more than three years, but it was very different from the same army of professionals that had gone to war in 1914, and equally far from the volunteer army that had fought at the Somme. New recruits were men who had been conscripted, and the optimism of those who had volunteered had largely gone. Hart refers to an "overwhelming sense of depression" as men persevered in a war that seemed to have no foreseeable end. "They were now reluctant soldiers, with few illusions left, but they were still sticking it out."

Battles, especially battles lasting weeks, are untidy affairs. The German offensive lasted from 21 March to the end of May, the British line was more than 100 miles long, and the Allies were driven back in places for 40 miles. The Allied advance from the turning point of the battle of Amiens in August, the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in September and the final advance in October to the Armistice on November 11th saw continuous fighting over a wider area.

If generals at times lost sight of the big picture, regiments and detachments scarcely saw it.

At times the reader becomes numbed by the blow-by-blow account of battles that seem depressingly similar. The lines on maps provide the macrocosm, but for the junior officer, the NCO or the private it is all microcosms: a dugout, a gap in the barbed wire or a copse or a canal; an artillery bombardment starts up, the enemy appears out of the mist, a dugout is surrounded, the colonel is killed, gas is released, a plane machineguns a trench and the cold steel of bayonets is glimpsed.

For the British soldier it is a story of a fortuitous retreat, death, a wound and/or capture, then advances, still with the risk of death or a wound but now with Germans surrendering and, then, suddenly and astonishingly, victory and the guns fall silent.

The isolated vignettes of remembered experiences compose a picture of the chaos as much as the horror of battle.

The German offensive began with a tremendous artillery barrage on a foggy morning, a "Kaiser's fog", and then the infantry advanced. A scream from a sentry bayoneted by German stormtroopers warned the 16th Manchesters that they were under attack. Private Hardman describes the epic defence of their redoubt: "The CO's last words were, 'Here goes the gallant Sixteenth!' Then he was shot through the head. We were taken prisoners." The classic heroism of the 16th was not typical. Hart comments that, although there were acts of indomitable resistance, "most men fought as long as they could... until there was no longer any hope, at which point they surrendered". That was surely heroism enough.

The long British line bulged but was reinforced, and the Germans had overstretched themselves in their final attempt to win the war. After Germany's "Black Day", 8 August, a combination of "the most deadly army in the world... a huge, modern, mechanised army that had truly grasped the art of war as far as it existed in 1918" and a growing apprehension among German soldiers that the war could not be won resulted in an Allied victory in which the British (or rather British Empire) Army played the greater part.

As the expected news of the Armistice came through, most men felt an overwhelming relief mixed with tension, for no one wanted to be "the last corpse". There were exceptions: Sapper Cook recounts how Corporal Coverton had "been a tower of strength to us all" but he had to be cheered up because he "had finished the job he loved - chasing the Hun". Unteroffizier Frederick Meisel was pleased to be able to cross the Rhine and return to German soil, "back to build up what was wrecked; back to a country proud even in defeat". Private Joseph Pickard had mixed feelings when he arrived home; he had lost most of his nose and "all the kids in the blinking neighbourhood had gathered, looking, gawping" at him.

Historians have wondered why soldiers on both sides continued to fight. The experiences of combatants, many of them recorded years later, do much to provide the answer. Hart is scathing of historians "who believe everything they read and nothing that they hear" and defends oral history against the usual criticisms that the sources are rarely contemporary, arguing that, if we are to get "the whole raw picture on men at war", oral history interviews cannot be ignored. He is surely right.

The Author

Cricket mad ex-punk Peter Hart is an enthusiastic, affable chap - just don't call him "doctor". He is a maverick historian who has shunned the academic life, which he says is too concerned with targets and committees, in favour of a career devoted to teaching and writing at the Imperial War Museum, London, where he has been the resident oral historian for years and counting. He doesn't rule out a return to academia, saying that "the aim in life is to get a doctorate before retirement or death, whichever comes first".

Attending the University of Liverpool, the young Hart discovered a love for punk and was known as the lead singer with Those Naughty Lumps, who released two 7" records including the rather bafflingly named Iggy Pop's Jacket. Although these days he admits to being "a balding elderly gentleman, like most punks" he still retains a passion for punk music, as evidenced by his continued gigging as part of The Fabulous Applelips Brothers.

Hart can also be found on the cricket field playing as part of the N2 Casuals, whose philosophy is summed up in their slogan, liberalis in perditionem, impudente superbus in victoriam (dignity in defeat, outrageous arrogance in victory).

Hart's next project is to go out on tour, not as a punk rocker, but as an oral historian, giving talks on the First World War.

- Sarah Cunnane

1918: A Very British Victory

By Peter Hart

Weidenfeld and Nicolson

560pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780297846529

Published 17 July 2008

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