With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918

A.W. Purdue examines how the Western Allies went from underdogs to victors in the space of a year

May 26, 2011

It was going to be over by Christmas. Politicians and generals on both sides promised a quick and overwhelming victory, but the war that began in August 1914 was still going strong by Christmas 1917. Why did it end in 1918, a year that began with Germany and her allies in an apparently strong position? David Stevenson has already established himself as a leading authority on the First World War, and in this brilliant and comprehensive study he examines the last year of the war and the reversal of fortune that led to Allied victory and the November Armistice.

The years 1916 and 1917 had seen the development of a war of attrition with no decisive victory for either side. Changes in military technology had made defence far stronger than attack, something not anticipated by the pre-war staff colleges. Infantry in trenches and dugouts, shielded by barbed wire and provided with reinforcements and munitions by rail, could not be overcome without the attackers suffering enormous casualty rates, which meant that offensives ground to a halt. The progressive widening of the war, as the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Bulgaria and Romania joined in, did little to make it more mobile and, on almost every front, the war had become a trench stalemate.

Logic might have dictated a strategy of remaining on the defensive and allowing the enemy to weaken itself in fruitless assaults, but generals had been trained to believe in the offensive. Ever larger armies could be formed as new cohorts of young men came of military age and the wounded returned to the ranks; there were hopes that new weapons, tanks, poisonous gas and even aeroplanes and dirigibles might facilitate the long-awaited great push through enemy lines. The middle years of the war were marked, as Stevenson writes, by "a new kind of battle, measured not in days but in months".

There was little expectation in Britain and France at the beginning of 1918 of an early end to the war, and the military advantage seemed to lie with the Germans. Stevenson summarises the immediate prospects of the Allies as "more difficult than at any time since spring 1916". German forces still occupied a great swathe of Belgian and French territory won in 1914, the Italian Army had been routed, and, in Central and Eastern Europe, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria seemed triumphant as Russia's new Bolshevik government sued for peace.

The position of the Allies had been reinforced by the entry into the war of the US, but it would be many months before US forces arrived in Europe in substantial numbers, while, after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany could consolidate her control of East and Central Europe or move divisions to the West. On the Western Front, the Western Allies faced a formidable difficulty in launching their planned offensives after the decision early in 1917 by the German high command to take up a defensive posture by withdrawing to the shorter and more defensible Hindenburg Line. It was a move that might have appeared to acknowledge the futility of great assaults against prepared defensive positions, but in fact a massive offensive was being prepared.

Germany's spring offensive of 1918, which began in March, was designed as a "knockout blow" to bring victory where there had been impasse. Allied troops, exhausted by the offensives of 1917, now faced a terrifying onslaught prepared in every detail by the German high command and launched with every division and every gun of a formidable military machine. Yet, Stevenson argues: "As it turned out, that onslaught would be their means of salvation."

The offensive came close to success, pushing back British and French forces some 40 miles, and causing Field Marshal Douglas Haig to issue his "With our backs to the wall" order, with its appeal to his troops to fight to the last man. A masterpiece of military planning, it nevertheless failed to solve the supply problems that occurred when a rapid advance ran ahead of the railheads it relied on for reinforcements. The British Army, which had been steadily refining its tactics and efficiency, rallied and then mounted the counter-attacks of July and August, which demonstrated that it was now the most efficient army in the world.

The failure of the spring offensive, the success of the British counter-attack and the consequent exhaustion of the German Army set in motion a rapid sequence of events that led to the November Armistice. Bulgaria sued for peace and this began the successive collapse of Germany's allies; in Germany itself, civilian morale deteriorated, the political cohesion that had supported the war was sundered, and the regime collapsed amid disorder.

Why, in the circumstances of what seemed a strong military position at the beginning of the year, did the German high command gamble everything on a great offensive, which might have brought victory but involved an enormous risk? Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the war lords now effectively in control of Germany, seem to have believed that Germany "must either triumph or go under".

There were military reasons for this analysis. Although the British offensives of 1917 had failed, Germany's leaders had been shaken by the British Army's mastery of new means of attack, particularly the deployment of tanks and a new sophistication in the use of artillery in the support of infantry: and if American forces were too small to make a difference in 1918, more US divisions would be available in 1919 and might turn the balance against the Central Powers. The military balance was not, however, the only thing that determined Germany's position, for after more than three years of war, more long-term factors, such as the relative economic strengths of the combatant powers, their internal cohesion and their ability to organise their war efforts, were more important than ever; while Britain's command of the seas was a major consideration.

One of the many merits of Stevenson's book is his analysis of the sustainability of the war efforts of both sides in terms of the development and production of weaponry, food supplies, finance and morale, and the way resources interacted with, and weakened or strengthened, the ability of armies. The German high command had to weigh a temporary military advantage against such factors and was convinced that the position was bound to get worse. Its decision was to gamble on a last chance of complete victory. It is significant that Hindenburg and Ludendorff ruled out a peace initiative, which if it had been made from the military position of March 1918 might have secured far better terms than Germany was ultimately to receive.

What weight should be given to the failure of the German offensive as opposed to other, more long-term considerations in determining the defeat of the Central powers? A major debate among historians of the "total wars" of the 20th century concerns where the balance lies between the battlefield and the strength of combatants' economies in determining the eventual victors, and Stevenson's comprehensive study is a major contribution to this debate.

He concludes, convincingly, that Britain and France were superior in resources and in their ability to organise their societies for war, and that this both impelled Germany's ill-fated spring offensive and was revealed by its subsequent collapse. But a counterfactual question may be pertinent: if the German offensive had succeeded and Britain and France suffered military disaster, with the British Army forced back to the Channel ports, would it have been they who lost the will and the ability to continue the fight?

The Author

When David Stevenson was 14, his PT instructor invited his class to "do something interesting". "My contribution was to fall off the gymnasium wall bars and break my leg," Stevenson recalls. In hospital, he read A.J.P. Taylor's 1963 work The First World War: An Illuminated History and became fascinated by the period.

Stevenson grew up in the Home Counties and the Midlands, reading history for his bachelor's degree and, later, his PhD at the University of Cambridge. He spent a year at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris while completing his doctorate, and a year undertaking research in Austria and Germany in 1988-89.

In 1982, he joined the London School of Economics as a lecturer and became professor of international history in 1988. He has produced several significant works on international relations in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, including 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (2004).

He is president of the Central London Branch of the Historical Association and secretary of the Herts & Essex Architectural Research Society. He also serves on the committee of the Loughton Festival, of which his wife, Sue, is a founder.

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918

By David Stevenson

Allen Lane, 736pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780713998405

Published 26 May 2011

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