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From the NS archive: 1916 and 1918: a military parallel

5 January 1918: With the Allied forces weakened, history threatens to repeat itself.

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In 1916, in the middle of the First World War, the allied forces were forced to dispatch frontline troops to the Mediterranean after the second campaign on Serbia in late 1915, giving the enemy a window of opportunity. The British Army was building strength in the meantime – but before they could reach full defensive power, the enemy launched attacks on weakened areas in France and Italy. Two years later, it seemed an almost identical phenomenon was occurring. In late 1917 the allies were weakened by the Battle of Caporetto. And just like Britain had been, the US was expanding and strengthening its military, ready to step in. Our correspondent wondered whether they would be in time to stop further opportunistic attacks. He thought “heavy blows” could be landed in the “first half of next year” – and that the American government should make their presence felt as soon as possible.

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The military situation at the opening of 1918 presents considerable analogies to that at the beginning of 1916. Two years ago, following the great victories of Hindenburg and Mackensen, Russia was supposed to be out of action. “My destructive sword,” declared the Kaiser in a famous telegram to the Queen of Greece, “has conquered the Russians”. The 1915 disaster in Serbia, like the 1917 disaster in Italy, had compelled the Western Powers to weaken their main front by detaching large forces of French and English troops to a Mediterranean theatre. Then as now the reserves of man-power on the side of the Allies were much greater than those on the side of the enemy. Then as now the enemy had a temporary advantage in immediate striking-power. Then as now one of the major Allies, which had been busy converting a small pre-war army into a huge wartime one, was not expected to be able to bring to bear the effective weight of the latter until the end of July. In 1916 the Ally in question was Great Britain; in 1918 it is the United States.

In this situation two years ago the programme of the enemy was clear-cut. They first made a strong bid for peace. A mid-winter “defeatist” propaganda was pushed with the utmost vigour, especially in France; which at that time was in a position somewhat resembling Great Britain's at present – that is to say, the French public had behind them a year of Western offensives, which had been mostly victorious, but very costly, and without decisive result. This propaganda came much nearer succeeding than even those of us who knew at the time care often now to remember. But it failed. The Central Powers went ahead, therefore, with the second part of their plan; which was to deliver smashing blows at the French and Italian Armies before the British Army was ready, and thus compel peace to be signed at midsummer. Substitute the word “American” for the word “British,” and the same programme is likely to be theirs for 1918.

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We are concerned in this article only with the military side, and it is useful to see how that was developed two years ago. Neither the blow against France at Verdun, nor the blow against Italy from the Trentino, succeeded. Yet neither was far from success. The issue at Verdun was decided mainly by the heroism of the French soldiers and the skill of General Petain. But the danger was very critical, not only at the beginning but towards the end. By midsummer France felt the pressure to be well-nigh insupportable; and it was for that reason that the British offensive on the Somme, which had been timed for the end of July, was antedated four weeks and launched on the 1st of the month. The Trentino battle was more dangerous still. There was an episode of panic in the Italian army attacked, not so very unlike what happened last autumn; and despite subsequent episodes of heroic resistance the Austrians fought their way to within sight of the plains.

The situation was redressed by the single surprise which the war has brought forth in the Allies’ favour – the Russian offensive of General Brusilov; whose startling success seems to have been as little expected by its authors or ourselves as by the enemy.

Now, when the enemy High Command reviews these experiences, what conclusion will it draw from them? Evidently in themselves, and apart from what has happened in the last three months, they provide a strong argument for aiming the main blow at Italy. Verdun is not a happy memory for the Germans; French poilus are a terribly hard nut to crack; and any temporary weakness on their front could be easily stopped by a reinforcement from the British, as vice versa. On the other hand the Italian Army, though very gallant in attack, has shown itself decidedly less effective in defence. It is also a much longer business to send Allied reinforcements to it in an emergency. There seems only one argument which might lead the enemy to make their main effort in France; and that is that it could be made two months earlier. But this difference (roughly between March and May), though important, may not appear decisive; and in any case it applies only to the Italian mountain-front, not to the Piave line.

If, therefore, we must expect early heavy blows in the first half of next year from an enemy fighting against time, what are we to expect in regard to the Allied counterblast? No Brussilov surprise, we fear. But whereas the date which gossip assigns for the first heavy blows of the American army is about the beginning of next August – that is, practically the same as was designed for the British in 1916 – it is possible that at a pinch it could be expedited by a month or so, as was done then. To expedite it unduly would be an evil, even if it became a necessary evil; there are people whose judgment is not to be despised who hold that we should have got further in the Battle of the Somme had we begun it on the original date. The moral nevertheless, is that a very special responsibility lies on the American government and nation to hasten by every means within their power the date at which their weight can be felt in the decisive spheres. Though they came into it late, the struggle, as they now see, affects their vital and ultimate world-interests no less than ours. Prussia's reckoning, when she provoked them to take the plunge, was that they could not move fast enough to affect the result; she could impose a “German peace” on the world before any decisive American blow would be struck. It is for our friends across the Atlantic to falsify this reckoning; and in trying to do so they would do well to recognise that Prussian reckonings are apt to be very shrewd, and can seldom be upset save by efforts altogether outside the normal.

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The factor which will govern more than any other both the date and the weight of American military intervention is the factor of tonnage. Unfortunately the American output of ships during 1917 seems to have been less than half what was hoped last spring; and well-informed judges fear that it may not exceed half what is hoped in 1918. The relation between tonnage and the possible size of the American expeditionary forces is so direct and immediate, that if this failure in American ship-production continues it will constitute for the Allies a military disaster hardly less serious than the sudden cessation of hostilities by Russia. One is loth in any way to criticise American effort at a time when the whole-hearted excellence of American intentions is so abundantly manifest every day. But we see in the American press little indication that the point just put is at all adequately seized, in its hard and naked reality, by the public across the Atlantic. Certainly it is not yet being acted on in the American shipyards; and the immense seriousness of that fact must be our excuse for saying this word on it.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)