Why did the Great War take so long to reach a conclusion? And why did it end as it did – with a German defeat and the collapse of all extant European empires? These are the questions Allan Mallinson addresses in his clear, rather literary history of the conflict. There have been many histories of the 1914-18 war, but this is not merely another one of them: Mallinson is a former career soldier who has written several works of military history and a sequence of novels about an early-19th-century cavalry officer.
Some reviewers of this book have accused Mallinson of seeking to revise the revisionist history of the period: notably, to challenge the better press that commanders such as Douglas Haig and Ferdinand Foch, who led the French troops during the Somme, have had from historians since the discredited opinions and often invented facts of the Alan Clark school (the late Tory MP was the author of the First World War polemic The Donkeys). This is unfair. Mallinson is opinionated, but he is among those shaming Clark. He does, however, pile on the opinion – and the evidence – to show that most of our generals were not very good at strategy and took a long time to learn the lessons of the failures of 1914-16.
Mallinson looks at the war in three phases: a few weeks of “mobile war” in the late summer of 1914, before the Germans dug themselves in on the Western Front following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan for a decisive attack on France; then a phase of trench warfare lasting almost four years, which became a war of attrition as the Allies tried and failed to get the Germans out of their defences and back into open country; then the final hundred days of the war, when the Germans, having broken out of their trenches for their spring offensive, were driven back by the Allies (by now with American reinforcements) and capitulated for reasons as much civil as military.
In the historiography of the war, there seems to be more emphasis on how it broke out than on how it ended. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that there was no real end, just a ceasefire of 21 years until Hitler recommenced barbarities, hence we invest little interest in it.
Mallinson is refreshingly clear about the denouement. The morale of German troops was collapsing, with a huge proportion of the prisoners taken during the war captured in the last few weeks, many of them surrendering without a fight. Among Germany’s civilian population, there were severe food shortages, caused by the Royal Navy’s blockade of the country, as well as (not the least of the consequences of that) rumblings of revolution. The Germans were suing for peace by October. Mallinson shows that this was not solely because of the strategic brilliance of the British high command.
When, during the war, the Allies made breakthroughs, they lacked the resources to capitalise upon them – as in their failure to consolidate the first assault at Cambrai in 1917, in which the Germans were driven back. But, as Mallinson writes, in the earlier stages of the conflict the ineptitude of senior staff officers made them less than equal to the might of the German army. It was only when the Schlieffen Plan failed that the Allies got back into the game. Most of the staff – the people responsible for planning the war and provisioning the army – were sent out to fight during the initial manpower shortage of 1914. They were replaced by long-retired officers who, in many cases, were out of their depth and were brought back from the reserve.
Mallinson also looks at the fraught relations between statesmen and soldiers, portraying Herbert Asquith – the prime minister at the outset of the First World War – as completely uncomprehending of military matters, and David Lloyd George – who succeeded him in December 1916 – as both more engaged and less satisfied with the men at his disposal.
One great question is why Haig survived the debacle of the Somme. Mallinson reminds us that Lloyd George, after the split in the Liberal Party, was heavily dependent on the support of the Tories, and the Tories were behind Haig. Mallinson points out not merely Haig’s stubbornness but also his overt religiosity: they seem to have been linked, and to have given Haig a sense of divine mission, unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands of men who perished under his command. Internal army politics also prevented his removal. Any replacement would have offended somebody mortally, and so it did not happen.
This book also gives detailed descriptions of the need to maintain the coalition against Germany, and how difficult that was, from time to time, with the French. It would have been good to have had more on the consequences of the collapse of the Eastern Front after the Russian Revolution, and why that did not allow Germany to strike the killer blow, but otherwise this is a well-written, at times provocative, and concise overview of why the war was conducted as it was, and why it probably was too important to be left to the generals.
Simon Heffer writes for the Telegraph. His father fought in the Battle of the Somme
Too Important for the Generals: Losing and Winning the First World War by Allan Mallinson is published by Bantam Press (400pp, £25)
This article appears in the 24 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser