The Magazine

In Dubious Battle

The Great War, of modern memory, at 100

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By J. HARVIE WILKINSON III
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Less well-known than Paul von Hindenburg or Erich Ludendorff, Falkenhayn comes across as a capable leader, first directing military operations as the chief of the German General Staff and, later, as a field commander in the snowy passes of the Transylvanian Alps. Falkenhayn wanted Germany to negotiate a separate peace with Russia, the better to press the war with Britain and France. To Falkenhayn, Russia’s vast territory and endless manpower made a German assault on Moscow an act of madness. (Had such advice been heeded in 1941, and Operation Barbarossa not been launched, the course of World War II would have been very different.)

Hart also defends Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, portraying him not as a “château general,” but as one who possessed “a stern and unwavering work ethic”: His bedroom door opened “punctually at 8:25 each morning,” and his working day lasted long into the evening. In Hart’s view, Haig battled a series of formidable obstacles: He did not have the luxury of fighting a defensive war, and the high spirits of the war’s early days gave way to fatigue to the point that, by 1917, some French units were refusing to obey orders. In Russia, war-weariness was hastening the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of Lenin. Haig’s own political chief, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, increasingly lost faith in him. Lloyd George, moreover, held the naïve view that the war’s fortunes could be turned with fewer losses in a side theater and, accordingly, starved Haig of troops needed to blunt German attacks on the Western Front.

The shape of war changed constantly before Haig’s eyes. An innovative tactic in one battle could prove obsolete by the next. The trenches that, in 1914, were sometimes little more than shallow ditches became progressively fortified. Assaulting forces fortunate enough to work their way through massive strands of barbed wire to overrun the enemy’s forward positions soon found themselves the subject of counterattacks from  second, and even third, lines of defense. Haig was supposed to solve the riddles of shifting tactics and ever-more-sophisticated weaponry, all while smoothing out strains within the alliance and pacifying impatience on the home front. 

Hart’s ultimate verdict on Haig: He won.

The United States sees any military indebtedness to France in terms of the Marquis de Lafayette and the French fleet’s role in bottling up Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown; the weak response to German panzer divisions in 1940 marked not only a blow to French pride but a diminution of American respect. France’s role in the Great War, however, should add to our sense of indebtedness. Britain’s participation at the beginning of the Great War was limited to naval missions and a token land force; their commitment gradually increased until it came full bore in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. For those first critical months and years, then, France was left to bear the brunt of German military might. French marshal Joseph Joffre may not have been a great general, but he had one shining moment: the Allied victory in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne. After early German successes in the Battle of Mons and the Battle of the Frontiers, it was essential to stabilize the Western Front, and quickly. Joffre (and France) were critical in doing so, and, Hart notes, “the war was set on a grim path of attritional fighting.” As depressing as that might have been, it was far preferable to German hegemony across Europe. 

Hart does well to be modest in his attempt to rehabilitate the commanders of the Great War; a full swing of the reputational pendulum in their favor is unlikely. Too much was lost, too often, and for too little. Typical was the engagement at the St. Mihiel Salient (1915), where 65,000 Frenchmen gave their lives for “only minor gains” that were quickly reversed by German counterattacks. Battle after battle registered the same massive hemorrhaging of manpower for meager advances.

From the distance of a century and an ocean, Americans are likely to see the Great War as nothing but a conflict that nearly bled a great continent to death, and reading almost 500 pages about the slaughter and destruction that occurred abroad may lead some Americans to wish the problems of others away. Turning inward, however, cedes our little planet’s destiny to humanity’s most covetous and savage impulses. The Great War may show that war is not always worth the sacrifice, but that is an altogether different matter from how we best keep peace.