Too Important For The Generals
Allan Mallinson ( Bantam, £25)
The centenary of the beginning of the Somme offensive this July has reignited the longsmouldering debate as to whether Douglas haig and his generals were hard-edged visionaries, who realised that the empire must suffer to gradually wear down the central Powers and ultimately achieve victory, or whether they were intellectually challenged and unable to devise a better plan than throwing hundreds of thousands of men against barbed wire and machine guns.
In this very readable and most interesting book, allan Mallinson argues the latter, maintaining that Lloyd George and churchill had a better grasp of strategy than haig and that, when the war was left to the generals, they made a terrible job of it.
I disagree with him for two reasons. First, no one has yet come up with a satisfactory alternative strategy for the Western Front. There were two problems confronting the allied planners: if they withdrew troops to prepare for an offensive, they risked weakening part of the front so that the Germans might break through. They had to balance what was militarily desirable with the realities of what the war economy at home could produce; it’s worth recalling that what finally led to German defeat was their failure on the home front. British planners also had to contend with an understandable French reluctance to surrender any territory to allow room for manoeuvre.
Second, if the British and French forces in Western europe had been similarly weakened in 1916 to allow the prosecution of alternative strategies outside europe, the Germans would have broken through to Paris and the war would have been lost. When outflanking moves were tried, such as at Gallipoli, at Salonica and in Iraq, they were a disaster; the only successful wider campaign was allenby’s against the by then fatally weakened Ottoman empire.
no nation produced an outstanding strategist in the First World War, military or political, and that tells us something. The tragedy was that it was fought when technology had advanced sufficiently in projectiles and explosives to allow the application of mass firepower, but insufficiently in the critical area of communications, which would have allowed commanders to use their new weapons to strategic effect. It wasn’t until the highly successful British campaign of 1918, the 100 days, that they were able to do so.
This excellently researched book is a must for anyone interested in military history and the interface of political and military power; the fact that, 100 years on, historians are still in such disagreement demonstrates just how important and absorbing the debate remains. Barney White- Spunner
The debate over First World War strategy rages on to this day