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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

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